The world is treacherous, my darlings, and if some ambitious person were to interview everyone who ever knew you for ten minutes or more and offered them anonymity, he could paint a bleak picture of you that you wouldn’t recognize. There’s a lot of gossip and envy and animosity out there, don’t kid yourself, so all the more reason to hold fast to your friends. These people are crucial. In high school I wanted to hang out with cool people, but coolness evaporates in your twenties or whenever you beget children, and eventually you come to know who your friends are, they’re people who share a secret language with you.
I have lunch with two old guys I knew when I was a kid and we talk for two hours and Ukraine is never mentioned or former presidents, just recollections and insistent arguments about trivia that would be meaningful to only about four other people on earth, but it’s enormously enjoyable to us.
My boyhood friend Bob and his wife, Marie, and I had dinner last week and thanks to friendly hectoring and teasing, we laughed the whole time except when we had food in our mouths. There is no point in lying unconscious on the floor while a waiter does CPR, it would be unfair to others who are enjoying their meals. And think of the headline: 79-YEAR-OLD MAN CHOKES ON POTATO WHILE GUFFAWING. And the minister conducting the funeral, hearing people whisper, “It was the joke about the penguins on the ice floe.”
Twenty years ago I stood out on Madison Avenue at 2:30 a.m. with George Plimpton, hailing a cab, and he said, “Friendship is what it’s all about. It what it’s always been about.” He’d been drinking Scotch, I was sober, and we were only distant acquaintances, I was a fan of his books, but it had been a wonderful party and it was a fall night and the city felt golden.
George went to Harvard, his dad was an attorney and diplomat, his ancestors came over on the Mayflower; I went to the University of Minnesota, my dad was a railway mail clerk, my people came out of the slums of Glasgow and the woods of Canada. So there was a gap between the two of us. But at that moment, 2:30 a.m., we felt a beautiful bond.
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George had a gift for friendship. So did his friend the poet Donald Hall, whom I met later. Writers you admire seem so formidable upon first meeting but Maxine Kumin sat and talked about her farm and her horses and W.S. Merwin showed me his palm tree forest on Maui and Jim Harrison talked about his cabin in the Upper Peninsula and the first time I met David Sedaris it was like we’d known each other for years.
It’s a gift of bestowal, and I don’t have it, being the spawn of evangelical separatists but now and then I overcome this upbringing and bestow generosity of spirit. I call up friends and I don’t say, “Hello, how are you?” I launch right in and we gab for twenty minutes in our own private language. These people are irreplaceable as I well know, thinking about Arvonne, Corinne, Sydney, Bill, Irv, all departed.
Irv Letofsky was my hero when I was 20 and I dropped out of college to write for the St. Paul paper where he was a star reporter. I wrote obituaries; he wrote politics. We had lunch sometimes. He also wrote for a satire revue, The Brave New Workshop, and I showed him some of my fiction and he thought it was good. Then I went back to school and he disappeared out west. I ran into him twenty years later at the Los Angeles Times when I was on tour for a book of mine and the editors threw a luncheon for me and there was Irv, with the same dazzling smile, an editor himself, and he leaned over and said, “I knew you when you were just white trash. That’s great that the publisher invited you to lunch but don’t crap in your pants.” It was a Fargo guy’s way of making me feel at home.
Once friends, forever friends: it’s a fact. True friendship goes on and on, it doesn’t fade, and one day, years later, you make contact again and we’re talking about the softball game where Uncle Don hit the line drive down the third baseline and I backhanded it on one bounce and threw him out at first. Jim remembers it and so do I. I’m an old has-been now but I could’ve been a contender. He knows it and so do I, and two is enough.