Saturday, September 16, 2006

Old Friends

A couple of weeks ago, my old friend Joey Pierce called me. Joey and I met 26 years ago, when we were roommates during our pre-freshman year summer orientation session at the University of Tennessee. The room to which we were assigned was actually a suite; my roommate never showed up, his did, but had gone off to do his own thing. I remember poking my head through the door that connected our rooms and seeing this Buddha-like figure sitting on his bed, reading from a collection of Woody Allen short stories. Then, I noticed the huge Yes -- as in the band -- belt buckle holding up his painter's paints. We spent the rest of the night talking . . . as only 17 year-olds can when they find that new friend they never knew really existed . . . the one that didn't go to their high school but they wished had, that wasn't there to hang out on weekends and talk about the important stuff and listen to the music that no one else was hip enough to get.

Joey and I stayed in touch through the years, then lost touch in our late 20s and 30s. A year and a half or so ago, with no prompting, Joey left a message on my office voice mail. No name, mind you, but just a reference to an old common musical interest. That, along with the unfamiliar area code, pretty much assured me it wasn't a former student still pissed off about a grade ("Yes, Ivers, you're the reason I'm working the graveyard shift at Kinkos' and living on my Aunt Sylvia's couch. Happy? Feel good about yourself?"), so I called back. And lo and behold, it was Joey.

We talked and caught up, and traded a few emails over the next several months. We fell right back into our old habits, talking about music, sports, politics, who we had seen in the previous 20 years and who we hadn't. But the last phone call bore fruit: Joey was coming to Washington to attend a Bar Mitzvah -- a far cry from our college road-tripping days to the Kentucky Derby -- and wanted to know if we could find some time to get together. Okay, so it meant driving over to Arlington, and having to slap a NASCAR sticker on my car to clear customs on the American Legion bridge. Well worth it.

We met in the lobby of his hotel. Joey is a lot lighter now, no longer quite the Buddha figure that presided over many an excursion into the counter-culture during our first two years of college, and almost completely gray. But he is the same easygoing, unpossessing and genuine guy he was when we met all those years ago. We spent the next two hours telling stories, looking through some great pictures that Joey had brought with him, and filling each other in on our current lives. It was hard to believe that was us in those pictures; even without dental records, there is no disputing that those two guys with the 70s haircuts were me and Joey. I got to meet his wife, Billie, and she was, as she could only be, as lovely, as real and as charming as Joey.

Seven years ago, I attended my 20th high school reunion. With the exception of the three people I had kept in touch since I graduated, I didn't have much more than 10 minutes worth of conversation with any of my old high school friends, even then ones with whom I played ball, drank beer in the parking lot and camped out for concert tickets. I mean, these were friends, but our emotional bond was temporal. Our paths crossed at a certain point in life and then we moved on. Before we worry about finding a mate, raising children, developing a career, staying healthy, taking care of a sick relative and negotiating the everyday hazards of life, we have the luxury of time to develop deep friendships. When else but at 17 can you debate for hours if the live or studio version of "Yours in No Disgrace" by Yes is better, or whether Take the Money and Run or Annie Hall represented Woody Allen at his best? Friendships at that point in time are solely about you and another person, and that inexplicable force that cements a bond between two people -- not because you work at the same place, have kids in school together or see each other on the soccer field or ice rink every weekend for six months.

A friend like Joey is different. Our emotional bond has remained unbroken since that first summer evening together 26 years ago. We have eased in and out of each other's lives since that time, but we have never remained far from each other's thoughts. Sometimes, I think we -- all of us -- are too afraid to experience the wonder that letting our feelings go can bring. We worry that getting too close to one person might make it harder to let them go, if and when that day comes. We worry that experiencing a moment of emotional intensity outside of a committed relationship means that a wife, a husband or a boyfriend has failed the test of perpetual love. We worry about sticking to rules that we didn't write. We worry about conforming to a make-believe Hallmark standard of emotional simplicity. We worry, we worry, we worry . . . so much so that we waste what can often be a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Sometimes walking through an open door can change a life, even if only for a moment. But if you're really lucky, like me, that feeling can last a lifetime.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

el duderino if you're not into the whole brevity thing

good thing you don't have a job, so you can write all this.

no way Larry makes the hall. might as well put in ray knight then.