Adventures in Guyhood

I’m heading up to the place on the lake. Being manly in Milwaukee means heading up to the place on the lake, and the 100 miles or so it takes to get there on this sunny afternoon seems just about perfect. You drive 100 miles in Texas and you’ve barely made a dent. You drive 100 miles in Rhode Island and you’ve crossed into two other states. But 100 miles in Wisconsin is enough to make a difference, to get away from it all – north of the Tension Line, where everything slows down and rustics up. “Turn This Car…

I’m heading up to the place on the lake.
Being manly in Milwaukee means heading up to the place on the lake, and the 100 miles or so it takes to get there on this sunny afternoon seems just about perfect. You drive 100 miles in Texas and you’ve barely made a dent. You drive 100 miles in Rhode Island and you’ve crossed into two other states. But 100 miles in Wisconsin is enough to make a difference, to get away from it all – north of the Tension Line, where everything slows down and rustics up. “Turn This Car Around,” Tom Petty is singing, but I don’t have to follow his advice today. He’s a guy, but I’m a guy, too. And today, I’m the guy in charge.

“Welcome, Modern Woodman,” says the sign at the side of the road, and that’s just how I’m feeling as the miles roll by – totally welcomed and pretty darned woodsy. North of Kewaskum, and with the windows down, I can smell manure. It’s a guy smell. The ad on the radio talks about the best place to shop for all my archery needs. I roll through Fond du Lac, and past Taycheedah (“Sheephead Fishing Capital of the World”), and the terrain changes, and now I’m cruising along Winnebago’s beautiful eastern shore. I’m nearly two hours into my journey when I realize I can’t avoid the issue any longer.

I don’t actually havea place on a lake. Not on Lake Winnebago. Not on any lake.

This could be a problem.


You think they weren’t giggling when the idea first came to them down at the magazine office? “Why don’t we take a look at what it’s like to be a guy in Milwaukee?” they must have said to one another. But that wasn’t the giggly part. This was the giggly part:

“And instead of asking some really guyguy to write it,” they must have said, “someone who lives it 24/7 and knows this stuff backward and forward, why don’t we ask somebody… else?”

Guess who?

A fresh perspective on the topic. The common’s man’s point of view. This, claimed my editor, was what they needed.

I’m always happy to do my part – but was this the right part? Or was I miscast? I’d never know until I tried. After all, I’d wanted to be a guy ever since I was a little boy, and here was my chance to take major strides toward my Master’s in Guyology. Could I do it? Could I at least find out how to do it?

“Let the adventures begin!” I cried – Adventures in Manlihoodness!


“One word,” says Danny the biking instructor. “Freedom.” Then he says it again: “Freedom.” I figure it’s still one word.

What is it with guys and bikes? I ask him. I’m only a drop-in; instead of the full Learning Curves multiday training course, I’m getting three and a half hours in the classroom, and three hours in the Pettit Center parking lot watching my classmates (nine men, three women) go through their motorcycled paces. I’ve got everything they’ve got except a helmet and a fully paid registration. And a bike.

I’ve already heard Danny tell the class why it is that novice female riders often outshine their XY counterparts. (“They listen!”) And he’s already told me how, in a typical biking class, the cockiness will kick in on Day Three, and how it’ll be guys, almost always, he’ll have to rein in. And we haven’t even gotten to Milwaukee’s particular contribution to the pumped-up biker mindset: the Harley mystique.

So what is it, I need to know, with guys and bikes?

“It’s the closest thing a macho male can do to being a cowboy on that horse on the open range,” Danny explains.

“It’s the closest thing you can get on the ground to flying an airplane, and you get that same feeling: that freedom. Literally. The wind on the face, the feel, the smells – you’re one with the bike. …The brain, the hands and the feet, all at the same time. All at the same time.”

It sounds great. I’m wishing I could stick around for the rest of the course, but I’ve got other places to visit. Other guy places.

I make myself a promise, though: The next time I throw my leg over a bike, there’ll actually be a bike there.


I’m deep in the pines now,in the tall timber, although most of it is lying on its side. (I know the feeling.) Guys love to prowl the aisles of places like Home Depot; the smell of freshly cut wood touches something primal, something that harkens back to the moment the first caveman put up the first adjustable shelving. Now I want it to touch something in me.

