White Like Me:

Sean Gullette
Originally Published in Spy
September, 1997

Social Anthropologist Sean Gullette Goes Undercover In Search Of The American Salaryman

I pause with my hand on the doorknob and contemplate the image in the full length mirror. The face could belong to a person from twenty-five to forty, speckled with the evidence of recently applied acne medication, excised blackheads, persistent eczema, shaving accidents. Behind the tortoise-frame eyeglasses, the eyes are slightly red and ringed with sleeplessness. The tang of body odor and Bijan fills the small foyer.

I check my pockets. A package of Lark 100`s and a Kool cigarette lighter. $28 in small bills. A Metrocard with five fares. A tiny canister of Binaca. The addresses of several Personnel Agencies.

The unfashionably narrow lapels of a baggy and oilstained wool/acetate suit in black with gray pinstripes frame a mauve, crimson and beige swirlprint tie, fastened to a stained beige shirt with a chromium tie-clip in the form of a bunny rabbit. The $22 leather half-boots from Strawberry's--like the hair, thin and combed flat over the perspiring scalp--are unnaturally black with the shine of Murray`s Pomade. Between the boots and the high hems of the pants, holes in stained white sport socks display shocks of leg hair. A worn nylon shoulderbag, stitched with a Carnival Cruises logo, contains $5000 worth of Sony hidden camera gear. The eye of a pinhole camera winks inconspicuously from a pager clipped to the strap.

From the jagged tuft of one indecisive sideburn, a snailtrack of fresh blood crawls down, seeking the earth.

Satisfied with my preparations, I walk out. The door back to a world of self-respect and decency locks behind me with a decisive click. I am ready to go to work.

* * *

A score of years ago, there was no more doughty symbol of our country`s economic might and democratic manifest destiny than The Businessman, clad in a tight-knit grey 100% wool three-piece, bound for home. The iron and concrete of Grand Central Station had not bowed to the winds of time, but the human scene in the Station`s great hall on a recent spring evening confirmed the deep sea changes that fifty years had wrought: the Women`s Movement, the Information Revolutions, and the New World Order; by Downsizing, Diversity, and Decentralizas society let a white man in a suit fall?

Like an express train, it hit me: the only way to learn the truth about this Citizen Doe would be to walk a mile in his suit--to become him.

* * *

The subway, a river of flesh, deposits me into the charcoal-and-blue ocean of suits surging through Grand Central Station. I stand immobile for a second, overwhelmed by the sartorial graveyard of the living dead. There are hundreds of terrible suits, of all descriptions, a sea of baggy slacks and pret-a-porter jackets flapping sadly. Here and there, Calvin, Ralph, Giorgio or Hugo offer the eye a fleeting resting place. Otherwise, all I can see are ashes. A glance at my reflection in the plate glass jerks me back to the challenges ahead.

Moving forward with the crowd, I fall in behind an average junior employee in a pinstriped polyester-acetate blend, single-vented, and clearly tailored for someone else, someone long buried. The way the suit defines the man's walk strikes me: an ashamed, hurried, loose-hipped amble, like a retarded farm boy late for his chores; his shoddy vinyl case bangs his knees. I follow him along the sidewalks until my stride approximates his. As I do, I can feel his indignity become my own. I am resolved to immerse myself as far as possible in the rhythms of the workers, to understand their world from a deep, almost metabolic perspective. A group of German tourists clears a wide swath for me, and for the first time I can feel the hate-stare on the back of head. As a parent pulls it out of my path, I hear a child's voice says, "Dada, ist das einer halber-mensch?" My face colors in shame; there is no censure more biting that a child's scorn.

Across a dozen blocks, in the bright morning streets, I see the happy people, the clean ones, respond to my plodding advance with revulsion, with stares and averted eyes. The flared hems of my slacks trail behind me. Workmen pause over their handtrucks to watch me pass. A beggar approaches me, and then, seeing, lowers his extended cup and turns away. And already I know enough to forgive them. There, but for the grace of God, go each of them.

* * *

I ride the elevator two floors up to the Mademoiselle Personnel Network and enter a circular room in which the smell of desperation is palpable in the air. When my turn comes at the reception desk, the Latina staff treats me with the same courtesy as the others. In fact, I suspect that my street-bazaar suit may earn me a fraction more deference. The other details of my appearance have no visible effect on the receptionists. I realize, with a shudder of insight: to them, all white men in suits look the same. They greet me politely and I exchange my resume (prepared by my editors, it includes entries like: "Waiter: Responsible for liaison between clientele and culinary staff") for a clipboard with an application form.

Seated on the circular couches are perhaps a dozen white men and minority women. A few of the men look up as I take a seat, and I register both sympathy and shame in their glances. I try to concentrate on the form, despite five televisions mounted around the room which are airing a video biography of Toni Braxton at nightclub volume.

