January 21, 2011 1 Comment
I recently discovered an old shirt soaked in a memory from my innocent past. Here, a cautionary tale of misdirected admiration, the slow journey into manhood, and why keeping your mouth shut is often the safer option.
Heading into college I couldn’t say I had a single real male friend. Four years of drama club in high school cursed me with a social circle that was 90 percent female, leaving my masculinity severely malnourished. At 18 years old I was still clueless how to recognize signals from women or to reciprocate them – unless the interaction took place via italicized rhymed couplets on LiveJournal.
I was equally in the dark about how to talk to a man about man stuff. I couldn’t have told you whether Bud Light or Miller Light tasted better. I didn’t know what the BCS was, let alone whether it should adopt a playoff system. And when it came to asking men for advice on women, I was terrified of revealing my inexperience with a stupid question. Women were still hypothetical. At some point all my colleagues earned their stripes on the battlefield, while I hid in Canada playing Risk.
That changed in my freshman year of college, when, upon joining an improv comedy group, I quickly dove into a sea of aggressive and fearless men. There was nowhere to hide anymore: Frequently I had to improvise scenes portraying butch rednecks or macho cops or jacked Guidos, just to reveal how little I knew about those worlds. I couldn’t walk through a party without someone taking pity on my baby cheeks and yelling in my ear: “Voss, I’m gonna get you drunk!” or “Voss, I’m gonna get you laid!” or “Voss, I’m gonna get you to say something racist!”
At the time the group was run by a small inner circle of guys who performed on their own all-star team called the Norsemen. To me, in those days, the Norsemen were improv demigods, a posse of smart, handsome funnymen in suits who somehow discovered the secret of making an improv team as popular as a boy band. They were friendly with everyone, and, much to my surprise, didn’t seem to notice or be bothered that the person they were talking to had never once felt “cool” or “manly.”
One experience reflects this period of pathetic hero worship better than any other.
One morning in my freshman year I was outside the student union between classes when I ran into Derek. While all the Norsemen were very funny, Derek, with his larger-than-life characters and booming voice, was often the first one to stand out in a show. We spent a few minutes catching up; Derek comfortably chatting about recent rehearsals and upcoming shows, I desperately thinking up cool, non-nervous replies, like “uh huh” and “yeah!”
Then the conversation shifted to a book Derek was reading called The Game, by Neil Strauss. Considered “the Bible for picking up women,” The Game is a collection of theories and tips from several “pick-up artists.” It includes a glossary of terms like “negging,” or flirting with a woman by lightly teasing her. The underlying thesis of The Game is that women want to feel like they earn their men, so men should play hard-to-get by demonstrating value and teasing their targets.
I was fascinated, less by the theories themselves than by Derek’s enthusiasm while he told me about them. “You don’t even have to be really attractive or rich!” he said, as if he was wearing a headset microphone in front of a hotel convention room full of people, “You just have to be confident and unafraid of getting turned down!” Admittedly the conversation was a little one-sided; I might as well have been Smalls hearing about the Big Bambino.
As the conversation wound down, we walked down the covered walkway that let out into the quad. That’s when two attractive girls sitting at a fold-out table called out to us:
“Would you guys like a free t-shirt?”
One was blonde, the other brunette, both wearing bright Floridian dresses that revealed even tans. On their table sat a lap top computer and a box full of folded white t-shirts.
“What do you think?” Derek asked me. He didn’t say it, but I had a feeling this wasn’t just an opportunity to get free shirts. This was his chance to put the theories to the test. And he wanted me as his wingman.
“Uh huh,” I said. “Yeah!”
We approached the table and the girls explained that they were promoting Gateway computers, and that all we had to do was register with our student e-mail addresses on their lap top and they’d give us a free shirt. I don’t remember much about what they were saying. I was paying more attention to Derek’s sales pitch than to theirs.
“So, are you guys getting paid for this?” he asked them. “Sucks that you’re stuck at this table all morning.” Such simple small talk, but it worked. By maintaining eye contact, smiling, and getting the girls to talk about themselves, he calmly assumed control of the conversation. The girls played along – not drooling, per se – but at least surrendering a giggle here and there. I kept my mouth shut the whole time, not wanting to interfere.
Right before Derek leaned in to type in his e-mail address on the lap top, he paused.
“I don’t know if I can trust you with my e-mail,” he told the brunette. Textbook neg combined with a reminder that he doesn’t need to be here right now. Brilliant.
“I guess the risk is worth a free shirt, eh Voss?”
Except that’s not what I said. Yeah was definitely what I was shooting for, but it came out as more of a bluh, the muffled noise an infant makes with it burps up milk.
Below, on the lap top screen, three rainbow gobs of drool oozed down past the “Submit” button, the parent strand dangling from my chin and dripping to my chest.
The girls stared at me with looks of astonishment mixed with disgust and pity, like the ones you give splattered dogs on the freeway and children with nosebleeds.
I turned to Derek, not quite knowing what to say.
“I spit,” I told him.
For a brief second Derek’s eyes were sympathetic, as if he was about to call me champ, get me into a fresh pair of pants, and take me to get some ice cream – and promise not to say anything to mom, of course.
Then, a big smile formed on his face.
“Ewwww!” he shouted.
Helplessly I turned back to the girls, blushing.
“Sorry,” I stammered, wiping my chin with my hand. “Do you have a napkin or something?”
“Here,” the brunette said, handing over the free shirt she was about to give me. “Use this.”
I mopped up the slobber on the screen best I could and entered my e-mail address to complete the purchase of my new spit rag. Derek closed his tab with the women on a graceful note while I mumbled something about being late for class and left.
The goal of The Game is for men to demonstrate so much value that women are drooling over themselves. In this case, The Game was far more effective on the wingman.
Years later, while digging through old clothes, I found the shirt in question. It’s a plain print, with the slogan “Do it with a Gateway” on the front and the website www.DoItWithaGateway.com stretching across the shoulder blades on the back. The site is no longer active.
Putting it on, I realize two things. For one, it makes the perfect undershirt. Secondly, and more importantly, donning my old bib reveals to me that I haven’t traveled too great a distance from my drooling infancy – I’m far too hesitant with women, and I’m still mystified by men who can so successfully charm their targets.
To paraphrase a popular clothing line: Still not a man, but at least I got this free t-shirt.