No shortcuts this time, no dashing in and out of the place the way I normally do when I find myself with a bulb flickering or a screw loose. I’ve vowed to visit every single aisle of the Port Road location this time, trying to capture the excitement. I toss a couple of bottles of Weed-B-Gon into my cart to look more like a customer and less like a vagrant, and set out on my journey. An early sign promises complete satisfaction:

ALL YOUR SHIM NEEDS STARTING 99c – $37.00

I’m not aware that I have any shim needs, although 99 cents certainly seems a reasonable price to satisfy them, whatever they are.

“Decorative mouldings,” another sign tells me. This is different, apparently, from “decorative molding,” which I frequently encounter in my very own home when I forget to throw out the cream cheese. I keep walking – past the 90-degree closet elbows, past the Polyisocyanurate insulation sheathing, past the sign that says “Interior Bored Slab.” I’m impressed. They barely know me, and already they’ve scoped out my position on home-improvement projects.

I pass the “You Can Do It” carpet sign, which is good to know, and suddenly, a flush of Wisconsin pride: the latest in toilets from Kohler. A toilet is a toilet; that’s the way this guy has always looked at them (and sometimes even remembered to lower their seats when he was through with them.) But the names of the models on display – Devonshire, Leighton, Rialto – conjure up very different, very nontoilet kinds of associations. I’m willing to be open-minded about it, in a guy kind of way. But then I get to the toilet called “Memoirs.”

Gotta go.


PLEASE TELL YOUR BOOBS TO QUIT STARING AT MY EYES!

A sign on the wall at Dave & Anna’s Fisherman’s Inn, in Brothertown, which, as guy-sounding towns near Lake Winnebago go, is as good as it gets. It’s where I’ve come looking for a meal and hoping that one of the regulars perched around the bar will realize that this stranger in their midst is a Man Without a Place and will exercise that legendary North of the Tension Line neighborliness (not to mention pity), and invite me to stay the night at theirs. Nope.

Note: The Os in “BOOBS” come complete with little
nipple dots. Nice touch.


“What if I said I wanted to wax my car?”

“What if I said you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about?”

That’s the answer I’m expecting, anyway. I’m standing at the counter at Checker Auto Parts on Capitol Drive, and the man behind the counter is giving me the once-over. He’s never laid eyes on me before. That’s because the closest I’ve ever come to this place is the Church’s Chicken that shares the parking lot.

But he doesn’t say the words I’m expecting. He says “Do you want the easy wax or the hard wax?”

Will he still respect me if I say easy?

Waxing the car is a perfect guy thing, I figure. My next-door neighbor’s kid used to do it all the time. I never set eyes on him except when he was waxing his car. It was a candy-apple red Mustang, and it sat in the driveway while he worked on it, and you needed sunglasses just to walk past it.

It was absolutely a guy car, I could tell, and I knew it even before I noticed the giant decorative scrotum hanging from his rear bumper.

The “hard wax,” the man behind the counter at Checker is telling me, will take several hours. You have to apply it, then wait for it to harden, then rub it hard to remove it. With the “easy wax” – the liquid wax – you don’t have to wait. By the time you’re through applying it, he says, you can start removing it. When he does it, he says, he works one side of the car, and the kids follow along behind him and wipe the stuff off. It’s that simple. Simple sounds good.

He helps me find the necessary equipment. A four-pack of Applicator Pads, a three-pack of Terry Towels, and the potent potion itself: a bottle of Turtle Wax “Easy On, Easy Off” Super Hard Shell Car Wax.

“One bottle’s enough?” I ask him.

“There’s enough in the bottle to last the whole summer,” he tells me.

There’s enough in the bottle to last the whole decade.

And I’d better find some kids.


“Welcome to Hooters!”

She’s wearing orange shorts the size of a Wet-Nap, and she’s absolutely spilling over the top of her T-shirt. She’s the Hooters hostess, and I’m sure she has a name tag, but I’m not sure where to look. She’s happy to see me (and I’m happy to see her), and she leads me to a table and asks if it’s OK, and when I ask about moving to a table on the other side, where the light is better, she says, “Just go grab one, wherever.” Then she giggles.

