Monday, February 18, 2008

Old Friends

It was September, 1960. I commuted to Long Island University by subway that first year in college as my parents did not want the additional expense of room and board and probably wanted to keep me at home as much as possible. It didn’t take too many of those one plus hour commutes and the emotional distress of home life to begin plotting a move into the new 16-story dormitory on campus. I took a part time job in a rug store on Flatbush Avenue a couple days a week and knew the following summer I could work full time at my father’s photography studio. Those two jobs would enable me to save enough money to cover the dormitory cost the following year.

That first year was a lonely one. No other students seemed to be commuting from Queens to Brooklyn. I was not interested in any of the fraternities, and those who lived in the dormitory kept to themselves. Between classes I hung out at the Student Union trying to study, but plotting my escape from home, which I succeed in doing with the beginning of my sophomore year.

Moving into the dormitory presented challenges as most students were already paired with a roommate from the freshman year. I was left with someone no wanted to room with, but, except for his eccentricities, we managed to get along. More importantly, on the same floor I met Bruce who was to become a life-long friend.

Friendships formed in one’s youth seem to have legs those formed later in life sometime lack. Sharing the discoveries of youth as well as some of youth’s indiscretions, without the conditional baggage of later friendships, is a sacred pact, something that allowed Bruce and I to continue a relationship later in life, picking up where we left off after occasional absences. No doubt email has made this possible as well.

We saw an iconoclastic side in one another and took pleasure in spending nights reading and writing poetry and listening to Rachmaninoff. Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven, sometimes to the detriment of our studies. Bruce was an English major and was influential in my eventual switch to literature as my major.

As a native New Yorker, I introduced him to the sensations and sins of the city, enjoying occasional weekend nights on the town, downing beers or Black Russians at bars in Brooklyn or Greenwich Village, going to dances at Barnard College, passing ourselves off as Columbia students (I used to laugh at his choice of moniker, introducing himself as Randolph Wallace III with a straight face). During semester breaks, when I could occasionally inveigle my parent’s 1956 Buick Century, I would visit him in Trenton and we’d drive around to nowhere, sometimes with other friends. We once ended up on Jones Beach in the middle of the winter, in the middle of the night, just for the hell of it.

For some inexplicable reason, our school chose us to be representatives to the National Student Association meeting during the summer of 1962 at Ohio State University, where we stayed at a dormitory in Columbus for several weeks. Bruce had bought an old Chrysler – vintage 1952 or so – and somehow we made it to Ohio and back again, the car biting the dust as we drove through Manhattan. It was one of those trips of laughter and discovery.

In Ohio we followed the billboards one day that extolled the wonders of the Olentangy Caverns. There must be a number of entrances to the Caverns but the billboard led us to someone’s house. Apparently, this particular entrance was through their basement. A young teenage boy from the family was our guide and immediately launched into the history of the Caverns like an android. When Bruce and I looked at one another the absurdity of the scene hit us and during the entire “tour” our laughter mounted while the boy’s recitation continued, which just begot more laughter, to the point of uncontrollability. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed that hard in all my life, an experience that just further anointed our friendship.

His passion for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe became deep-rooted with me as well and I attribute my love of contemporary American literature to Bruce. I thought Bruce would become a writer of similar stature. And he is an excellent writer, but after doing graduate work at the University of Kansas, he began to teach high-school English and before he was really established in that profession, not to mention writing, he was drafted and served time in VietNam. I escaped that fate as I was already married and had a child. The picture to the left shows us with my son Chris in 1965, before Bruce was shipped off to Nam. Sometimes I feel guilty I didn’t share that burden, but at the time I felt great relief at my propitious although unplanned timing.

We drifted apart after Vietnam, with an occasional letter here and there but some twenty years after we met, we had a “family reunion,” he and his wife and his children and my family getting together in Worcester. I had two sons and he had two daughters. I was then running a publishing company and Bruce was the Chairman of the English department of a Massachusetts high school. It was as if no time had passed at all and to this day we stay in touch and occasionally get together. Following that reunion in 1992 my “old friend” wrote a terrific essay about the experience:

Old Friends

By Bruce Rettman

By the end of February, New England winter is perpetually gray. The wind blows cold, and the streets are covered with the sandy dirt of road clearing trucks. When the phone rang and the voice of an old friend sounded, it cut through the gloom of this most awful of seasons.