A woman emerges from one of the offices and calls for Colin. The man opposite me stands up, fumbling for his attache, and follows her into the office. I stare after him: I have not seen such a ridiculous double-breasted--the low buttons, the clownishly broad lapels--since the early eighties. I wait expectantly. 90 seconds later he emerges, his eyes on the floor and a strained grin on his face, and walks towards the men's room.

Then my name is called, I go into a cubicle and sit across from a woman named Frances. She scans my resume with a practiced eye. After a glance up, she avoids looking at my face, but nods approvingly at my forged credentials. I notice that a smear of blood runs across the back of the application.

"He has HTML, Mei," she says to a woman in the next cubicle. "And he's available second shift."

Mei turns and smiles at me and says. "Great!" As she takes in my appearance, I have a moment of fear that she will notice the mismatch between my tone of voice, which remains clear and assured, and my condition. If she does, she might question my authenticity. But she merely looks away disapprovingly.

After a battery of questions about my computer skills--I assure her that I am fluent in all the popular softwares--Frances signs a pamphlet and hands it to me. It reads: "Congratulations! You Have Qualified To Be A Mademoiselle/ USS Temporary Employee!" She begins to review the job requirements. "Many of our clients are major corporations," she says, "so we do ask temporary employees to wear corporate attire--you know, suit, shirt and tie with jacket--for all assignments." "Is the way I'm dressed now, for instance, acceptable?" I ask her. "Oh, yes," she says suavely. "Certainly."

While she goes to prepare my computer test I leave for the foyer. I have learned what I came to find out. A herd of successfully employed temps are huddled together, gossiping like employees of any ordinary company. They ignore me as I excuse myself past them to the elevator.

Colin is standing in the car, his face suggest recent tears. Just as the doors close, Mei squeezes through. She looks at me with surprise and disappointment. "Arent' you going to take the test?" "No, I decided I don't want a job." I say. "You don't want one," she says. "No. I have just realized that even with full-time employment the best I could ever hope for was..." I break off. She is staring at me anxiously. I cannot afford to break character, to give voice to the outrage in my heart, not here. Her hand unconsciously goes to her cheek. "You're bleeding," she says. "Yes, thanks, I know," I reply quickly. "You...guys do a great job here. I can tell. You're professionals. That's the difference between you and me." "Well, you just have to know whether you want a job or not," she says tersely, looking at the floor. I murmur agreement.

Mei slips outside and walks off, lighting a Camel Light. I turn to go the other way. A voice beside me says, "excuse me." I look around at Colin. "Did you mean that, about not wanting a job?" he says, with halting courtesy. In the unforgiving sunlight, loose strands of synthetic thread stand out like static discharge. He hasn't bothered to shave. "Well, gee, what's the point," I say. "When's the last time you had a job you enjoyed, that made you feel like a decent fellow?" He looks at me and in the windows of his soul I see a light flicker and then go out. "I can hardly remember," he says. "These past five years, I've lost everything." "Never say that," I tell him. "There are some things they can't take away from us. Not ever. Not our birthright. Not the spirit inside us." He nods once, thoughtfully, and then again in dour farewell. Walking away, he turns, suddenly looking more like Robert Mitchum, like a rough-edged American icon. "I'm proud of you for saying that." He looks me in the eyes clear and hard. The hand I extend for him to shake has blood across the knuckles. He doesn't care. Such is the solidarity of men in suits. We both know that this blood is our bond.

* * *

The ten o'clock bells find me in Rockefeller Plaza, outsides Brookstones, accessorisers to the suited class. Here is a pit stop for the battered engine of the urban professional, a pharmakos of inventions to ease the aches, soothe the nerves and facilitate the security and recreation of the office worker. A store like this might once have sold golfing equipment and tennis racquets. Now the window are filled are strangely shaped massage instruments, like elongated mushrooms, gyrating on their ribbed plastic stems to an unearthly rhythm. As I enter, a heavy businessman lies in a demonstration model of a vibrating massage chair, his eyes shut and his head thrown back. His breasts--the nipples moist through a white 100% cotton shirt--jiggle with the movement of the chair.

I walk through the store, taking careful notes and wondering at the wrist-relaxers and Japanese-made executive playthings. An exotic-looking young salesgirl sees me lowering myself tentatively onto a sheet of ergonomic Swedish sleeping foam, and hesitates before approaching. I look up at her from a prone position. She sees the blood and her eyes fill with fear. She asks if I am "OK." I assure her I am completely OK and inquire casually about the price of various sizes of foam. Barely controlling her disgust and anxiety, she provides me with the information and then excuses herself.