My waitress is Courtney – she tells me so – and she sits down right at my table to take my order. Each of the waitresses at Hooters seems to sit right down at her customer’s table to take the order. This is to demonstrate friendliness. This is also to give the customer a better look down the front of her shirt.

“Are you from around here?” Courtney wants to know, because she thinks she’s caught a trace of non-Wisconsin in my accent, and whenever that happens, Courtney, who spent part of her life in Asheville, N.C., always asks.

“It’s gorgeous up there,” I say. I’m talking about Asheville.

She leaves me to study my menu, and by the time she returns, I’ve decided on my entrée. “Since you’re from North
Carolina,” I tell her, “I guess I should have the pulled-pork barbecue sandwich.”

“That’s my favorite!” she says.

I’m here to do research, I’ve got cassette tapes at home that are twice her age – and I hear myself already trying to play up to her. Those guy hormones are persistent little devils!

P.S. The sandwich was very tasty.

P.P.S. The service was tremendous.


A Word to the Wise:“Researchers at Duke University Medical Center and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that nail gun injuries increased threefold in the past 15 years, with 13,400 nail gun users seeking hospital treatment in 2005, compared with 4,200 in 1991… Men were the main victims, accounting for 96 percent of nail gun injuries.”


It’s 100 percent stainless steel, and he’s twirling it around an index finger the way gunfighters in the Old West used to twirl their pearl-handled revolvers.

“I’m the only one I know who carries a cutter everywhere I go,” he tells me.

And why not? A guy never knows when a perfect cigar moment might break out.

The Famous Smoke Shop on Brady Street is there for just that occasion, with enough cigars in enough sizes, shapes and flavors to satisfy even the most orally fixated, and Nick is happy to pass along some pointers. He’s 21 and I’m… older, but I’m an eager student. I still associate the smell of cigars with happy times – childhood trips to a big-league ballpark. Actually, I still associate smoking a cigar with somebody else’s mouth, not mine. But enough of the associating, let’s get down to business.

Tip No. 1: Light the right end. That would be the end that’s already been cut, with its tobacco already exposed to the air. That will put the other end, with its fresher tobacco, closer to your lips.

Tip No. 2: Start light. “It’s like anything else,” Nick advises. “If your first time is a bad one…” So 99.9 percent of the time, Nick says, he recommends a Perdomo Fresco to a novice smoker – medium strength and a good, even burn – “the sign of a really well-wrapped cigar.” Guys appreciate a really well-wrapped cigar.

Tip No. 3: Don’t inhale. (Insert your favorite Bill Clinton joke here.)

Tip No. 4: Despite the name, Cuba Libre cigars, so popular with the college-guy crowd, don’t come from Cuba. Kids are attracted to forbidden fruit, Nick reports, even when it isn’t really forbidden. “College students aren’t exactly the
smartest people.”

Tip No. 5: “Don’t light your cigar with a Zippo.” Or any kind of fluid lighter – you’ll get the taste of fluid. When he’s in the store and the smoking urge hits, Nick lights up with paper-thin strips of cedar, which are set ablaze by a flint contraption sitting on a countertop. When he’s on the road, he carries a box of kitchen matches.

And his cutter. Because you never know.


I’m bowling.

I’m in Greenfield, and I’m bowling.

I used to bowl all the time, back when I was a proto-guy. As I got older, I bowled less and less, until by the time I moved to Milwaukee all those years ago, I hardly bowled at all. This was lousy timing.

Time to get back to it, I tell my spouse. There is no way I can get in touch with my true Milwaukee Guy self if I don’t get back on the horse and start bowling again. (I’m speaking figuratively here.)

“Do you still do that little twitchy thing with your behind before you let the ball go?” my spouse wants to know. It’s been years since we bowled together; apparently I made an impression on her.

Now I’m back on the lanes for the first time in who knows how long, bowling in my rented shoes, with my rented ball. The first few frames are embarrassing – or they would be if there were enough other people in the place to notice. But this is midday, on a weekday, and the crowd is sparse. I’m spared. So to speak.

