Susan Orlean likes to do something not many other journalists can get away with. In many of her articles Orlean tells us, right there on the page, what she’s thinking about her subjects. But it’s a trick. Orlean, a New Yorker staff writer, bestselling author, and 2004 Nieman Fellow, is often simply using her position in the narrative to give readers more information. Like the best reporters, Orlean brings readers into unfamiliar situations and then serves as enthusiastic guide, straightforward translator and gentle analyst all at once. When she applied that skill set to a celebrity cover story, in 1992, for Esquire, it evolved into a profile of an entirely un-famous subject: a 10-year-old boy named Colin Duffy. The resulting feature is funny and tense: a tightly paced volley of reportage that balances fact and fantasy, boy and man, man and woman, sex and violence, reporter and subject. In Colin Duffy, Orlean found an equally formidable guide — as the reporter tries to take readers inside his head, the subject does his best to induct her into the rituals of boyhood. This is “The American Man, Age 10” — smart, sobering, and rather fond of throwing things at girls. It’s classic Orlean, and she stepped me through it with her characteristic attention to details large and small. My annotation is in blue, hers in red, but first, some questions:
Storyboard: Here are some of Esquire‘s cover subjects from 1992, the same year you wrote this story for the magazine: Howard Stern, Clint Eastwood, Spike Lee, George H.W. Bush and Winona Ryder. How does Colin Duffy fit into that lineup?
Susan Orlean: He doesn’t fit at all! He’s a kid and they are all adults; he’s unknown and “ordinary,” and they’re all very public figures.
It really was that easy. I sometimes think it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I was so naïve that I didn’t realize how crazy it was to take my first-ever assignment from Esquire and suggest such a radical redirection. I was so naïve that I didn’t realize it would have been much easier to profile Macaulay Culkin than an unknown suburban kid, just because readers come to a story about a celebrity already comfortable — they understand what a celebrity profile is all about. The writer doesn’t have to explain why the story is worthy of their attention. But a story about an ordinary 10-year-old forces the writer to justify why this seemingly unimportant subject deserves time and column inches. The only explanation I can offer is that the editor, Terry McConnell, was in the mood to be adventurous, and that I must have made a very passionate plea for why it was a good idea to do the story my way.
Tell me a bit about the mechanics of the reporting process with Colin. How long was the reporting phase? How much did you hang out with Colin and his family/friends? What was the adult involvement in the situation?
I had about two weeks to hang out with him, so I went to his house every day during that time, accompanying him to school and to play dates and home again for dinner. His parents had agreed to the story, and they basically let me come and go with Colin and didn’t interfere. His school, of course, knew why I was there and they were very accommodating, leaving me to do whatever I needed to do. Usually it meant just sitting in class with him, observing.
About how long was your first draft? And how has your drafting process changed or not changed over the decades since you wrote this?
I don’t remember the specifics — I know that I was on a very tight deadline, so there wasn’t a lot of time for multiple drafts and lots of revision. I just remember banging it out and having my fingers crossed that I had made it work. It’s not much different from the way I work now.
What was the most difficult part of writing this piece?
The most difficult part was keeping up my confidence. I knew I believed in the idea that profiling regular people was really important and more interesting, in many ways, than profiling celebrities. Even so, I would often come home from spending a day with Colin doing his usual 10-year-old things and think to myself, What am I doing? How on earth is this a story? I really had to fight that and assure myself that it really was a story.
It’s been 20 years since you wrote this profile. You now have a son who is almost Colin’s age. Have you considered revisiting the topic? Do you know if Colin Duffy ever made it to Wyoming?
Yes, I have considered revisiting it, and I exchanged emails with Colin last summer in anticipation of perhaps doing a 20-year look back at the piece. And as my son approaches that age, it is even more tempting to do it. I think I’m just reluctant to compete against myself — I feel like this piece had some magic to it, and I am not sure I could match it or better it. But maybe I’m just being too critical. It’s very tempting. By the way, Colin did make it to Wyoming. He’s had a very interesting life since I knew him – not following a predictable path at all, which would make an even more intriguing story, probably!
