Notes on Being Very Tall

Is being tall—extremely tall—an identity?

I was afraid of Midget Mark. Everyone at my favorite dive bar in Hong Kong, the Globe, called him Accountant Mark when he was within earshot, because he was the bar’s accountant, but when he wasn’t around they called him Midget Mark because he was a little person. I was afraid of Midget Mark because, at 22 years old, I was just reaching my full adult height of 6 foot 8 inches, and I assumed he would resent me for my size. So when he hopped up onto the barstool next to mine, looked me over and said, “It must be hard to be that tall,” I thought it was a trap. “How do you mean?” I asked him hesitantly. “Can’t buy shoes. Can’t buy pants. Airplanes must be a nightmare.” “Yeah,” I agreed warily. “How do you know that?” “I just take all my problems and reverse them,” he explained. “The world is made for average-sized people.” Our conversation happened 20 years ago and with the benefit of hindsight I can see why Mark would have been kind to me. In his eyes I was young, gawky and uncomfortable in my own body. He was confident. He told stories about his time as a street performer, earning money as a clown, “you know, juggling, short jokes,” as he put it. He was married and made a good living as an accountant. I was constantly embarrassed of my elbows, my knees and my big feet sticking out everywhere. I hit my head a lot on low doorframes. I was different and the local Cantonese people in Hong Kong weren’t shy about reminding me. They jumped to try to touch the top of my head as I walked by, or sneaked up behind me with their hands raised high to amuse their friends. Sometimes, in the vegetable market near my house, the old women would just point at me and laugh. I don’t think I was very happy in those days. I remember writing a short story to amuse my friends where I threw myself out a window but my giant feet got caught on a flagpole, stopping my fall before I hit the pavement. My body and my identity hadn’t yet fused. But in my defense, my height wasn’t something that I had in common with any close relatives or friends. And it was very possible that I was actually still growing.

The average height of an American male is just over 5 foot 9 inches. For a woman it is just under 5 foot 4 inches. The chart of height distribution in the United States (based on the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2007 to 2008) stops two inches before it even gets to me. A height of 6 foot 6 inches is a rounding error, less than a tenth of one percent in most age ranges. Asked in a series of emailed inquiries about the share of the population 6 foot 8 inches and above, a spokesman for the National Center for Health Statistics responded, “Our statisticians do not have the resources to find this data.” On the whole, being taller than average is perceived as impressive and imposing. There are studies that report that height can raise your earning potential and even increase your longevity. I walk the streets at night in strange cities with impunity and am rarely harassed about anything other than my size. But for men, many of those same studies explain that the benefits taper off in the upper reaches of height: longevity gains reverse themselves starting at 6 foot 2 inches, earnings stop increasing at 6 foot 6 inches. I have been every height and can say with some confidence that 6 foot 3 inches is the best height for a man. From there, every inch takes you further from attractive and deeper into a realm of the freakish, toward human spectacle. Unlike many very tall people, my height came later in life. As a child I was always tall for my age but then in middle school I all but stopped growing for several years. My classmates caught up to me and passed me and I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to be 5 foot 7 inches with unusually large size-15 feet. I was bookish and bullied by several groups of older kids at school and in my neighborhood, mostly deservedly, because I had a big mouth and didn’t know when to shut up. I quit basketball, a sport I loved, because the coaches wanted me to play point guard on the freshman team and I had only ever played center. The summer after my junior year I really started to shoot up and, by my freshman year of college, I was 6 foot 3 inches. Though in my mind I was the same person, the world perceived me differently. It’s hard to quantify but my increasing height seemed to help with girls and on the whole classmates may have been a little more deferential. My friends still interrupted me, made fun of me and treated me like anyone else, but something had started to change.

“Tall people are always trying to blend in… Much of our time is spent trying to shrink.”

