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

The only time I heard the term "reverse discrimination" mentioned, Jim was telling a story, as he did from time to time, about his stint in the army. He'd been promoted to the position of gunner, apparently, and had occupied the post proficiently for some time, when a new superior officer, a black man, was installed in his unit. Jim found himself demoted to KP and a whole host of other shit jobs soon thereafter.

"The guy had taken everyone out of their posts and put all his black friends in them instead," Jim said. "It was blatant discrimination. So I went to the sergeant in charge, who was a black guy and very fair, and told him all about it. He consulted the evidence and told me I was right, and put me back in my position."

Everyone nodded around the table and that was that.

Exposing my own prejudices, I had expected these guys to be filled with virulent hatred for anyone who wasn't like them, taking their turn to kick the next guy down. But the only consistent dislike I ever saw in them was for comparatively wealthy clients for whom they'd done construction, plumbing or carpentry work and the like. But even here they mostly laughed at the indignities inflicted on them, and marveled, more than balked, at the odd habits and hang-ups of the upper middle class, saying only "rich people are just like that."

Bob told a funny story about a buddy of his getting a wicked case of the shits on a job and being summarily denied the use of the "old lady's toilet." There was nothing for it, so as Bob described it, the guy took a newspaper and a bucket into the back of their van and camped out. After a while the old lady, wanting to know why there'd been an unauthorized work stoppage, burst into the van, only to happen upon a very unsavory scene that sent her shrieking from the premises, denouncing the men as barbarians.

There were the occasional gay or sexist jokes, but they, too, were never mean-spirited. Ironically enough, the guys told me that I, being the worst bowler in the league by far -- my average was a mere 100 -- was lucky I hadn't bowled with them in a previous season when anyone who averaged less than 120 incurred the label "fag," and anyone who averaged less than 100 was, by default, a girl. At the end of the season, whoever had won the booby prize had had to bowl an entire ten frames in women's panties.

They each had the usual stories about being propositioned by a gay man, or happening on a gay bar unawares, but they told them with the same disarming bemusement and self-abasement as they told the stories about the habitually mysterious ways of rich people. Gay people and their affairs didn't much interest them, and if gays were the butt of a joke now and then, so was everyone else, including, and most often, themselves.

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