“The American Man, Age 10“
By Susan Orlean
Esquire, December 1992
If Colin Duffy and I were to get married, we would have matching superhero notebooks. This whole lede is stunning for many reasons, but what most interests me is how you’re positioning yourself with the first sentence. When I read this, I immediately know several things: You are fond of your subject. You are very different from him, although you might wish you were less so. And you also know your readership — the presumed demographic of Esquire would have at one time been 10-year-old boys themselves. Are you flirting with the reader more than with the concept of being Colin’s partner? Well put! This was about being in love with the idea of youth and innocence and memory of childhood; Colin was adorable, of course, but my ode is to that marvelous quality he embodied — that all kids embody — of possibility and imagination and freedom. We would wear shorts, big sneakers, and long, baggy T-shirts depicting famous athletes every single day, even in the winter. We would sleep in our clothes. We would both be good at Nintendo Street Fighter II, but Colin would be better than me. We would have some homework, but it would not be too hard and we would always have just finished it. We would eat pizza and candy for all of our meals. We wouldn’t have sex, but we would have crushes on each other and, magically, babies would appear in our home. We would win the lottery and then buy land in Wyoming, where we would have one of every kind of cute animal. All the while, Colin would be working in law enforcement – probably the FBI. Our favorite movie star, Morgan Freeman, would visit us occasionally. We would listen to the same Eurythmics song (“Here Comes the Rain Again”) over and over again and watch two hours of television every Friday night. We would both be good at football, have best friends, and know how to drive; we would cure AIDS and the garbage problem and everything that hurts animals. I appreciate how this lede, while being so imaginative, still does its job — here, you introduce or foreshadow a great deal of what we’ll learn about Colin later in the piece. How do you approach a lede and at what point does that come in your writing process? I begin hearing the themes of the piece as I’m reporting, without yet having an idea of how I’ll begin. I write from the first sentence down to the last, so until I get that lede I don’t move on. With luck, it emerges as a culmination of all I’ve thought about and learned in the reporting, and opens the door to the rest of the writing. We would hang out a lot with Colin’s dad. For fun, we would load a slingshot with dog food and shoot it at my butt. This final image is a bit jarring after all the camaraderie that precedes it. I’m curious about this sentence’s function at the end of the lede — did you feel a need to start removing yourself from your subject’s perspective? No, it was partly just a laugh line, but it was also a bit of reality: This actually occurred one night when I was hanging out with Colin, and I was reminded of how boisterous and silly (and occasionally rude) little boys can be — which is very much part of who they are. I liked the dreaminess of everything that leads up to this sentence, and then I liked the funny jolt of this to bring us back to reality. We would have a very good life.
Here are the particulars about Colin Duffy: He is ten years old, on the nose. He is four feet eight inches high, weighs seventy-five pounds, and appears to be mostly leg and shoulder blade. He is a handsome kid. He has a broad forehead, dark eyes with dense lashes, and a sharp, dimply smile. I have rarely seen him without a baseball cap. He owns several, but favors a University of Michigan Wolverines model, on account of its pleasing colors. The hat styles his hair into wild disarray. If you ever managed to get the hat off his head, you would see a boy with a nimbus of golden-brown hair, dented in the back, where the hat hits him.
Colin lives with his mother, Elaine; his father, Jim; his older sister, Megan; and his little brother, Chris, in a pretty pale-blue Victorian house on a bosky street in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. You just threw down “nimbus” and “bosky” in two subsequent sentences in a glossy men’s magazine. How do you eyeball the potential vocabulary level of your readership? Ha! I feel like it’s okay to make people go to the dictionary once in a while, but these are also both words that sound so much like what they mean that I felt I could get away with it. I think my readers would have known what a nimbus was and would have been able to figure out what bosky means. I don’t like to find fancy words when simple ones can do, but I do like to dig out really marvelous words like those that don’t get used enough and deploy them when they’re appropriate. Glen Ridge is a serene and civilized old town twenty miles west of New York City. It does not have much of a commercial district, but it is a town of amazing lawns. Most of the houses were built around the turn of the century and are set back a gracious, green distance from the street. The rest of the town seems to consist of parks and playing fields and sidewalks and backyards – in other words, it is a far cry from South-Central Los Angeles and from Bedford-Stuyvesant and other, grimmer parts of the country where a very different ten-year-old American man is growing up today. By describing his environment and comparing it to others, you’re at once orienting us in Colin’s normalcy and taking pains to point out that he’s not like other boys. What does Colin’s story lose if the reader doesn’t have this wider-angle lens? This was a reminder that there is no “typical” — that as much as Colin was a good representative of a lot of American boys, he was not going to represent ALL American kids, especially kids with very disadvantaged families. I simply wanted to acknowledge the obvious, that not every kid has a comfortable house and two parents with jobs.
