“Let’s just be friends,” lovers proverbially say when breaking up, even if their empathy is shredding and they mainly mean to try not to sabotage each other by blabbing their secrets wholesale. Friends spread their arms, not their legs, but otherwise move in the opposite direction from sundered lovers, becoming unreserved. You’ll know when your friends’ kids are taking their SATs or applying for a first job, and you don’t begrudge the number of alternative pals they see. The other day a man I drove across the country with in a Model A Ford 60 years ago called me up “to use up some cell-phone minutes” he had. Like calories, friendships keep us warm, and serve as a badge of normality.
“He has lots of friends,” we’ll mention in recommending somebody, whether a plumber or a stockbroker: he’s okay, he’ll lend an ear, he won’t leave a customer in the lurch. Lending an ear is essential in mainline friendships, and less disruptive than lending money. “I’m always here for you” is the desired pledge (like the colloquial promise “I have your back”) of best-friendship, a category often lasting at least until marriage, if not beyond. The personalities that occupy the niche—nerd or happy-go-lucky—might change according to the phases of life, but draw a nostalgic smile in our mind’s eye when we remember them.
Bull Sumner, Eddy Mumford, Steele Commager, Pierre Brownell, Ross Wetszteon, and John Swan were among my best friends, through grammar and high school, college and military service, and the entry-level stages of my writing and teaching careers. Introductory contretemps and flummoxing incongruities require a chum or two to face, until, becoming more hidebound in middle age, we tend to run out of or withhold the sort of intensity best-friendship demands. Not that such relationships are strictly selfish trade-offs—they wouldn’t last long or remain zanily mysterious if so. Some involve people who will never be as useful to us as vice versa, even for the ego boost of comic relief. Instead, telepathic enthusiasms and a trust in basic decencies are shared, though I should add that a close friend who asked for his ashes to be scattered in my front yard also embezzled $1,800 from me; the equations are complicated.
Our earliest friendships are coed, then imprecisely homoerotic, as we reach the age at which tribal peoples form cadres of hunter-warriors to protect and feed the clan, then homophobic for the sake of family life, and at last relaxed and coed again. Nevertheless, infatuation changes the equation, the high stakes of intimacy, and the Lord thought it necessary to devote two of his commandments—Thou Shall Not Commit Adultery and, separately, Thou Shall Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Wife—to the nexus of the sexes. (My strait-laced mother once said only men and women attracted to each other could really be friends.) Perhaps the carnal add-on caused me not to include Nell, Liz, Amy, Brigit, Leonore, Marion, Linda, or Trudy on my initial list of best friends, although they were actually better intrinsically than the males: wholehearted, primal, reproductive— knowing, seeing, giving everything.
The buddy system still underpins modern infantry warfare, and young women employ it every day on city playgrounds to keep their children safe. It’s second nature there, as on the veldt. Second nature means reading other people’s thoughts when they are silent, or acting frequently and anonymously on charitable impulses with no quid pro quo. It’s a mystery, like how we choose friends of miscellaneous ages or handicaps, or why we show idiosyncratic solicitude for one poor soul but not another, or why one boy, suffering the ache of “blue balls” when a buxom girl has stopped him from going further than “second base,” wasn’t permitted a release, though his best friend was. It takes a best friend to tip you off that the cure for blue balls is to go out to your car and lift the back bumper a few times.
“How are you?” is the current universal greeting in America, yet not to answer “Fine” would violate the social compact in a minor way because almost nobody who asks wants to know if you’re not. If you can’t keep your marbles together, agencies exist to do it for you. Friends are for when the question isn’t rote, however, and the “Me, myself, and I” of childhood fame feels buffaloed. You and the cat are watching a hummingbird feeder out the window; yet you need more to get up and fight the day. Call a fellow vinyl collector, card player, Little League coach. Yes, the specialist told us on the spectrum of autism it’s a milder kind. … So he sez it was only a one-night stand; he didn’t expect me to cry. … My skills are dated or outdated, whichever term they used. … I was so happy for a second, I couldn’t speak, didn’t try, but then he died. … I wonder if 40 is too late to apply for the ministry? Is it silly to inquire? … The school apologized for letting him go home on the bus. They didn’t realize it was a concussion. … A friend pauses to listen, his grin of solace not a tic.