And then I make a spare. And another spare. An open frame, and then a strike, and another strike and another spare, all in a row. Am I back?

I’m sweating, and twitching, and I’m looking at a new set of pins and considering all the angles for my final roll of the game, the roll that will complete my redemption after that horrible start. Smoothly I move toward the foul line – it’s the classic four-step delivery, just the way I learned it all those years ago. And then, at the very moment of release, I try to put a little something extra on the ball, a little guy power – and yank it. It picks off the 10-pin – nothing but the 10-pin – and clatters into the gutter.

I’m definitely back.


Notes from field research:
Did You Know… That if you spend Saturday afternoon hanging out at a neighborhood barber shop – not a styling salon, you understand, but a traditional neighborhood barber shop with the barber pole outside and bottles of Barbicide and Lucky Tiger (and lots of guys) inside – that in addition to catching up on sports news and the latest neighborhood doings and swapping jokes and anything else that might be on your mind (“Cheaper than a therapist,” claims Pete the barber), you might actually find yourself invited to sit in one night on a friendly little game of poker? And for that matter…

Did You Know… That a monthly poker game that’s been going on since a
previous century, with players who first met one another in the Jaycees decades ago and will even travel together to distant climes for annual guys-only poker-and-golf vacations, may be the only venue in
the universe where it’s perfectly acceptable to call a full-grown adult male “Greggie”?


It’s a major hoops nightat Major Goolsby’s, and I’m there with the rest of the guys (and a smattering of the gals) taking in the action. I order my burger and my brew, and while I wait for the game to start, I check out my surroundings: I find 17 separate screens before I lose count, and they’re not all tuned to the basketball station. Being a guy means making choices, so I fill the empty moments watching the “American Gladiators” marathon on ESPN Classic. (Somehow, I missed it the first time around.)

The female competitors have names like “Zap” and “Sunny” and “Lace.” The last of these is, I gather, an ironic name; “Lace” is in spandex, top to bottom. The male competitors, meanwhile, sport names like “Gemini” and (my personal favorite) “Nitro.” Would people look at me differently, I wonder, if my name were “Nitro”? I’m pretty sure they would. And I may not be the only male in Goolsby’s with such thoughts, because every time one of the guy’s names, like “Nitro,” is flashed on the screen, half the guys in the room shout back at the screen: “Nitro!” Like they’re trying it on for size.

Eventually, there’s the basketball game to watch, and it’s a good one, even if the team I’m rooting for has fallen behind early and can’t quite catch up. The folks at Goolsby’s are into it, and the place is getting more and more crowded as the second half moves to a climax – and then I see them, off to my right: two young and attractive women, newly arrived and looking for somewhere to land.

There are other men in the room. Some are younger. Some are larger. (Some are even wearing baseball caps.) They’d give plenty, I’m sure, to win the company of these women. But I’m the one who gets them. I catch their eyes as they survey the room, beckon to them, mouth the magic words. In no time at all, they’re at my side, sharing my table – the two of them, the one of me.

Finally, I tell myself, I’ve learned the words that bring women running: “I’m leaving in just a minute.”


“Guys can be assholes,can’t they, ladies?”

This assessment is coming from the stage of the Comedy Café on Brady Street on a Saturday night. The room is crowded, males and females filling the tables and having a fine old time. Somewhere in the room are ladies who disagree with this comic’s blanket condemnation, and any minute one of them will be raising her voice in a stirring defense of the guy she’s with, or some guy she knows. Or even a guy she once heard of.

I wait. And I wait some more.


It says to ask about their malts. So I ask about their malts.

I’m sitting deep in the shadows at Shaker’s, the Walker’s Point cigar bar, beyond the dark wooden archways and across from the dark wooden bar. The walls are dark and the ceiling is dark and the lights are dim. One ceiling fan is turning slowly; the other one isn’t even doing that. There’s reggae on the sound system, and Afro-beat, and some techno. Two tables away, there’s a couple dueling playfully with their knives.

The waitress arrives to take my order. I ask about their malts. She wants to know if I have a preference. I don’t even have an inkling. “Irish?” she asks. “Scotch?”

“Scotch,” I say, as if I could possibly tell them apart. But that’s not the end of it.

