On Being a Giant

Ringer illustration

In the Atlantic Avenue subway stop, in downtown Brooklyn, there’s a hallway with a concrete overhang that’s maybe 6 feet, 3 inches off the ground. Someone has helpfully painted a yellow-and-black “Caution” sign on that overhang, to let you know that it’s a low-bridge situation. But let’s say that you’re walking along and talking to someone, or just listening to something on your phone, and you’re not fully aware of your environment. And let’s say, additionally, that you’re 7 feet tall.

The average doorway is 6-feet, 8-inches high. For the average human being, this is not a problem. It’s not really a problem, either, if you happen to be taller than 6-foot-8. For those of us who happen to be height outliers, a Spider-Sense thing happens when we’re passing through doorways that are shorter than we are. We don’t even think about it. We just instinctively duck our heads slightly and pass through unscathed. Maybe sometimes our timing is slightly off, and we nick the tops of our heads on the doorframe. That’s fine. We don’t complain. We just stand there for a second, rubbing our heads and feeling slightly stupid. We hope that nobody saw us. (Everyone saw us.) It happens. A 6-foot, 3-inch concrete overhang is, however, a different story.

During the years I lived in New York, there were maybe three occasions when I absolutely destroyed myself on that one Atlantic Avenue overhang. These were not sheepish-head-rub situations. These were moments when I would utterly blast myself in the most conspicuous way possible. Once, my glasses flew off and went skidding across the grimy floor. Once, my vision filled with orange light and I fell to one knee. Once, I bled. All three times, I had to wonder whether I’d just given myself a concussion. (Maybe I had? I never had it checked.) All three times, friendly strangers stopped to ask whether I was OK, like I was a little kid who had just fallen off his bike. All three times, I wished these people would just go away.

It’s hard to get an accurate count of just how many people are 7 feet tall, or taller. According to some estimates, there are only 2,800 7-footers on the planet. This seems low. A 2011 Sports Illustrated article claimed that there was a 17 percent chance that any American man with a height of at least 7 feet would play in the NBA. This seems high. Still, it’s clear that there are very few of us. We are a fraction of a tenth of a percentage point. We are the outliers of the outliers. We are hiding in plain sight. Literally.

I am not, strictly speaking, a 7-footer. I’m half an inch shy of the mark. But I am still extremely tall. I am taller than you or, most likely, anyone you know. That cousin you have? The tall one? The one you inexplicably feel compelled to tell me about, when you’re peppering me with questions about my height? I’m taller than him.

My whole family is tall, but they are regular-people tall: 6-foot-6 father, 6-foot-2 mother, 6-foot-5 brother, only one grandparent under 6 feet. My wife is tall, too. My kids are tall. But nobody else in my family is NBA starting-center height. Strangers do not openly gape at anybody else. Nobody else sometimes frightens dogs.

I’ve always been taller than anyone around me. Second grade was when I hit 5 feet. Fourth grade was the last time I had a teacher who was taller than me. Sixth grade was the last time I could walk into a shoe store and buy a pair of shoes. I’ve lived my whole life like this. As such, I know a few things about what it’s like to be a giant. Perhaps you’re curious. Some highlights:

Planes are a nightmare. Air travel is terrible for everyone, and the dimensions of coach-class seating are designed for children, or possibly elves. But commercial airlines represent a special kind of hell for us. Here’s how it works, during the occasions when a kindly and horrified flight attendant does not immediately rush you into a vacant exit-row seat: You wedge yourself, with difficulty, into whatever seat’s been assigned. You grit your teeth. You do your best to ignore any leg-cramping that might occur. You pray that the person in front of you does not attempt to recline that seat. And when that person does recline the seat, you jam both knees up against the back of the chair, pushing hard, refusing to give a millimeter. Your silent battle of wills rages until the plane finally begins its descent, and you vow never to put yourself through this torture again.

