Not a Man
I don’t know how to use a grill, and I am not a man.
The realization washed over me quickly as I stared down, helpless to the point of impotency, at the sextet of frozen burger patties lying mockingly on the grill before me. Not only were the burgers not being cooked—they actually appeared to be cooling the surface of the grill as their pathetic droplets of sun-melted-meat-water fell onto the way-too-big (or maybe too small?) pile of charcoal briquettes strewn haphazardly in the basin below. My eyes darted nervously behind the lenses of my thick-rimmed designer glasses as my brain searched desperately for some point of reference it could translate into a semblance of direct action. Instead, it only unearthed new questions. (Is this even the kind of grill that uses charcoal briquettes? Should I not have thrown a lit match in there? Did I just break this thing? What do all of these dials do? Is this thing on the side a propane tank? What the hell is propane anyway, and can it, like, leak into shit if I don’t use it correctly? Is there any way that I can ask someone for help without suffering the palpable humiliation of being forced to say the words unlit charcoal briquettes out loud?)
How did I end up in charge of the grill, anyway? Shouldn’t somebody’s father be doing this? Or, better yet, somebody’s uncle? Somebody unapologetically apron-clad, drinking a Bud Light, holding a spatula with big, calloused man-hands that look like they could actually build something—something solid and strong and made out of wood or brick or steel? The last thing I built was a fucking accent table from fucking Pottery Barn, and it fell apart because tightening the screws with that tiny metal screwdriver thing hurt my fingers too much. When it comes time to volunteer to make the burgers at the Labor Day Barbecue, the guy who hurt himself assembling the mid-sized end-table should keep his baby smooth hands inside the pockets of the probably-too-tight-red-linen-pants that he’s wearing for the day’s festivities.
I was not ready. I hadn’t learned enough. Yet there I stood, the grill cooling, my bluff called, the ghosts of my ancestors looking on in anticipation. I felt the unmistakable sensation of my legs growing inside of my already-probably-too-tight-red-linen-pants. A button popped off and a seam pulled apart—it was all too clear what was happening. I was, openly and irrevocably, too big for my britches.
Taking the reins of the grill is so much more than the simple act of fire-lighting and beef-flippery it may seem, on the surface, to be. It is an assertion of primacy and a declaration of manhood—at least among the males of the species (women appear to have evolved, as a gender, beyond the constructs of meat-based power dynamics). It is the raising of the Conch Shell on “Lord of the Flies” Island, relegating all other men to the collective role of Piggy. (Lord of the Flies was a novel about having a complicated and unresolved relationship with your father that you spend a lifetime unsuccessfully negotiating your way through, right?) It is something primal, something embedded deep within the Y-chromosome, dating back to that first Labor Day when two cavemen gathered in front of the fire-pit to stare deeply into the burning embers and not talk about their feelings. (Lesser-known fact: It was actually such a Neanderthal grilling session that gave rise to the now-ubiquitous phrase “You the man.” Grunted Caveman Ralph to Caveman Bob, a brontosaurus tenderloin roasting slowly away on the spit: “You make fire. You cook meat. You the man.”)
You spend your entire life in silent anticipation of the moment when it will be your turn to assume the role of Guy-In-Charge-Of-The-Grill, for the moment when it will be you walking around the backyard, unapologetically apron-clad, a Changing Of The Guard effectuated through the simple alchemy of pairing a point-of-the-finger with that time-worn, monosyllabic incantation: “Cheese?” The moment when it will be you handing your father a perfectly cooked hamburger, Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” reaching a gut-wrenching crescendo somewhere just beyond the horizon as you excuse yourself to go around back and have good fucking cry. This was my moment. This was my grill. And I didn’t even know how to turn it on.
“Hey,” I finally called out, my suddenly-pubescent voice cracking like Peter Brady singing “Time To Change.” “Can someone take over the grill for a second? I’m getting a work call.” Never mind the fact that it was a national holiday in late August, that it was eight o’clock at night, and that my obviously-not-ringing-phone was clearly sitting out on the picnic table with Jason Mraz Pandora blasting away at full volume. The plan wasn’t to stick around to answer follow-up questions. The plan was to hand off the spatula like a limp baton in a relay-race-of-sadness and head out into the night, awash in the unique brand of shame that accompanies being born with one of the five or six great Uncle-Names in the American lexicon, and having subsequently squandered that birthright. (“Uncle Tim.” That would have been nice.) Because an Uncle who can’t grill isn’t really an uncle. An uncle who can’t grill is just that weird guy at your bar mitzvah. (Actually, the opposite of a bar mitzvah. Is there a Jewish rite of passage where manhood is not bestowed but publically taken away?)
But no one came over to take ownership of the extinguished-Olympic-Torch-of-a-spatula that I held out in front of me. Instead, I was met with a series of awkwardly averted gazes, unintelligible mumblings, and the sight of six people simultaneously faking work calls on their non-Outlook-compliant iPhones. As it was to turn out, there were no Uncles on that Upper East Side roof deck that fateful evening. (Which is not to say that there weren’t people there who had nephews and nieces. Just no one who could claim, in good conscience, to be an Uncle in anything other than the most literal sense of that word.)
We were not Uncles. We were six friends who had decided to play grown-up, and we had flown too close to the sun.
There we were, ranging in age from late twenties to early thirties, conventionally successful, well-employed, well-adjusted—not one of us capable of cooking a burger over an open flame. Whatever it was that we thought we had accomplished up to that point, whoever it was we thought we saw when we looked into our mirrors that morning—one thing was now abundantly clear: somewhere, along the way, we had failed to become men. The kind of men who ate lunch out of metal pails while sitting on an iron beam hanging thousands of feet above New York City. Men who left home at the age of seventeen to join the Merchant-fucking-Marine. (which I think has something to do with fighting killer whales, but now that I say it out loud sounds wrong…) Men who grew up in the parts of Brooklyn where you played stickball in the street with nothing but a giant splinter and a baseball-sized rock.
(I live in Brooklyn. But I live in Brooklyn Heights, down by The Promenade, on a street named after a fruit. It isn’t the same thing.)
There we stood, helpless to the point of impotency, our hands tucked into the pockets of our probably-too-tight-pastel-linen-pants. Out of the darkness a voice quietly asked, “Is this even the kind of grill that uses charcoal briquettes?” Someone covertly typed “Barbecue. How?” into the search bar of the YouTube app on his non-Outlook-compliant iPhone. Avoiding eye contact we debated the merits of “just having salad.” Somewhere, all of our fathers were looking on in disappointment. Somewhere, all of our Uncles were asking for their bar mitzvah money back.