I had not seen Bob for twelve years and before that only occasionally, but we had been very close in college sharing a love of literature as a way to understanding ourselves and a fondness for the mature consumption of alcohol at swank bars. We were partners. After graduation we had gone separate ways and led separate lives, but still we would call each other and exchange occasional letters, and though the spaces were great, we would see each other now and then. Christmas cards full of promises to get together had flown back and forth through the years. But in the rush of life, twelve years had passed since our last brief visit. Children had grown, mine were twelve and fourteen. He had a son, now working, by a first marriage and another just beginning high school, a year older than my daughter. Over the span of twenty-eight years since we graduated, our families had never met Bob had met my wife, but I had never met his. I had never met his children, but in the middle of February gloom, he was proposing we meet for brunch in a city near my home where he was visiting his older son who ironically had settled close to me. He explained that his whole family would be there and asked if I would bring my family. "Sure," I said. "Sure."

We met at a hotel for its fancy brunch. Bob had actually suggested he might not recognize me. "Maybe you should wear a yellow boutonniere or something," he said, but we spotted each other in the lobby, shook hands with old familiarity and started kidding about hair loss. I've been bald a long time; Bob was fighting his. We were slapping at each other's heads as though in a dorm room in the midst of youth and laughter. Bob had made arrangements for the eight of us, and we sat at a long table, his family on one side mine on the other. I sat across from Bob. My wife sat across from his wife.

Bob pulled out a manila envelope filled with the letters I had sent him through the years, especially the ones I had written when I was young in my twenties. He brought out a letter written when I learned of his first wife's pregnancy. My eyes wandered over the words that expressed my joy that he was beginning a family, promising as well that I would never put myself in the same predicament. He asked me to read it, but when my eyes fell on the old words, I knew I could never read it without my voice shattering. "I can't read that," I told him and wasn't sure if he knew why. Remembering what I looked back on as the brutish insensitivity of my youth, the gentleness of these words surprised and touched me. When I gave the letter back to him, Bob read my vow of bachelorhood, and we all laughed. I put my arm around my wife of twenty-five years.

Then he offered other less delicate prose full of Sturm and Drang, dreams and posturing. We passed the letters around, Bob asking that his sons take care to read them because I had offered advice on how to raise them. When I looked down the table Ali, Ann, Jonathan and Christopher were hitting it off talking about CD's and tapes, the food and force of contemporary youth. Bob had played the piano and introduced me to Rachmaninoff and Beethoven beginning my love of classical music. Looking down at the old letters, I remembered the dorm and listening to my first symphony. Then Bob said, "I really thought you would write something important." Back there in time's summer, I thought so too, but I had done well as a teacher. Bob had made an enormously successful life in publishing, the president of a major academic publishing house.

Perhaps that explained that he had brought with him my old words and had allowed me to see the self I had once been. I became absorbed for a time in these words and needed to push myself away to Bob's wife Ann and to find out about her business. She chartered cruises and had recently returned from the Greek Isles. She and Bob had a boat, and my old friend had a new facet as a sailor.

We returned a bit to scenes of our youth--a ride out on Long Island when we stayed all night on the beach, a trip to Ohio State as representatives of our college. We remembered an old ice cream place near the elevated train where we went a few times for late night ice cream. I was moving randomly through places playing a kind of mnemonic game trying to remember the self of those old pages.

Bob pulled out a letter about a girl 1'd met, a divorcee much older than I with two children. It was full of braggadocio. I remembered the girl.

We put aside the letters and talked about the darkness of parents dying. Bob had carried on his back his cancer stricken father out of the house Bob had been raised in to take him to the hospital. I told him about being at my mother's bedside when she died. We talked about the prospect of being grandparents, and I tried to say but couldn't because the feeling was too deep that my father whom I had dearly loved had never seen my children. We talked about work and current projects. We sat there gathering in our families, gathering in our lives as though in a dusky dorm room.

When it was all over, we walked to the lobby, took pictures and said good-bye having found in a new time an old friendship that turned out to have existed in a way neither of us had understood. We had taken out an old piece of silver and had rubbed it a bit. It glittered anew, and we saw our faces in the shining surfaces. In the middle of life, we had taken heed of time's passage and had found out that neither time nor event could take the measure of love -- love of family, love of friends. In the commotion of eating breakfast, amidst the crowded togetherness of our families, in the exchange of thought and memory, two old friends had gotten to feel for a moment the force and beauty of life passing and being lived--nothing more, nothing less. Just that.