What Happened When I Dressed Like a Priest August 26 2015
An investigation into the power of the uniform.
I was a priest, standing at the bar of the Billy Goat Tavern beneath the great concrete decks that brace up downtown Chicago. Strike that. I was not a priest. I shouldn't say that. I was me, me wearing the uniform of a priest. It was 10:30 on a Friday morning, the bar a well-lit temple of Formica. I was visiting my favorite bartender, as is my wont when I am in Chicago. Priest or no: My uniform was an old-school liturgical cassock. Twenty buttons rising to a traditional clerical collar. Part tunic, part Nehru jacket, with a big open flare at my feet. That thing really kicked up in the wind when I walked the city. The thing really had some sweep.
When I walked in, my friend immediately set me up with a no-disrespect-intended pour of bourbon, with a draft beer back. My shoulders were turned to the half-full restaurant; a small circle of recent acquaintances screened me. I'd like to say I was mindful of being the most visible man in the room—me, the priest—but who was I kidding? People had been staring at me for twenty-three blocks. One hour in the uniform and I knew this much: On a bright summer's day, in a sprawling city, a priest in a cassock is a thing to behold. People draw out their eye contact with a priest. They give nods or bow just a smidge. Or they stare. Openly. Respectfully. Distantly. When walking in pairs, men wind up their cheeriest selves to blurt out suddenly, "Good morning, Father." A habit learned in high school, revisited gladly. Twenty-three blocks and the world could not take its eyes off me. A priest, striding north.
And so, in a what-the-hell moment, I lifted the glass, nodded to Jeff the barkeep, and took that long good swallow. Only as I put the glass back in its ringlet of condensation did I notice a woman who'd maneuvered herself to some pass-through window, filming the whole thing on her phone. "You're going to be on the Internet before you eat lunch," said the barfly to my left without looking up, adding, "Father."
I picked up the beer, took a sip, and told him, "I'm not a priest." He turned, narrowed his eyes, gave me a lazy up-and-down. "What is this, then?" he said. He meant the frock.
"It's a uniform," I said. That was true. This was always my plan. Be honest. And that seemed to be enough, because he went back to his box scores. A couple minutes later, he said, "One thing's for certain, some priest, somewhere, is going to get in trouble for that."
I have no uniform. Most of the time, I work alone or in conversations across tables in some restaurant in some unfamiliar city. At my most exposed, I stand in front of a classroom of twenty-one-year-olds. Unless you count a track jacket, a T-shirt, and a pair of overly expensive jeans as a uniform, I have no dress requirements. Sometimes I wear a blazer. I have a really nice blue shirt when I want to wear one. My choice.
This is a ho-hum freedom, earned in some societal shift located broadly in one or another populist surge last century. People see it as a kind of liberation. We are individuals, after all. We are not automatons or drones. We are not our work. And so on.
But a great many people put on a uniform for work every day. I'll admit that I've often longed to wear a uniform, one that demanded something from me and maybe from the world around me. A good uniform represents. It makes sure you show up. It suggests a simplicity of mission. Once you slip it on, any uniform calls for its own posture. Everyone reacts. They step aside, shoot knowing glances, make room for you; or they turn away, try to forget their foggy prejudices, and ignore you.
So I bought four uniforms, modified them using the advice of people who wear them for real, and wore each one for a full day to test the reaction. A priest, a security guard, a mechanic, and a doctor. I stitched my name on—first, last, or both when appropriate. But I didn't forge a thing. No fake lanyards, no ID cards, no crucifix, no rosary in hand. The idea wasn't to trick people. I wasn't pulling a con or even acting very much. I wasn't trying to get anything: no free entry, no cuts to the front of the line, no undue respect. I issued no false blessings, gave no advice, made no diagnoses.
Tom Chiarella as a Priest
I bought my priest outfit at a religious-wardrobe store just west of Canaryville on the South Side of Chicago. At first I tried on clerical shirts, all black, with the familiar collar. Both long-sleeved and short. I wanted to look like the Jesuit priests who'd taught me how to write. All business with the comings and goings, a little tired, utterly content to forget the annoyance of deciding what to wear every morning.
