“Love each other as I have loved you.” John 13:34
Growing up in the DC suburbs, I valued my small circle of friends. A few of us had Greek backgrounds and I felt privileged when we would arrogantly drop phrases in the language of our ancestors. We were a pack, in a sense, however, we didn’t roam the mean streets like the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story. For starters, no one smoked and there were no fire escapes. Togetherness was the hallmark of our relationships. When we weren’t struggling in junior high French class or delivering newspapers, you could find us bowling, eating pizza, or playing touch football on the vacant lot up the street. It was the idyllic, post-World War II residential spread, sprinkled with well-manicured lawns, station wagons – the forerunner to SUV’s – and backyard carnivals staged to raise funds for muscular dystrophy. It was cohesive and convivial.
King Solomon was right: there’s nothing new under the sun – but that pronouncement may need tweaking. Fifty years later, things have a different flavor, a different spin, in terms of male bonding. At least in my life. When I married and had children, I found myself forming ties with guys on our street. We would cut grass on the same day, fertilize rhododendrons, and power wash the aluminum siding.
At McDonald’s, when I suggest to the one friend I’m enjoying time with that we call another friend and reminisce, you know, turn it into a slightly larger, more rambunctious affair, he isn’t happy with the idea.
“If you’re alluding to Auld Lang Syne, I get it,” he affirms, slouching in the grease-stained booth, the constant shrill of the French fry cooker piercing the morning air. With his feelings plainly and simply exposed, I back off. Still, I wonder – if we can send William Shatner into space at 90, we can certainly gather men of a certain age at a single table. Or am I fantasizing?
“Is that…necessary?” he asks with a childlike tone. “I enjoy your company alone. I have spilled my heart to you. Deep secrets from the heart, yearnings. All that. You’re such a good listener, so non-judgmental.”
That one came out of nowhere. I never considered myself a good listener in the strict sense of the meaning. I have a disgusting habit of interrupting others, making it about me with off-color remarks and juvenile jokes. I told him it wasn’t absolutely necessary to huddle as a threesome or foursome or whateversome. “I just figured since we’ve all lived on the same street for 25 years, this would be a refreshing change of venue. And without our wives – I have one simple ground rule. That’s not to hear `first rodeo’ more than once. It sounds like marriage was nothing more than an event at the state fair. I may now live in the High Desert, but I brought my east coast sensibilities along for the ride.
“If you’re alluding to Auld Lang Syne, I get it,” he remarks. That got a rise out of me. “Then you’re willing to expand our clique? Law enforcement calls it `situational awareness’. It applies to personal friendships in civilian life as well.
“Please, not now,” he says, twirling the stirrer in his senior coffee. “I like talking one on one. I feel comfortable taking a cup of kindness with you and you alone. But I’m open-minded.”
My wife is never surprised when I mention I have a fanciful, quaint brand of friendship with our male friends. Did I miss my calling? Should I have been a licensed social worker? A life coach? A Greek Orthodox priest?
“I’m not the least surprised at how this took shape,” she declares, immediately after expressing her hunger for halva and/or pasteli. “When we reach a certain age, there’s a need among some men to break away for a few hours and let it all out. However, not all men are able or willing to donate their time and energy to this project. You are. You text with the busboy at Panera. You hang with the mentally frail woman and her daughter at the pool. It’s a gift, a calling.”
I thanked her for being sweet. And for her forbearance. Oh, and for not marrying this hot-shot GS-15 at the Food and Drug Administration she pretended not to have a crush on. “I love you.”
“I love you too. Now get Don over here to show you how to use a cordless power drill. Bit by bit. That’s one gift you don’t have.”