Saturday, April 26, 2014

Inhabitants of the Friend Zone: Bombing Will Commence in Thirty Seconds

Having always harbored an intense loathing of the show "Friends," I never heard the phrase 'Friend Zone' until the series was off the air. Despite all the analysis and explanations, there are still gray areas, vague unexplained concepts of the 'Friend Zone.'

The Friend Zone (FZ for short) would seem to be similar to Nice Guy Syndrome, in that you're dealing with a guy who has a romantic or sexual interest in a girl....  But lacks that last two inches of backbone to front up with the girl and ask her out or tell her how he feels.  However, a few things separate the two.  First, there's a chance that a guy who self-defines as being in the Friend Zone may actually have laid it out to the girl he's interested in, and got shot down ("You're a sweet guy, and I do like you, just not in 'that way.'").  Personally, the guy should suck it up, accept the reality --- gosh, you have a good friend, doesn't life suck --- get over it, and move on.  Nope: they pine for the girl instead, like a Nice Guy: she'll see what a Nice Guy I am and come around.

Guys in the FZ are, thank God, not as creepy and manipulative as Nice Guys: they aren't these greasy little balls of ulterior motives and insincere gestures like Nice Guys are.  Both have the same motivations and dishonest strategies, but FZ guys are focused on a single women: they're convinced that this girl is, like, the one, man.  Nice Guys engage in their dishonest, half-assed manipulation with nearly every women they know.

Because of the singular fixation Friend Zone guys have, they're more of self-delusional chumps than Nice Guys, who are manipulative creeps.  (FZ guys mercifully tend to not develop the "They're All Bitches" attitude Nice Guys do.  If and when they realize the terminal hopelessness of their fixation, FZ guys may come across with "She's A Bitch," but avoid the all-inclusive attitude Nice Guys have.)  And don't lie: in general, you'd rather deal with a chump than a creep.

My personal experience with Nice Guys and residents of the Friend zone were somewhat from a distance.  My own social tribe (loosely defined as punk rockers) simply didn't play that shit....  Well, not nearly as much, anyway.  The observations I made were through colleagues at work and my "straight" friends, former partners in crime from years earlier who went to college and got careers.

They, or their friends, played those games, and it was foreign to me; I felt like Spock: Fascinating, Captain. The mating rituals on this planet seem counter-intuitive to the desired end goals."  But the people I was observing were completely disconnected from what I was used to and understood.  The punk rock scene has as much commonality with the yuppies I would sometimes hang around as Yale frat boys do with Kalahari Bushmen.  The ways of living, the social cues, even basic methods of communication, are all so completely disparate as to form a near-complete disconnect.  The yuppies don't understand spear hunting, and the Bushmen can't operate a smart phone.

I speak of "social tribes" and feel it's a satisfactory descriptive.  Punk rockers would be mystified by the yuppies' structure of social interaction, communication (verbal and non-), music, dress, concepts of "fun," choice of food and alcohol, and even basic social cues.  And vice versa for the yuppies.  I'd go to hang out with my straight friends for an evening --- usually in South Bay, where they'd all landed tech jobs --- and be bored and frustrated for the duration.  We'd usually end up someplace with a name like "T.J. O'Mulligan's" (Karaoke Every Wednesday!), listening to insipid godawful music, and paying $4.00 for a fucking soda.  (I was used to bars in San Diego, Oakland, and SF where if you tell the bartender you're the designated driver, they give you free sodas all night, and do it with a smile.  Not in South Bay yuppie bars: they don't say it, but their face says, "Yeah, and so fucking what?" and ding you four bucks for every soda.  There are certainly cool bars in South Bay, but those aren't the ones my buddies wanted to go to.  They were at T.J O'Mulligan's because "the chicks here are always totally hot."  Given the luck they had, they'd have been better served by renting a couple porn movie, buying a case or two of beer, and having a circle jerk at someone's house.)

You can probably guess the barriers to communication.  I could only answer the question "Did that hurt?" in reference to my septum piercing --- yes it did --- before getting fed up and simply glaring and saying, "Yes, it did hurt" before one of the locals gets more than five words into the sentence.  My appearance set me apart, certainly --- engineer boots, black denims, a few tasteful piercings, and an Amebix t-shirt; none of this wouldn't get a second glance in Oakland, SF, Berkeley, etc., but you'd think I'd shown up as Wez from "The Road Warrior."  Even chatting with people was nearly impossible, and I pride myself on being able to get along with almost anyone in a room who isn't wearing a swastika armband or actively beating up his girlfriend.  We simply had absolutely nothing to say to each other, about anything.

