There are some people who don’t fit easily into categories of friends or acquaintances.
Sometimes we hardly know someone, or know them only in a narrow context, and yet they are a friend of the heart. I think this is often the case with people we see frequently in routine, everyday circumstances: the mail carrier, the clerk at the grocery store, even a nameless neighbor who walks his dog past my house every morning.
Then there are people one once spent time with and now the friendship has faded due to everyone’s busyness and focus on all sorts of other things. Old, long-lost friends are still friends.
I’m thinking about his now in the wake of two events in recent weeks. One is the death last month of an office neighbor I had become fond of over the years. Another was a get-together with someone I’ve known for over 30 years and had regrettably lost touch with.
Absence and presence. What are we doing when we come and go, weaving in and out of each other’s lives?
Tony was a fixture in the downtown Berkeley office building where I work. For over 20 years, he managed a small, private mail service and was there every day from 10 to 6. When I opened up my law office in the building nine years ago, I started asking him to be a witness for my clients’ will signings.
Year after year, it became a ritual of 1000 repetitions. I’d call down to make sure Tony was in, and then I’d bring clients down to the second floor, they’d sign their wills, and then he and I would both sign in the witness block. We’d joke about how we couldn’t believe another month or year had passed, about how his handwriting was still great and mine was a mess. I’d pass him a $10 tip, knowing he’d use it either to buy lunch, or, more likely, a mid-day drink. He often smelled like booze and he was often drunk on the job. He was only a few months older than me. I watched his health visibly deteriorate, to the point when one day he stopped showing up and the security guard let me know that he had been hospitalized with liver failure. His actual death came a week before Halloween. He’d been drinking himself to death for decades.
I was not a close friend of Tony’s, and it was not my place to grab him by the shoulders and tell him to sober up. Nor would that have done any good. What he and I both did over the years was maintain a very pleasant and narrowly framed office neighbor friendship. He was always good for a funny story about the antics of his friends and customers. I’d go down to the second floor to kvetch about something funny or weird that had happened in my office or in my life. He was kind and always willing to lend me his ear.
I wish I’d had a chance to say a proper good-bye before he just disappeared. I miss him terribly and will for a long time.
During my year of cancer treatment, I found that most of the people I had thought were friends turned out not to be. I’ve written about this somewhat on this blog: the many people who because of their own fear or weakness or weariness simply could not deal with me or what I was going through.
There’s another whole category of people I had simply lost contact with through no one’s fault. These are old friends and colleagues who knew me in my youth, who remember my energy and enthusiasm, especially for politics and journalism.
As I recovered from cancer treatment two years ago, I started pondering how to reconnect with so many of the lost threads of my life. I wrote last week about returning to sewing after many years. That’s easy.
But how does one return to connecting with old friends when there’s not a current context to do so?
This has something to do with wanting to be around people who can bear witness to the person I once was. I don’t want to be in my 20s and 30s again. I want a few people to remember how I was then. I do have a few close friends remaining from those years. When I am with them, I feel more like myself, because of the continuity and the lack of a need to explain how I got from then to now.
Larry is one of the people I’d wanted to reconnect with after surviving cancer. It took me a long time to finally contact him a few months ago, and we finally got together last week.
We first met during the intense days of the 1980s Central America movement. There was a group of media activists wanting to start a magazine to counteract Reagan era propaganda about “terrorism,” which was then directed at third world liberation movements. At some meeting or another, I told Larry about my growing research about the Christian Right. Without skipping a beat, he invited me to be a guest on his Sunday morning radio show, my first time doing that. From there, he helped me with ideas about getting published. I was an ardent listener whenever he was on Pacifica radio. When I needed a press pass into the 1996 Republican Party convention in San Diego, he invited me to go on the air each day and use one of the Pacifica team’s coveted passes.
As with my connection with Tony, the external parameters of my connection with Larry have been narrow over the years. And yet, I have always held Larry as a friend of the heart.
It was great to reconnect with him over breakfast, to catch up on our life histories a bit, do a little gossip. Just like 30 years ago when I was starting out as a journalist, I asked for his advice, and he gave some suggestions for me to help launch my writing on-line.
There is a quality to this connection that has endured the many shifts and turns of our respective lives, and the many years of not communicating. We pick up the thread as if it had never been dropped.
This week, I am continuing to mourn the loss of someone who was an office neighbor and really so much more to me. And I am also rejoicing that I am not yet so old and out of it that I can’t reconnect with long lost friends.