Friday, January 7, 2022

A friend in need, indeed.


During the old-timey TV era I grew up in, there was usually a sitcom episode that came along in the fourth or fifth season when even the episode about the triplets being born wasn't able to revive the crappy show's ratings. They would run an episode about the hero somehow saving his hapless sidekick's life.

The hero would naturally see his actions as nothing special. His  pulling ol' Barney out of the way of the out-of-control car was just him doing a-what comes naturally, but of course ol' Barn couldn't let it go, and pledged himself to serve our hero forever until the end of time.

There are hijinx along the way, of course, and somehow the situation is all rectified at the end. The hero goes back to being nothing special, just a hero. And ol' Barn goes back to being himself, a goofball of the highest and/or lowest order.

I've probably seen this plotline a couple dozen times, and you probably have too. Watching it is like drinking cheap jug-wine to get drunk for the first time. It doesn't take much and you're off your ass but quickly you recover and not all that much harm is done.

The thing about having your life saved--not in a lifeguard way but in a normal course of existence way, is that the person doing the saving usually doesn't even realize he saved you. He just did what had to be done at the moment. Gave you some advice, slipped you a little wisdom, or imparted the tiniest bit of courage when you needed it most. Like William Carlos Williams once wrote, "So much depends upon" shit like that.

The young man who saved my life 47 or so years ago died at the end of December, just two weeks ago. He was 64 and had been battling multiple myeloma for the last 12 years of his life. 

Fred and I were friends from the moment we met in the hallowed halls of an elite private school in equally elite Westchester county, just outside of New York City. Neither of us belonged there, so quickly we belonged to each other. A bit of Damon and Pythias amid the high-end neighborhoods where they didn't much like Jews or Black people with points of view.

Fred and I were teammates and mischief makers and soulmates for most of our lives. By luck we went to school together after college, our girlfriends met, they became our wives and we all stayed friends. Fred helped me with problems along the way, and I tried to help him. Sometimes help did little more than take the form of a one-liner that would set us laughing and get us away from that too-familiar slough.

Back in 1974 or so, I was the leading fuck-up in my eleventh-grade class. Though teachers always complained that I was goofing around too much, and nobody ever sat me down and gave me a talking to. The administration gave me an IQ test to see if I had gotten into the school by mistake--but they never sat me down and said anything to me. 

Of course, my parents didn't either. They were too busy not paying attention. As I liked to say--even back then, I was growing up in the House of Atreus, but without all the eye-gouging and with fewer olives.

One night, Fred and I were standing in the bleachers watching a hockey game. In private schools in those days, sports like soccer, hockey and lacrosse were the cool kid sports. More conventionally popular sports, football, basketball and baseball were regarded as plebian. Even though Fred was the star of the basketball team and I of the baseball team, our athleticism didn't allow us entry into the cool kid circle. At the hockey game, those kids, the ones in the cable-knit sweaters driving their parents' BMWs were in another set of bleachers. Fred and I stood alone.

We were doing what kids do and have always done. We were talking about our classmates and the bullshit that comes along with them. 

Somehow out of the blue, Fred said, "you know who's the brightest kid in our class."

"I dunno, Miles? Carmen? Trish?"

"No," he paused. "You."

"Me? I get all 'Ds.'"

"That's because you don't try."

Fred was the first person to tell me I was smart. To sit me down and tell me I was smart. I really didn't know it before that. My parents never told me. No one had.

I say that moment changed my life because from that moment I started to try. I started to work. I started to break what had become a habit of self-destruction by way of laziness.

It was a two-minute conversation.

I mentioned it to Fred probably 30 years later. And he remembered. I thanked him. And that was that. No sitcom shenanigans, though I might have paid for dinner that night.

You never know who's going to change your life, save your life, make a difference in your life. If it's ever going to happen or never. You never know whose life you've changed or touched or helped or who you've given a boost to.

These are things you can't plan for. You can't adopt some code of chivalry and drive around the neighborhood looking for perilous Pauline tied to the railroad tracks or a broad and muscled back that's waiting for just the right pat.

You just have to live. And try to be decent. Try to think about people. And be there. Maybe with a kind word when a kind word is what's needed most.

Thank you being there and for listening.

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