Coastal Commuter

To beret or not to beret

I wear a beret. Pretty much all of the time. In fact, it’s become kind of a trademark over the years. Some may think of it as an odd affectation. I mean, who wears a beret? Someone in the U.S. Special Forces or another elite military unit. The charismatic leader of a rebel guerrilla faction. (Hola, Che Guevara!) An elderly Frenchman. A chic woman in the chill of autumn. And me.

Berets have long been associated with beatniks, or at least the caricature of one with a goatee and a set of bongos, reading dark and nihilistic poetry in a smoky late-night cafe. A beret does lend a certain Bohemian vibe to the wearer, which puts it in tune with San Francisco’s history as a place where the artsy and anti-establishment types convene. More than any American neighborhood other than Greenwich Village in New York City, North Beach was an incubator for the Beat Generation writers and their adherents — fostered by the North Beach jazz and coffee house scene in the 1950s, not to mention the legendary Columbus Ave. store and creative literary cauldron known as City Lights Books. So, as a guy who works in the arts and media, embraces the underground and the demimonde, and is proudly Boho, I’ve always been casual if not scruffy in my apparel and comfortable in a beret.

Originally, donning the beret was an idea floated by my significant other after I had suffered some scalp lacerations in an accident. She didn’t want anyone going bug-eyed at the stitches. Or maybe she didn’t want to see them herself. In any event, my friends in the SoMa club scene expressed admiration for my bold fashion choice — not that I thought much of it at the time. I was just trying to spare them the sight of medical horror. When things healed up, I went back to a beret-free lifestyle. Until people began asking why I wasn’t wearing the thing. It had, in only a few months’ time, become a sort of trademark, along with my oval, wire-rimmed glasses and my ever-present motorcycle jacket.

One night at a Nob Hill supermarket, a woman behind me in the checkout line asked if we had met before. I had no idea who she was, but she persisted with the idea that we were acquainted, and then said that I was the DJ at a warehouse party she had attended a year prior. She explained that she came up to where I was spinning tracks in the dimly-lit space, she requested a favorite song, and I played a dance mix of the tune. I asked how she recognized me so many months later in the fluorescent glare of the market, and she said, “The beret.” It proved to be a mixed blessing, but people could apparently remember me thanks to my head gear.


Then, in Los Angeles a few years after my recovery from the accident, I learned a valuable lesson about the professional advantages of wearing the beret. I was on a soundstage lot in late August with my colleague John, and he introduced me to a number of people who were working on a primetime sitcom, including the show-runner. The term “show-runner” generally refers to a producer who can sometimes be the creator or head writer of a series and is always expected to be the project’s guiding light and tone-setter. In any event, the show-runner and I hit it off immediately, due to some shared roots and cultural connections. We must have spoken in his office for about a half-hour. Afterwards, I felt as if I had made an ally as well as a friend in this guy.

A week later, I was back on the lot with John, and we entered the commissary to grab lunch between meetings. There, we spotted the show-runner at a table with two of the writers on the sitcom staff. He gestured at us to come over. When we did, he proceeded to ignore me while briefly chatting with John until getting up to return to the writers’ room. I was a little surprised at being blown off like that — even in Hollywood. Still, I didn’t see the point of worrying about it. So much for fast friendships in show business.

A month passed, and I was on the lot yet again. On a solo run to the commissary for a cup of coffee, I suddenly heard someone calling my name. It was the show-runner. He came over to me, enthusiastically shook my hand, asked what I’d been up to since we spoke in his office, and reiterated a handful of details from our conversation. We commiserated about network TV politics for a few minutes before parting company with a promise to hang out in the near future.

I was confused. What accounted for the blow-off during our second encounter and his gusto in the third? It didn’t make sense until I realized that I was wearing the beret when we met; I wasn’t wearing it the first time in the commissary; and I had it on the next time. He hadn’t recognized me without the beret. From that day forward, I vowed to wear the beret at any and every public event and business meeting I attended in Los Angeles. If you want the job, if you would like to have an impact in a town where everyone is jockeying for attention, you need a gimmick — or at least something memorable about yourself.

Even in a crowd, you’ll probably notice me. I’m the one in the beret.

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Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on KPFK/Pacifica Radio’s “David Feldman Show" and on "Michael Snyder's Culture Blast," via, Roku, and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster