Growing up in Rochester, NY, I was taught by example and suggestion to dress neatly, befitting of the society I belonged to.
Thirty-five years later, I returned to Rochester as a homeless man, dressed somewhat shabbily. Even though Rochester itself had fallen on hard times, there was still a spark of propriety there. And as it turns out, also in me. Soon after arriving, one of my homeless peers told me: “The cops in Rochester don’t bother you if you’re wearing a suit.”
Even though I was still stuck in an early morning homeless shelter daze, the man’s statement struck a chord. I remembered how, long ago, I would dress for the occasion in my upscale hometown.
Being quite conscious of how the police regard a homeless man on the streets, I took my fellow homeless man’s offhand advice to heart and walked a mile or so to a Goodwill store. With the few dollars I had, I bought a sport coat that actually fit—and a pair of neatly pressed dungarees in good condition. One of the clerks beamed when she saw me dressed in it. And that’s all I needed to begin a new day.
Feeling now like I was on a roll, I used the store’s restroom for ten minutes. I used a two-tone mirror from my briefcase and small scissors to trim my hair. I assiduously scrubbed my face with the bathroom soap and washed my hands two or three times. I brushed my hair, squared my shoulders, and walked out of the store, timorously thinking that I had improved my lot.
I couldn’t afford a pair of new shoes. With the combination of a sport coat, dungarees, and my sneakers, I thought I might get by as just another eccentric Californian.
The die had been cast. I looked better and I felt better. And it seemed I was treated better by my fellow man for the remainder of the day.
Maybe people still viewed me as a homeless man, but there was now that tinge of respect that may have been freely translated to say, “Here’s a guy who’s trying…regardless.”
I realize that homeless men making a more conscious effort to become better groomed is not going to enlarge society’s musical scales to suddenly understand the different drum we beat to. A homeless man wearing a suit might not encourage the police to have a change of heart. But it’s a start—and this time, I was initiating it. I was extending the hand of propriety, however clumsily it may be, and saying to society, “Let’s give it a chance to treat each other with dignity.”
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