When I was a kid, my parents had an old Pete Seeger record. I remember hearing a song by Malvina Reynolds and sung by Pete Seeger called “Little Boxes”. The song is an indictment of suburban life in America. Here’s a sample of the lyrics:
And the people in the houses
All went to the university
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same
And there’s doctors and lawyers
And business executives
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
You hear this same criticism of suburban life today. “Suburbanites are all fat and lazy and big car driving and all dress the same…blah blah blah.” Now, I don’t mean for this to be an essay in defense of American suburban culture. It isn’t. But I walk around the city and I’m struck by the overabundance of urban uniforms.
There are obvious uniformed people–police, fire fighters, city workers and janitors in their standard issue uniforms. Businessmen and businesswomen have their suits. Waiters and baristas have their black “Zorro gear”. The frat guys wear buttoned down shirts and baseball caps. Northeastern girls wear pastel sweatpants and flip-flops (in 40 degree weather).
Then, there are all the uniforms identifying a bunch of sub-cultures, some of which I don’t understand at all. In Boston, bike riders are considered cool. Art students and bike messengers ride their fixed-gear bikes, roll their pant legs, sport hoodies with caps underneath, Sam Beam facial hair or some variation, outboard keychains, skinny-legged jeans and Vans. Skateboarders pretty much look the same, but have less street cred. The punk and metal kids look the same as they did in 1975 and 1984 respectively. Indie rock kids also sport facial hair but more hair product than the bike riders. And they wear their hoodies–that have unreadable words spraypainted across them–under tight cotton jackets. 30-something Back Bay women always look like they’re training for the Marathon. They wear North Face jackets, caps, sneakers, tights and grimaces like they aren’t “regular” from lack of bran fiber. It’s pretty maddening, eh?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not all that self-rightous. I must have a look my own self. As a musician, my uniform is work-related. In the words of an old producer of mine, “People come out to be entertained; they don’t want to see a bunch of guys that look like accountants standing up on a stage.” The reasons for civil servants to wear uniforms is also obvious. You need to know who to turn to for assistance. And uniforms can be a useful way of identifying both friend and foe. But they also act as barriers to unity and understanding. You have to judge a book by it’s cover when all you have easy access to is that cover. In addition, for me, they act as an illogical flashpoint for ire. I don’t know why I hate you. I just do.
UPDATE: I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to my minority friends for only making fun of white people here. You all look funny (and the same), too.