I vividly recall a frat party with the dank smell of a room infused by keg after keg of cheap beer, dimly lit by Christmas lights, and a fraternity brother bumping a small, nerdy friend of mine repeatedly on purpose as he tried to fill his Solo cup. I walked right up to the guy, stared down at him—stared him down—and followed him until he left out the back. I had bullied a bully and it was thrilling and somehow terrifying at the same time, as scary to threaten as to be threatened. Then I frightened a few people I didn’t mean to scare, women and men, got called a monster a couple of times, tagged as Lurch from The Addams Family as well as Lennie from Of Mice and Men, who, if memory serves, strangles a woman to death by accident and gets shot in the head by his normal-sized friend as an act of mercy. Still I kept growing, taller than anyone on either side of my family had ever been. My mother took me to see an endocrinologist. They drew my blood and gave me an echocardiogram to see if I had gigantism, Marfan syndrome, or some other disorder that would explain why I had not stopped growing. I tested negative across the board but by the time I moved to Hong Kong for my first job the summer after graduating from college, I was still unsure when or if I was ever going to stop rising up and then off the standard height charts. If you asked me who I was then, I would say that I was a reader and a writer, the son of an immigrant, an avid traveler, still a bit too much of a talker. But my body always preceded my person, my mind. My height was an identity that I didn’t identify with, one that was imposed on me externally and that only over time did I learn to internalize. Maybe that’s how identities happen to all of us. It just happened to me late enough in life that I became acutely aware of it.

There was a moment last year when the news emerged that then-FBI Director James Comey, who, like me, stands at 6 foot 8 inches, had tried to blend into the curtains of a room in the White House and disappear from the president’s view during an event in January 2017. The absolute ridiculousness of such an enormous man willing himself to melt into the drapery like a giant chameleon provided no small measure of comic relief for the country at a moment of near-constitutional crisis. To me it made perfect sense. Tall people are always trying to blend in, to keep our giant feet from tripping you at the movie theater, our elbows from cracking your heads on the dance floor. Much of our time is spent trying to shrink, to alleviate the extreme conspicuousness that is our condition. There’s a meme that surfaces occasionally on the internet, where a tall person hands an inquisitive stranger a business card. “Yes, I am tall,” it begins. The card varies a bit in different versions. In one instance it goes on, “You’re very observant for noticing.” Then there’s a height “6FT 7IN” in one, “I am 6’10” in another, followed by “Yes, really” in the former and “No, I’m not kidding,” in the latter. More answers to unasked questions follow, a sort of one-sided Jeopardy. “No I don’t play basketball. The weather is perfect up here.” The ones I’ve seen all end with a version of, “I’m so glad we had this conversation.” The point of the meme is that we’ve fielded these questions so many times that we already know each variation, each side street it might take. People send me pictures of it all the time, as if the joke is for me, when it’s actually for them. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t have the conversation. There are the questions, principally, “How tall are you?” and “Do you play basketball?” There are also a lot of shared observations. People I’ve never met feel compelled to tell me about the tallest member of their families. Women especially like to tell me about their fathers, husbands and brothers, the tallest people they’ve dated, their tallest colleagues. The disagreements are more frustrating, when someone I don’t know stops me on the street, asks how tall I am, then tells me I’m wrong, because in their eyes I’m a little taller, a little shorter.

“Every inch takes you further from attractive and deeper into a realm of the freakish, toward human spectacle.”

Six-foot-three men seem drawn to me in bars, constantly walking over to declare, “Hey, I’m always the tallest guy in the room.” It’s half-aggressive, half-plaintive and remarkably common. During the Comey-firing debacle I often pointed out that Comey was 6 foot 8 inches and Trump claimed to be 6 foot 3 inches. The height conversation is preferable to people measuring me like amateur anthropologists: holding up their hands, sticking out their feet, standing back-to-back with me. Sometimes, though, it can take an even more invasive turn. “How do you fuck?” I’ve been asked in bars standing next to short girlfriends, though of course leering questions about private parts are more common. Mostly it’s more innocuous. “How’s the weather up there?” Smile. “How’s the weather up there?” Chuckle. “How’s the weather up there?” Fine. It’s never going to stop. “I just remind myself over and over again that this person is trying to connect with me and this is what came out of their mouths,” the writer Arianne Cohen, who is 6 foot 3 inches, told me. In 2009 she published The Tall Book, a thorough accounting of the benefits and challenges of being extremely tall. “In the last 10 years men have come around to the reality that it’s not always appropriate to comment on women’s looks in terms of their beauty, but there’s one topic you can still comment upon and that’s your height.” Online dating and apps made romance easier for tall people, Cohen told me, especially for tall women looking for men their height or taller. At first she put her actual height on her profile and was “barraged by men with tall fetishes asking how much I weigh and how big my feet are.” She went down to 6 feet and it all but stopped. Cohen raised her profile back up to 6 foot 1 inch; occasional creeps still bothered her but not more than she could live with. For as annoying as constant questions about basketball can be, they represent a distinct improvement. According to Cohen’s book, before everyone assumed really tall people made millions of dollars playing basketball in the NBA, they might have assumed we worked in circuses or freak shows. I would say that qualifies as progress.