There is a fine school system in Glen Ridge, but Elaine and Jim, who are both schoolteachers, choose to send their children to a parents’ cooperative elementary school in Montclair, a neighboring suburb. Currently, Colin is in fifth grade. He is a good student. He plans to go to college, to a place he says is called Oklahoma City State College University. OCSCU satisfies his desire to live out west, to attend a small college, and to study law enforcement, which OCSCU apparently offers as a major. This is the first of many moments in which you take an inaccurate statement by Colin (the name of the university) and run with it. A duller writer would have written something like, “He probably meant Oklahoma State.” Instead, you use his error as an opportunity to play a bit, but without making fun of him. It’s a marvelous use of humor to relate a telling detail about character. How do you approach humor in your work? I love humor, and I love encouraging the reader to see the humor that’s inherent, rather than layering on some joke for the sake of a joke. Since my aim was to try to step into Colin’s mind as much as possible, going along with these half-accuracies was essential. The very nature of the error was important to the theme of the piece, namely that he exists in that muddled place between childhood and adolescence, where he understands a lot about life but doesn’t yet quite have it fully grasped. I felt that his description of the university captured that perfectly — he kind of knew what he was talking about, but not quite. I knew readers would be able to decipher what he meant, without having me lay it out. What was more important was encouraging the reader to inhabit Colin’s reality as is, at least for a little while — to try to see what the world looks like to a 10-year-old, in all its slightly cracked glory. After four years at Oklahoma City State College University, he plans to work for the FBI. He says that getting to be a police officer involves tons of hard work, but working for the FBI will be a cinch, because all you have to do is fill out one form, which he has already gotten from the head FBI office. Colin is quiet in class but loud on the playground. He has a great throwing arm, significant foot speed, and a lot of physical confidence. He is also brave. Huge wild cats with rabies and gross stuff dripping from their teeth, which he says run rampant throughout his neighborhood, do not scare him. Otherwise, he is slightly bashful. This combination of athletic grace and valor and personal reserve accounts for considerable popularity. He has a fluid relationship to many social groups, including the superbright nerds, the ultrajocks, the flashy kids who will someday become extremely popular and socially successful juvenile delinquents, and the kids who will be elected president of the student body. In his opinion, the most popular boy in his class is Christian, who happens to be black, and Colin’s favorite television character is Steve Urkel on Family Matters, who is black, too, but otherwise he seems uninterested in or oblivious to race. Until this year, he was a Boy Scout. Now he is planning to begin karate lessons. His favorite schoolyard game is football, followed closely by prison dodge ball, blob tag, and bombardo. He’s crazy about athletes, although sometimes it isn’t clear if he is absolutely sure of the difference between human athletes and Marvel Comics action figures. His current athletic hero is Dave Meggett. His current best friend is named Japeth. He used to have another best friend named Ozzie. According to Colin, Ozzie was found on a doorstep, then changed his name to Michael and moved to Massachusetts, and then Colin never saw him or heard from him again. Breakneck pace. You throw so much information at the reader, so quickly. Within just four paragraphs you’ve hooked us, oriented us, and managed to ally yourself with both the subject and the reader. Here, with this capsule bio, are you beginning to establish a more reporterly stance than you took in the lede? Yes, this is where I want to shift gears, to become more observational and analytical, and also to prepare for the minor key of the next section, which is about some of the poignancy and sadness that even 10-year-olds experience.
He has had other losses in his life. He is old enough to know people who have died and to know things about the world that are worrisome. When he dreams, he dreams about moving to Wyoming, which he has visited with his family. I’m curious about how you intermingle what may be info you’re directly reporting — stuff Colin told you — and your own observations. How do you toe that line when writing a profile, especially when dealing with a somewhat unreliable source when it comes to facts? My rule is that the reader should be able to understand the difference between my reportorial statements and the statements I’m offering which are paraphrased from Colin. It’s a tonal shift from one to the other, which (I hope) is clear to the reader. His plan is to buy land there and have some sort of ranch that would definitely include horses. Sometimes when he talks about this, it sounds as ordinary and hard-boiled as a real estate appraisal; other times it can sound fantastical and wifty and achingly naive, informed by the last inklings of childhood – the musings of a balmy real estate appraiser assaying a wonderful and magical landscape that erodes from memory a little bit every day. The collision in his mind of what he understands, what he hears, what he figures out, what popular culture pours into him, what he knows, what he pretends to know, and what he imagines, makes an interesting mess. The mess often has the form of what he will probably think like when he is a grown man, but the content of what he is like as a little boy. Now the reporterly stance you’ve been building relaxes a bit, and you offer some of your own “adult” perspective. The story has progressed: Here’s the fantasy; here are the particular facts; and now, here’s what I think. How does including your perspective change how the readers perceive Colin at this point? I assume that readers have more in common with me than with Colin, so this is a section in which I turn away from Colin and try to address the readers, adult to adult. It’s important to have the tone be distinctly grown-up, almost like a Greek chorus commenting on what we’ve observed.
He is old enough to begin imagining that he will someday get married, but at ten he is still convinced that the best thing about being married will be that he will be allowed to sleep in his clothes. Did you ask him about being married, or is this a topic he was fond of discussing? I asked him about it. I don’t remember if he ever brought it up on his own, although he definitely had begun thinking a little bit about girls, so I just pushed it a bit further. His father once observed that living with Colin was like living with a Martian who had done some reading on American culture. This, to me, is a great example of allowing the subjects in the story to explain it to readers, rather than stepping out of the narrative to comment on it as the writer. Who were your sources? Did you interview other kids, Colin’s parents, or teachers outside the context of the follow-along? I talked to his parents, to other kids, and then did research on adolescent development. Most of all, I observed. I went to school with Colin for almost two weeks, and spent time after school with him on those days. As it happens, Colin is not especially sad or worried about the prospect of growing up, although he sometimes frets over whether he should be called a kid or a grown-up; he has settled on the word kid-up. Once I asked him what the biggest advantage to adulthood will be, and he said, “The best thing is that grown-ups can go wherever they want.” I asked him what he meant, exactly, and he said, “Well, if you’re grown-up, you’d have a car, and whenever you felt like it, you could get into your car and drive somewhere and get candy.” This is the first quote you use from Colin. How do you decide when to quote and when to summarize? I like to use quotes sparingly, and to use them when there’s a real reason to quote rather than to just write in my own voice. I like quotes that are meaningful for their content but also revealing in terms of voice, language, personality. People think I use quotes a lot, but I really don’t — I only like to use them when they serve many purposes. I never quote someone simply delivering a fact that I can deliver myself in the body of the story.
