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Follow the Suit

Written and Photographed By:  Erik Hale

Stuff piles up. We have six giant red and green boxes nicely stacked in the garage that serve the express purpose of storing our Christmas decorations. You probably know what is in these boxes. Ten strands of lights, neatly rolled away, five of which won’t even work next year. We will buy more lights to replace the broken strands, mix them in with the good ones when the holidays end, and next year we will have seven boxes to store. Stuff is hard to dispose of.

While getting ready for work this winter, I realized that “stuff” had begun taking over my closet. The “stuff” clogging my closet were suits. There were suits that were too big and some that were too small and some that I had never worn at all. I had twenty suits total. Twenty suits might not seem like too many for most people, but I was wearing flip flops to work most days. Why did I need 20 suits? I thought about selling them, then about giving them to a friend, and finally thought about putting them in a large plastic bag and dropping them off at a donation center. I decided on donating them and went online to find an appropriate place to drop them off and typed in “suit donation Orange County” and hit enter. 1.1 million results returned by Google in 0.15 seconds. I chose the second site on the list. Working Wardrobes. Perfect.

I pulled up to the donation center in Costa Mesa with my box full of suits, shirts, ties, shoes, and belts (might as well get rid of it all), only expecting to drop everything into a receptacle and check one more errand off of my list. When donating in the past I had found it perfectly reasonable to assume that the good feeling generated by donating (along with the receipt and consequential tax deduction) were sufficient gratitude. Today was different. I wanted to know where my suit was going. Who was I helping? Where would my suits end up once they wheeled them away? I wanted proof that I was helping. It was probably self-serving, but I asked to speak to someone in charge. They were glad to help.

I asked about their process. I asked who they helped. It all seemed to check out. Then they asked me if I wanted to meet the person that would receive one of my suits. Did I?

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I wasn’t sure. That was awfully personal. It is not easy to look someone, who is in need, directly in the eye. I have no problem shuffling my spare change into the UNICEF jar, but I cannot watch the Feed the Children infomercials. I always change the channel. I can hand a buck to someone holding a cardboard sign at an intersection, but it is hard to look directly into their eyes. Was this something I wanted to do? Did I want to know how my suit would affect someone’s life? I was starting to think I should have just left the bag and finished my errands.

I got a call two weeks later. They had found someone named Chris to take my suit. I was happy and nervous. I asked if he could hang out with me for the day (I thought it would be easier for me to relate to him in my world). They said that would be fine. I made an appointment to pick up Chris the following Monday.

I checked the website again. There was a list of the types of people they helped. I browsed the list.

Welfare-to-Work, alcohol & substance abuse, domestic violence, transitional homelessness, and catastrophic illness.

Yikes. I was nervous. Then I wondered what Chris must be feeling. I am sure it is very humbling to accept charity (it was always weird just wearing my cousin’s hand-me-downs), much less having to meet the donor. The morning of our meeting, I received a call.

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Chris had called in sick and canceled our appointment. “Typical, ” I thought.

We rescheduled for the following Tuesday. I was not as nervous this time. I did wonder if he would cancel again. He did not. I entered the building and made my way to the office of the administrator. They were very happy I was there and even more so for me to meet Chris. “He is a wonderful young man, ” they informed me. “We are so proud of his progress, ” they added. “We will see” rattled around in my head while “sounds great” came out of my mouth.

“Erik meet Chris, ” someone said from behind me. He had snuck up on me. I did not get a chance to size him up. I turned around and stuck out my hand. “Nice to meet you Chris, ” I said and to my surprise Chris extended his hand, shook it firmly while saying “nice to meet you as well, ” all while looking me dead in the eye.

I liked Chris immediately.

As an interviewer, I am no Howard Stern or Piers Morgan. I am probably closer to Larry King (without the suspenders). So I started off with the typical softballs.

I found out where he was from. Santa Ana.

What he liked to do. He was an avid swimmer before hitting a rough patch his senior year.