Compact cars are an impossibility. Fun story: When I was in driver’s ed, my ashen-faced teacher eventually demanded that I park the car and get out of the seat. There was no way for me to safely drive his car. Coming out of a red light, I’d pressed down on the gas and the brake at the same time. The pedals were too small, and my feet were too big. I once tried to drive a friend’s Neon and almost broke the steering column with my knees. I can drive my wife’s Civic, but I try not to do it too often, mostly because I look and sound exactly like the Simpsons bit about the tall guy driving the tiny car.

Live music is amazing. You can always see! No matter where you are! It’s great! There is some awkwardness involved. I always have to find a spot near the back or up against a wall or a pillar. I am an old hand at making sorry faces at whatever unfortunate soul happens to be standing behind me. Once, at a Mobb Deep record-shop in-store, I noticed that I was taller than both Prodigy and Havoc, even though they were standing on a stage that was maybe a foot and a half off the ground. In the ’90s, errant crowd-surfers regularly kicked me in the back of the head, since my head was the one thing floating up above the crowd. Small prices to pay.

Amazon is a godsend. Clothes fit me weird. This is something that I’ve come to accept. Shoes are a different story. You know how many stores sell size-20 shoes? No stores. No stores do that. But some online retailers let you search by size, and those people are the best. Amazon is the reason I’m not walking around with wooden planks duct-taped to my feet.

Some activities are off the table. I will never go skiing. I will never drive a go-kart. Bowling is fine, as long as I’m willing to have the preliminary conversation about how I’m not going to be able to rent the alley’s shoes. I am entirely OK with all of this.

Loud parties and crowded bars immediately become a chaotic thrum of noise. If I can’t find a barstool or a seat in the corner, I will not hear a word anyone says. All those conversations are simply happening below me. Social smoke breaks can be an effective way to get out of this, as long as you’re willing to deal with the inevitable “stunt your growth” jokes.

People always want to talk. A while ago, there was a viral story about a 6-foot-7 high school kid who carried a business card and handed it out to anyone who approached him about it: “Yes, I’m tall. You’re very observant for noticing.” I know how he feels. I was like him for longer than I would care to admit. But the reason people want to talk about being tall is that it rules. It’s impressive. I know this because, on the rare occasions when I’ve met people taller than me, I become an absolute pest. I stand there in slack-jawed awe for a few seconds, and then I want to know everything. So when I think about it from that perspective, I can sympathize with just about everyone who wants to know what things are like from up here, including the stranger at the supermarket who, not to be weird or nothin’, was just wondering how big my dick is.

People specifically always want to talk about basketball. Not everyone my height plays basketball. Maybe we should. But maybe we were born with the hand-eye coordination of sleepy toddlers. Maybe we have grotesquely thin and skeletal builds and we didn’t even hit 200 pounds until we were well into adulthood. Maybe we just didn’t try that hard in high school. Maybe we were embarrassed at the prospect of being our high school team’s versions of Shawn Bradley. Maybe all of the above! But if you insist on getting us out onto a court, we will still take great delight in swatting your shot out of the air and making you look stupid.

Someone will always need a light bulb changed, or a heavy thing pulled down from a high shelf. And then I get to strut around, chest puffed out, like a superhero.

That’s what makes the concrete-overhang injuries, the possibly shortened life expectancy, the limited fashion options, and everything else worth it. It’s strange, of course, standing out so starkly for genetic reasons that you can’t control. Even the elite athletes who took advantage of their height are self-conscious about it. Most estimates put Bill Walton at about 7-foot-2, but he always claimed to be 6-foot-11, since to him anything above 7 feet put you in the freak category. Kevin Durant bills himself at 6-foot-9 even though he’s about my height.

I understand these people. I spent most of my life slumping hard and saying I was 6-foot-11, not 7 feet. It’s a mental adjustment—figuring out that you’re never going to be normal and that that’s a good thing. But it is a good thing, minor headaches aside. In almost every Steven Spielberg movie, there’s at least one moment where awe and wonder wash over somebody’s face, where jaws slacken and eyes get wide. It’s the Spielberg Face. I make people make that face in real life. Who would trade that?

Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum, and he writes the action-movie column A History of Violence for The A.V. Club. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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