Colin loves recycling. He loves it even more than, say, playing with little birds. That ten-year-olds feel the weight of the world and consider it their mission to shoulder it came as a surprise to me. I had gone with Colin one Monday to his classroom at Montclair Cooperative School. The Coop is in a steep, old, sharp-angled brick building that had served for many years as a public school until a group of parents in the area took it over and made it into a private, progressive elementary school. The fifth-grade classroom is on the top floor, under the dormers, which gives the room the eccentric shape and closeness of an attic. It is a rather informal environment. There are computers lined up in an adjoining room and instructions spelled out on the chalkboard – BRING IN: 1) A CUBBY WITH YOUR NAME ON IT, 2) A TRAPPER WITH A 5-POCKET ENVELOPE LABELED SCIENCE, SOCIAL STUDIES, READING/LANGUAGE ARTS, MATH, MATH LAB/COMPUTER; WHITE LINED PAPER; A PLASTIC PENCIL BAG; A SMALL HOMEWORK PAD, 3) LARGE BROWN GROCERY BAGS – but there is also a couch in the center of the classroom, which the kids take turns occupying, a rocking chair, and three canaries in cages near the door. Tell me about how one gets permission to observe a fifth-grade class as a reporter. And where did you sit? HA!! I can tell you that the chairs in fifth grade are not exactly comfortable for a grown-up. But you do what you have to do if you’re trying to really immerse yourself in a story. I asked the school principal for permission; fortunately, it was a small private school, so I didn’t have to go through a complicated process to get permission that I imagine a big public school would have required.
It happened to be Colin’s first day in fifth grade. Before class began, there was a lot of horsing around, but there were also a lot of conversations about whether Magic Johnson had AIDS or just HIV and whether someone falling in a pool of blood from a cut of his would get the disease. These jolts of sobriety in the midst of rank goofiness are a ten-year-old’s specialty. Each one comes as a fresh, hard surprise, like finding a razor blade in a candy apple. The way you phrase this phenomenon is also surprising — you use a cliché, but deploy it in a way that allows it to be freshly effective. Coming at this point in the narrative, did you feel it was necessary to insert a bit of adult levity into the wild vagaries of 10-year-old conversation? Again, this goes to the theme of the piece, the juggling act of this particular age. Younger kids wouldn’t know what AIDS was; older kids would know more about the science involved. Ten-year-olds straddle those worlds. Sometimes they’re surprisingly adult in their awareness and concerns, which is what I wanted to bring out here. One day, Colin and I had been discussing horses or dogs or something, and out of the blue he said, “What do you think is better, to dump garbage in the ocean, to dump it on land, or to burn it?” Another time, he asked me if I planned to have children. I had just spent an evening with him and his friend Japeth, during which they put every small, movable object in the house into Japeth’s slingshot and fired it at me, Ah, so that really did happen! Yep, it did! so I told him I wanted children but that I hoped they would all be girls, and he said, “Will you have an abortion if you find out you have a boy?”
At school, after discussing summer vacation, the kids began choosing the jobs they would do to help out around the classroom. Most of the jobs are humdrum – putting the chairs up on the tables, washing the chalkboard, turning the computers off or on. Five of the most humdrum tasks are recycling chores – for example, taking bottles or stacks of paper down to the basement, where they would be sorted and prepared for pickup. Two children would be assigned to feed the birds and cover their cages at the end of the day.
I expected the bird jobs to be the first to go. Everyone loved the birds; they’d spent an hour that morning voting on names for them (Tweetie, Montgomery, and Rose narrowly beating out Axl Rose, Bugs, Ol’ Yeller, Fido, Slim, Lucy, and Chirpie). I’m curious to know how the magazine fact-checked this article, considering the piece so heavily relies on children. I’m afraid I can’t answer that with authority, but the teacher would have been able to confirm specifics in the classroom, at least. Instead, they all wanted to recycle. The recycling jobs were claimed by the first five kids called by Suzanne Nakamura, the fifth-grade teacher; each kid called after that responded by groaning, “Suzanne, aren’t there any more recycling jobs?” Colin ended up with the job of taking down the chairs each morning. He accepted the task with a sort of resignation – this was just going to be a job rather than a mission.
On the way home that day, I was quizzing Colin about his world views.
“Who’s the coolest person in the world?”
“What’s the best sport?”
“Who’s the coolest woman?”
“None. I don’t know.”
“What’s the most important thing in the world?”
“Game Boy.” Pause. “No, the world. The world is the most important thing in the world.”Let’s talk about structure. We’re almost halfway through the story. Did you approach writing the piece with a particular structure or shape in mind? How did the structure change through the drafting process? Because I wanted to demonstrate how being 10 whipsaws you between childhood and adulthood, I pictured the sections moving back and forth as well between those perspectives. I had a checklist of what I wanted to accomplish — writing about school, writing about home, about women, about dreams — and I definitely wanted to end with a scene of him alone, moving forward into the future somehow. I had building blocks of scenes that could have been assembled in a few different ways, so I looked for transitions that could couple them together. Chronology wasn’t very important, since the time span of my reporting wasn’t long; instead, I just organized the pieces to have each one resonant with the next thematically. I write very much by ear — that is, I respond a lot to rhythm and sound, so I also arranged things to have “bright” sections next to drier, quieter sections, for instance. I was conscious throughout of the possibility that readers would be arguing with me — “Why is this a story? Why should I read about some ordinary kid? What’s this doing in Esquire??” — so I wanted to propel them along and not give them a chance to stop reading. That meant the rhythm and tone were critical. It had to be bold and confident, funny, intimate, and wise, all at once.