How our words waft from tongue to eardrum is not a riddle of acoustic science, but what accounts for the electricity of humor and sympathy, the flaring of angry laughter, the filling of tear ducts—all those flickering nuances that precede any riposte in the most humdrum of conversations? Synapses, serotonins leap to perform, while we also echolocate the saliva on a companion’s lips cracking a tiny vacuum in a smile as yet unseen, or a hint of a frown—one glimpse and we’ll know how to respond, without needing to hear a single word.
The mind’s impromptu likes or dislikes, its eccentric detours, are the quirks that cement friendship, and friendship provides a stem for flowering. How, though, do neurons of the eye and ear, in practically a flash, stir what we call the heart? Love for mate, offspring, parents seems as natural as leaves sprouting; how else could humans have survived? Yet the luxuriance of love continues where no lust for self-replication is involved, no guardianship of clan. Bare survival defers to whimsy, grace, and élan where civilization takes hold. We like personality, ethics, poignancy, quixotic courage—Little Orphan Annie or the 90-year-old lady who plants asparagus in a garden that won’t fruit for three years, and Pete Reiser, the Brooklyn Dodger great, beloved not only for his home-run power but because, repeatedly, he knocked himself unconscious against the outfield wall trying to rob opposing hitters of their own home runs. We yearn for anchorage—even the businessman flying back from Singapore with his blond trophy wife beside him and a place in the Catskills they seldom clear a week to visit. Grown folk don’t blurt out their grievances, vices, and failures to friends, like youngsters do, having learned in divorce court, perhaps, that loose lips sink ships. Rehashing bewilderment at jobs expunged, phone calls unreturned, is not for the barbecue pit or tennis court. Suck it up, because best friends as repositories for self-pity and disputatious baggage were appropriate to the phase when people picked on you if you hadn’t got one. Now, to be ignored is the fate of those once picked on, and if it weren’t for spouses and lovers to unload pie-in-the-sky aspirations and squirmy humiliations on, we’d look back wistfully indeed to the teenage sidekick for confessionals.
In adulthood, friendships originate adventitiously: at the water cooler or neighborhood association. My closest in old age began when a pizza counterman made fun of my stutter and I returned out of curiosity to see why he would. It turned out that he needed affection so badly, he felt compelled to outrage strangers to test their loyalty; after testing mine, he became wonderfully generous, recounting dozens of typewriter-ready stories I could make use of, from war lore to which of the ladies in the Laundromat had turned tricks (he said) in her youth.
He protected my house from robbery or vandalism during hunting season, while mending relations with his children, estranged to various degrees, rehearsing with me his explanations to them beforehand. His fireman father had thrown his mother down the cellar stairs, so although he was Irish, a local Jersey mafia don adopted him as a mascot for landscaping or driving hijacked trucks from Point A to Point B. His mother, when he was small, used to take him to a Catholic cemetery to pee on the graves of the nuns who’d mistreated her at their orphanage, slamming her fingers in a door, and so forth—another memory his combat stint in Korea didn’t soften. In reparative interludes we made friends—the verb is kinetic—till the pistol he carried no longer tempted him toward Russian roulette. But he still drove customers away if he could, skinning the raccoons and coyotes he trapped on the sandwich board at his greasy spoon, so that if people wandered in asking for a pastrami hero, John could point at the naked carcass he was cutting at: “Pick your part!” It decreased sales.
We need roommates to get through college and afterward somebody to leave our keys and goldfish with. Friends may indulge us a little because they know our soft spots—the son in limbo after a meth arrest, the mortgage underwater, the trial separation, the cancer scare. Gossipmongers, by contrast, are permitted in polite society because they furnish narratives of indignity where but for the grace of God go I. We’ll tug a restaurant check away from a friend and bump shoulders in the parking lot, but when in love our eyes fix unqualifiedly upon the other person’s, wide open for inspection, not veiling hurt, confusion, or longing. A current flows, impulses are telegraphed, a flutter of distress crimps the mouth even before we know why. By middle age, our countenances contain a toolkit of engraved expressions, from deadpan stoicism to blithe equanimity. At weddings, funerals, we sit in the pew, while, as on a much-plowed family farm, the grooves to accommodate whatever is tossed at us lie in our faces already.