The salesclerk was a former Dominican priest. There is fashion among the priests, he said. It's rare for an American priest to wear a cassock outside the church. But, he said, it's becoming more common: "It used to be considered a little vain. But you go to the seminary now and young priests insist on the cassock. They're more conservative and they want to be seen as committed."
He thought I could pass. "Just look like you're going somewhere on church business."
At that, the third-generation owner of the store stepped out of her office to tell me that she disagreed. "No priest would wear that in public."
"Just tell them you're Greek," the salesclerk said. "You look Greek enough."
Generally, when you wear a uniform, no one will touch you. Except the priest. People will touch a priest. On the wrist mostly. It happened to me twelve times, just a tap in the middle of a conversation. An assertion of connection, an acknowledgment of some commonality I could not fathom. Weirdly, the priest's outfit was the most physically demanding uniform to wear. All day with the hugging, and the kneeling to speak to children, and the leaning in for the selfies.
I suppose it is sacrilegious to say this—though I'm obviously way past caring about that now—but sweeping the city with the hem of my cassock hither and yon was more like being a beautiful woman than it was representing myself as a celibate guy who lives in a two-room apartment in Hyde Park. I'm telling you: People lingered in their gaze, without lust. I was a fascination, looked at fondly so many times that fondness itself seemed the currency of the world to me. It made me like the world better.
In front of a diner, an old woman seized my wrist firmly and pulled me in for a question. Oh, boy, I thought. Serious business. I prepared to deliver the news that it was just a uniform. "Father," she said earnestly. "Are you Greek Orthodox?" I told her I was not. The truth is easy enough when you're in uniform. Before I could say anything, she released my arm, scowled, and cast me off. "You are Russian! Ugh!" She turned and shouted to me from twenty paces, held up a finger like the curse it surely was. "You are Russian. Russian!" she said, rolling the R as she retreated. "Russian!" she shouted up the street.
No one asked my name. No one called me Father Tom. But that's what the uniform made me. People want to believe.
Especially people in need. All day long, I was faced with homeless men, homeless families, crouched in the street. Sometimes they reached up to me, touched my wrist. Twice I was asked for a blessing that I could not give. Not in the way they wanted. I started wishing that I were capable of performing a service for the world. And I found I could not do nothing. The uniform comes with some responsibility; otherwise, it is just a party costume. I started kneeling down, holding out a ten-dollar bill, and saying, "I'm not a priest. But I feel you." And I couldn't do it once without doing it a couple dozen times. Chicago is a big city, with a lot of souls stuck in its doorways. It still makes me sadder than I could have imagined.
It's easy to put on a cassock. And it's really not easy to wear one at all.
Late that afternoon, I stood across from the Tribune building as Father Tom and watched a loud and lousy sleight-of-hand magician working a trick involving a signed twenty-dollar bill and a lemon. I stood off to the side, hands clasped behind my back, trying to look ponderously unthreatened by magic. And then I saw the magician's move very clearly, the very moment he jams the rolled-up twenty into the lemon. Just like that. Busted. For a moment, I thought it might be the mind-set of a priest taking over. Or maybe he wanted the priest to see, because he winked at me a second later. And suddenly, for the rest of his routine, he called on me, to bear him out, to provide faith, to witness the machinations. Questions like "That seems honest enough—right, Father?" And could I back him up on this? The request to weigh in as the conscience of the moment really wore on me. Finally, I turned and walked away. "Father," he called out. "Don't leave. Only you know the truth! You're the most trusted man here!" Too much subtext. Exhausted, Father Tom walked to a food cart, bought a tamale, and waved to a tour bus that honked at him. They waved back, too. Both decks.
Tom Chiarella as a Security Guard
If it's true that everyone likes to look at a priest, then let me tell you that no one likes to look at a security guard. Especially not a geeked-up security enthusiast like Tom Chiarella, Security Officer. Not even other security guards. There is no brotherhood of the law among guys who mostly watch a crowd and ask people not to sit on the stairs in front of a museum. People avert their eyes, stare at the horizon.
When I told my friend, a longtime cop, that I was going to be wearing the uniform of a security guard and asked if he'd help me think out ways to make it look more authentic, he had a question: "Are you gonna be one of those happy guys? Or are you going to be, I don't know, that other kind?" At the time, we were going through containers of defunct equipment in a police-department storeroom, looking for spare parts. I wanted Tom Chiarella, Security Officer, to care about the details.
