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

ByABC News via logo
January 22, 2006, 2:24 PM

Jan. 23, 2006— -- Norah Vincent, author of "Self-Made Man," left her job as a nationally syndicated opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times to research this book. For 18 months, she dressed up as a man at work and in social situations. She even went on dates with women. Vincent said the experience left her with a greater appreciation and understanding of men -- their emotions, their expectations and their relationships with women.

Read an excerpt of "Self-Made Man" below.

When I told my proudly self-confessed trailer-trash girlfriend that Ned was joining a men's bowling league, she said by way of advice, "Just remember that the difference between your people and my people is that my people bowl without irony." Translation: hide your bourgeois flag, or you'll get the smugness beaten out of you long before they find out you're a woman.

People who play in leagues for money take bowling seriously, and they don't take kindly to journalists infiltrating their hard-won social lives, especially when the interloper in question hasn't bowled more than five times in her life, and then only for a lark.

But my ineptitude and oddball status notwithstanding, bowling was the obvious choice. It's the ultimate social sport, and as such it would be a perfect way for Ned to make friends with guys as a guy. Better yet, I wouldn't have to expose any suspicious body parts or break a heavy sweat and risk smearing my beard.

Still, in practice, it wasn't as easy as it sounded. Taking that first step through the barrier between Ned the character in my head and Ned the real guy among the fellas proved to be more jarring than I could have ever imagined.

Any smartly dressed woman who has ever walked the gauntlet of construction workers on lunch break or otherwise found herself suddenly alone in unfamiliar male company with her sex on her sleeve will understand a lot of how it felt to walk into that bowling alley for the first time on men's league night. Those guys may not have known that I was a woman, but the minute I opened the door and felt the air of that place waft over me, every part of me did.

My eyes blurred in panic. I didn't see anything. I remember being aware only of a wave of noise and imagined distrust coming at me from undistinguishable faces. Probably only one or two people actually turned to look, but it felt as if every pair of eyes in the place had landed on me and stuck.

I'd felt a milder version of this before in barbershops or auto body shops. This palpable unbelonging that came of being the sole female in an all-male environment. And the feeling went right through my disguise and my nerve and told me that I wasn't fooling anyone.

This was a men's club, and men's clubs have an aura about them, a mostly forbidding aura that hangs in the air. Females tend to respond to it viscerally, as they are meant to. The unspoken signs all say no girls allowed and keep out or, more idly, enter at your own risk.

As a woman, you don't belong. You're not wanted. And every part of you knows it, and is just begging you to get up and leave.

And I nearly did leave, even though I'd only made it two steps inside the door and hadn't even been able to look up yet for fear of meeting anyone's eyes. After standing there frozen for several minutes, I had just about worked up the gumption to retreat and call off the whole thing when the league manager saw me.

"Are you Ned?" he asked, rushing up to me. "We've been waiting for you."

He was a tiny, wizened stick figure, with a five-day growth of gray stubble on his chin, a crew cut to match, a broken front tooth and a black watch cap.

I had called earlier in the week to find out about the league, and he'd told me what time to show up and which guy to ask for when I got there. I was late already, and my nervous hesitations had made me later.

"Yeah," I croaked, trying to keep my voice down and my demeanor unshaken.

"Great," he said, grabbing me by the arm. "C'mon and get yourself some shoes and a ball."

"Okay," I said, following his lead.

There was no getting out of it now.

He walked me over to the front desk and left me there with the attendant, who was helping another bowler. As I stood waiting, I was able for the first time to focus on something beyond myself and my fear of immediate detection. I looked at the rows of cubbyholes behind the desk, all with those familiar red, blue and white paneled shoes stuffed in them in pairs. Seeing them comforted me a little. They reminded me of the good times I'd always had bowling with friends as a kid, and I felt a little surge of carelessness at the prospect of making a fool out of myself. So what if I couldn't bowl? This was an experiment about people, not sport, and nobody had yet pointed and laughed. Maybe I could do this after all.I got my shoes, took them over to a row of orange plastic bucket chairs and sat down to change. This gave me a few more minutes to take in the scene, a few more minutes to breathe and watch people's eyes to see if they followed me, or if they passed over me and moved on.

A quick scan satisfied me that nobody seemed suspicious.

So far so good.

I'd chosen well in choosing a bowling alley. It was just like every other bowling alley I'd ever seen; it felt familiar. The decor was lovingly down at heel and generic to the last detail, like something out of a mail-order kit, complete with the cheap plywood paneling and the painted slogans on the walls that said: Bowling is Family Fun. There were the usual shabby cartoons of multicolored balls and pins flying through the air, and the posted scores of top bowlers. The lanes, too, were just as I remembered them, long and glistening with that mechanized maw scraping at the end.And then, of course, there were the smells; cigarette smoke, varnish, machine oil, leaky toilets, old candy wrappers and accumulated public muck all commingling to produce that signature bowling alley scent that envelops you the moment you enter and clings to you long after.

