This was a source of hilarity to everyone, the stupid crap you felt compelled to do as a guy finding your spot in the scheme of things, and the obligatory beatings you had to give or take to reestablish order after a breach. But only Jim really had enough perspective to admit the folly of his masculinity, and to fully appreciate the absurdity of brutish necessity in the male-on-male world. A guy whom you'd just provoked twice, and who'd warned you not to trespass, had no choice but to beat you if you crossed the line. That was just how it was among men, and Jim mocked it lovingly. Bob was more guarded. He didn't quite have Jim's gift for self-deprecation. He didn't readily admit his mistakes or the missteps he'd made in the past. I got the sense that he couldn't afford to express regret or let on that he didn't know something. Instead, he held the world at arm's length, projecting a kind of terse authority from his barrel chest, just nodding or frowning at something you'd say, as if the answer was insufferably obvious, when, of course, at least half the time he probably didn't know the answer. The way he talked to his son Alex was essentially the way he talked to everyone. He was the guy who knew stuff, and what he didn't know wasn't worth knowing.
But when it came to something that Bob felt more confident about, he'd engage you. Not that Bob's engagements were ever long or involved, but they packed a rhetorical punch. I asked him once if his workplace was unionized, and his answer surprised me. I'd figured everyone in that room, being a bona fide member of the working class, was as staunchly pro union as the liberal intellectuals I knew in New York, but Bob didn't see it that way. Neither, apparently, did the members of one of the other teams, who had called themselves the Nonunions.
"No," he said. "My shop isn't union."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Unions are for the lazy man."
"Because they're all about seniority," he said, pausing for effect. "I'll give you an example," he went on. "One place I worked was union, and it was run on the seniority system. The guys who'd been there the longest had the most clout, which meant that when there were layoffs, they'd always have better standing. There was one guy like that there who'd been there forever, and he was a lazy fucker. He used to just hang out and read the newspaper. Never did a lick of work. Meanwhile, I worked my ass off all day long. But when it came time to let people go, I was let go and he wasn't. Now that's not fair, is it?"
"No," I agreed. "It isn't."
I tried to engage him further on the question, but as I came to understand, you'd always know when a conversation with Bob was over. He'd just revert to peering at you with condescending finality through a cloud of cigarette smoke. A lot of the guys were like that. It would take you years to get to know them on anything more than grunting terms. They were walled-in tight.
Yet even so, under the surface there remained that distant male-on-male respect that I'd felt in the first handshakes and I continued to feel every time some guy from another team would say "Hey, man" to me when we met in the parking lot or passed on our way to or from the soda machine.