Fifty Shades of Gray?

I’ve got 51, maybe more.

The “Fifty Shades” movie was about sex play. My kind of gray has to do with camouflage not carnal knowledge.

Check out my shirt rack. Dust gray, gunpowder gray, silver gray, blue-gray, battleship gray, charcoal gray — enough for a Confederate Army surplus store.

“I bought you a new sweatshirt,” said my wife, Wink, after a weekend in Greenport with our two daughters. “Gray, of course.”

After 55 years, Wink has given up. I’m just not the vivid type. She wanted Hawaiian shirts and pink polos, she should have married the other guy.

Last year, Wink was traveling in the West. She brought back a Denver T-shirt the color of one of those cute Chartreux cats and another from Idaho that looked like a dust rag.  

“Perfect,” I said. “Can never have enough.”

Already in my drawer were three identical shadow-gray tees that I particularly treasure.

Across the front is the word, “Mizzou,” slang for the University of Missouri, where, though from Brooklyn, I somehow arrived in the early 1960s to attend its famous journalism school.

For a guy who to that point had no marketable skills, Mizzou was a lifesaver — vocational training at the college level. With help, I learned to string together enough verbs and nouns to make a living.

Here’s where the camouflage part comes in.

At Mizzou, and a succession of newspapers that followed, I — like all reporters — learned to be fair, balanced, objective and, if you know what’s good for you, undetectable. In other words, stay out of the story.

“We are not interested in what you think, if you happen to be thinking anything,” an editor once told me when I had wandered off the straight and narrow. “We are interested in what everyone else thinks.”

I took the admonition to heart, and then some. If the idea was to be unobtrusive on the page, it struck me that I should be likewise hard to spot on the job.

Unlike a fellow reporter who sometimes wore a luminescent tie in the shape of a fish and another who, back in the tobacco days, smoked a full bent calabash pipe and, on assignment, resembled Sherlock Holmes more than Clark Kent, I sought only to go undetected.

This quest for deep cover quickly transferred into private life.

For instance, I do not wear name tags.

I know this can seem uppity — oh, pardon us, Mr. Mystery Guest, you, no doubt, are with the CIA? — but it is not possible for me to stick something on my pocket that says, “Hi, I’m Fred.” Come up and shake hands, you could have a friend for life. But I do not want to walk around labeled like a can of soup.

Also, I am not exactly the life of the party. I enjoy asking questions — So, exactly how did you decide on the tongue stud? — but cannot be expected to tell jokes or break out the guitar and strum the chords to “Tom Dooley.”  

Of course, the danger of blending in so well is that you may escape notice entirely.

Here’s the kind of thing that happens all the time: I will order a slice of pizza and step aside while it is warming. A minute later, the counterman will catch my eye. “Yes, sir, what can I do for you?” he’ll ask as if I just arrived.  

At such moments, I want to yell, “It’s me, awready, the mushroom slice.” Instead, I say, “Thanks, already ordered.”

Going incognito runs other risks.

I was out walking at dusk in gray shorts and shirt when a police car pulled up beside me.  

“Have a vest?” the officer asked.

“I should wear one,” I answered.

“Make sure,” said the officer.

I told the story to old friends on a visit to New Hampshire. Soon after, a padded envelope arrived — thanks to Bill and Nancy. Inside was a yellow, light-up, battery-powered reflecting vest.

The bulbs are raspberry red and have three settings: fast-blink, slow, constant. It’s out of character, but I have been choosing the full, up-tempo, psychedelic option. In the semidark, I’m hard to miss.

“Hey,” a young woman jogger called out the other night. “Cool vest!”

I’m not going to start showing up at the pizzeria with lights ablaze, but there are times when it makes sense to shed anonymity and let the world know you’re alive and kicking. I hope Mizzou understands.


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