We very tall people live in the open, attracting incredible attention, yet remain a mystery. Why do we bob and weave around the New York City subway in a strange dance? Are we performing for money from our fellow passengers? No, we're just trying not to hit our heads on the metal bars that others reach up to grab. They strike us around the temple or squarely on the back of the head if we don’t pay attention. In the tunnels we’re probably more worried about the rusty screws that are jutting down from the ceiling and will rake across our scalps if we don’t hunch down. Consider paying more attention on rainy days to the pointy tips of your umbrellas, which stab like cruel talons at soft spots like our eyes and ears. And unlike normal-sized people, we know the truth about ceiling fans: They are not helicopter rotors. Sticking your hand in one may raise a welt or bruise but it’s not as dangerous as you might think. But thank you for your concern! At times we are spies in your midst. If you invite us into your homes we will know what the top of your refrigerator looks like. (You should clean it. It’s been a while. Trust me.) Once the party gets going we can’t really hear you because the conversation is happening a foot below us and it’s hard to stoop and twist our bodies for that long. Are we standing a little funny? We’re probably doing the hip drop, an extreme version of Michelangelo’s David’s contrapposto to lower ourselves a couple inches. We do have our uses. It probably goes without saying that we should be taking pictures for you at concerts, not to mention portraits of you, since the downward angle is the most flattering. I always get a chuckle when friends at a busy festival decide rather than gathering at a landmark at a specific time they can just, “Meet at Nick at 3 o’clock.” Follow us in crowds. We can see the gaps, the paths that are opening up, and where the bathroom line and the drink queue converge into a human traffic jam.

“It’s so obvious that they fear us like Frankenstein himself has appeared.”

Lines are where I observe one of the strangest phenomena linked with being oversized. When someone cuts in front I see heads swivel, looking for someone to tell, until I realize most of the people are staring at me, a kind of unconscious decision to deputize me and the stares continue until I muster the courage to yell, “Hey buddy, the line starts back there.” I could not say why but there is some kind of assumption of authority in anonymous situations when people only have our exteriors on which to judge us. People I’ve never met will ask me to help them move heavy objects or reach things from high shelves as though I’m the community wheelbarrow or ladder. I prefer ladder because it makes me feel useful but I’m not great at wheelbarrow because, like a lot of very tall people, I have a bad back. This is an unscientific observation, but I also get asked for directions a seemingly disproportionate amount. Perhaps I resemble a signpost. As a newspaper reporter specializing in overseas work I have consigned myself to a life of cubicles and economy-class seats on airplanes. I am in nearly constant contact with my company’s ergonomic specialist, Tom. When he first met me at a previous job 18 years ago he called me, “a worker’s comp disaster waiting to happen” and propped my desk up with two-by-fours. His tools have become more sophisticated, graduating to a mechanically operated sit-stand desk and an enormous special-built chair that at least one colleague has likened to the Iron Throne of Westeros. (It is almost as big but fortunately cushioned with soft foam, not melted metal swords.) While many New Yorkers exult in the anonymity of city streets, I find myself in a much more interactive city. If you want to know who the hottest white basketball player of the moment is, follow me around Brooklyn. Spontaneous shouts of, “Yo, Nowitzki!” have given rise to more of a sing-song tribute to the Knicks' new Lithuanian forward, “Porzingis!” “If you put an extremely tall person in the center of urban anonymity, he’ll draw tons of attention,” Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, a body studies professor at Emory University, says in Cohen’s book. “But put that same person in a small town, and he would become somewhat unremarkable. I believe a number of giants have lived in small towns, relatively unbothered.”