"In my experience, some security guys put on the uniform and it makes them," my friend said, "and then they have a certain way they carry themselves. You've seen it. It's a military posture. They stand up into the job. They get squared up. The uniform squares them up. They look so happy. Happy guys. And there is the other kind. They get into the very same outfit and the whole thing looks permanently sloppy, and they can't do anything about it. Not ever. The first guy, he listens. He's the one I'd use. The other kind, you look right at them and you know they might as well work at Taco Bell."
Tom Chiarella, Security Officer, was the first kind. The happy guy. Not ebulliently happy, but happy inside the obligation of the uniform. I stayed quiet, hid behind a pair of dark glasses, carried many things on my belt: handcuffs, a 2400-lumen flashlight, a pair of plastic gloves for evidence collection, a radio and a corded handset, a completely redundant earpiece, a can of Mace, a notepad and a penholder. So many leather pouches. My friend had warned me to match them up carefully. If one pouch was braided leather, they all had to be. "It matters," he'd said. "If you don't match up, people will start to wonder. You'll see. People look at you. In a way, even as a security guard, you are the law. You need to have it together. People do a check down on you. They check out your stuff. You don't have a gun. So they'll look even harder at what you do have."
"I'm just security," I said. "Not police."
"Law," my friend said. "They represent the law. That's what they teach them. You represent. You can't say you're a cop. But you can look like the law matters."
I could represent. So I paid to emblazon every surface of the uniform I set up—jacket, hat, shirt, badge—with the word Security. I bought and had fitted my first-ever pair of double-knit pants. I tucked in, buckled up, and made an orderly appearance.
On the campus of DePaul University, people asked if I was with the university. Near a hospital, I was asked? if I worked for the clinic or the theater across the street. I told the truth. Neither. Nothing more. Somehow people accepted the nothingness of my answers as if they were answer enough. No one ever followed up. The uniform made me feel terse. Not tense. Terse. Abbreviated. Interfacing with the world, as Tom Chiarella, Security Officer, liked to call it, was an occasional occupational obligation.
I just went places. Breakfast joints. Yawning retail spaces. It was the same everywhere I went—people treated me like part of the background. I stood for forty-five minutes in an Anthropologie store in a mall in the Loop, my arms folded across my chest, hips swaying, sunglasses on. No one talked to me, so I drifted into a way of thinking that I associated with the uniform. I watched my six. I kept my head on a swivel. I checked flanking positions, though I really wasn't certain what that meant. Not one clerk or salesperson asked me if I needed help. Why would they? The posture and the uniform asserted that I belonged. Belonged to the mall. I didn't have to speak in my job, so I was not spoken to.
At one point, I hitched my belt and went out to look for a restroom. A janitor was mopping when I got there. I told him I could wait. He didn't even seem to hear me. He spoke to me as if we saw each other daily. "It's slow today," he said. I looked around, nodded. Then he said, "Yesterday, with the rain … "
"… Things were slow," I said, thinking I was agreeing with him. He looked at me then like he'd been stung by a bee.
"No. Yesterday was crazy in here, remember?" he said. "The rain drives them inside, right?"
"I wasn't here," I said. Again, the truth. The day before, I'd walked as Father Tom.
"Yeah," he said. "You were off yesterday. I didn't see you at all yesterday." Then he waved me through to the urinals. He had zip-up overalls, name stitched on the pocket.
I returned to Anthropologie, to my self-claimed post near the rack of semitropical cotton blouses, again not drawing a glance. Soon I got restless. It was a big getup. A lot of work to put together, and to wear. The sight of me drew no reaction. I could have done an eight-hour shift without comment from the world around me or the women who worked there. The security officer fit only in the background. Sometimes the uniform simply fits the place so well that people who should know better don't give you any thought at all. On the street, amid the hubbub, the priest occupied the foreground. People wanted something from him. The security guard? Backgrounded. He and his uniform became just another furnishing. Nobody wanted anything from Tom Chiarella, Security Officer. Except directions. People get turned around in that city.
I bought a vintage patch on eBay—it read JOHNNY ANTONELLI TIRE CO. INC., an out-of-business tire retailer from my childhood in Rochester, New York. I affixed it to the left side of a blue zip-up jumpsuit I'd purchased at a tractor-supply store and had my name stitched on the other side. I put it on and walked. So I was a tire guy, Tom, who worked at a shop so small that most people assumed they'd never heard of it.