“Do you have a price in mind?” I consider the question. I play it cool.

“What’s the range?” I reply.

“From six dollars to about … 500,”
she says.

I play it so cool she barely notices me falling out of my chair.

“Let’s stay with the low end,” I manage to say. She’ll bring me some choices, she tells me, and then she brings me some choices: three 10-year-old single-malt scotches. I’ve actually heard of one of them. I pick one of the others. I pick the Balvenie. (I like the name.)

“Neat or a snifter?”

Now she’s got me.

“I’m new at this,” I admit.

She’s kind to me. She explains the difference. With a snifter, you can swirl it, she says. What’s the point of drinking a 10-year-old single-malt scotch, I figure, if you can’t swirl it?

She brings me my Balvenie, and I raise it carefully to my lips. My eyes start to water as the aroma kicks in. I take it down slowly, one sip, then another.

I could get to liking this.

Steel drums on the sound system now, and Louis Armstrong singing “Mack the Knife,” and Stevie Wonder. “Baby, everything is all right/ Uptight/ Outasight…” The scent of a lit cigar from somewhere in the room, somewhere even deeper in the shadows.

I could get to liking this.

Is double-malt scotch twice as good as single-malt scotch, I find myself wondering, or only half as good? These are questions I’ve never considered before. Is there such a thing, I wonder, as triple-malt scotch? And if not, why not? There are three-bladed razors, aren’t there? This is definitely a subject that calls for further research, and I’m just the guy to do it.

But not tonight. One snifter of Balvenie is plenty for tonight.

On the other hand, it would be rather educational.


Notes from field research:
Did You Know… That if you took all the volume knobs for all the flat-screen TVs on display at Best Buy and Circuit City and tried to turn them all to full volume at the exact same time, you’d be too late? The salesmen have beaten you to it. (They know their clientele.)

Did You Know… That when it comes to stores that try to lure guys with top-of-the-line audio and video components, the difference between “hi-def” and “go deaf” is even less than you think?

Did You Know… That as excruciatingly painful as simultaneous surround-sound at maximum volume from dozens of speakers at Best Buy or Circuit City might be, there are worse things in the world? After all, it’s not as if there’s somebody leaning over you and ripping the hairs from your flesh.


She’s leaning over me and ripping the hairs from my flesh.

I’m at Neroli, at the new Bayshore Town Center, with the soft lights and the cream-and-avocado walls, and the official word for what is being done to me is “back waxing.” It’s a guy thing, too, I guess – a Metro Guy thing. I’m having my back waxed because it was on the list of suggested “guy activities” the editors of this magazine gave me, and because the editors never dreamed that I would actually take their suggestions literally, and because I never dreamed that these particular editors are wanted in 13 states and four Canadian provinces for writer abuse.

“Are you afraid of mosquito bites?” she asked me as I entered The Room Where It Will Happen. I’m not afraid of mosquito bites, I assured her.

“This is like a thousand mosquito bites all at once.”

Oh.

She also wants to wax my eyebrows. “You know Brezhnev?” she asks. She comes from the same country Brezhnev once ruled. “He had only the one eyebrow…” and she slides a finger across her forehead. I can do without the comparison. Besides, I’m not interested in having my eyebrow – my eyebrows – waxed. A few minutes later, she tries again.

“Having like Brezhnev” – and here she does that finger thing again – “is not any more in fashion.” I don’t care. I have two eyebrows. There’s plenty of room between them. Stick to my back.

Which she does – with hot wax, and strips of adhesive tape perhaps a foot long and several inches wide. First she rolls the hot wax onto a section of my back, and as the wax starts to harden around my back hairs (which were bothering absolutely nobody, and never caused any trouble to anyone), she quickly spreads a fresh adhesive strip over that section and presses it smooth so that the tape can grab the wax, which has grabbed the hair.

Then she rips the tape off.

She’s a very nice person, and her arms are strong; the tape comes off quickly, which believe me, is the only way you want the tape to come off. We talk about Russia, and about politics, and about families. We talk about the kinds of

Rrrrrrrip!!

the kinds of waxing treatments women get compared to the kinds of waxing treatments guys get, and about how women handle it compared to guys. Women handle it better, she tells me; they have more “courage.” Guys are

Rrrrrrrip!!!

like “babies” sometimes, she says. “Really?” I say. She’ll hear no whimpering from me. (My fingernails are digging trenches in my palms.)

