Ill-Suited for Brooks Brothers’ Brotherhood

The fourth floor of the Madison Avenue Brooks Brothers is

deserted this Thursday afternoon, except for the idling salesmen-a slightly

withered collection of Old World retainer types, each wielding the time-honored

grimace of dispassionate servitude. One glimpse at me, stepping off the elevator

in my Gap knockoffs from Conway, and their eyes wander over my shoulder.

I saunter over to a rack

of suits and begin sorting through them with a distracted regard that suggests

I am right at home. But it’s a bluff. Until fairly recently, I was numbered

among New York’s homeless population. And though things have since turned

around due to the surprising success of the book I wrote chronicling those

years, I can’t quite shake the feeling that it still somehow shows.

As soon as I put my mitts on the goods, a young sales clerk

flies to my side. His precise manner and impeccable grooming bounce off my

rough edges like a reproach.

“Something I can help you

with?” he asks with measured politeness. Considering how close Brooks

Brothers is to Grand Central Terminal-my home until a few short years ago-it is

entirely possible that, in shuttling back and forth to work, this very guy had

glimpsed me scrounging trash bins for redeemable cans. So his inquiry hits my

ears more like, “What are you doing here?”

And well may he ask. Had it not been for Dan Simon, my

editor and publisher at Seven Stories Press (as well as my valued friend), it

would have never occurred to me to invade this bastion of fading WASP

gentility. The whole status-seeking thing, which I felt myself lucky to have

shed during my years on the street, had always left me feeling left out more

often than part of. But I had been invited to the Turner Awards in Atlanta for

their “Coffee With the Authors” event, and

Dan suggested that a hallmark of my recent turn of fortunes might be to

invest in a Brooks Brothers suit.

“It’s a Jewish thing,” he told me when he saw my eyebrows

lift. “We like dressing up like WASP’s.”

He assured me that he’d come along, and I imagined that,

with him there as my foil, it might not be so bad. But when we entered the

store, Dan said, “I’ll meet you up there,” and made a bee line for the back,

leaving me to my own unhoned devices. This is why you now find me floundering

on Brooks Brothers’ fourth floor, feeling a sick need to justify my existence

to a sales clerk who wants to know how he can help me, and why I affect a

throaty almost-whisper meant to exude confidence when I reply, “Yes, I’d like

to have a look at some evening suits, if you don’t mind.”

The clerk merely nods. He dips into the rack and comes up

with what strikes my fashion-challenged eyes as the plainest, boxiest

three-button suit I’ve ever seen. I don’t even want to try it on. I know I’ll

only look like a livery driver in the thing.

“Got anything else?” I ask.

His eyes wander the ceiling a bit. He swivels around, taps a

forefinger along the rack and turns back brandishing another ebony three-button

miracle that I would be unable to distinguish from the first at gunpoint.

When I suggest that I might enjoy seeing something other

than black, his eyes fly skyward. “This is not black,” he all but scolds. “It’s

midnight blue.”

“Oh,” I say, thinking I get it. Midnight blue. The color of

the sky at midnight, which is-what?-black!

Just then, Dan appears. I nod toward the suit. “Whaddya

think?”

“I think it’s lovely,” he coos.

I try to find a way to agree, but when I picture myself

wearing the thing, all I see is a black guy trying to look like a Jewish guy

trying to look like a WASP. But Dan’s presence emboldens me. I ask the clerk,

“Do you have something with a cut to it?”

“That would get you into

the (ahem) pricier merchandise,” he says.

Hearing this, I am now prepared to empty my mid-four-figure

checking account to shoot down any implication that my pocket can’t afford what

my eyes covet. Dan and I ascend to the sixth floor, where, as luck would have

it, we get the saleslady from hell, a fading diva-from-Queens type who seems to

regard our patronage as an unconscionable imposition. It takes nearly 20

minutes to nudge her into showing us four of the hundreds of suits on display.

I finally choose a black-green

(midnight green?) suit with a barely detectable windowpane check stitched in

dull gold. But the jacket is too snug for my wide shoulders, so we move to the

tailor’s station.

“This is where a Brooks

Brothers suit really gets made,” Dan beams, lord of the manor now, conveying

the finer points of the gentry to the uninitiated. Our saleslady only scowls

and pulls out an alteration slip.

“Any chance it’ll be ready by Friday?” I ask, remembering

the Turner Awards.

“Absolutely not! Impossible!” she all but barks, tearing the

slip into a dozen angry pieces.

Just then the elevator opens. A pleasant-looking young woman

steps out, then freezes.

“Mr. Stringer!” she

cries loud enough for all to hear. “I’m reading your book! I saw you on Oprah and ran right out and got a copy!

I have it right here.” She holds up the book and there, for everyone to see, is

my mug.

“Do you have a card?”

she asks. “I’m sure Stanley would want to meet you. Would it be O.K. to get in

touch with you?”

“No problem at all!” I

assure her, and for the next 10 minutes the three of us huddle in a giddy,

glitzy schmooze. I discover that she is a wardrobe designer; that the “Stanley”

to which she refers is Stanley Tucci; and that they are working on a film, Joe Gould’s Secret , that happens to

center on a homeless man written about in The

New Yorker .

After this, Madame

Saleslady is almost civil. As she’s toting up the bill, she looks up for a

moment, asks almost shyly, “So, what book did you write?” and breaks into a

smile I would have never thought she had in her. It is entirely genuine-perhaps

a remnant of a once-more-optimistic self, abandoned long ago in a grab for

whatever brass ring, only to be left ravaged and unfulfilled, a riot of New

York knowingness, reduced to playing handmaiden to other people’s glory. Little

wonder, then, that when confronting rawer folks like me who give her no obvious

reason to justify her exile to the opposite side of the counter, she can’t help

but ooze a certain contempt, to deny herself her own light.

When I glance at the bill, there’s another surprise:

Everything is damn near half price. I get out of there less than $700 poorer.

Dan walks me to Grand Central for my train home. Just before

we reach the station, he grins.

“There was something sad about her that you picked up on,”

he says. “Hell,” he adds with a laugh, “you were practically ready to hand them

$700 and walk out, you felt so sorry. You’d have been the first homeless person

ever to make a donation to Brooks Brothers!”

On the train, I spot Pierce Brosnan peering out from an ad,

sporting not a watch but a chronometer. I pull back my rumpled Conway sleeve

and rue that it is just a lowly watch I have on my wrist.