This isn’t going to be one of my normal bits. It probably won’t be too funny but it’s something I have to do.
I just found out a friend of mine died. He was a cantankerous old fuck but he was one of the best people I’d ever known. When people would see us together they would always think we hated each other. In front of others (trust me, it was worse privately) we were always at odds. But that was just our game. We wanted to see how others would react to a young guy giving holy shit to some fat old dude.
But in the many hours we spent alone talking it was different. Not that we were any nicer to one another, but those were the times we forged our friendship. One time his wonderful wife, a tiny English rose, and I were talking. She told me I was his favorite and how she knew he wished I was his son. I looked at her and said,
“I’m German, he’s a Jew. I don’t see how that would work out for one of us.”
She laughed. She knew. She wasn’t a fan of the way we treated each other but she knew her husband needed it. People treated him with kid gloves out of respect. I treated him with boxing gloves out of more respect. He was a man who helped his fellow Jews out of concentration camps. Before that, when he was a cab driver in Boston, he shuttled people to hospitals and the make shift morgue the Coconut Grove fire.
He was the biggest asshole I’d ever met. But only because he needed that vessel to hold his heart.
He had a newspaper column for many years. He’d ask me if I read his latest and I’d always tell him I didn’t have time to dwell with such plebian scribblings. All the while he knew I never missed a column. Mainly because he’d personally deliver a copy to my front porch. Sometimes he’d annotate it with the truth behind the public record. Today I’d love to read some of them. We often spoke of collecting his many columns and putting them in a book.
“It’d be easier to burn them all at once.” Was my reasoning.
We hadn’t seen each other for some time. He was getting up in age and moved into an assisted living place. He said he put my picture at the front desk as an undesirable guest ‘so don’t come by. I don’t want to see you anyway.’ He’d stop in to see me when he wanted to. It’s how he liked it. It was more intimate that way. He didn’t have to explain to anyone why some kid was calling him an idiot.
People, his kids, decades long friends, didn’t understand. But it’s because they treated him like an old man long before he was. I treated him like a peer. It didn’t matter that he had fifty or ninety decades on me (have I mentioned he was fucking old?), he was just my friend as I was his. And if he wanted to call me anything it was fair game. Because that boy could also take a hit.
Requiescat in pace that’s all she wrote.
I wanted to use a bit he wrote about my getting a large apartment with a dining room. Not being the dining room type I put a table tennis table in there. What else would you do? He was always telling me how good a player he was (had a trophy and everything) and, once he found out I was a tennis professional, how he’d kick my ass. So, in an envelope without a return address, I sent him a table tennis paddle. He called me when he got it just berating me then he wrote a bit about it. But I couldn’t find it so I’ll go with one I wrote about him.
We’d go through times when we wouldn’t see each other. I’d be working, he’d be actively dying, you know, we both had shit to do. But we never passed up a chance to give each other shit. And this was just one more occasion. Thanks for indulging me (if you even made it this far).
A friend of mine stopped in. Many people know him through his writing for a local paper but I know him as something else. A major pain in my ass which, through some type of insane mix of clashing personalities and character flaws, is how I react to all my friends.
He stopped in to tell me he’d just turned 84.
“Wow,” I said. “You qualify for the platinum AARP card now. Do you get frequent bathroom miles with that?”
We went on to reminisce about the times we’ve had. Most of them adversarial, but in a good way. How else would you think two people, so different in temperament and generational aplomb, would act? I’m a baby boomer whereas his generation laid the bomb. We couldn’t look at things more differently if we spoke different languages, which, many times, I’ve noticed him rather indecipherable.
He went on to complain, as if this happened just yesterday, about when, on his own volition, he’d give me a ride to work. His major complaint? I wouldn’t exit the house until a specific time. I called it orderly. He called it part of my genetic flaw. A Teutonic timetable, if you will.
