Nicholas Kulish is dizzyingly tall. No, he doesnt play basketball. Yes, the weathers fine up here. Hes so heard it all before, now hed like to give some back. Here, he presents his very own view
In a moment of near-constitutional crisis here in the United States last year, the people of this deeply polarised country managed to find common ground and no small measure of comic relief in the travails of one very tall man. Caught at an event with newly inaugurated President Trump, then-FBI Director James Comey, who, like me, stands at 6ft 8in, had tried in his blue suit to blend into the blue curtains of the White House Blue Room.
Suffice it to say it didnt work and he ended up in an awkward embrace with the very man he was trying to avoid. The ridiculousness of such an enormous human being willing himself to melt into the drapery was a welcome moment of absurdity to most people. To me it made complete sense.
Tall people are always trying to blend in, to keep our giant feet from tripping you up at the cinema, our elbows from cracking your heads on the dance floor. Much of our time is spent trying to shrink, to alleviate our extreme conspicuousness. And most of the time we fail.
Unlike many very tall people, my height came later in life. As a child I was always big 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 5ft 7in with unusually large size 15 feet. I was bookish and bullied by older kids: I had a big mouth and didnt know when to shut up.
I started to shoot up and, by my first year of university, I was 6ft 3in. Though in my mind I was the same person, the world perceived me differently. Its 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 student party with the dank smell of cheap beer, dimly lit by Christmas lights, and someone bumping a small, nerdy friend of mine repeatedly on purpose as he tried to fill his cup. I walked 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 didnt mean to scare, women and men. I got called a monster a couple of times, 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 university, 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 traveller, still a bit too much of a talker. But my body always preceded my person, my mind. My height was an identity that I didnt identify with, one that was imposed on me externally and that only over time did I learn to internalise.
Maybe thats how identities happen to all of us. It just happened to me late enough in life that I became acutely aware of it.
The average height of an American male is just over 5ft 9in. For a woman it is just under 5ft 4in. The chart of height distribution in the United States (based on the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2007 to 2008) stops 2in before it even gets to me. Asked in a series of emailed enquiries about the share of the population 6ft 8in 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 6ft 2in, earnings stop increasing at 6ft 6in. I can say with some confidence that 6ft 3in 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.
Theres a meme that surfaces occasionally on the internet where a tall person hands an inquisitive stranger a business card. Yes, I am tall, it begins. The card varies a bit in different versions. In one instance it goes on: Youre very observant for noticing. Then theres a height, 6ft 7in in one, I am 6ft 10in in another, followed by Yes, really in the former and No, Im not kidding in the latter. More answers to unasked questions follow, a sort of one-sided version of the TV game show Jeopardy! No I dont play basketball. The weather is perfect up here.
The ones Ive seen all end with a version of: Im so glad we had this conversation. The point of the meme is that weve fielded these questions so many times that we already know each variation, each side street it might take. People send me pictures of it all the time, as if the joke is for me, when its actually for them. Hardly a day goes by when I dont have the conversation.
The height conversation is preferable to people measuring me like amateur anthropologists: holding up their hands, sticking out their feet, standing back-to-back with me. Sometimes, though, it can take an even more invasive turn. How do you fuck? Ive been asked in bars standing next to short girlfriends, though of course leering questions about private parts are more common.
Mostly its more innocuous. I just remind myself over and over again that this person is trying to connect with me and this is what came out of their mouths, the writer Arianne Cohen, who is 6ft 3in, told me. In 2009 she published The Tall Book, a thorough accounting of the benefits and challenges of being extremely tall. In the past 10 years men have come around to the reality that its not always appropriate to comment on womens looks in terms of their beauty, but theres one topic you can still comment upon and thats your height.
Online dating and apps made romance easier for tall people, Cohen told me, especially for tall women looking for men their height or taller. At first she put her actual height on her profile and was barraged by men with tall fetishes asking how much I weigh and how big my feet are. She went down to 6ft and it all but stopped. Cohen raised her profile back up to 6ft 1in; occasional creeps still bothered her but not more than she could live with.
For as annoying as constant questions about basketball can be, they represent a distinct improvement. According to Cohens book, before everyone assumed really tall people made millions of dollars playing basketball, they might have assumed we worked in circuses or freak shows. I would say that qualifies as progress.
