What it's like being extremely tall

Being taller than average is often thought of as impressive or imposing. But at 6-foot-8, I go through much of life trying to shrink.

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 feet 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 door frames. 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 in which 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 for an American male is just over 5 feet 9 inches. For a woman it is just under 5 foot 4 inches. The chart of height distribution in the United States stops 2 inches before it even gets to me. A height of 6 feet 6 inches is a rounding error, less than a tenth of 1 percent in most age ranges.

Asked in a series of emailed inquiries about the share of the population 6 feet 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 feet 2 inches; earnings stop increasing at 6 feet 6 inches. I have been every height and can say with some confidence that 6 feet 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 feet 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 feet 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.

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, and got called a monster a couple of times and 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 feet 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 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.

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.

At times we tall people 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.

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 that 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.

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.

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, Asa and I lived around the corner from each other in Arlington, Va. His family were local celebrities, the tall parents with the three super-tall sons who played basketball.

Asa worked 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. We drank Sierra Nevada, ate cheese, and looked at a photo album with his 4-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, Asa 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. We commiserated over footboards on beds and, most of all, airplane seats. We talked about how we don't dare get onto roller coasters anymore, too afraid the safety bar won't click into place and we'll go flying out at a curve or a loop.

His older brother 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 feet 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, Asa 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 feet 6 inches, his mother was 6 feet 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 7 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," Asa 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."

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."

Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in Topic. Reprinted with permission.


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