And though it's not fair to any tire guy anywhere … no one cared. The uniform didn't register. I never got so much as eye contact, except from a student nurse sitting at a table at an Italian grocery on Randolph Street. I was waiting in line. "Is that a Wall Street Journal?" she asked, referring to the hotel newspaper that I'd folded up and stuck in my back pocket like a racing form. It felt like she was picking on me.
Only anachronisms got even a vague reaction. I hailed a cab with a torque wrench, walked blocks dangling a Twix bar from my fingers, carried a half-dozen roses, sat on a city bus reading 50 Poems by e. e. cummings. It started to feel like I was jumping up and down, asking to be seen. No one saw me. I gave up and went to a movie.
Tom Chiarella as a Doctor
Finally, I became a doctor. I bought a pair of scrubs, got them fitted, and had my name stitched on yet again, this time over a logo that read DEPAUW UNIVERSITY, the name of the Indiana college where I am a faculty member. I knew that with a quick glance most people would mistake it for DePaul.
Since basically everyone wears scrubs at a hospital—nurse, orderly, X-ray technician—I had to find a way to convey that I was a doctor. I tried a lab coat, even put my name on it, but I could see that made me look more lab tech than cardiologist. I needed something better, so I sat in a hospital beforehand and watched the foot traffic of doctors and med students. The doctors moved with a chronic urgency. And they unfailingly stared into their phones and tablets distractedly, or carried clipboards or stopped to flip pages rapidly. They seemed to spend significant time looking into the guts of a problem, blocking out the world around them, a perceptible purpose and direction to every step. Slow or fast, the doctors seemed to be moving from one situation to another by social contract.
I started with that. Walking, north. But I walked fast and stopped only to look into my phone or flip pages on my clipboard. I looked up the street anxiously. I pictured the destination dimly to the north and manufactured a problem that demanded I get there now. I wanted people to think: This guy doesn't even have time to hail a cab. Somebody needs him.
He's got to be a doctor.
And, you know, the world gives way to a doctor. People step aside, cabbies wave you through intersections. Before long I started to really sweat, ducked into a restaurant to pick up a little AC action. Almost as soon as I was inside, the urgency subsided. This would not stand. So as the hostess approached, I held up my finger. "Hold on one second," I said, and then I stared into my phone, perhaps at some test results that had just come in. I decided to just stare, to see how long the routine could last. Minutes passed. Eventually I pretended to scroll down, using two fingers rather than one on the touch screen. I thought this was a nice touch, rife with verisimilitude. When the hostess approached again, I interrupted her and took a shallow half step back. "Just one sec," I said without looking up, knowing full well that I risked being the rude doctor now.
But she said, "Of course, of course. We just wanted to know: Do you need a glass of water?" She didn't even consider me a customer anymore. I was just a doctor who needed a place to work.
I went to the next block, stepped into a sporting-goods store, and did it again. Asked for forbearance and a little space, looked into a problem. Then a bank, a waxing salon, a shoe warehouse, a veterinary clinic. People made room. Room for responsibility. A little space to help. They offered me a seat. When people asked me where I was headed, I just hooked a thumb over my shoulder, to the north—true!—and then looked back into my phone.
Sometimes they even knew where I was headed. Right through the haze of my vagaries. "I know. The breast clinic. On Diversey, right? You need to be closer to the lake!" And I'd thank them. They offered to get me an Uber. Or a bottle of water. I didn't feel like a liar, or a lying doctor. I felt like they were seeing into a doctor's life and I was seeing into the city.
In a dank basement bar called the Manhole, where they were playing thumping dubstep at 4:30 in the afternoon in preparation for a lube-wrestling event, I breezed past the bouncer and asked the shirtless, leather-pantsed bartender for half a beer. "Because," I said, distractedly indicating the scrubs, the life, the predicament implied. Then I hooked the thumb northward. "Well, you know …" And he really did know. Half a beer. Cold, too.