But as the night dragged on, and more booze was consumed, and it became more and more evident that nobody was gonna get any pussy that night without paying for it, the Nice Guys and FZ members would rear their ugly heads.  Yeah, the girls in this bar?  "Ahh, they're all bitches, wouldn't know a decent guy if he landed on her.  They're the types that only date assholes."

I covered up a laugh by pretending to sneeze.  Sure, there are women who are emotional masochists who truly date assholes.  But odds are that women suffering from that kind of mental illness aren't in O'Mulligan's that night: the women are expressing interest in men who aren't you, so she's a bitch and he's an asshole.

In the punk rock scene, girls are attracted to....  Guys.  This does not imply a lack of discretion, but that the girls take guys as individuals.  Obviously a degree of physical attraction must be there, but punk rock girls will suss a guy out within two minutes, and rarely tell themselves, "Well, he's dumb as a post and kind of  a jerk, but he's really cute," and date him or take him home anyway.  It sounds like I'm putting them on an intellectual pedestal, but punk rock girls generally prefer guys they can wake up next to and have a smart, adult conversation with.  So what if he's no dreamboat, he's actually read Chomsky and we dig the same bands, and he's really good at--- well, we really enjoyed ourselves.

The closest thing you'll come to punk rock girls only dating "assholes" is inaccurate.  Some girls are drawn to Tough Guys, who are not assholes: they're usually really decent people, although many exude a vibration of aggression and barely-suppressed inner tension like static electricity.  Until you get to know them, it's very hard to relax around them.  Tough Guys seem to have a general air of "shit's about to go down" about them, with no source of this edginess.  They'd be on guard at a church's Christmas Eve vespers service.  Get to know them, and you feel foolish for being so nervous around them: they're perfectly nice people.  But they always have that vibe of vigilance about them.

And by Tough Guys, I'm talking about the real article.  I don't mean dickheads who pick fights in bars with guys smaller than them, or push over the candy rack in a liquor store, I mean serious,
100%, scar-tissue-collecting Tough Guys, the guys that swear they've never picked a fight in their lives....  But they do seem to end up in a lot of situations where brawling was the only option.

And they truly can back it up: no matter what sort of damage they seem to take, they are utterly unfazed, and are now more angry.  Imagine a dude you could give your best, hardest shot, right in the face.... And he'll spit out a tooth, smile at you, and then the hammer falls: he'll be on you so hard and so fast that what few shots you get in don't matter because you're too busy trying to block and not even that helps. You'll be on the asphalt with your bell rung in less than fifteen seconds. Once you're on the ground, the Tough Guy will look at you for a few seconds, mutter "Stupid asshole" and walk away, only mildly annoyed he lost another tooth.

These are guys who don't pick fights for fun, they have enough self-confidence to not bother with that crap.  And they're not vicious, either.  If you're on the ground with your eyes rolling around in your head, a Tough Guy won't start putting in the boot just because he can (another separator from the fake tough guys).  Like I said, he'll just walk away.  Call it a sense of personal honor. Still, you don't want him sufficiently mad at you, though.  A Tough Guy would punch out a fork lift, and probably win, if he thought the fork lift had it in for him.

"Holy shit," you're thinking, "the guys you're describing are goddamn monsters, compulsive brawlers incapable of any emotion except anger.  You've been writing about the interactions between guys and girls, where and why the hell do these mutants fit in?"

Well, I'll tell you. They treat their girlfriends like princesses. They hold doors for them, they literally carry them across puddles in the rain, if it's cold out, the girlfriend will immediately be bundled in his leather without even asking (leaving him shivering, yet protesting, "Naw babe, I'm fine, it's just a little chilly tonight"), they hold hands, some of them won't even cuss in front of their girlfriends (which makes them sound like William Shatner when they talk, as they edit out the words they were going to use).  They buy flowers for their girlfriends on the spur of the moment, for chrissake!

Tough Guys are, at heart, some of the sappiest dudes on earth when it comes to their girlfriends.  I remember sitting on someone's stoop with a few other guys including a Tough Guy I knew, just killing time.  The Tough Guy was waiting for his girlfriend and talking about his warehouse job, and how they didn't maintain equipment ("Jesus fuck, I'm sick of trying to fix fork lifts with my fuckin' Leatherman!").  When she arrived, I looked at him....  And was amazed at the transformation.  His entire face softened, he smiled, and immediately sprang up to gently hug her and say in a gentle voice, "Hey, honey!  How was work?"  And you could tell by his tone that he actually cared how work had been.  They went off down the street, holding hands.

