Thoughts on a T-Shirt

There is little about me that you could call conservative, and I’m not even talking about my politics. For one thing, I’m as tall as a lot of men I know, measuring six feet even, and I often wear pumps to work. I wear my hair in pompadour bangs with faux-Victory curls on the sides, adorning the left part with large flower clips or wide bows, or it is tied up in a bandana like Rosie the Riveter. My lipstick of choice is bright red. I have brightly colored, usually visible tattoos across my chest, feet, and back.

Because I see myself in the mirror every day and because it happens all the time, I expect the cashier at the grocery store to say, “you look like one of those 50’s girls!” with a bit of awe but mostly shock in her voice when I pass through in heels and petticoat-fluffy skirts, hair high and ink exposed. I am ready for stares and questions from older couples in restaurants or in line to get my coffee, especially when they notice me with my son. They ask, “did those hurt? Are you nervous you’ll regret getting all those tattoos? Why would you do that?” And they look at my little boy with pity because he is stuck with a “trashy, tattooed mom” and too young to know it should matter. I know why people look at me and the judgment they pass- most of the time.

Sometimes though, people surprise me.

Sometimes, you can’t see all of my tattoos. Most weekends I just wear jeans and tees and sneakers, pulling my hair back in a ponytail so I can meet the demands of round-the-clock mommyhood to an eighteen-month-old cyclone.  This weekend, my t-shirt of choice was my long-sleeved, navy blue Women’s March on Washington shirt. I chose it because it is big and soft and just the right weight for the weather this week, and I wore it all weekend, including to bed, I admit it, because I still like to pretend I’m a dirty college kid sometimes, and I really like this shirt that much. It was a choice made of comfort and lack of effort, not one of politics.

So imagine my surprise when total strangers began conversations with me because of my shirt. In all three- THREE!- instances, the stranger said, “I like your shirt,” as if it was a password at some secret speakeasy which verified their legitimacy and confirmed that we were allies. It humorously reminded me of why I try to start conversations about football with fellow Redskins fans by saying “Nice jersey” or “I love your hat,” just so they know that I share their sentiment.

The first person to praise my shirt was a man, probably in his 60s, out to lunch with his wife. He said “I like your shirt” as they both left the restaurant, and then she chimed in with, “I was there too. I marched in DC.” She raised her fist. Then they were gone.

The second person to engage with me was a woman at a table next to mine. She was elderly and she walked with a pink and white cane. She said, “I like your shirt. I couldn’t march because I’m disabled, so as far as I’m concerned all you gals marched for me. I was with you in spirit though, believe me.” She finished her lunch with her husband, and she too was gone.

The third person to comment on my clothing is a hostess at my favorite breakfast joint. She is young, maybe twenty one, and far more timid than her waitress counterparts, who are older and hardened from decades of slinging diner fare to the same small town regulars. She quietly greets and seats, so this weekend she put down our silverware, and instead of the usual, “your waitress will be right with you,” she said, “I like your shirt.” She looked at the floor as she walked away.  

To see why these people surprised me, you must understand that where I come from, people are generally friendly, but that’s because they’re also generally all the same. Someone like me stands out, and not usually in a good way. Where I come from, most people voted for Trump. The students I teach and their families are largely white Christian conservatives who talk about “the gays” and “the blacks” and “the A-rabs” as if they are different species to be admired in a zoo like Baltimore or New York City “where that kind of thing belongs.” My county is deep, bleeding red, like a swollen wound on my otherwise blue state, and the stereotypes typically all apply, however painful they are to acknowledge.

So when I wore a shirt I just happened to really like, which also happened to be from a politically motivated event in which I participated, I was not ready for what I experienced that weekend. I am conditioned to be judged and on the defensive about my tattoos and my clothes and my politics, but I am not conditioned to be embraced. I was not prepared to meet someone who marched beside me in Washington three weeks ago, and to hear her husband support her so openly. I was not prepared to be thanked and admired for representing someone who could not march for herself. I was not prepared to be an ally to the young woman at the diner quietly expressing her approval.

It has been too easy for me to despair and to feel surrounded by “the other side.” But I was reminded this weekend that sometimes strength and solidarity are quiet forces that ebb beneath the surface of recognition. Sometimes the signal your allies have been waiting for is subtle, like a lantern in a bell tower, blending in with the seemingly mundane. Sometimes the everyday folks at your elbow are just waiting to take your hand when the revolutionary moment arrives.

This quiet fraternity makes us powerful, and they should be prepared for us.