The automated doors of the metro car swoosh open with an urgent, almost angry clack as they slam into place. “Get on,” they seem to say, “I’m not going to wait for you.”
And like a storm front moving ominously in front of a promising summer sun, the whoosh of men in grey, black, and sensible navy suits rushes onto the train. They are a blur of importance, of somber professionalism, of rustling newspapers and prestigious diplomas. They push and rustle past each other like a a well-tailored school of fish, clearing their throats and excusing themselves with a dignified nod of the head as they push another shoulder out of their way. Slick and understated, they command the entirety of the train with their squared shoulders and perfectly-trimmed side parts.
I wonder what they must be thinking; I marvel at how well each one of them carries himself, all appropriate masculinity and restrained self-importance. They each carry a look on their faces that says, in a subtle prep-school lilt, that they are businessmen. Any conversation one engages with them about their passions in life, their interests, their hobbies, or their long-term goals will inevitably meander back to the kind of work position that mothers speak fawningly of over lunch with mutual friends. “Oh, my son is working for this firm.”
And so many are so very young. Fresh faced, with the kind of youthful, boyish handsomeness that works for 12-year-old girls and their mothers, they seem like children trying on their father’s shoes and shuffling, proudly, through the house.
But here they are, full-grown men with fresh shaves and one dollop too much hair product, sitting poised on the edge of their seats as they thumb through the right-leaning daily, muttering the occasional, quiet “hmm”s of vague agreement. They are going somewhere, they have business to attend to. And while it is so easy to think of them all as one big mass, a solid unit that moves through cities with precision and indifference, it is difficult to pull them apart and imagine them as individuals.
Yet they are. I know some. Amongst the sea of bobbing heads, sporting 100 dollar haircuts and the occasional crop of follicle transplants, walk a few people I love. I have watched them lace and suit up, change from the warm piles of love and inside jokes that they are amongst friends, amongst family, and tighten their double Windsor with a finality that says, “Now it is time for work.” There is an entire shift of being–a person they are no longer allowed to show, a person they are expected to be.
Over beers in bars or in beds with lovers they will tell those they love as much as they are telling themselves that they are not like the rest. They are not just a bee going into a hive, they are not a faceless man in a suit, a Magritte painting come to life and ordering a double espresso he barely has time to drink. They are individuals, and though they must fall in line with everyone else for 8 to 10 hours a day, they never forget that the austere, well-laid-out building to which they dedicate their work days does not contain their lives.
And perhaps the few that I have had the pleasure, the honor, of getting to know really are different. Yet they seem so very like the ones I’ve met over dull brunches and tedious happy hours who are far more interested in deducing your salary and monthly rent than they are in who you are as a person or an exciting adventure you’ve recently undertaken. They look just like the ones who see people as a firm, cold algorithm through which you can determine whether or not it’s worth it to hand out a business card and remember a name. They wear the same suit and go to the same dry cleaners as the ones who will automatically like you so much more if they find out your father donated a building to their Alma Mater.
But maybe I don’t know these people. It is quite possible that the few tidy little businessmen whom I so adore when they get off the train and loosen up their ties on the way to a cold beer and a good conversation are just like all the rest, if met in the right circumstance. It’s possible that they, too, are capable of turning their sense of purpose on like a switch and moving through social interaction with the unemotional, determined precision of an assassin. It is possible that all of the businessmen whose surfaces I’ve skimmed are, in some tucked-away corner of their lives, as warm and inviting and curious as any of us. Perhaps they resent having to present a constant image, having to be a walking optical illusion designed to elicit a sense of intimidated respect. Perhaps under each perfectly tailored suit beats the heart of a wanderer who longs to run around the fields, but fears the invisible electric fence for which he knows he is wearing a collar.
But for now, I will never know. I will watch the men walking with the same stifled dignity and crisp posture, where even the dash to a closing metro door is done with attention to refined detail, and think of them not as a person–but a concept. They are the Men In the Suits, and if they wanted you to know who they were, they would have told you.