Friendship is protean. Your children, foodstuffs, and weak points are safe with me, and I’ll keep watch while you sleep, was how it all began; and primeval wellsprings of suspicion are still aroused when people lack friends. It’s why we brag about how many friends we have on Facebook, or how many people might put us up all over the world. Allies are necessary in early jobs to speak up for you, explain the ropes, and then it’s a leisurely, exploratory process where you lay your cards on the table, gradually seeing if they complement the other bloke’s. Yet loneliness peeps over the horizon for most of us eventually.
Recently, in my late 70s, I was crossing Sixth Avenue at 51st Street in New York, with a briefcase slung from one shoulder and an overnight bag on the other, when a matronly, metropolitan woman paused on the busy sidewalk to touch my elbow and help guide my feet over the curb. Her wide cheeks and savvily inviting, sympathetic expression were familiar as my favorite Upper West Side type from a 25-year marriage to a slimmer version.
“Don’t you recognize me?” she asked, with an appraising yet generous smile. “Vanessa’s mother? From your bank?”
She did look vaguely linked to my freelance schmoozing city past, when as a guy of western European ethnicity, I’d eyed more easterly physiognomies with interest, drawn by the sweet-and-sour richness of their faces. Like many codgers, too, I eschew the anonymity of ATM machines for an excuse to chat up young female bank tellers inside. So besides scanning my companion’s face as she withdrew her hand from my elbow, I was searching my memory for a “Vanessa”—the name redolent of tresses and dresses—at a bank I used. Although wobbly, I was sporting a red Irish knit sweater, a green fedora, black corduroys, and a leather jacket from Milan—not entirely uncool.
“You don’t remember?” she prompted. “Vanessa’s mother, from your bank?” I wanted to—had no imminent plans, having just walked from Penn Station toward a night’s digs; and she wore a palmist’s or soothsayer’s expression, ripe for confiding in. Except she kept glancing over my shoulder, which reminded me that pickpockets work in pairs, or that a cop on the corner might have noticed her. In Italy, when I’m lonely and a gypsy matron asks me for money, I sometimes invite her to lunch, but on account of my luggage I felt vulnerable.
At my delay, she added, “Give me your number. I’ll call.” But, smiling at the lady as if we were confederates, I countered: “Which bank? Where is it?”
She was like the clairvoyant sitting in a storefront window in lower Manhattan, dangling one sandaled foot from underneath a flowered skirt draped over crossed knees, holding the wisdom of her hands out toward you. I was reluctant to break off. My Yiddish-speaking wife with wide cheekbones and fishnet stockings had exercised a similar magnetism. And hippie earth mothers on the communes of the ’60s, in their scoop-neck blouses, occasionally possessed that power, too. We want to pour out our hearts to them.
We need confidants—attention must be paid—and generally reciprocate with a core of friends whose own balance of good fortune with misfortune we can keep track of. Are the youngsters’ leaps of faith paying off, and the aging ones on an even keel? Equanimity is at first a bore, then a blessing. Most of us sculpt the modest proportions of our lives, eventually becoming responsible for them. We nod perfunctorily at rafts of people who have no purchase in our minds. We haven’t heard their knockabout confessions of road-trip infidelity or investments that tanked with a bubble. Are they more than treading water? Do they ferret out flint arrowheads or keep a telescope, maintain an heirloom orchard or go to nascar tracks? Antiques shops are strung with heartstrings: dead folks’ collectibles their kin disposed of. The broken Sharps buffalo rifle and jumbo leatherback turtle’s shell, Lobi fertility carvings and violins of scanty provenance. What will happen to my own flute from Sudan that was chiseled from a bushbuck’s horn and is blown with a bugler’s embouchure? Snapshots from Assam; a pebble filched from a protected zone in Antarctica; a scrimshawed chip of mammoth tusk; tufts of Dall sheep hair; a black bear’s skull—tchotchkes for the wastebasket? As for love letters, if pettishly you pitched them out, you can’t claw them back.