As far as I could see, only one thing had really changed in the last fifteen years. Scoring wasn't done by hand anymore. Instead, everything was computerized. You just entered the names and averages of each player on the console at your table, and the computer did the rest, registering scores, calculating totals and flashing them on monitors above each lane.As I scoped the room, I noticed the team captains all busily attending to their monitors. Meanwhile their teammates were strapping on wrist braces and dusting their palms with rosin, or taking advantage of a few last minutes of pregame practice.

I could see then that this was going to be laughable. They were all throwing curve balls that they'd been perfecting for twenty years. I couldn't even remember how to hold a bowling ball, much less wing it with any precision. And that was the least of my worries. I was in drag in a well-lighted place, surrounded by some sixty-odd guys who would have made me very nervous under normal circumstances.

I was dressed as down and dirty as Ned got in a plaid shirt, jeans and a baseball cap pulled low over the most proletarian glasses I could find. But despite my best efforts, I was still far too scrubbed and tweedy amid these genuine articles to pass for one of them. Even at my burliest, next to them I felt like a petunia strapped to a Popsicle stick.

I was surrounded by men who had cement dust in their hair and sawdust under their fingernails. They had nicotine-sallowed faces that looked like ritual masks, and their hands were as tough and scarred as falcon gloves. These were men who, as one of them told me later, had been shoveling shit their whole lives.

Looking at them I thought: it's at times like these when the term "real man" really hits home with you, and you understand in some elemental way that the male animal is definitely not a social construct.

I didn't see how this could possibly work. If I was passing, I was passing as a boy, not a man, and a candy boy at that. But if they were judging me, you wouldn't have known it from the way they greeted me.

The league manager led me toward the table where my new teammates were sitting. As we approached, they all turned to face me.

Jim, my team captain, introduced himself first. He was about five feet six, a good four inches shorter than I am, with a lightweight build, solid shoulders, but skinny legs and oddly small feet -- certainly smaller than mine, which have now topped out at an alarming men's eleven and a half. This made me feel a little better. He actually came across as diminutive. He wore his baseball cap high on his head, and a football jersey that draped over his jeans almost to his knees. He had a mustache and a neat goatee. Both were slightly redder than his light brown head of hair, and effectively hid the boyish vulnerability of his mouth. He was thirty-three, but in bearing, he seemed younger. He wasn't a threat to anyone and he knew it, as did everyone who met him. But he wasn't a weak link either. He was the scrappy guy in the pickup basketball game.

As he extended his arm to shake my hand, I extended mine, too, in a sweeping motion. Our palms met with a soft pop, and I squeezed assertively the way I'd seen men do at parties when they gathered in someone's living room to watch a football game. From the outside, this ritual had always seemed overdone to me. Why all the macho ceremony? But from the inside it was completely different. There was something so warm and bonded in this handshake. Receiving it was a rush, an instant inclusion in a camaraderie that felt very old and practiced.

It was more affectionate than any handshake I'd ever received from a strange woman. To me, woman-to-woman introductions often seem fake and cold, full of limp gentility. I've seen a lot of women hug one another this way, too, sometimes even women who've known each other for a long time and think of themselves as being good friends.

They're like two backward magnets pushed together by convention. Their arms and cheeks meet, and maybe the tops of their shoulders, but only briefly, the briefest time politeness will allow. It's done out of habit and for appearances, a hollow, even resentful, gesture bred into us and rarely felt.

This solidarity of sex was something that feminism tried to teach us, and something, it now seemed to me, that men figured out and perfected a long time ago. On some level men didn't need to learn or remind themselves that brotherhood was powerful. It was just something they seemed to know.

When this man whom I'd never met before shook my hand he gave me something real. He included me. But most of the women I'd ever shaken hands with or even hugged had held something back, as if we were in constant competition with each other, or secretly suspicious, knowing it but not knowing it, and going through the motions all the same. In my view bra burning hadn't changed that much.

Next I met Allen. His greeting echoed Jim's. It had a pronounced positive force behind it, a presumption of goodwill that seemed to mark me as a buddy from the start, no questions asked, unless or until I proved otherwise."Hey, man," he said. "Glad to see you."

He was about Jim's height and similarly built. He had the same goatee and mustache, too. He was older, though, and looked it. At forty-four, he was a study in substance abuse and exposure to the elements. His face was permanently flushed and pocked with open pores; a cigarette-, alcohol- and occupation-induced complexion that his weather-bleached blond hair and eyebrows emphasized by contrast.

Bob I met last. We didn't shake hands, just nodded from across the table. He was short, too, but not lean. He was forty-two and he had a serious middle-aged belly filling out his T-shirt, the unbeltable kind that made you wonder what held up his pants. He had sizable arms, but no legs or ass, the typical beer-hewn silhouette. He had a ragged salt-and-pepper mustache, and wore large glasses with no-nonsense metal frames and slightly tinted aviator lenses.He wasn't the friendly type.