So here he was, for the millionth time, accusing me of letting him sit there on purpose. Despite my protestations, he would not believe that I wasn’t sitting there, maybe watching the Today show, knowing full well he was sitting there stewing until the clock stuck the appointed half hour.
He also wouldn’t believe when I told him, although his fetid mind may have planted this nugget in his skull, I didn’t stand by the window watching him look towards the door, then at his watch, back to the door before staring straight ahead in some aggrieved bouillabaisse he was stewing. The truth is, I didn’t. Often. I was too busy leading my roommates in a rousing game of “How red can Don get?”
Pretty red some days.
Back then he was a writer of some self importance. As with most writers, he was deluded about the reality of people caring about what he wrote. He knew they did because they told him personally. I told him they were being polite or patronizing. Who wants to listen to a windbag palaver when it’s so much easier to praise him so he’ll revel in the glory that is his own mind.
We’d have rousing discussions, centered upon my view that I only cared about getting paid circling his of having the hearts and minds of his readers. My argument laid squarely with my desire not to have bill collectors reposes my heart and mind.
Of course, just like the million other things we’d disagree upon, I was right. Seriously, if you knew Don you’d end up calling him pigheaded too. But I give him his due, although he may be wrong about so many things, he’s a pretty good writer. It’s just that, for my taste, Don’s writing lacks a verisimilitude that just doesn’t sit well with me.
Now, all these years later, he actually is a writer of some renown. I still don’t know how it happened. Have I been wrong all these years about Don? Is it true that his readers care? Nah. I think it’s that he’s been around so long people are waiting for that column when he flips out. I call it the Andy Rooney Effect.
Although I don’t admit it when he asks me (which is every time I see him) I read his column. It’s filled with a softness I’d be hard pressed to achieve; a generosity of spirit I couldn’t catch with a butterfly net; a warmth I couldn’t feel on tar beach in the middle of August.
But I wouldn’t tell him that.
Why ruin a perfectly good friendship? I say something nice to him then he’ll only feel some type of strange obligation to make something up nice about me. And what would happen to his bluster and boasting if he knew I respected him as a man and cherished him as a friend? He’d get all mushy and slippery like a manatee (this description was not chosen haphazardly). He’d cease to puff up like a sea frog while regaling me with his table tennis prowess.
And then what would we have?
Just a normal, run-of-the-mill friendship.
And only he and I understand that.
Most who see us speak assume we’re mortal enemies. I ran into him at a diner, him at his table full of friends and fans; I at a table with my girlfriend. For a few minutes we traded barbs back and forth. It was obvious his friends didn’t like that I was picking on him.
Before he left, Don came over to our table. My girlfriend told him she thought my behavior was a disgrace. Don just smiled that ‘what can ya do?’ smile he’s unleashed on many occasions around me. Before he left, as always seems to happen, a little moment came out. It bounces back and forth as to who gets it in, but it always seems to happen.
“Hey Don,” I said. “I’ve been pretty busy lately. How’d the Red Sox do?”
This happened in 2004. The first World Series victory in his lifetime. A victory so important to this man who, as long as I’ve known him, refers to the team as ‘my Red Sox.’ He smiled the smile I’d seen before. And that’s all needed to be said.
The day he dropped by I watched his girlfriend while we engaged in our time honored badinage somewhat bewildered. During a rare break in the action, she asked me how, after all these years of snipes and jibes, we’ve stayed friends.
I smiled because, to be honest, there is no answer. We’ve argued, laughed, and shared sadness. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s because we can ‘have a go’ at each other without worrying about feelings.
Maybe it’s something that can’t be described.
I approached Don while looking at his girlfriend. She deserved an answer. I just wondered if I had one. I stood in front of Don who looked at me with a look I’ve seen many times before. Dread because it’s unfathomable to him what will come out of my mouth. And pride because he knows, whatever it is, I couldn’t have said it without him.
“Well,” I lean over, grab Don’s ample belly with a smile and say, “It’s all because of his rich, Jewy goodness.”