“Know who your friends are” is a double-edged adage because we can take our friends for granted, hurting their feelings because of not being afraid of them, whereupon repairs are more urgent than when offending a foe. Friends change venue, blow hot or cold, but we must unburden ourselves, if only in a bar, touching base on the fly. It eases the heart, not simply as a metaphor—which is another mystery: why a high-five matters to one’s very health. Offloading grievances or grief is like conscripting an extra pair of arms to lift a sack of stones. The other fellow hasn’t been fired or foreclosed on, his mom’s not dying, but blurting out our sorry tale helps preserve our footing. We’re primates. Two-legged, we clumped together originally against the four-legged hordes, breaking bread ceremoniously for that shared sense of security, seeds collected, hunt consummated, as we coveted our neighbor’s wife because who else was there to flirt with. Hermits did not fare well. One can fathom how vulnerable our Paleolithic ancestors must have felt if not part of a band. Without friends, how would we have known which valley the caribou were wintering in or which kopje a leopardess had chosen for her den in the spring?
I like carbonation in my friends: out-on-a-limb idealism or a traveler’s itch, a shivery past or libertarian streak, with frostbite scars, perhaps, or a veteran’s fatalistic flinch when a car backfires. The “vibes” people speak of seem natural to me. When you intuit that somebody you hadn’t expected is approaching before they reach your door, or realize that a person, silent, elsewhere in the house, needs a hug, it’s not “extrasensory perception” but telepathy to antennae we haven’t pinpointed, a force field we haven’t quantified, which also warns us, when we’re hurrying down a city street, about unseen dangers around the corner: potential collisions, muggers, flimflammers, whatever.
We came to trust in the validity of telepathic promptings without wishing to peel back the anatomy of the riddle, as if that might possibly queer the deal. Whether primal or rife with innocence, like the smell of vanilla, or the formula of vernal sunshine that causes birds’ songs to intertwine, the randiness of a honky-tonk piano’s tinkle, a flying loon’s midsummer giggle—what is the rush to dissect the math or chemistry of every delight? Wordlessly jogged by a friend’s tangent of thought at the kitchen counter, our lips mouth the same change of topic. On a hunch, a premonition, by sniffing pheromones and distinguishing shifty eyes from shy ones and hearing no liars’-poker subsounds in the voice, employees, lovers, chums get picked. “She’s okay, she just felt right,” we’ll say. Indefinably we’ll fathom a disturbing quotient of brutality in a certain stranger. That retired CIA official swirling a drink with financial honchos at a yacht club mixer gives himself away because the terror and torture he supervised marked him and he’s tacitly proud of it.
When faced with a thyroid biopsy or an exasperatingly interminable divorce, it’s essential to have friends to call upon to squawk, Do you know what’s happened? And we triage or triangulate them accordingly into good-news guys, bad-news guys, and others whose experiences somehow parallel ours. Intimates can be like money in the bank or names to drop, tipsters or bosom buddies of the sort you spout off to as a test audience before making a fool of yourself in front of a less charitable crowd. A caring soul to unstopper our disappointments with—childhood and evolution have seeded that yearning or throwback imperative in us. Even when fibbing, it’s a blessing to unburden oneself. Sympathy for a bogus sob story can palliate real wounds of our own, and, hosting a party, we’ll feast our eyes on our human capital, folks we can tee off or beachcomb with, go to the mat for, drop off our kids with. These intensities of glee and trust we tire of a bit in passing middle age, and presume our friends know enough about us without Sturm und Drang or rehashing their own headlong career detours and marital mishaps, true blue through thick and thin.