I lie back on the heat-sensitive foam, lost in contemplation. Behind this facade of glittering technology, I now see the crumbling columns of Rome, smell the awful ripeness of the plague seasons of Europe: the terminal stages of a diseased civilization. And we are the hollow men, our suits--which once flattered kingpins and moguls--now as empty as a ghost's white sheet.

As I leave Brookstones ten minutes later the fat man in the vibrating chair is in the same position. Only the signs of shallow breathing convince me that he is alive and resting, and not a grotesquely realistic mannequin, or a sex toy designed for chubby-chasing homosexuals.

* * *

Outside every building in midtown Manhattan a familiar scene unfolds. Gone are the rituals of the desktop humidor: the streets have become our smoking room and the gutters our ashtrays and spittoons. I approach a group of nabobs in fitted Boss "power suits" and clubs ties, smoking cigarettes outside of JP Morgan, and politely ask for a light for my Lark. A silver Ronson is grudgingly extended, revealing an unforgivably arrogant cufflink. "There's a handsome piece of hardware," I say, "none of that Jap plastic for you gentlemen." I hope to provoke a conversation, but they respond to me with such acid condescension that I have to bite my tongue, reminding myself that such indignities are the daily lot of people in suits like mine. I must stay in character. I nod with all the servility I can muster and move away. They laugh behind me. I wonder what these men would think if they knew who they were speaking to, and what they revealed about themselves by their attitudes. To them, I am nothing but a smear of blood and a cheap suit.

Next I approach some more like myself, a group of mailroom types, marked by the ragged uniform-ity of their dry goods, blazers tight across the biceps, pants sagging with bad dry cleaning and the moisture of the midday canyon. Before I can join their conversation, they look at me in unison as though I were Jim Jones on a recruiting drive; one of them narrows his eyes with hate while he ignores my pitch and then, acting as spokesman, says with brutal, practiced finality: "We're. Not. Interested." I realize that I can be accepted by members of my class only so long as I behave in a manner befitting my appearance. Although my suit is clearlyin the same league as theirs, accosting a strange group is taboo in this culture. Why must we hate each other so?

Asha and Frank, two men in superbly tailored silk-lycra blends from Barneys and CK Black Label respectively, who are executive colleagues at Deutsch Advertising, surprise me with their frank cordiality. I ask them about their suits, and they respond with pleasing humility. Both of them assure me that they enjoy their work a great deal and are confident that their steady advancement in the company will continue. They credit hard work and creativity. Both wear their suits with casual grace, as though they were dressed for tennis or dancing. We converse at length.

It dawns on me that they are homosexuals. Their courtesy to me is as impeccable as their wardrobe, and I wonder whether the Otherness of homosexuality has taught them this tolerance and insight which they extend to me in my current state. Such widsom is sometimes the particular province of those society deems unfit. They see my suit, yes, and they see my blood, but they see something more. They see a man inside the suit. Taking leave, my gratitude embarrasses them, and takes me by surprise.

* * *

Despite the kindness of the homosexuals, a depression has overtaken me. I remember I have eaten nothing since breakfast. I enter a corner delicatessen and examine the hot foods on the steam table. The air conditioning does little to keep the oppressive heat of the day outside, and the odor from the table is nauseating. A number of men have decided, in deference to the heat, to "create their own salads."

I heap Sweet and Sour Beef onto one half of a plastic container and fill the other half with lentil soup. I eat rapidly, with my back to the corner of the room, watching the crowd closely and occasionally making a note in my journal. The other tables are crowded, but the ones adjacent to mine remain empty, and I can feel eyes on me as I write and eat. I sniff surreptitiously at my armpits, but my sense of smell appears to have been dulled in the course of the day, and the suit does not breathe.

The stringy, tough beef is barely edible. Most of the patrons are eating alone; and the room is practically silent except for a radio speaker in the ceiling over my head, which plays light jazz. I am afraid to approach anyone here--the atmosphere is too desperate, too clearly private, more like a men's room than a restaurant. I feel listless and tired. Suddenly it occurs to me that the reason I feel this way is that the experiment is working; I am becoming the man I have sought for so long. This is how it feels to live in the worst of suits. I experience a twinge of triumph, and then compose my features back into the mask of apathy which I see all around me.

As I pass the cash register, squirting Binaca into my mouth to remove the syrupy taste of the food, the Mexican cashier watches me with expressionless eyes. As I pass outside, I see through the window that a busboy is scrubbing my table vigorously with blue liquid from a squirt bottle.

* * *

I wander aimlessly into the lobby of the Hyatt Regency, feeling rather faint, and ride an elevator to a barren upper floor. One level down the stairs, cleaning crews are at work, and at the end of the hallway an open door invites me into a freshly made-up vacant suite. I go to the window and stand for a long time, looking down over Times Square, my absurd costume forgotten. For I am thinking of my own suits, standing patient guard in my closet.

