Book Excerpt: Norah Vincent's 'Self-Made Man'

Besides, they were coming from long, wearying workdays, usually filled with hard physical labor and the slow, soul-deadening deprecation that comes of being told what to do all day by someone you'd like to strangle. They didn't have the energy for pretense. Allen was a construction worker, Bob a plumber. Jim was working in the repair department of an appliance company. For extra cash to buy Christmas presents and maybe take a week-long ski trip to Vermont on the dirt cheap, he also picked up odd jobs in construction or whatever came up, and he worked part-time in a party store. None of them got much satisfaction from their jobs, nor did they expect any. Work was just something they did for their families and for the few spare moments it afforded them in front of the football game on Sundays, or at the bowling alley on Mondays. Jim lived in a trailer park and Allen had lived in one for much of his life, though now it was unclear where he was living. Bob never said where he lived. As always, Jim cracked jokes about his class. With his usual flip wit, he called trailer parks "galvanized ghettos," and Allen chimed in about living in a shithole full of "wiggers," or "white niggers," themselves being foremost among them.

In my presence, none of them ever used the word "nigger" in any other context, and never spoke disrespectfully of black people. In fact, contrary to popular belief, white trash males being the one minority it is still socially acceptable to vilify, none of these guys was truly racist as far as I could tell, or certainly no more than anyone else.

As usual, Jim told a funny story about this. He said that he'd been coming out of a bar late one night, and a black guy had approached him asking for money. He'd emerged from a wooded area behind the bar that was well known as one of nature's crack dens in the area. The guy said to Jim, "Hey man. Don't be afraid of me 'cause I'm black, okay. I just wondered if you had some money to spare."

"I'm not afraid of you because you're black," Jim shot back. "I'm afraid of you because you came out of the woods." They took people at face value. If you did your job or held up your end, and treated them with the passing respect they accorded you, you were all right. If you came out of the woods, you were shady no matter what your color. They were big football fans, so on one particular Monday I introduced a hot topic of the week to see if I could feel out their positions on race and affirmative action in professional sports. That week Rush Limbaugh had made his now infamous remark while commentating on a Philadelphia Eagles game for ESPN, suggesting that Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, one of a handful of black quarterbacks in the NFL, "got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve."

I asked the guys right out: "Do you think McNabb deserves to be where he is?"

I thought they would meet this with a flurry of impassioned responses, but the conversation ended with a single comment from each. Yeah, he was doing a great job. Yeah, he was as good as or better than the average quarterback in the league. They were happy with his performance, on some nights very happy, and that was all that mattered. The policy debate over skin color wasn't interesting to them, or relevant. They were rock bottom utilitarians. Either a guy was good and did what he was hired to do, or he wasn't, and that alone was the basis on which you judged his worth.

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