The pep of a smile is communicable, and a reliable temper will serve for a flood of words, particularly at a kitchen table, with mugs of the milk of human kindness served. Life is potentially centrifugal; what we want is an anchor chain. We “lean on” friends as a form of gravity, yet at other times ask their help in flotation. And our pity extends to other species, rooting for birds nesting under the eaves or a limping dog whose lifespan is so regrettably briefer than ours. Meeting a winsome newbie, we’ll cross our fingers that this individual may be a soul mate, too. When you lie in the grass confronting the sky, you can feel thankful you don’t need to grip the blades with all your strength in order not to fall into its seductively abysmal emptiness; and similarly, solitude on a park bench is delicious, as you watch the metropolitan kaleidoscope saunter by—but you want a friend to connect with afterward, or at least the next day, or a north wind will howl.
Cyberspace spins the compass. Distances contract, numbers expand, with banter the coin of the realm, and better than talking to yourself. Information substitutes for gesture, facial expression, and body language, and close-quarters telepathic communications are being superseded by the new technology, whereby people email each other from adjoining cubicles or cell-phone third parties while strolling side by side with their dearest friend. But how much succor will this technology offer? Time will tell. When we surf through hundreds of our friends’ photos on Facebook, will we winnow out the images of people not in a tip-top mood, clicking them into daily oblivion in favor of only the smiley faces?
We want to feel twinned for a while with people of the same age and preoccupations, facing the enigmas of adolescence, marriage, children, the rat race, until the disquiet of aging sets in. But friendship is a facet of love, which means that scientists, who are devotees of the bias that “I think, therefore I am,” have not been much intrigued by it, just as, without appropriate outcry, they’ve let so many species vanish from the earth.
We don’t cogitate in friendship. Smiles of recognition spring from mouth to mouth with wandlike exactitude. How so fast? Do tendrils of dopamine make us care about one acquaintance’s dilemmas, yet not another’s? Most of us understand far more than we act on, husband our solicitude, doling out survival rations to a fraction of the needy we observe. It’s a miserliness partly to conceal our own vulnerability, lest the recipient cop a feel. Emotional hunger festers all about, and now we’re juggling the plausibility of maintaining genuine feelings for the plethora of social-media friends in the “cloud” as against the possibility that it will become just another brand of computer game, a checkerboard of narratives. We’re gamers. But I’m not a pessimist about technology, because my own experience indicates that lacking it hasn’t helped, and in a flood zone, as we are—swimming against the torrent of apps—the commonsense drill for a century has been Don’t drown, turn around. I believe from sheer repugnance there will be a veering off from facsimiles.
And yet, at warp speed adhesions are being dispensed with: hometown cemeteries, vitamins from food, the religious avowal that every human encompasses a spark of divinity, two-party politics, land as freedom, and oceans as a barrier. Less than a century elapsed between the advent of the Pony Express and the ubiquity of telephones—the telephone increasing one’s opportunity to chat with flesh-and- blood friends, the timbre of their voices still authentically personal, as Twittering, by subtracting the larynx, is not. But now we have Google Earth and GPS readings suddenly connecting us with landscapes at a startling remove. But at what cost to the handshake or evanescent frown, the emotional tonality, like a fingerprint, of each friend’s voice box, and the intuitions impelling us to finish one another’s sentences or catch a spillover exuberance from news that buoys them?
My memories are of dashing down Bleecker Street toward Sheridan Square in New York to meet friends at The Lion’s Head bar and get up to speed with what was going on in their lives. The Internet simplifies pleasures like that, though it provides more guy-wires for times when we find the world shaky. A classmate of mine jumped off the Mystic River Bridge in Boston after a college reunion where his summary of accomplishments had struck him as meager—might the empathy of friends online have helped?
Life is impromptu: the toothache that precedes bridgework; the colonel who chose not to court-martial us; the bewilderment when a job or spouse dissolves. Two acquaintances of mine have had their lives skewed by auto accidents in which the love of their life, beside them in the passenger seat, was killed—and seldom drank or dropped acid after that. One busks as a clown; the other is a logger.
