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

Nothing was beyond humor, especially for Jim, but he was a sharp guy, and when he made a joke he always knew, and let you know that he knew, what he was doing with a quip. He introduced the most outrageous joke he ever told in my presence with an appropriate caveat. "Okay, this is a really sick joke," he said. "I mean really sick, but it's funny as shit. You wanna hear it?" Everyone nodded. "Okay. A child molester and a little girl are walking into the woods -- " He stopped here to add, "I told you it was really sick." Then he went on. "Anyway, so the little girl says to the child molester, 'Mister, it's getting really dark out here. I'm scared,' and the child molester says, 'Yeah, well how do you think I feel? I've got to walk back alone.' "

Jim was at his funniest when it came to women and relations between the sexes. As always, his observations were startlingly astute and his anecdotal way of framing them drew you in and made you come away rolling. Apropos of nothing, he introduced the topic of women one night with this interjection:

"You know, if guys could just learn to go without the pussy for a while, they'd get so much shit done. I mean, that's what boxers do when they're training, and it keeps 'em focused for the fight. Go without the pussy and you get strong, man. I mean, I haven't been laid in two months, and I'm about ready to lift up the corner of the house."

This was the kind of thing that just came out of his mouth out of nowhere and it used to make me wonder what he might have done with himself if he'd gone to college instead of joining the army at seventeen. His humor was the ticket to his brain, and you could tell it was whirring at a higher speed than most of the brains around him.

He often told stories about his days at school as a kid, stories that confirmed my suspicion that he had a lot going on inside his head that had been beaten out of him on the playground, and that he now knew enough not to share in the wrong company. Here again, though, he was impossibly funny.

"I was one of those quiet, psycho kids," he'd say. "I never spoke. I just sat there in the corner. You couldn't provoke me to fight. You could be pokin' me with a stick and I wouldn't move. I'd just be sittin' there drawing pictures of killing your family."

Every now and then Jim would come out with a word that somebody -- either Bob or Alex -- would call him on, a word like "enable," which Alex wanted to know the meaning of, and "cordial," which Jim used to describe his behavior toward someone or another, and which Bob clearly thought was a little too big for britches.

In Jim's defense I said that the word was only "too, too" if you were talking cocktails, which, of course, only made it worse, because it made me sound like an asshole, and blew for good whatever class cover or remote coolness I might have gained.

Jim salvaged me, though, with a courtesy laugh.

Then he went on with his riff about men and women: "I mean, take work, for example. I can work with an ugly chick. There's an ugly chick works in my office with me every day, and I'm fine. I do my thing. I can concentrate fine. But every now and then there's this hot, hot woman who comes into the office, and for the whole time she's there I'm completely fucked. Everything's out the window. I don't get shit done. All I can do is stare at her like this -- " Here he made a dumbfounded expression, mimicking himself in the office ogling the hot chick.

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