Danny’s Pizzeria is a dark little shop next door to the Montclair Cooperative School. It is not much to look at. Outside, the brick facing is painted muddy brown. Inside, there are some saggy counters, a splintered bench, and enough room for either six teenagers or about a dozen ten-year-olds who happen to be getting along well. The light is low. The air is oily. At Danny’s, you will find pizza, candy, Nintendo, and very few girls. To a ten-year-old boy, it is the most beautiful place in the world. The call-back here to the “most important thing in the world” is lovely. Thank you!
One afternoon, This article has a somewhat malleable timeline. Things tend to happen “once,” “one afternoon,” or “one time.” Why? I love the timelessness that those phrases give a piece — I didn’t want this to be one specific story in one specific moment but perhaps something that could stand outside of time. after class was dismissed, we went to Danny’s with Colin’s friend Japeth to play Nintendo. Danny’s has only one game, Street Fighter II Champion Edition. Some teenage boys from a nearby middle school had gotten there first and were standing in a tall, impenetrable thicket around the machine.How does an adult woman position herself as a reporter in Danny’s Pizzeria without becoming a focal point of attention? Is it even possible? I’m lucky to be small enough to escape too much notice, and I’ve mastered the art of invisibility when I need to. I’m sure the kids took note of me, but they seemed to carry on as if I weren’t there, which was perfect.
“Next game,” Colin said. The teenagers ignored him.
“Hey, we get next game,” Japeth said. He is smaller than Colin, scrappy, and, as he explained to me once, famous for wearing his hat backward all the time and having a huge wristwatch and a huge bedroom. He stamped his foot and announced again, “Hey, we get next game.”
One of the teenagers turned around and said, “Fuck you, next game,“ and then turned back to the machine.
“Whoa,” Japeth said.
He and Colin went outside, where they felt bigger. Did they tell you this? Were their feelings about bullying overt or observed? This was a combination of my observation and what they were registering on their faces and behavior. I’m sure pride would have inhibited them from saying anything explicit about being bullied, but I could certainly tell.
“Which street fighter are you going to be?” Colin asked Japeth.
“Blanka,” Japeth said. “I know how to do his head-butt.”
“I hate that! I hate the head-butt,” Colin said. He dropped his voice a little and growled, “I’m going to be Ken, and I will kill you with my dragon punch.”
“Yeah, right, and monkeys will fly out of my butt,” Japeth said.
Street Fighter II is a video game in which two characters have an explosive brawl in a scenic international setting. It is currently the most popular video-arcade game in America. This is not an insignificant amount of popularity. Most arcade versions of video games, which end up in pizza parlors, malls, and arcades, sell about two thousand units. So far, some fifty thousand Street Fighter II and Street Fighter II Championship Edition arcade games have been sold. Not since Pac-Man, which was released the year before Colin was born, has there been a video game as popular as Street Fighter. The home version of Street Fighter is the most popular home video game in the country, and that, too, is not an insignificant thing. Thirty-two million Nintendo home systems have been sold since 1986, when it was introduced in this country. There is a Nintendo system in seven of every ten homes in America in which a child between the ages of eight and twelve resides. By the time a boy in America turns ten, he will almost certainly have been exposed to Nintendo home games, Nintendo arcade games, and Game Boy, the hand-held version. He will probably own a system and dozens of games. By ten, according to Nintendo studies, teachers, and psychologists, game prowess becomes a fundamental, essential male social marker and a schoolyard boast. This is the first overt citation of outside research in the article, and it comes several thousand words into the article. What kind of prep did you do before meeting Colin? It’s not like with a celebrity profile, or interviewing a topic expert, where you can read a previous body of work about them or study up on their own work. I read up on the psychology of that age, without knowing how I’d use it in the piece. I didn’t have a younger brother, I rarely babysat, and I didn’t have kids yet, so I was pretty ignorant about 10-year-old boys. Once I started writing, I thought it was useful but, more importantly, funny to paraphrase the stiff, analytical language of authority in the context of my piece, which was so loose and personal.
The Street Fighter characters are Dhalsim, Ken, Guile, Blanka, E. Honda, Ryu, Zangief, and Chun Li. Had you ever played Streetfighter before this? Did the boys teach you? I’d never played. They taught me as best they could, but I was hopeless. Each represents a different country, and they each have their own special weapon. Chun Li, for instance, is from China and possesses a devastating whirlwind kick that is triggered if you push the control pad down for two seconds and then up for two seconds, and then you hit the kick button. Chun Li’s kick is money in the bank, Is this your opinion/phrasing, or the boys’? “Money in the bank” is my phrase — I love that it’s old-fashioned, something a kid would never say. The fact that Chun Li’s kick is her superpower is information I gleaned from Colin. because most of the other fighters do not have a good defense against it. By the way, Chun Li happens to be a girl — the only female Street Fighter character. I’m curious about your use of “happens to be”– it’s used here, earlier when you mention race, and at several other points in the article. Were you reflecting a phrase or attitude of the boys’? What purpose does an appearance of happenstance serve? It emphasizes that her femaleness wasn’t something the boys remarked upon; it was just who she was. This struck me as interesting contrast to their usual hyper-aware attitude towards gender.