As nature is dissolved, people foster unusual intimacies with pets also, hugging their dogs more and more, breeding them into toys, talking to a cockatiel caged in the living room, flying to a climate where they can swim with a dolphin or snorkel over coral reefs before these have bleached into skeletons. More tigers pace in cages, admired for their orange pelage, than are free in the wild. Friendship in the broadest sense includes responding to a towhee’s song, even if we have to anthropomorphize it into Drink your tea, an ovenbird’s mnemonically as Teacher, teacher, teacher, or a barred owl’s into Who cooks for you, Who cooks for you all? Friendship with flowers comes naturally to a gardener nurturing beds of them, and campers may fall in love with the wilderness vistas they hike to every summer, pining for them in the winter in the city, using a photo as a screen saver. In our cribs and playpens we adore the effigies of signature wildlife from the veldt or taiga, bamboo thickets or undersea labyrinths, and make sure our children, in turn, fall asleep clutching armfuls of monkeys and bears, zebras and pandas, elephants and whales. A kitten can be a first live chum, to complement Sesame Street’s cast of companions.
As grownups we also seek a daily mooring of sorts by filling out our acquaintanceship with assorted public personalities who don’t irritate us too much. Talking heads, movie stars, media figures. There’s a raft of them, coiffed and grease-painted, rather scrofulous in private perhaps, but a public affinity is broadcast that poultices our loneliness like clockwork on the airwaves. When I was a boy, Hedy Lamarr was as much a companion on screen, and Jack Armstrong, Jack Benny, and Fred Allen on the radio, as was Lucy Smith, a brunette in class. A selection of celebrities or “stars”—Oprah, Sinatra, Marilyn, Hepburn, Bogie, the Beatles, whoever—may exert an unwitting power like that of the original firmament, which was both a compass and a field of dreams, an art museum as well as a chart for quotidian behavior. Like the luminaries we gaze at on various screens for a kind of supplementary validation, the stars in the sky had no individual knowledge of the souls—whether pregnant or terminally ill—who scanned them as a theater of hopes and bugaboos. Yet as outlets or mentors, the significance of public personalities can’t be exaggerated, despite how fast from grace they can fall. I remember 50 years ago in Nice watching the movie man Ray Stark, with three blond models carrying his valises, board a Paris-bound plane first-class when I was traveling coach. Thumbing toward his harem in the luxury section, he told me, “Next time it may be you, and I’ll be sitting back here.”
Friendship provokes us to pause a moment, shrug off our workaday carapace, and just be flesh and blood. Like a guardian spirit, a friend may ask and then reorient us a bit, a leverage like New Year’s Eve. Traction, context: to remain among the living, hugged and germane, is the idea. When we blossom, does our bouquet have a scent? Life is not a dogfight. We pile together like puppies for warmth and sniffing, or wriggle, wag, and stilt-walk instead of quarreling. Make me not feel nightmarishly alone, or even lonesome. People who for one reason or another can’t boast of having enough friends will enlarge the circle by imagining they register in the lives of folk who barely acknowledge them with a nod.
Yet for an old-fashioned oldster like me, with fleshy friendships, distance intervenes. I was close to a man who, after teaching on the Hudson and in Istanbul, last called me, his words slurred by Parkinson’s disease, from Miami, where he had fetched up, tutoring English as a second language to refugees until incapacitated, and hinted he was going to do away with himself (shortly did) because neither his children nor ex-wives would take him in. At college we had experimented with several of the same girls, who might humorously report to one of us how gauche the other had been. But he of course expected nothing more of me, up in New York, than to listen to him play a couple of piano riffs with his good hand, “as an encore,” while he could.
Another teenage friend, like me a passionate fan of Thomas Wolfe, flipped out after leaving the University of Chicago and hitchhiked back and forth across the country, waking up at dawn to speak to the deer staring at him in the fields where he slept, or sneaking into a mezzanine ballroom at fancy hotels like the Brown Palace in Denver, where the banquet tablecloths hung low enough to hide him. Finally a trooper in Kansas delivered him to the Menninger Clinic, and thereafter his communications to me referred only to his cage of pet hamsters.