Thankfully, Jim did most of the talking that first night, and with his eyes, he included me in the conversation from the beginning. He had known Bob and Allen for a long time. They had all been playing golf and poker together several times a month for years, and Allen was married to Bob's sister. I was a stranger out of nowhere without any shared work or home life experience to offer, and Jim's social generosity gave me an in.

He was a natural comedian and raconteur, easy to listen to and talk to; the most open of the bunch by far, and charming as hell. He told stories of the worst beatings he'd taken in his life -- and it sounded like there were quite a few -- as if they were parties he'd been privileged to attend. He had a robust sense of his own absurdity and a charming willingness to both assign and ridicule his own role in whatever fate he'd been privy to. Even the most rotten things he'd been handed in life, things that were in no way his fault, things like his wife's ongoing ill health -- first cancer, then hepatitis, then cancer again -- he took with a surprising lack of bitterness. He never fumed about anything, at least not in front of us. That, it seemed, was a private indulgence, and his only apparent public indulgences were of the physical variety -- cigarettes, a few beers out of the case he always brought for the team and junk food.

We all usually ate junk food on those Monday nights, all of us except Bob, who stuck to beer, but let us send his twelve-year-old son Alex, who always tagged along on league night, next door to the 7-Eleven to buy hot dogs, candy, soda, whatever. We always tipped the kid a little for his services, a dollar here and there, or the change from our purchases.

Alex was clearly there to spend some quality time with his dad, but Bob mostly kept him at bay. If we weren't sending him next door to fetch snacks, Bob was usually fobbing him off in some other way with a few extra dollars. He'd encourage him to go and bowl a few practice frames in one of the empty lanes at the end of the alley, or play one of the video games against the back wall. Alex was immature for his age, a chatty kid, and a bit of a nudge, always full of trivia questions or rambling anecdotes about some historical fact he'd learned in school. Typical kids' stuff, but I couldn't really blame Bob for wanting to keep him occupied elsewhere. If you let Alex hang on your arm, he would, and he'd make you wish you hadn't. Besides, this was men's night out, and most of what we talked about wasn't for kids' ears.I noticed, though, that no one ever tempered his speech when Alex was around. We swore like stevedores, and nobody seemed bothered, including me, that a twelve-year-old was within earshot. I can't say that the kid ever aroused any maternal instinct in me. I went along with the make-him-a-man attitude that seemed to prevail at the table. In that sense, Alex and I were on a par in our tutorial on manhood, just doing what was expected of us. I was never mean to him, but I participated heartily when the guys teased him. When he'd been going on for too long about Amerigo Vespucci or something else he'd picked up in social studies, either Jim or Allen would say, "Are you still talking?" and we'd all laugh. Alex always took it well, and usually just went right on talking.

I got the impression that part of Bob's way of teaching his son how to relate to other men was to throw him in with the wolves and let him find his way by trial and error. He'd learn his place in the pack by seeing what worked and what didn't. If he took harsh insults or beatings in the process, so much the better. It would toughen him up.

On this subject, Allen asked me if I'd ever heard the Johnny Cash song "A Boy Named Sue." I hadn't -- a lapse that, thinking back on it now, probably should have been a tip-off that I wasn't a guy, since the joke in my circle of friends has always been that every guy in the world is a Johnny Cash fan on some level, "Ring of Fire" being the universal guy guy's anthem of troubled love.

Allen told me the story of the song about a boy whose renegade father had named him Sue. Naturally, the kid gets the shit beaten out of him throughout his childhood on account of his name. At the end of the song the kid, all grown up, meets his father in a bar and beats the shit out of him in turn for giving him a girl's name. Once beaten, the father stands up proudly and says:

Son, this world is rough
And if a man's gonna make it, he's gotta be tough
And I know I wouldn't be there to help you along.
So I give you that name and I said "Good-bye."
I knew you'd have to get tough or die.
And it's that name that helped to make you strong.
. . . Now you have just fought one helluva fight,
And I know you hate me, and you've got the right
To kill me now and I wouldn't blame you if you do.
But you ought to thank me before I die
For the gravel in your guts and the spit in your eye
Because I'm the -------- that named you Sue.
It was amazing how close Allen had come to my secret without knowing it. I'd have to remind the guys of times like this if I ever decided to tell them the truth about me. I wondered if they'd get a kick out of seeing all the signposts in retrospect, the ones I was always noticing along the way.

Being Ned, I had to get used to a different mode. The discord between my girlish ways and the male cues I had to learn, like Alex, on the fly, was often considerable in my mind. For example, our evenings together always started out slowly with a few grunted hellos that among women would have been interpreted as rude. This made my female antennae twitch a little. Were they pissed off at me about something?

But among these guys no interpretation was necessary. Everything was out and aboveboard, never more, never less than what was on anyone's mind. If they were pissed at you, you'd know it. These gruff greetings were indicative of nothing so much as fatigue and appropriate male distance. They were glad enough to see me, but not glad enough to miss me if I didn't show.

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.