We very tall people live in the open, attracting incredible attention, yet remain a mystery. Why do we bob and weave around the subway in a strange dance? Are we performing for money from our fellow passengers? No, were just trying not to hit our heads on the metal bars that others reach up to grab. They strike us around the temple or squarely on the back of the head if we dont pay attention. In the tunnels were probably more worried about the rusty screws that are jutting down from the ceiling and will rake across our scalps if we dont hunch down. Consider paying more attention on rainy days to the pointy tips of your umbrellas, which stab like cruel talons at soft spots, like our eyes and ears.
And, unlike normal-sized people, we know the truth about ceiling fans: they are not helicopter rotors. Sticking your hand in one may raise a welt or bruise, but its not as dangerous as you might think. But thank you for your concern!
If you invite us into your homes, we will know what the top of your refrigerator looks like. (You should clean it. Its been a while. Trust me.) Once the party gets going we cant really hear you because the conversation is happening a foot below us and its hard to stoop and twist our bodies for that long. Are we standing a little funny? Were probably doing the hip drop, an extreme version of Michelangelos Davids contrapposto to lower ourselves a couple of inches.
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 oclock. Follow us in crowds. We can see the gaps, the paths that are opening up, and where the toilet and drink queues converge into a human traffic jam.
People Ive never met will ask me to help them move heavy objects or reach things from high shelves as though Im the community wheelbarrow or ladder. I prefer ladder because it makes me feel useful, but Im 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.
As a newspaper reporter specialising in overseas work, I have consigned myself to a life of economy-class seats on airplanes. I am in nearly constant contact with my companys ergonomic specialist, Tom. When he first met me at a previous job 18 years ago, he propped my desk up with two-by-fours. His tools have become more sophisticated, graduating to a mechanically operated sit-stand desk and an enormous, specially built chair that at least one colleague has likened to the Iron Throne of Westeros. (It is almost as big, but fortunately cushioned with soft foam, not melted metal swords.)
Earlier this year I drove from 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, Palmer and I lived around the corner from one another and played low-stakes rec league basketball against each other. His family were local celebrities, the tall parents with the three super-tall sons who played basketball.
Today, Palmer works as an arborist. His hands were huge and strong and his thick black beard was laced with white, the first frost of middle age.
We sat in his dining room and drank Sierra Nevada, ate cheese and looked at a photo album with his four-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, Palmer liked to say: It depends on the humidity or It depends on the time of day.
Palmer and I nodded in recognition about many things, like the way we try to give a wide berth to women on the street at night because its so obvious that they fear us like Frankenstein himself has appeared. He asked about the extreme difficulty of buying shoes and trousers in a one-size-fits-all-world, and the scar tissue on the top of my head.
We commiserated over footboards on beds and, most of all, airplane seats. We talked about how we dont dare get on to roller coasters any more, too afraid the safety bar wont click into place and well go flying out at a curve or a loop. I did a zip-line in Guatemala once and emerged with a bloody stripe along my temple; I was too tall and my skin burned along the wire as I hurtled downward.
Palmer remembered the strangeness of growing into his body, and what it was like for him at school to be a toothpick with these feet that just shot out of nowhere and wouldnt stop. He recalled the radiators trembling when his 6ft 6in father hit his head on the steam pipes while doing laundry in the basement, along with his muffled cries of pain, and laughed at the memory. It probably goes without saying that his laugh is deep and resonant.
There was the time when he was 19 years old and he went with a girlfriend to see Elton John and Billy Joel. The usher kept coming down the aisle and shining his torch into Palmers eyes. He didnt know what he was doing wrong until finally someone started yelling at him: Stop standing on the chair!
There was the family trip to Peru with his father, who taught Latin American politics, where he watched the locals form an orderly queue to request photographs, one after another, beside his oldest and tallest brother Walter, simply for being over 7ft tall.
Even to me, Palmer said, hes tall. Its comforting. It feels so nice to look up and speak to somebody. Its so rare.
His other relatives are tall, too. To be in the family and see his 6ft 3in and 6ft 4in nieces standing totally, perfectly tall without a care in the world about their height, theres no awkwardness, says Palmers wife, Wenonah. She is 5ft 7in tall, above average, but well within the normal range. Its just amazing and wonderful, which Im so grateful for.
Theres no one in my family as tall as I am. When youre different, you need to have people around who understand, to commiserate but also to laugh with. I never had that example; never had a Walter to let me know, as Palmer put it, the normalcy of size and that everybodys happy and theres nothing weird or particularly strange about it.
Its something, he reminded me, to be proud of.
This is an edited version of a story originally published in Topic, a digital magazine of visual storytelling