American men! Along with blue jeans (I have three pairs of real workpants from Tractor Supply) and a messy house (don’t ask), they let you be yourself and get on with things. They’re also the kindest, most decent, most loving men there are. Some, at 15, were already fantasizing about marshaling breakfast for whining, barking, yowling households. Get them drunk enough — a tough job, as a rule — and they may confess this.
They pine for smart and bitchy women. Back when I was dating, my most fascinating remarks were quotations from Juvenal. My most alluring gesture was the bird. American men make loyal and tender friends. As teachers, they champion you, putting their own reputations on the line. As older mentors, they can be too indulgent, worrying that their professional standards are getting in the way of your fresh ideas. As employers, they’re not perfectly fair to women; they’re just fairer than anyone else in the world.
It’s fashionable to run men of this country down — and, yeah, some deserve it. But even northern Europe is hardly a manhood paradise by comparison. A German professor boasted to me of his open-mindedness: He let his wife have the car one day a week, so that she could do the shopping. Tyrannical in-laws; spoiled only children; porn, mistresses, and prostitutes as erotic competitors; ruthless diet and fashion industries; and a thousand rigid traditions around domesticity steal European women’s lives. European men are okay with this.
American men — with few exceptions — treat you like a human being, in a free, natural way, because they’ve done it from the nation’s youth. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that a young American woman could make a long trip alone in perfect security — woe to anyone who touched her. That expectation endangered me in the developing world; men’s attitudes there forced me to fold in and withdraw. I was relieved to hilarity to settle in the U.S. again, where I could reclaim my whole self, public and private, for people I like and things that interest me.
During a snowstorm one year, two young men at a Pennsylvania bus station helped me cross the icy parking lot with my luggage and then stood near me under the awning, talking to each other about frontier history. I realized I didn’t have to worry how I seemed to them, young or old, attractive or unattractive, attached or unattached, well-off or poor. They had no notion of a right to either hunt me or drive me away, as a useful or useless feral creature. I shared their species.
Out at the road, a shuttle let out a blind passenger. He began to shuffle across the lot; we stared. Then a middle-aged man next to us set off wordlessly to help. The two younger ones were crushed: They hadn’t displayed an instant, full sense of their duty. “I feel like a tool bag,” one muttered. No, my friend, you’re not a tool bag. You’re one of the greats.