Chris was 18 years old and came from a large and broken family. His Dad had not only left the family when Chris was five, but it was rumored that he had the audacity to start a new family only 40 miles away. He had never visited or called any of his children.

Chris was hesitant (read: embarrassed) to let me in on everything that had brought him to this point. He was perfectly willing to tell me what led to his troubles (drugs, mostly pot and a little Ecstasy). He would talk about his dreams (owning his own business someday). But he did not want to tell me exactly what had led to him being here. He did eventually reveal his innermost demons to me, but…. I am not going to tell you.

Leave it be that you would consider what he did more immature than criminal. Acting out to control a situation where he had little. Acting like a kid while so many around him demanded he become a man.

We talked for a while about the negativity that had pervaded in his life. I felt he was beginning to tire of recounting the bad. In an effort to change the subject I asked, “how tall are you?”

“I’m 5 foot 8” he said immediately. Then “five foot seven” spilled out. I think if I would have let him continue he would have continued this self-deprecating shrinkage until he disappeared. It was obvious that he didn’t feel very big.

Let me tell you, Chris is a good looking young man. He is every bit of 5’8” and maybe an inch taller. He is so athletically built that you would guess free safety before freestyle swimmer. He has a warm demeanor, big dreams and a will to succeed. In the right situation, Chris might have had a full scholarship to the school of his choice instead of a free ride to four months in jail.

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When I watch shows about jail on television, I cannot imagine someone coming out better than when they went in. Chris did. He did not graduate high school with his class but did obtain his diploma while incarcerated.

Chris now lives in a group home. He is conflicted living there. It is difficult for him to understand (ready for this?) how he has been so lucky. He has had a very difficult time coming to terms with staying in a house that is nicer than where his mother and siblings reside.

The day I met Chris, he was in the midst of a 100-hour contract with Working Wardrobes. Sounds like a long contract right? 12 days. A dozen days to find another job. Chris was hopeful that he could remain employed there, but I had my doubts. I was sure that everyone who received such a life-saving gig would try to cling to it. It was something to hold onto, at least for a few weeks.

Chris was a big help to me all day. He never complained. As we made deliveries, he was the first one out of the car asking to carry something (anything). We talked about music, girls, and cars. We stopped at TK for a burger. We hung.

The time came to head back to Working Wardrobes for the fitting. This now seemed anti-climatic. Was I just going to hand him my suit? That seemed more bizarre now than before.

We returned to the Working Wardrobes office in Costa Mesa where I had picked up Chris earlier that day. I was given a tour. The massive warehouse was our first stop. I quickly realized that I was just one of many who had donated. This giant warehouse had men’s and women’s clothes neatly arranged throughout. Next we toured the job center, classroom, barber/beauty salon and were finally shown the suits.

They did not skimp one bit here. We were greeted by a personal stylist. He asked Chris what he liked. Chris didn’t really have an opinion on this. He measured his neck, arms, waist and chest. He showed Chris several options before they both settled on a custom, white shirt, brown silk tie

(David August) and black cap-toed Zegna lace ups. Luckily for me we were both 42 regular and my dark blue suit jacket fit him perfectly. The pants were a different story (since I am 6’2” they would need to be hemmed). I was still asking questions as Chris was changing into his new duds.

“Where would you wear an outfit like that?” I asked.

“To an interview man, ” he responded through laughter.

“What if you were interviewing for a fast food job?” I yelled back over the dressing room curtain.

“You gotta dress to impress, ” he said. Next proclaiming, “Because I look good in a suit, ” as he pushed the curtain away and made his grand entrance standing in front of the three-way mirror.

He was strutting now and from the way he looked had every right to feel proud. Chris was no longer five eight. The suit had made him taller, prouder. He was the biggest man in the room.

There is an old expression that says, “the suit makes the man.” There are several times in life that I have found this holds true. Your wedding day, graduation day, and on the day of your first big job interview. I would like to add one more day to this list.

The day you give the suit away.

www.workingwardrobes.org