This was a guy I'd personally witnessed cracking a half-dozen ribs with one punch on a guy who wanted to fight him, then followed it up by breaking his cheekbone.  Again, one punch and he broke a dude's face.  The mere presence of his girlfriend, though, seemed to cause a 180 degree turn in his personality.  You could almost see the vigilance and tension fall off of him, like heat waves.  His girlfriend was there, and the world was now officially a good place to be.

My personal opinion? Besides him being genuinely in love, a Tough Guy's girlfriend is the one person he feels he can totally let his guard down around.  When he's with her, he's allowed to be gentle.  He can be compassionate and caring, he has someone who will be there for him even after a bad day, someone who will actually listen to him and give him comfort.  He can trust, and will be trusted.  A Tough Guy can't even imagine hurting his girlfriend...  Although if someone else did, oh, have mercy on their soul.  (Sometimes I wonder what these guys' childhoods were like, but it gets too ugly to even think about.  My hunch is "abusive" is too mild a word.)  And they aren't bad guys or assholes, either: they're just.... Tough Guys.

I managed to avoid the FZ when I was younger, somehow. I was friends with lots of girls, most of whom --- surprise, surprise --- I found attractive, and could see myself having a relationship (or at least loads and loads of mind-bending sex) with. At the same time, they were my friends.  And they were truly my friends; not this large group of women I was trying to scam into bed. I won't lie, I developed crushes on a few of them as time went by. And I handled it the only way I could, which was by being honest --- no ulterior motives --- by telling the girl straight up, "Look, we've known each other a while, I think you're a really awesome person, and to be frank, um, I've kinda developed a bit of a crush on you. I'd like to ask you out.... But at the same time, I really value our friendship, and if I'm out of line here, just say so. I'd rather keep you as a friend and not have things be weird or uncomfortable."

I'd almost always get a reply of, "Aw, that's sweet, but...." And --- being friends --- we'd sit down and talk it through. The girl would ask, "But Lenny, how did this come about?"  I'd answer honestly: "Brooke, you're smart, you're funny, you're fun to be around, and um, I think you're really cute. I figured being honest with you and laying my cards on the table would be better than pining for you like some neurotic creep. But like I said, I want to keep you as a friend. I hope I didn't embarrass you or creep you out just now; it was just something I had to get off my chest.  I won't lie, I'm a little disappointed.... But that's no big deal; after all, I still have a really cool friend."
And we were.

And I never asked the girl, "Well, why not?" It actually didn't occur to me at the time, and even now that I thought about it, I still wouldn't ask..... Because not only did it not matter, it was none of my damn business. "Why not?" implies one of two things: either "What's your problem, bitch?" or "So, I'm that big of a reject, huh?" Neither would reflect well on the male asking that
question, to say the least.

However. On two occasions the girl said, "Really? Umm... Wow! Okay.... Yeah, let's go out and see what happens!" And so we began hanging out a lot and going to movies on weekends and sharing our drugs and making out in public and fucking in our cars and all the other things people do when they're dating. And as it turned out, in both cases we were completely and totally incompatible romantically. I can't describe it, and I don't think anyone really can --- other than the sex, there was just no "click" between us.

Both attempts at relationships ended amicably, thank God. We agreed that yeah, this just isn't working out, we're gonna end up hurting each other (we'd already hit the "minor shit you do irritates the crap out of me" stage), and we were better off just being friends.

Funny, this possibility never, ever seems to occur to guys who self-define as being in the Friend Zone: that if you did get with the girl you're plotting and scheming over, it might be the two of you make a crappy couple.

Heh. I actually "rescued" a couple friends from assholes with ulterior motives... Although the motives weren't hidden very well.

I was at the Stork one night when my friend Jen comes hurrying up to me at the pool table and announces, "Lenny! You're my boyfriend!"
"Well, this is new. Are we living together yet?"
"No, you've gotta help me get rid of this guy at the bar! I was talking to him just out of politeness, and at this point I think he thinks he's halfway down my pants. He's, like the king of smarm.  Just pretend to be my boyfriend and help me run him off."
"Okay. I'll be about fifteen seconds behind you, so it doesn't look like you came and got me."
"That works. I told him I had to use the can."

So I find her at the bar, and sure enough the Smarm-Master is glibly chatting away, making unfunny jokes and throwing in vague innuendo. How he found his way into the Stork is beyond me: I mean, he had the collar of his Polo shirt popped, f'r chrissakes.

I sidle up next to Jen, so I'm not between them but I can keep an eye on Smarmy. Jen laid right in, "Oh, HI, honey! Where have you been?" with a big hug and kiss.
"I had a late run to Tracy. I dropped off the truck and came up here," I said, kissing her back and putting my arm around her waist.