I asked Colin if he was interested in being Chun Li. There was a long pause. “I’d rather be Ken,” he said.
The girls in Colin’s class at school are named Cortnerd, Terror, Spacey, Lizard, Maggot, and Diarrhea. “They do have other names, but that’s what we call them,” Colin told me. “The girls aren’t very popular.”
“They are about as popular as a piece of dirt,” Japeth said. “Or, you know that couch in the classroom? That couch is more popular than any girl. A thousand times more.” They talked for a minute about one of the girls in their class, a tall blonde with cheerleader genetic material, who they allowed was not quite as gross as some of the other girls. Japeth said that a chubby, awkward boy in their class was boasting that this girl liked him.
“No way,” Colin said. “She would never like him. I mean, not that he’s so … I don’t know. I don’t hate him because he’s fat, anyway. I hate him because he’s nasty.”
“Well, she doesn’t like him,” Japeth said. “She’s been really mean to me lately, so I’m pretty sure she likes me.”
“Girls are different,” Colin said. He hopped up and down on the balls of his feet, wrinkling his nose. “Girls are stupid and weird.”
“I have a lot of girlfriends, about six or so,” Japeth said, turning contemplative. “I don’t exactly remember their names, though.”I know you don’t like to record, but how did you capture the subtleties of their speech? Were you a part of this conversation, or merely observing? I scribbled madly. They chattered to each other enough that I could catch up with my notes while they tracked off onto something less interesting. I definitely paid the price for not using a tape recorder, but I was with them for so much time that the tapes would have been ridiculously long, and I would argue that a tape recorder would have made them more self-conscious. Somehow, a pad and pen just doesn’t intrude the way an electronic gizmo does. I also know I listen more attentively when I’m the one and only recording device, and at the end of the day, that’s the single most important thing I can do. If I’m not really engaged and paying attention, it’s not going to work. If I don’t get every line of dialogue, I’ll manage with what I have. If I haven’t really paid attention, I can’t write a good piece.
The teenagers came crashing out of Danny’s and jostled past us, so we went inside. Here, again, you’re allied with the boys. Not teens, not Tom — the boys. How much of that partisanship evolved in the crafting of the piece — the writing — and how much was in the moment of reporting? I felt very much that I was in Colin’s world, immersing myself in his universe, so my reaction to the teenagers was really calibrated to Colin’s reaction. The man who runs Danny’s, whose name is Tom, was leaning across the counter on his elbows, looking exhausted. Two little boys, holding Slush Puppies, shuffled toward the Nintendo, but Colin and Japeth elbowed them aside and slammed their quarters down on the machine. The little boys shuffled back toward the counter and stood gawking at them, sucking on their drinks.
“You want to know how to tell if a girl likes you?” Japeth said. “She’ll act really mean to you. That’s a sure sign. I don’t know why they do it, but it’s always a sure sign. It gets your attention. You know how I show a girl I like her? I steal something from her and then run away. I do it to get their attention, and it works.”
They played four quarters’ worth of games. Not a dollar – four quarters. A great case of speaking the language of the country you’re in — video game country. Thanks!! During the last one, a teenager with a quilted leather jacket and a fade haircut came in, pushed his arm between them, and put a quarter down on the deck of the machine.
Japeth said, “Hey, what’s that?”
The teenager said, “I get next game. I’ve marked it now. Everyone knows this secret sign for next game. It’s a universal thing.”
“So now we know,” Japeth said. “Colin, let’s get out of here and go bother Maggie. I mean Maggot. Okay?” They picked up their backpacks and headed out the door.
Psychologists identify ten as roughly the age at which many boys experience the gender-linked normative developmental trauma that leaves them, as adult men, at risk for specific psychological sequelae often manifest as deficits in the arenas of intimacy, empathy, and struggles with commitment in relationships. In other words, this is around the age when guys get screwed up about girls. Elaine and Jim Duffy, and probably most of the parents who send their kids to Montclair Cooperative School, have done a lot of stuff to try to avoid this. They gave Colin dolls as well as guns. (He preferred guns.) The American Man! Amazing how this happens. As the mother of a 9-year-old boy I now really understand. Japeth’s father has three motorcycles and two dirt bikes but does most of the cooking and cleaning in their home. Suzanne, Colin’s teacher, is careful to avoid sexist references in her presentations. After school, the yard at Montclair Cooperative is filled with as many fathers as mothers – fathers who hug their kids when they come prancing out of the building and are dismayed when their sons clamor for Supersoaker water guns and war toys or take pleasure in beating up girls. This is such a vivid portrayal of kids’ gender influences and how much parents seem to lack of control over their kids’ development. And it’s a great segue to…
In a study of adolescents conducted by the Gesell Institute of Human Development, nearly half the ten-year-old boys questioned said they thought they had inadequate information about sex. Sexuality lurks just out of the picture in much of this article. How much did you study up on childhood sexual development and how much came from observation of the children? It was definitely both. I read up to have the hard science, without knowing if I’d use it. Then it occurred to me that it would be useful as well as a bit droll to include it. Nevertheless, most ten-year-old boys across the country are subjected to a few months of sex education in school. Colin and his class will get their dose next spring. It is yet another installment in a plan to make them into new, improved men with reconstructed notions of sex and male-female relationships. One afternoon I asked Philip, a schoolmate of Colin’s, whether he was looking forward to sex education, and he said, “No, because I think it’ll probably make me really, really hyper. I have a feeling it’s going to be just like what it was like when some television reporters came to school last year and filmed us in class and I got really hyper. They stood around with all these cameras and asked us questions. I think that’s what sex education is probably like.”
