It's a matter of standing tall and being proud

March 21, 2002|By Kevin Cowherd

STANDING HERE in a Severna Park restaurant next to a man who's 6-foot-11 and another who's 6-foot-7, with a woman who's 6-foot-2 behind me and one who's 6-foot-1 next to her, I suddenly feel like Danny DeVito.

This is a weeknight get-together for the Baltimore Tall Club, a social club for men 6-foot-2 or over and women at least 5-foot-10. And, as the BTC members mingle in the bar area of Bill Bateman's Bistro amid the happy-hour crowd, the immediate effect is that everyone of average height begins to look like a jockey.

As it has always been my role to spread sunshine and positive vibes, I have just asked the BTC members this question: "What are some things that drive tall people nuts?"

"Airplane seats," says John Pavelec, a National Security Agency employee who's 6-foot-4. Pavelec goes on to explain that the inner circle of hell for a tall person is scrunching into "that coveted middle seat that everyone wants. Then the guy in front of you reclines his seat."

"Clothes and shoes," says Scott Pittaway, an Anne Arundel County police lieutenant who's 6-foot-7. "Getting the right sleeve length and inseam. Shopping for size 15 shoes."

"Car seats," says Leslie Hill, director of a public education organization, who's 6-foot-1. "Having enough head room and leg room."

More tall-oriented gripes follow:

About the usual clods who ask "How's the weather up there?" and think that's a real knee-slapper.

About guys who call you Stretch.

About smaller women who gaze up at tall women and say oh-so-earnestly: "I wish I had some of your height."

No, you don't, sister.

At least not when you're 6-foot-2 in the eighth grade, as Kelli Lewis was, and your gym class is square-dancing and they pair you with the smallest guy, little David, who's all of 5 feet and looks like one of the Keebler elves.

"And the gym teachers lifted him up so he could reach me!" adds Lewis, now an elementary school teacher, still mortified after all these years.

Oh, and maybe this is the thing that bugs tall people the most: the b-word.

"Everyone assumes you can play basketball," says LeeAnn Pavelec, John's wife, who works in a physician's office and is considered a club "squeaker" at 5-foot-10.

Then LeeAnn tells the story of riding in a hotel elevator in Toronto with some Tall Club members when this, well, non-tall guy gazed at the group with wide-eyed wonder and blurted: "My God, how's your basketball game?!"

No one said anything for a few seconds.

Finally one of the tall guys said: "It's OK. How's your miniature golf game?"

Oh, yeah, tall people can get a little testy when the non-tall ask stupid questions, which happens more often than you'd think.

The Baltimore Tall Club - affiliated with Tall Clubs International, which has more than 4,000 members in 65 clubs - has 75 members and is pretty evenly divided between men and women.

It's not a support group - these are mostly people in their 30s and 40s who may have felt awkward and out of place as adolescents, but are now comfortable with their height. Socially, they simply enjoy being in the presence of other tall people.

"It's really cool to be in a room with people you see eye to eye with," says Leslie Hill, who's also the club's publicity director. "And it's so nice to wear heels!"

According to the BTC, less than 5 percent of men are 6-foot-2 or taller, and less than 2 percent of women are 5-foot-10 or taller.

Life is not always a day at the beach for tall guys. Althaus, the 6-foot-11 BTC member, remembers shooting up to 6-foot-3 in junior high school and his mom sewing extra material to the bottom of his pants legs so he wouldn't look like a king-sized dork.

Plus Althaus says he was never any good at - here it comes - basketball.

When you're a skinny kid scraping the ceilings of your high school and can't make a lay-up, you might as well wear a sign on your back that says: "Please abuse me."

Still, the fact is that tall men have always had an easier time of things than tall women.

"It's admirable for men to be tall," says LeeAnn Pavelec, sipping a glass of red wine. "It's not admirable for women."

"Yep. Being tall is socially acceptable for men," adds Kelli Lewis.

Pittaway, the 6-foot-7 county cop, nods in agreement.

"When I'm working and go into a domestic disturbance, I'll pause in the doorway for effect," he says. "My size works for me. I can be Officer Friendly and let my size be the stick."

Leslie Hill, on the other hand, remembers her size being a constant source of embarrassment until a few years ago.

"I got so much attention," she says. "I'd walk into a bar and have people staring at me and I was so uncomfortable. I never thought they'd be looking at me because I was, you know, attractive."

Now, all these years later, Hill says there are a lot of positives to being a tall woman.

With women competing on an equal footing with men in more and more jobs, being tall "helps your standing in the business community. [Also] you can help people out. I can help little old ladies reach something on the top shelf of a store. And I think we can wear more fashions than shorter women."

"My feeling," says Kelli Lewis, smiling, "is that in a world where it's not easy to be noticed, we get noticed."

On my way out the door a few minutes later, a guy sitting at one of the tables stops me.

Pointing to my notebook, he says: "Those tall people you were talking to - they play basketball?"

"Absolutely," I say. "You should ask them about it. Man, they love to talk hoops."

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