The Clothes That Make The Man. I have never before questioned their loyalty, their power, their appropriateness. Their ability to shield me from the world's worst and to make me whole. Now, for the first time, I shudder at the idea. If our suits are our souls, then God himself must surely cry for the threadbare spirit of mankind. I turn again to the mirror, ignoring the suit, looking into my own eyes. And then it is I who weep.

* * *

Much later. I am longing for a drink when I notice that my path has led me to the steps of the Harvard Club. I have to know. How will I fare in this bastion of polite society? Will these "civilized" men accept me, acknowledge the soul of the man inside the suit? Or will they see only the blood and the nylon? Three generations of my own Harvard men urge me up to the door and it opens smoothly before me.

The scene in the lobby is much as it was when my greatgrandfather was a member here. The smell of teak and kidskin and the old essentials: twilled cotton shirts, flannel, tweed, leather buttons, the whispered assurance of high-thread-count lambswool. Elderly gentlemen stand around, making introductions, with their hands in their pockets.

A middle-aged man in immaculate lawyer's houndstooth double-takes at the sight of me, and crosses to the desk where he has a word with the concierge, who is too discreet to look up but clearly understands. A certain eccentricity is permissible, even desirable, among their own. The synthetic fabrics of Taiwan and 14th street are not. But I know that tradition forbids them to accost me until they can confirm among themselves that I am not a member.

I start back toward the dining room, and then, to my consternation, see a familiar face descending the stairs. John Stanley--of the tool Stanleys--was in the Porc and on the swim squad with me. He is dressed for the Hamptons, in olive-checked plus-fours, with a matching three-button, single-breasted jacket, a white shirt with a detachable collar and a gold-tack tie with a diamond. A set of car keys are looped over a long finger.

I cannot face him. In panic, I bolt down another set of stairs to the basement and duck into the barber shop. The familiar red walls are hung with caricatures of notorious members. I climb in one of the elevated chairs and ask for a shine, which is dispensed by an Arab fellow. He begins the shine by washing my shoes with water and a rag; when he is done, he throws the soiled rag into a trash can. I strike up a conversation with him, telling him that I am looking for work but the going is hard. "But you go to Harvard, no," he says. His face is at my groin level, strained with the effort to contain his disgust. "Is easy for you."

The other man in the shop, evidently the boss, makes a disapproving sound with his tongue. He clearly sees me as an interloper or a suited tradesman, there to service the computer system or to collect the meat bill. His primary concern is to get me out of the shop before a member comes in. He tells me that his son-in-law runs a fruit stand in Chelsea--perhaps I might like to work for him. Is he trying to bait me into an embarassingly gaffe? I say that it sounds intriguing but that I'm wary of embarking a career path until I'm certain that it's right for me.

I tip generously, pass up the stairs and through the dining room into the vast, cathedral-ceiling'd members lounge behind it. Before I can vanish into the wings of a crimson armchair, I see the chef d'hotel moving smoothly across the empty room in my direction. I take a deep breath. He stands over my chair, mighty, distant, his awesome suit dissolving my willpower, like the mystical armor of an invincible army. "May I help you with something, Sir," he inquires. The neutrality of his tone is devastating. Beaten, I crumble under his gaze, mutter something, and rise to go, denuded. The walk across the room is the longest in my life.

One the way towards the brass-framed door, a crimson jacketed doorman watches me come loping down the stairs for the door. As I pass him he nods, smiling, and says "harvard" to me in a light Indian accent. I respond with a curse under my breath.

* * *

I stand at the intersection of a famous avenue and a once-notorious cross-street and watch the businessman flowing towards Grand Central, and thence homewards. I will never see them again as I did a few short hours ago. Behind each and every suit, I know at this moment, beats a human heart, filled with human dreams and hope and fears. Do not judge them by their suits, I long to shout aloud; let each speak to us from a deeper place. Or else we are lost, utterly lost and alone. But I do not speak, and the city moves on around me.

* * *

5:45 Thank God It's Friday Bar, 42nd Street

A glance around the room confirms that I will be safe here. The hollow men are already here, easing themselves into highbacked stools, staring up at the televisions or into their tabloids, or off into the shadows. With a sigh, I sit at the L-shaped bar across from a mirror and order an Amstel Light, my eyes adjusting to the dim light of the cheaply paneled room. A movement in the mirror catches my eye and with a start I realize it is not a mirror, but a man, a human, like me. I do not notice his suit. We exchange nods and turn back to our beers. As the light outside grows dim, we are still seated there, lost in our somber thoughts, like figures in an exhibition at a Museum of Natural History, entitled: Twentieth Century Man.