I often cultivate friendships with old people. If they have used their minds and cultivated their souls, they have depth of experience and humanity rarely found in younger people. They have often cleared away most of the garbage encumbering human relationships and operate more directly from the core.
Purl was eighty-two when we became friends. He was slower moving than some, but he still took care of himself. He cut and split, loaded and hauled his own firewood and put up extra so he could help someone in need.
He was slow to take up his part of a conversation, not because there were any gaps in his mind, but because his experience was eighty-two years deep. When you’ve lived through two World Wars and the Great Depression, when you’ve lived that long and observed carefully, there aren’t any more instant responses and simple, quick answers. It may become apparent that much of life does not come to answers, to resolution.
He was a man of good humor because he knew that most of the burning questions, in a hundred years, would make little difference, that it was the good feeling between people, the common human experience that mattered.
Valida was seventy-eight when she castigated Bob for his language. “You say fuck and cock and cunt as swear words, and you debase the language and the human, sexual expression of love when you do. These should be beautiful words, expressing a beautiful experience, not words that express ugly emotions. You’ll be unable to have any really deep and creative sexual experience until you clean your language and your mind.”
She stopped him cold. Before, he had thought of her as an old, somewhat shrill-voiced woman who was in the environmental group because she loved flowers and trees. He didn’t know she still saw more potential in the human race than he had yet imagined.
He was fighting, and hating, the sons-of-bitches who mess up the earth. She was trying to disarm the forces that would destroy the earth, while recognizing the humanness and the potential for good in every individual.
I miss my old friends. As I miss my old “me”s. They’re still around, I guess. Inside anyway. The problem is that existence is etched in monumental marble, cold and shiny. “You know how Bill is . . . ” forever. Ha. As much as I can enjoy and rejoice in growth and change, some deep, sweaty palm/lumpy throat place in me longs to freeze old friends in my frames. Security of at least one static, fixed “reality.” For God’s sake, is nothing sacred and eternal? Yunno, if they ain’t what they were, was/am I? Was I mistaken then or now? Both? Neither? Having such a certain “fix” broken with such casual clarity conjures up the old Firesign Theater “Everything You Know Is Wrong.” Kinda like when I realized how much b.s. fills encyclopedias and how much my “knowledge of the world” was skimmed from those glossy pages — the answer to all bets. Oh well.
Point is — old friends are dead friends and memories. Today’s friends that go way back are new friends who remember old friends and old “me”s. I guess freeing old friends to become new ones is a worthwhile and challenging endeavor. If you can keep that one honest, it’s invaluable. Someone to compare notes with through this shifting hall of mirrors. That’s the friend you go to when the heat’s on. Everybody should have and be one.
I was an outcast when I was young, withdrawn and bookish, fat and unathletic. When I dream about childhood, it is always about those years. I can still remember the apartment we lived in: an un-air-conditioned, one-bedroom, $88-a-month, third-floor walk-up. 2611 Kirkwood Place. I can even remember the phone number: WArfield 7-8409.
What friends I had in those days were also outcasts. There was Peter, a German boy who didn’t speak a word of English when his family moved to our neighborhood. We made friends while he was learning English. I remember making monsters (very popular at the time) on something called a “Vac-u-Form,” that he got for Christmas.
Eventually, though, he learned to speak the language fluently, and found a way in: baseball. Peter turned out to have considerable athletic talent. I did not, and so was left behind.
Then there was Harold Weiner, the only Jewish kid in our class. We walked home together often. He told me about shul. I had dinner at his house, with his elderly parents.
He stopped being my friend when he, too, found popularity and acceptance in sports. I think he tried to do both — to be popular and be my friend — but it wasn’t possible and I let him off the hook. We attended the same schools all the way through high school, but we avoided each other — embarrassed in front of others to acknowledge that we had once been friends.
But I will always remember this: Harold taught me how to part my hair. Up until the time that I knew him, I had always worn the requisite crew cut. There was no father in my life to teach me these casual things, so Harold did. I remember him wetting the comb, running it through his hair, then using it to gently pick the sections of hair apart and comb them in opposite directions.
I think of Harold every morning when I’m looking in the mirror to comb rapidly thinning hair. He’s right there with me, as vivid as yesterday. I wonder if he ever thinks of me.
Raleigh, North Carolina