This essay was sparked by a writing prompt about a treasured article of clothing this Wednesday at the weekly creative writing workshop at Street Roots, an excellent newspaper covering issues relevant to the homeless in Portland, OR, also publishing their writings and allowing them to sell the papers to maintain their lives and build better ones. It is a wonderful organization that has helped me over my past seven months here than I can express.
Costume of Conformity
I’ve never been a very materialistic person and certainly never much into fashion, much to the chagrin of my gay friend and college roommate Nic, who tried to help “reform” me the best he could. He would no doubt he mortified today I am wearing a shirt with sideways lines, pleated shorts, two mismatched socks and dirty golf shoes.
That leads me to the most ridiculous outfit I’ve ever worn: the costume of conformity. It’s a uniform our parents, peers, community and society tries to get us to wear from birth. Most people, out of a sense of fear of being alone or being persecuted put it on automatically. Some look around and realize how ill-fitting it is and take it off.
To me that is the essence and pride of a place like Portland. But it has consequences you can see here: loss of jobs and a way to make a steady income, loss of housing, loss of friends, loss of familial connections, loss of romantic and intimate connections, and the subsequent vices that often diminish our shine to try and cope with the pain of being thrown out like trash because we see the inherit illogic in giving into the status quo that keeps us as sleeping slaves.
I realize now this is part of why I left Denver Metro, where I was born and spent all my life up until seven months ago. I see now I am here, because of the contrast, that it possesses a competitive, money-oriented, judgmental, unforgiving and too often superficial culture where an unwillingness to conform and tote the line, even among the artistic and “counter-culture” cliques that too often breed mediocrity and a craving for false comfort, can and do often lead to lonliness, homelessness, self-degradation or death, Denver being a city where 79 homeless people died this winter, according to Street Roots’ sister paper The Denver Voice. Colorado also has one of the highest rates of suicide in the nation, as does Oregon sadly.
I point this out not to judge Denver, which I still love and where I plan to one day return to and raise a family, but to proclaim why I have fallen in love with Portland, despite my very trying and traumatic time being homeless here.
Well, in fact, it is because of that, because this is a city where only six homeless people perished this winter in part because the community and government here step up to support the downtrodden, those who have been abandoned or not accepted by society because the weirdos, the freaks, the outcasts, the nerds ARE the community here. There is no nerd power culture here like there is in Denver, where it is needed because of the culture of conformity there. Walk down the street just about anywhere here and you will see people sporting shirts advertising their favorite comic book, science fiction or fantasy characters and can easily engage with them on those topics, often in-depth, and striking up such conservations with relative strangers on the bus or street is commonplace here.
My fashion or appearance is not judged on a regular basis, like other communities I’ve been to. I am not chastised or punished in places of business, churches or at the workplace for sporting visible tattoos, piercings or dyed hair, even though I have none of these, because they are quite a common sight here. In fact even when I am dressed like a complete slob, I often look more dressed up than a lot of folks here, especially among the homeless population, who are really only judged here for their violent actions, and definitely not their fiction, and even then the police and first responders are oriented more toward helping them, if they want it.
Most of all though, I am not challenged or punished for refusing to wear that ridiculous costume of conformity of thought, in fact, I am rewarded for it in terms of fast friendships, which I have made more of and faster in this city in the last seven months than I have in my previous 31 years in Colorado, to the point when I go out during the day, I run into someone on the street, on the bus or elsewhere I know who considers me a friend, not because of who I know, my past, but because they like me and what is in my heart and mind, something to be honest I haven’t felt I’ve got much of in my life before and has helped anchor me through very turbulent emotional times when I felt abandoned or unsupported by friends and family elsewhere. I am judged by my actions, but also — and this includes drug addicts and those who have committed acts of violence or oriented that way — am often easily forgiven once I apologize, and often get an apology back and often establish a friendship or deepen a pre-existing one.
Friendship is the strength of the culture here because it is a town of nerds and outcasts and those defined as “autistic” or sensitive people, often oriented toward social isolation as I had experienced for much of my life until my career in journalism forced me to be more of an extroverted introvert. I see and feel a lot of lonliness among people here, something that has brought me to my lowest and something I have tried to ignore and get comfortable with until the weight of that pain comes crushing down on me like a ton of bricks. People are curious here, want to ask questions. Even a meth addict had said while waiting in line for a church that serves the homeless to open said to me “I like you, you have knowledge” something I often felt negatively judged for by many of my peers and people in Colorado out of jealousy or because my ideas and knowledge was considered “crazy,” “conspiratorial” or “stupid,” despite evidence. Here, I not only meet many people open to such ideas, even if they don’t agree, but people I have become friends with who understand, and often impart me with knowledge I didn’t have, or views I didn’t consider, not to mention my friend Derek, who saved my life by flying my out here to escape being homeless in Denver where I easily could’ve become number 80 of the dead there, despite not knowing me that well.
Getting back to the original prompt, one of the most treasured articles of clothing I have ever had was a trucker hate with the brain and lightbulb emblem of my favorite musical act N.E.R.D., the ban founded by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, also know as the production duo The Neptunes, who Sean O’Hagan of The High Llamas, who I interviewed last year, also adores.
I was fortunate enough to have it signed by Pharrell and Shae, the third member of the band and one of their childhood friends growing up. It, along with the signed CD copy of Fly Or Die, one of my favorite albums of all time, became one of few prized possessions I had.
It wasn’t even so much my favorite article of clothing because it was officially from the N.E.R.D. website and is not made officially, including by Pharrell’s clothing line Billionaire Boys Club, or because he and Shae signed it, or because it was a unique hat created by Pharrell to advertise a band not nearly as popular as the people they’ve produced for, which is damn near everyone in popular music over the last 20 years. It is what the band stands for, a declaration of pride for being a nerd, by two men considered suave and cool in society despite growing up as and still definitely being big nerds and geeks. N.E.R.D. was what they always wanted to do when they came up with the idea for The Neptunes, but because of the rigid, greed-oriented and conformist culture of the music industry in the 1990s, was rejected because of their desire to create eclectic music deemed difficult to market.
Growing up I used to be called “nerd” or “geek” as a slur until around 14 or 15 decided to take it as a badge of honor, even before I heard of The Neptunes or N.E.R.D., and especially after I researched the origin of the word, coming from the 1950 Dr. Seuss book If I Ran The Zoo, to describe a bird-like creature who was considered the outcast, but not too bothered by it.
And in 2017 we have people like Pharrell in places of prominence, who uses his fame and fortune to change hearts and minds, as do the owners and founders of companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, SpaceX, Tesla and Intel (headquartered in Hillsboro, OR where I stayed in a wonderful shelter and made amazing friends), which together make more money in a year than most world governments have in their coffers. Yet these people, like Mark Zuckerberg, a very misunderstood and often erroneously hated public figure, consistently show they are dedicated to creating a more fair, just world in which nerds, geeks, outcast and those considered sensitives or “autistic” can thrive and do the same, including in their workplaces, in the tech sector, science field and many other fields, some of which are new and emerging as our culture changes technologically and socially, for the better I believe.
It used to give me just this sense of hope, but that hope has been upgraded to a sense of confidence and conviction that the old order is dying, and the slave masters Bernie Sanders calls the elite or 1 percent — a small group of greedy, selfish beings — have in their arrogance underestimated the revenge of the nerds, the OTHER, and our weapon is a pistol of peace.