We talk some more. She rips some more. She works her way up, from just below my waistline to just above my neck, and then down the other side. Probably two dozen waxings, two dozen strips of tape – and two dozen rips. But who’s counting?

And when it’s over – when my back is as smooth as it’s ever been, and the wax is all wiped off, and she’s buffed me clean with damp, cool towels, and I’m managing to ignore the muffled cries of thousands of grieving follicles – she smiles down at me, and then she says the magic words.

“You are a man!”


Rick Horowitz is an award-winning, Milwaukee-based freelance writer.



Sidebars:

Guy’s Guide to Fashion
I’ll listen to anyone who can say things like, “This tie calls attention to itself by not calling attention to itself,” and make them sound plausible. Which is why I’m listening to Joseph. He’s assistant manager at JoS. A. Bank Clothiers in Glendale, and he’s already put me in a summer suit. And a shirt to go with it. And two ties to go with the shirt.

I knew I needed a summer suit. I hadn’t realized I needed another shirt, and two more ties. Joseph is very good at this. And also at sharing guy-fashion dos and don’ts – and there are a lot of them.


• Button-down collars? Fine for business wear, Joseph says – “until after 6.” After that, you need to ditch that button-down for a point or a spread collar. And no button-down collars with double-breasted jackets, no matter what time of day. “It’ll get you arrested in 49 states,” he says. “It’s just not right.”
• Point or spread collar – what’s the difference? “Fairly interchangeable,” he says. They’re both fully approved guywear. But: If you’ve got a wide, jowly face, or a thick neck, a spread collar will only emphasize your width. Stick to the point.
• Pleats or no pleats? Either. Pleated pants still dominate the Milwaukee market, but flat-front is the new trend – again. But make sure, if you opt for pleated, that the pleats hang vertically. If your belt dips beneath your belly, your pleats will blouse out, and you’ll look … blousy. Also lousy. Go flat.
• Two- or three-button suit? Twenty years ago, the three-button suit was the conservative, establishment choice, and two-button was the trendier one. About 10 years ago, “the three-button came roaring back.” And now? Two-button suits are the majority of those Joseph sells, although the three-button “is holding its own.” So you can feel confident in either.
• Center vent? Side vent? Ventless? The center vent is the standard American look, the side vent is quintessentially British, while those Continental guys typically go ventless. (Bathless is something else again.) The choice is yours – but big-butts beware: If you’re large through the keister, Joseph says, side vents have a way of “shelfing out” on you. Maybe you want people to rest their drinks on your backside. No? Then go center vent or ventless.
• Can guys actually wear seersucker suits? Some guys can, Joseph says. (I say: If you have to ask, you’re probably not one of them.)
• Just how “optional” is “black-tie optional”? If you own a tuxedo, wear it. If you don’t own one, you’re not obliged to rent one; a dark suit and an understated tie will do fine.


And speaking of ties…
• Whatever happened to “You can’t wear a patterned tie with a patterned shirt”? Gone – as long as both patterns aren’t screaming for attention. It’s ‘like love,” Joseph says. “Opposites attract.” So if your shirt pattern is big and bold, tone down the tie. If your tie is the big bold one, tone down the shirt. But yes, you can mix ’em!
• The single most important article of clothing? The classic navy blazer. “The cornerstone of every man’s wardrobe.” (Note to self: Consider replacing the one you outgrew 15 years ago.)
• And after that? A good topcoat or – even more versatile – a good raincoat.

Ten tips, those – and one more question.

• Do Chicago guys really dress better than Milwaukee guys? Not at the very top of the pecking order, says Joseph. But at the next level down? Probably. He says it’s mostly a matter of geography: Chicago’s business district “is more of a district,” so Chicago males are constantly aware of what their peers are doing fashion-wise, and are more likely to try to keep up, if not pull ahead by a thread.

The result: more style for Windy City Guy.

On the other hand, they’ve got the Cubs. – R.H.

 

• • • 



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