Past Wrigley Field, at an empty skating rink, the janitor offered me his phone when he saw mine die. "You shouldn't be without a phone," he said. At a mattress warehouse, I was offered a seat on the closest bed to the door. Five minutes I sat there before I took a deep breath and leaned back. I actually lay down. I was exhausted. Then I popped up and apologized. "Perfectly okay," the salesman said. "Happens all the time. As you might imagine." He paused. "Well, not with a doctor. That's never happened before." Bam. He said doctor.
The world wants to help a doctor. The uniform conveys a responsibility that people are willing to share. They took little bits from the priest, and ignored the security guard, and didn't bother to see the mechanic, but they gave to the doctor. Ceaselessly and for many city blocks.
The only time I really wore a uniform to work was when I was twenty-four and waiting tables at a Mexican restaurant called Cucos, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I dreaded the idea of wearing a uniform then. And that uniform—such as it was—consisted of a blue knit polo shirt and an apron that I picked up every night off a hook in a broom closet. No logo, no stitched-on name. The manager, a redhead whose name I can't remember, pulled the shirt from a cabinet in her office, threw it to me, and said, "This is the best I can do right now." The shirt was tiny, two sizes short of what I needed. I told her it wouldn't fit. Then she looked from the shirt in my hands to my face and said, "So leave it on the desk. I'll give it to the next person who walks in here looking for a job." I huffed some lame apology, but she stated again, "This is all I have for you."
Just then I didn't matter one bit. I'd never done a damn thing for her and still she had handed me a uniform. A job. So yes, the shirt mattered more than the man. I understood the deal.
That week, I pulled that miserable shirt over my frame like a tube sock four times before I banked enough tips to pay the day-shift bartender twenty bucks for his spare blue shirt. He was a big guy, two sizes larger than me. And so it was that I came to have two uniforms for work. Impossibly small and implausibly big. Every day I had to choose: pantyhose or circus tent.
I quickly learned that no one else noticed. No snickers, no comments. The blue shirt was all that mattered. Me—my body, my corporeal self—I didn't register one bit, so long as I refilled the chips and delivered the 'ritas while the glasses were still icy. I just had to do my job. The blue shirt was me. Me in that job.
You might find this depersonalizing. Not so. The blue shirt meant I owed the world only what the job demanded, and only for those few hours. I came to relish disappearing into the hectic mechanics of work, into a routine of expectation and ritualized tasks. It turned out I could forget myself for a few hours. I was soon named employee of the month. Twice.
The uniform meant something. And when I left through the same doors into the darkling lot, freed from the grip of Cucos, the uniform suddenly and absolutely meant nothing at all. I took it off in the crook made by the door of my pickup and drove home shirtless. I see now that the uniform itself was liberating. Had I never had it in the first place or shaken it off when I had to, I may never have sensed the power of work and the confining limits of a lousy job.
In Chicago, on the night before I was to walk the streets as a priest, I went to a theater fundraising event at Chicago's Soho House. I'd been invited as Tom Chiarella. I attended as Father Tom, the priest. These were my first hours in the cassock. And there, during the fundraising part of the event, two pretty women exposed me.
"You're not a priest," the younger one said. So right out of the gate I was caught, the only time in the four days it happened.
I told them the truth. Then I asked how they knew. "There are a million things," one said. "You have a tattoo on your wrist. Your hair is a bit too long."
"And look at the way you occupy space," said the other. "You get in too close!"
They stared at me as I shifted on my feet. "There are just ways a man of the cloth will stand when he's in the company of women," said the woman who first spoke. "You are simply not standing in that way. You're too close. And you aren't aware of your hips. You're angled wrong."
They went on. No crucifix. I'd sat on a barstool—that would never happen. The cassock was a problem for them. They had never seen one outside the church.
I knew that was a risk. I told them as much. "Besides, it's a tricky thing to wear in public. There are no pockets," I said. "I have to hitch the whole thing up to get to my wallet." I bent a little and started to demonstrate the issue, how I would have to hike up this giant skirt to retrieve five bucks for the valet. Both of them waved me off. "It looks kind of pervy, right?" I said. I asked them if they knew how a priest would have dealt with it.
Neither of them did. "There are some things only a priest would know," one of them said.
They thought I must be an actor. I told them no. Eventually I asked about their faith, since they seemed to know a priest when they saw one. And when they didn't.
They told me, too. I just listened. It seemed like what was called for.
-Published in Esquire August 2015