I just moved into a new neighborhood last month. There are a lot of things to get used to: the new commute, the way people react to different types of clothing, the new rituals of snow removal, lawn care, and trash and recycling. New neighbors. New sounds, new appliances, a new bathroom to get ready in every morning.
One of the things that I've noticed, living as I now am in a fairly blue-collar and creative neighborhood, is that walking out the door in a pea coat draws a fair amount of attention. And those stares I draw linger even longer when they see me waiting for a bus. The cubicle class isn't strongly represented in this area, I guess. Or could it be that folks who dress like this just don't take public transit? This is yet another of the many questions that come to mind as part of getting used to the new digs.
I walk through this every morning now. I pass the mechanic, the coffee shop, the art gallery, the corner store, the school, and past the police station. I meet their eyes when they look at me. I say, "Good morning," or "Buenos días," or "Hey." They nod back, and we all go about our business.
Now, within the confines of the sartorial guidelines at my business-casual office, I try to hint at who I am behind the khakis and permanent press. I shape my sideburns so that they curve forward, in the style of Star Trek: The Next Generation — though I'll admit I wear them a bit longer, because I secretly wish I was significantly more rockabilly than I probably am. I've got a Chicago-flag belt buckle. I wear Chuck Taylors to and from work, rather than wear through the soles of dress shoes with all the walking I do. And yes, I have been known to wear corduroy jackets, though only one of them has elbow patches.
But these are small accents on the otherwise fairly standard biz. cas. uniform. This is a very careful balance, you see.
Conventions are easier. The Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo was last weekend, and there was plenty of cosplay and other creative dress. When nerd conventions work they way they're supposed to, they provide safe spaces for nerds to put everything on the outside that they feel on the inside. As much as I respect all the work that goes into great, accurate cosplay, I think I have even more conceptual affinity for the mashup cosplay: the steampunk stormtrooper, the browncoated Whovian, the zombie Shepherd. Because really, as much as we all love Fiona and Cake, and as much passion as it takes to get a costume really right, few of us are mono-nerds. We contain many different fandoms and other interests, and dressing lets us put that all on display — well, not "all," but as much as we can fit into our costumes.
Convention weekends are brief, though, and the restrictions are a fair bit tighter out here in salaryland. Even my old, close-trimmed beard was really pushing the envelope at my office, but this isn't really about being kept down by The Man. Besides my subtle hints at my personality, I am frankly accustomed to trying to fit in most of the time. I know that pushing the envelope too far means interactions with coworkers will move from friendly to awkward. Long-term, that means doors close, or fail to open. Soon enough, you're in the basement, asking people to turn it off and on again, or wondering if you'll ever see your red stapler again.
Or at least that's my worry, and it has some field evidence behind it, despite the fact that my office doesn't have a basement.
The next day, I notice another nerd on the bus, but this one is different. She's obvious. She is sitting on the bus, wearing a perfectly Holmsian deerstalker hat and a brightly colored plastic watch with what looks like an LED jutting out in place of the watch crown. A Jake the Dog decal pokes out from one of her pockets. If not for the inherent weirdness that comes with a man in his thirties starting a conversation on a bus with a teenage girl who doesn't know him, we might be friends.
I want to express some recognition. I want to express solidarity, to let her know that this old dude approves of her impractical hat.
But, really, she doesn't look like she needs it. She looks perfectly comfortable with herself, sitting there like a Wikipedia page of geeky citations, each one standing out underlined and in blue.
My stop comes. Our eyes haven't meet, and I leave her to her reading — a worn copy of Ender's Game.
As much as my own hints are subtle, I've started trying to notice others' hints. Sometimes it's a triforce relief, barely noticeable on a messenger bag. Sometimes it's even more subtle than that.
There's a woman at my bus stop that I first talked to the other day. She's at least a good 25 years older than me, but maintains a fundamentally positive demeanor. No hint of makeup. She wears her hair long, unconditioned and unbound. She smiles honestly, and, as I notice on the bus, she bounces with the energy of a child. I mean, drop 50 years from this woman, and I can easily see her with plastic barrettes, braces, and no difference in demeanor. She wants to be your friend regardless of social pressures not to talk to strangers on the bus, through a web of other passengers' arms. I start to wonder about what she's interested in, other than the cats she'd mentioned.
And that's when I realize: She's a geek, too.
I mean, broadly speaking. She might just geek out about cats and gardening, but she carries that geek spark nonetheless. It's an enthusiasm, however quiet, for one or many of the wonderful things in this existence.
I recognize this, and I smile.
Because we don't have to wear our geek on our sleeve. There's no rule that we have to broadcast ourselves. If we want to go "normcore," that's cool. And yeah, sometimes the most hardcore punk is the one in the polo and unfashionable glasses.
I walk home, past the police station, past the school, past the art gallery, and the coffee shop, and the mechanic. I meet their eyes when they look at me. I say, "Have a good night," or "Buenas noches," or "Hey." We sometimes smile at each other, and not without genuine warmth, but without stopping. We continue on our way until I, still smiling, make it to my front door.