A story shared between men, both in their 20s, both fathers: “I’m coming up Montezuma, and I see a pickup truck in the left-turn lane with its hazard lights on. I pull over to help push and see the pickup truck is stopped behind a Mustang. I get out and run over there. The guy in the pickup truck is an older guy — about 65. He says that the Mustang was stopped, and he was worried about it, so he stopped and put his hazard lights on.
I see the hood open on the Mus- tang; this girl — about 20 — is poking around under the hood. Then I notice the guy, about the same age, sitting in the front seat. He’s just sit- ting there, not doing anything.” At this point, a tone of bemused wonder begins to creep into the speaker’s voice. “I say to the older guy, ‘Well, maybe the three of us can push it.’ He gets in back and gets ready to push, and the young guy, he’s not even getting out of his seat — like we’re going to push him and the girl up the hill and around the corner.”
“So I go around to his side and say, ‘Hey, could you get out and help us push?’ He doesn’t say yes or no, he just shrugs his shoulders and opens the door and sort of stands in the open door, pushing on the doorjamb. The old guy and I are in back bustin’ ass, bent over and heaving. It’s clearly full effort for us, because it’s pretty steep right there. So we’re pushing as hard as we can, and this guy’s sort of just half-heartedly leaning on his doorjamb!” The wonder gives way to outright astonishment. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. He could be seeing us bust our ass and still be too slow or too bashful or too whatever to imitate us?”
Finally, “We get the Mustang up the hill and around the corner and park it. I’m sort of scratching my head over the guy’s ineptness, but the old guy says to him, ‘Hey, you got a real strong back there, buddy! Maybe you should think about professional athletics!” He just starts ripping on him, and the thing is, the other guy’s, like, ‘Yeah, thanks.’ He was too stupid to understand that the other guy was being sarcastic. The girl was really thankful and everything, but the guy...
“It was sort of an eye-opener for me. Driving home, I tried to figure out, ‘How did that happen?’ When I see a car on the side of the road, and I pull over to help push or whatever, my dad always comes to mind. I’m thinking the guy must not have had a dad or something. I couldn’t believe it. This guy was the ultimate modern nonman. Totally unable to take control of a situation. Like, ‘Who does that anymore?’ ”the storyteller whines, aping the slacker’s tone. “My favorite part is the gal under the hood, and he’s sitting there. He doesn’t even get out and pretend like most guys would. He just sits there.”
It’s alarming when a man starts sounding wistful at age 28 — longing for the days when men had some idea of how to be men, days that could not possibly have been that long ago. For the storyteller, the incident went beyond seeking another path to fulfillment, beyond postmodern rejection of traditional gender roles, and into the realm of getting off your befuddled rump and coming to the aid of a damsel in distress.
Whither manhood? I wandered UCSD for an answer, wondering if the encultured, enriched La Jolla air would yield a different, more nuanced definition of a male than I might receive elsewhere. My first conversation is with Brian, a solid chunk of a man with wild blond hair and a heavy face. His comments are short and pointed. “A real man is someone who can provide for himself, take care of himself without other people.” Is a real man macho? “Macho is the ego part of manhood, and when you get the ego, you’re not really a man, you’re just a jerk.” What would he never do? “Go pick a fight with somebody, because that’s stupid, that’s showing off too much of an ego. If you get a big head, it’ll come back and bite you in the ass.”
I ask Brian where he formed his idea of what a man is, half expecting to hear him say his father. But no. “My grandfather. He believes in his faith, carries that out all the time. He’s a gentleman to everyone he ever meets. Never cusses or swears at anybody. Never picks a fight.”
Jason and Bobby are more loquacious, more relaxed, more shrug-of- the-shoulders, grin and “bear” it.
Jason: “A real man? Well, there’s two types...”
Bobby: “The old-school type or the new.”
Jason: “The guy who’s super chivalrous...”
Bobby: “Who has honor. The man today is more of a pimp.”
Jason: “Yeah, and then there’s the type you want your friends to be like. The real man; it’s like, he goes to clubs and gets amazing and all that.”
Bobby: “It depends on the age group — the man I want to be now, or the man I want to be like when I’m a father. A lot more responsibilities when you’re older.”
Jason: “When you’re younger, you think being a man is how much booze you can drink and how many girls you can sleep with. I don’t think you understand what it takes, supporting a family and having a job.” Wild oats aside, responsibility and sex have a tendency to overlap at any age — people are complicated that way, with or with- out the prospect of a shot- gun wedding. What if a man gets a girl pregnant? Jason:
“It’s pretty much up to her, I would think. Right now, the first option would probably be abortion.”