In January, I drove from Hudson, New York through a slippery sleet and into Massachusetts to find Asa Palmer, the youngest brother in a family of three sons all my height or taller. As kids, Palmer and I lived around the corner from each other in Arlington, Virginia. His family were local celebrities, the tall parents with the three super-tall sons who played basketball. When I mentioned over Christmas that I would be visiting Asa in the new year, my mother and sister began to catalogue their memories of the three boys, enthusing about the middle brother Crawford, the high school All-American, more than three decades after his Arlington exploits. Asa Palmer and I played lower stakes rec league ball against each other. He started at center for the Optimist basketball team, and I tried to guard him for my Kiwanis Club, which became increasingly impossible as I hit my long growth lull and he continued to grow rapidly. The Palmers eventually moved away and I lost track of them but curiosity about what happened to them drove me to brave the snowy New England roads during the winter cold snap known as the bomb cyclone looking for the youngest son. Palmer works as an arborist. His hands were huge and strong and his thick black beard was laced with white, the first frost of middle age encroaching. He was grounded just then by a fractured ankle, while a layer of January snow coated the Berkshire hills where his house sat, tucked between a marsh and a graveyard. By spring he should be clambering up their tree trunks again, using an 11-millimeter-wide nylon cord, unless the tree is coming down, in which case he can gouge his way up with spurs, paying little mind to the digs and divots he whittles into the bark. Palmer and I drank Sierra Nevada, ate cheese and looked at a photo album with his four-year-old daughter. We laughed about the one-liners he used to try to end the height conversation more quickly. Asked how tall he was, Palmer liked to say, “It depends on the humidity” or “it depends on the time of day.” We nodded in recognition about many things, like the way we try to give wide berth to women on the street at night because it’s so obvious that they fear us like Frankenstein himself has appeared. He asked about the extreme difficulty of buying shoes and pants in a one-size-fits-all-world and the scar tissue on the top of my head. We commiserated over footboards on beds and, most of all, airplane seats. We talked about how we don’t dare get onto rollercoasters anymore, too afraid the safety bar won’t click into place and we’ll go flying out at a curve or a loop. (Many rides have maximum heights; at Six Flags you can’t ride the Mind Eraser if you’re over 6 foot 4 inches or the Batwing Coaster over 6 foot 7 inches) I did a zip-line in Guatemala once and emerged with a bloody stripe along my temple; I was too tall and my skin burned along the wire as I hurtled downward. Palmer remembered the strangeness of growing into his body, what it was like as a seventh-grader to be “a toothpick with these feet that just shot out of nowhere and wouldn’t stop.” He recalled as a boy the way the radiators would tremble when his 6-foot-6-inch father hit his head on the steam pipes while doing laundry in the basement, along with his muffled cries of pain. (Palmer approximated them for me with a pterodactyl-like squawk.). He laughed at the memory. Palmer laughs a lot about being tall and it probably goes without saying that it is a deep, resonant laugh. There was the time when he was 19 years old and he went to Foxboro Stadium with a girlfriend to see Elton John and Billy Joel. The usher kept coming down the aisle and shining his flashlight into Palmer’s eyes. He didn’t know what he was doing wrong until finally someone started yelling at him: “Stop standing on the chair!” There was the family trip to Peru with his father, who taught Latin American politics, where he watched the locals form an orderly line to request photographs one after another beside his oldest and tallest brother Walter, simply for being over 7 feet tall.

“‘How’s the weather up there?’ Chuckle. ‘How’s the weather up there?’ Fine. It’s never going to stop.”
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Walter did the one thing everyone assumes that extremely tall people should do: He played in the NBA, short stints with the Utah Jazz and the Dallas Mavericks. The middle brother, Crawford, 6 foot 9 inches, was a high school standout, who went on to play for the Duke Blue Devils and win the French championship as a professional basketball player overseas, along with a silver medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Unlike me, Palmer never felt any shame over being really tall. He doesn’t know when or why the family got so tall—they aren’t South Sudanese or Balkan like my family, just a WASPy mix—but, in addition to his father’s 6 foot 6 inches, his mother was 6 foot 2 inches. “I remember a long time ago it came up maybe with a brother, and they were like, ‘No, you gotta be proud. You gotta go stand up there.’” “When you’re seven feet, you really get stared at. Walt is just completely unfazed. He’ll stand in the front row at any concert because he’s already been through everything,” Palmer said. “Even to me. He’s tall to me. It’s just so comforting because it feels so nice to look up and to speak to somebody. It’s so rare.” His daughter raced around the house, a bundle of energy, already big for her age. I mentioned the joke I’ve long made, that if I have children I’ll have a daughter who is 6 foot 5 inches and son who is 5 foot 6 inches and then they’ll both hate me. That is not a preoccupation in this home. “To be in the family and see his six-three and six-four nieces standing totally, perfectly tall without a care in the world about their height, there’s no awkwardness,” Asa’s wife Wenonah says. She is 5 foot 7 inches tall, above average but well within the normal range. “It’s just amazing and wonderful, which I’m so grateful for.” There’s no one in my family as tall as I am. When you’re different, you need to have people around who understand, to commiserate but also to laugh. I never had that example, never had a Walter to let me know, as Asa put it, “the normalcy of size and that everybody’s happy and there’s nothing weird or strange particularly about it.” “It’s something,” he reminded me, “to be proud of.”

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