At a class meeting earlier in the day: Tell me about the choice to switch into a more script-like dialogue format here. I wanted the piece to have a lot of texture, so the change added to that. Also, a classroom exchange is so formal that it is almost like a script, rather than a conversation. I thought it would be funnier this way.
Colin’s Teacher, Suzanne: “Today was our first swimming class, and I have one observation to make. The girls went to their locker room, got dressed without a lot of fuss, and came into the pool area. The boys, on the other hand, the boys had some sort of problem doing that rather simple task. Can someone tell me exactly what went on in the locker room?”
Keith: “There was a lot of shouting.”
Suzanne: “Okay, I hear you saying that people were being noisy and shouting. Anything else?”
Christian: “Some people were screaming so much that my ears were killing me. It gave me, like, a huge headache. Also, some of the boys were taking their towels, I mean, after they had taken their clothes off, they had their towels around their waists and then they would drop them really fast and then pull them back up, really fast.”
Suzanne: “Okay, you’re saying some people were being silly about their bodies.”
Christian: “Well, yeah, but it was more like they were being silly about their pants.”
Colin’s bedroom is decorated simply. He has a cage with his pet parakeet, Dude, on his dresser, a lot of recently worn clothing piled haphazardly on the floor, and a husky brown teddy bear sitting upright in a chair near the foot of his bed. The walls are mostly bare, except for a Spiderman poster and a few ads torn out of magazines he has thumbtacked up. One of the ads is for a cologne, illustrated with several small photographs of cowboy hats; another, a feverish portrait of a woman on a horse, is an ad for blue jeans. These inspire him sometimes when he lies in bed and makes plans for the move to Wyoming. Also, he happens to like ads. He also likes television commercials. Generally speaking, he likes consumer products and popular culture. He partakes avidly but not indiscriminately. In fact, during the time we spent together, he provided a running commentary on merchandise, media, and entertainment:Let’s talk about lists. Why do you use them a lot in your work? The one we’re about to read here has an almost diametric effect, with Colin bouncing between an adult’s and child’s view of culture. I love lists. I don’t know why; I just do. I love the way words bang up against each other in a list. In this case, the jumble is so revealing of a 10-year-old’s jumbled-up world that it was hard to resist. So I didn’t.
“The most beautiful woman in the world is not Madonna! Only Wayne and Garth think that! She looks like maybe a … a … slut or something. Adult? Cindy Crawford looks like she would look good, but if you see her on an awards program on TV she doesn’t look that good. I think the most beautiful woman in the world probably is my mom.” Child. This barrage of judgments delivers more of that great humor and status detail about the subject, but it’s also sobering when taken in the context of the article’s frame of “The American Man.” Colin is a person who already perceives he has authority, whether real or imagined. As a man, he’s more likely than young women to continue having that perception supported throughout his life. His attempts to explain his world to you sometimes come across as condescending. But then Colin does this complete 180 and is like, Oh, I love my mom. He’s a child. So in one list we churn through all these aspects of American masculinity: authority, best/worst, mansplaining, Mommy. How intentional were you about drawing out some of these broader parallels? Very intentional. I wanted the reader to end up almost dizzy from the movement, to live for a second in the 10-year-old brain, which travels those great distances constantly. And I loved outlining the range of male identity this way.
Colin thinks a lot about money. Here, again, The American Man. This started when he was about nine and a half, which is when a lot of other things started – a new way of walking that has a little macho hitch and swagger, [annotation-group][annotate color="red"]How did you find this out? His mother mentioned it to me. a decision about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (con) and Eurythmics (pro), and a persistent curiosity about a certain girl whose name he will not reveal. He knows the price of everything he encounters. He knows how much college costs and what someone might earn performing different jobs. Once, he asked me what my husband did; when I answered that he was a lawyer, he snapped, “You must be a rich family. Lawyers make $400,000 a year.” His preoccupation with money baffles his family. This is one of the few moments in the story in which we hear from Colin’s family. I admire that scarcity, because a lot of writers could easily over-rely on family dynamic, when in fact a kid’s world is much more than family. But why bring them in here, when talking about money (and not girls, bullying, or school)? Girls, bullying, and school seemed to be subjects Colin was learning about from and with his friends. Money seemed to relate very much to his family, both actually (since anything having to do with money in his life would involve his family) and in attitude. His interest in money was something his parents mentioned to me as one of the things they couldn’t figure out about him, so that made it even more relevant to include them here. They are not struggling, so this is not the anxiety of deprivation; they are not rich, so, he is not responding to an elegant, advantaged world. His allowance is five dollars a week. It seems sufficient for his needs, which consist chiefly of quarters for Nintendo and candy money. The remainder is put into his Wyoming fund. His fascination is not just specific to needing money or having plans for money: It is as if money itself, and the way it makes the world work, and the realization that almost everything in the world can be assigned a price, has possessed him. “I just pay attention to things like that,” Colin says. “It’s really very interesting.”