I swear you could actually hear Smarmy's hopes for the evening falling to the ground and shattering. He had a look in his eyes like he was trying to wish me away, using psychic mojo powers.
"So, who's your friend?" I asked.
"Oh, this is.... Ummm..... I'm sorry, what was your name again?"
Smarmy answered, "I'm Bill."
"Glad to meetcha! You been keeping my lady entertained?"
"Ohh... Oh yes! Absolutely! .... Say, I've got an early morning tomorrow, I shouldn't stick around..."
"Well, you've gotta do what's right. You have a good evening."
"Yes, you too." He threw some bills on the bar and split.

I looked at Jen and said, "Five bucks says he heads straight for the porn shop." (There's an adult book store on the next corner from the Stork.)
"You're on." We stood in the doorway with our heads just poking out, watching Bill's progress... And I got five bucks richer.

"So how the hell did you end up tangled with him?"
Jen rolled her eyes and stamped her foot. "Jesus! You try to be polite to someone sitting at a bar... I swear, he went from zero to sleaze in sixty seconds. We were just talking about our jobs, he was being totally mannerly, just a nice guy passing the time in a bar, then he busts out with how good my legs look in these tights, and have I ever done any modeling, and he has a cousin who has an agency, so why don't I give him my number? I told him modeling sounded really boring, and hey, why don't we play some dice?"
"Trying to distract him, eh?"
"Oh yeah. Trying to end the conversation he was having with my tits --- look how I'm dressed, you can't even see 'em!"
(She wasn't kidding: to make her boobs any less accessible would have required sheet metal. January in Oakland can be chilly.)
"Is that when you got me?"
"Oh, I was planning my escape. It was after he said something about what great shape I was in, and how he preferred doing his exercise horizontally that I said, 'Look, I gotta go use the can' and got you."
"So, Jen...."
"Now that we're dating, there's stuff I need to know. Like, which side of the bed do you prefer?"
"NOT. Funny. Lenny."
"Sorry, sorry. Bad joke, bad timing. I apologize."

So did Captain Smarm fit in as a Nice Guy? In those circumstances, absolutely not. But! It was clear that he was comfortable using the lines he did... Which means that wherever he was used to drinking, he may have been considered a Nice Guy, a laff-riot. The line of chat he was spewing may be considered, in the fever-dream world he inhabits, strictly humor, just a touch on the naughty side. I don't think I would ever want to meet women that would be impressed by him.

(And how he ended up at the Stork is a mystery in itself. Maybe he'd heard about how loose all those weirdo punk rock chicks are, and thought he'd get laid just by dint of having a penis. Well, he knows better than to wear the Polo shirt next time. He's still got that old Smiths t-shirt from college, that'll do the trick.)

I had a slightly stranger relationship with one girI I was friends with. This was years before the phrase "friends with benefits" existed, but, um, yeah. We were friends, and at irregular intervals
we'd fuck. Seriously, I'd have phone calls like this:
"So you doing anything tonight?"
"Nah. How 'bout you?"
"Nope. Hey, you feel like going bowling, or do you wanna fuck?"
"Um... Let's go bowling, then fuck afterwards. Let's get something to eat though. I hate fucking on an empty stomach."
"Right on. Meet you at College Lanes at eight.  Nation's Burgers sound good for food?"

In retrospect, the situation was fun and pathetic at the same time. It was explicitly clear we were using the other person's body for our own pleasure, really. (Well, that's not quite accurate: neither I nor the girl were selfish as lovers. We both had fun.) We trusted each other, which was key. We also had ground rules: either person could say "no" if they didn't feel like it, we wouldn't see each other if one of us met someone and started dating, and we always played fairly safe. It came down to if either person was horny, AND the other person was willing, AND there was free time, AND neither of us was seeing someone else, well... Thursday's open, that work for you? Okay, great. Hey, you going to the Ill Repute show on Saturday? I wanted to drink that night, can I get a ride from you?

I think another good measure of the... practicality... Of our relationship was that we almost never kissed. I mean, REALLY kissed. We'd hug, and there was no problem with good-night pecks on the lips, but only on maybe five occasions did we, y'know, exchange dental records. And those few times were during the throes of passion, not as a warm-up. You see more pre-sex making out in porno movies. Really, I think all the kissing we didn't do was a gesture of separation, for both of us. We weren't dating, so why would we be making out with each other? After all, we were just friends.

It's been--- Jeezus, twenty-six years since I last saw her. She moved out of state, to Austin or Athens GA or someplace fairly hip. We made the requisite plans to write, which always slowly dwindle over several months; I got a letter back with "Not At This Address" stamped on it and that was that. She's probably just like me and most of our other friends from back then: Early middle age, and kinda boring now.
Don't worry, Keeks: you're probably still The Coolest Girl At The Party.

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