Fifty years ago, I remember, on a Queen Mary Atlantic crossing, I was offered the chance to have my painful stutter cured in exchange for being a boy toy. A famous English witches’ coven leader I’d read about in the New York tabloids was returning after lucrative gigs in the New World and kept inviting me to her capacious stateroom to be hypnotized. Presumably she had watched my face turn into a gargoyle of distress in the public areas when I was asked a question and had to speak, though otherwise appearing Ivy League presentable and traveling on a fellowship—not a monetary target. I did search out and peek inside her quarters. Twenty years older, sitting on her bed, she waved at me to enter. But her skittish, fidgety husband, the swarthy milquetoast of the family, standing between us, caused me to shy off, thus perhaps to stutter for the rest of my life. Oh, the chances we miss: in Malakal, Sudan; Lake Charles, Louisiana; Vence in France! But despite turning down her charitable necromancy, I did make two friends on that ship, one a Sotheby’s paintings expert I’d later watch on Antiques Roadshow, the other a young woman interning at the London Zoo who became a panda conservation specialist and assistant director of our National Zoo.
Over the years, I have called on various friends to discuss bird sightings, Plato’s theorems, Jungian tangents, Alaskan politics, or simply to take a load off, counting on them not to tattle that I “sounded discouraged, wasn’t working well or happy at home.” I had a friend once who saved my job by calling in the American Civil Liberties Union (before dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease); another who ghost-wrote a rave for one of my books in Newsweek (before cancer felled him); another who drove from Santa Barbara to San Francisco to help me on a scary stage. We each contain multitudes, as Whitman said, and the same guy who forged my signature on a check used to pass along bootleg photographs of the naked girlfriends of anonymous customers at the photo shop he worked at after his pizza-flipping endeavors failed. The innocence on those farmgirls’ faces, contemplating the Kodak of their sweetheart, could have enriched a gallery at the Museum of Modern Art.
The books that solace us like friends don’t die but bounce from generation to generation (as do the Karelia Suite and Goldberg Variations), stirring the bones. My library cloaks me as I age, not simply as content but as fabric: what’s next to what. Achilles and Zorba; Turgenev and Tristram Shandy or Tristes Tropiques; Francis Parkman and Felix Krull; Dos Passos and War and Peace; Joyce Cary’s Gulley Jimson and Benvenuto Cellini; Gimpel with Augie and Ishmael; Gulliver with Quixote; Winesburg and Red Cloud; Rousseau and Tom Jones and Thomas Browne; García Márquez and Bernal Díaz; Grass and Dreiser; Stephen and Hart Crane; Tyler and Austen; Nabokov and Updike; Enobarbus and Kutuzov. Unlike other memories shelved—of friends whose ashes have preceded mine—these are imperishable. Boxed up in cartons, however, they will wind up at flea markets, scattered as friends—and they were living friends because of the people in them—never to rub covers or be clustered together again.
Solitary confinement is a dreaded adjunct to outright torture in the undercarriage of our foreign policy, and placement “in the hole” is the ultimate punishment for rebellious felons. Cogency and sanity are endangered, as if by sleep deprivation. In friendless situations we’ll accept rivalry or subservience as substitutes, or vicariously observe a gaggle of other people’s gaiety, even inserting invented pals into our dreams at night for their healing, reassuring power.
Incompetence is implied if you’ve only a skeletal crew of friends; and on ferryboat rides or the like I strike up conversations where, although banalities are exchanged, proximity provides at least the potential for tenderness, amusement, forgiveness—that good humus underlying the human anthill—besides the greed and violence. Nature is nurture and carnality love, and wider resonations in us explain why social media have enrolled hundreds of millions around the planet, friends who meet sporadically on a screen but receive the balm of validation. It remains less clear whether random, puzzling killings will continue to increase as loony individuals who would have been shunned in face-to-face organizations imbibe tangible encouragement for wildly savage yet hazy acts their Internet hobnobbers could disavow in a meeting room.
“What else is there to write about?” a friend remarked, when I mentioned this topic, which is indeed central, a thermostat. Lone wolves don’t do well, outdoors or in. I believe in second nature, too, which is what we’ve carried indoors, and the enigma of second sight, as well as the inflammatory thrill of literature and art. Telepathy would guide me in a hobo jungle, as it does elsewhere, because I’d need friends there, not just for fending off a bad apple but for life to continue to work for me. I would pester, pester, pester for camaraderie or empathy, the palm not the back of the hand. It’s the nectar of life.
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