He is looking for a windfall. He tells me his mother has been notified that she is in the fourth and final round of the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. This is not an ironic observation. This statement makes me question his other observations. Were they ironic? Or, at least, self-aware? I don’t think Colin had yet developed a sense of irony. Since an adult might say something about the sweepstakes in a jokey way, since we all know how ridiculous (and meaningless) the “fourth and final round” is, I wanted to just make sure readers understood that he still took it very seriously and believed in it. He plays the New Jersey lottery every Thursday night. He knows the weekly jackpot; he knows the number to call to find out if he has won. I do not think this presages a future for Colin as a high-stakes gambler; I think it says more about the powerful grasp that money has on imagination and what a large percentage of a ten-year-old’s mind is made up of imaginings. One Friday, we were at school together, and one of his friends was asking him about the lottery, and he said, “This week it was $4 million. That would be I forget how much every year for the rest of your life. It’s a lot, I think. You should play. All it takes is a dollar and a dream.”
Until the lottery comes through and he starts putting together the Wyoming land deal, Colin can be found most of the time in the backyard. Often, he will have friends come over. Regularly, children from the neighborhood will gravitate to the backyard, too. As a technical matter of real-property law, title to the house and yard belongs to Jim and Elaine Duffy, but Colin adversely possesses the backyard, at least from 4:00 each afternoon until it gets dark. As yet, the fixtures of teenage life – malls, video, arcades, friends’ basements, automobiles – either hold little interest for him or are not his to have. This feels lonely, all of a sudden. This is where I am moving from the major chords to the minor chords. I want to prepare readers for the poignancy of the end — the end of the story, the end of their relationship with Colin, the end of childhood.
He is, at the moment, very content with his backyard. For most intents and purposes, it is as big as Wyoming. One day, certainly, he will grow and it will shrink, and it will become simply a suburban backyard and it won’t be big enough for him anymore. This will happen so fast that one night he will be in the backyard, believing it a perfect place, and by the next night he will have changed and the yard as he imagined it will be gone, and this era of his life will be behind him forever.
Most days, he spends hours in the backyard building an Evil Spider-Web Trap. This entails running a spool of Jim’s fishing line from every surface in the yard until it forms a huge web. Once a garbageman picking up the Duffys’ trash got caught in the trap. Otherwise, the Evil Spider-Web Trap mostly has a deterrent effect, because the kids in the neighborhood who might roam over know that Colin builds it back there. “I do it all the time,” he says. “First I plan who I’d like to catch in it, and then we get started. Trespassers have to beware.” There’s that solitude again.
One afternoon when I came over for a few rounds of Street Fighter at Danny’s, Colin started building a trap. He selected a victim for inspiration – a boy in his class who had been pestering him – and began wrapping. He was entirely absorbed. He moved from tree to tree, wrapping; he laced fishing line through the railing of the deck and then back to the shed; he circled an old jungle gym, something he’d outgrown and abandoned a few years ago, and then crossed over to a bush at the back of the yard. Briefly, he contemplated making his dog, Sally, part of the web. Dusk fell. He kept wrapping, paying out fishing line an inch at a time. We could hear mothers up and down the block hooting for their kids; two tiny children from next door stood transfixed at the edge of the yard, uncertain whether they would end up inside or outside the web. After a while, the spool spun around in Colin’s hands one more time and then stopped; he was out of line.
It was almost too dark to see much of anything, although now and again the light from the deck would glance off a length of line, and it would glint and sparkle. “That’s the point,” he said. “You could do it with thread, but the fishing line is invisible. Now I have this perfect thing and the only one who knows about it is me.” With that, he dropped the spool, skipped up the stairs of the deck, threw open the screen door, and then bounded into the house, leaving me and Sally the dog trapped in his web. You’ve come full circle here, but not too glaringly: Again, you are his. In this profile, you encounter a difficulty journalists often encounter in celebrity profiles: access, meaning the time or trust it can take to get at the “real” person behind the persona. Did you ever feel like you really got to know Colin? There was no artifice in how he presented himself to me, which is quite different from the usual adult profile subject, who often has an agenda of his or her own. But I’m not sure any of us can get at the real person in anyone else; we are all ultimately unknowable, even, perhaps, to ourselves. I’m content in what I learned, and what I saw, in that I feel I entered a different world and tried hard to experience it as people in that world experience it. I hope I then put down on paper something that would allow readers a bit of the same.
Manjula Martin is co-editor of Scratch, a digital magazine for writers. Her writing has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review online, The Awl, Modern Farmer, The Rumpus, SF Weekly, The Magazine, and elsewhere. Twitter: @manjulamartin.