The nature of friendship has been the subject of my musings of late, and a discussion on the theme with an old housemate led me to recall an experience from almost 15 years ago.
I had made a financial mistake.
I’m still not sure exactly what it was, but I think I subtracted one from the tens side rather than a two, or a three, or a nine, and it plunged me into a week of chaos.
I realised it right before I was due to head off for a weekend away. I did the sums in my head and, to my horror, discovered that not only had I bounced a cheque to my housemate, but also that until Friday morning, I had not a penny to my name. Actually, that’s not quite true. The cup of change by my bed had about £1.74 in it.
In hindsight, that seemed fitting. For about six months, I had been doing a temp job that barely paid me above minimum wage. This was good because it taught me how to live in London on what was essentially an ox’s salary. It was bad because, well, stuff is expensive in London. There had been times of such intense poverty that my breakfast, lunch, and dinner consisted almost totally of the free biscuits and coffee at work.
But I had just taken on a new part-time job, and even though it hardly made me rich, it was certainly a welcome step up in salary. I was starting to imagine what it would be like to live as a normal human being. It was something I had been looking forward to: a job with a living wage. I was so close.
My first payday was to be that Friday. I somehow had to make it four days until then. One last week of being one of the great unwashed.
I did an inventory of what I had to survive one week. The list read something like:
£1.74 in change.
A handful of winegums. (Not even Rowntrees … some cheap brand!)
Half a box of cat food.
Endless cups of hot coffee (courtesy of work).
One package of digestive biscuits.
That was it. I had no money for a travelcard, so after work Monday, I headed out into the cold London evening and walked from Russell Square to Hendon, where I lived at the time. I’d always been curious how long it would take me to walk that far. This was as good a time as any to find out.
One of my favourite books when I was younger was The Long Walk. It was written by Stephen King under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, published decades after it was written (when King was still in college, which is just depressing). It concerns a competition in the “not-so-distant” future in which 100 young men simply begin walking. They are required to walk a minimum of four miles an hour. If they go under four miles an hour, they are given a warning. They have an hour to walk off the warning. If they receive a fourth warning, they are shot.
There are stilted political implications in the story, though I can’t for the life of me remember what they are. But the story fascinates me still. I mean, it’s simply walking. Anybody can do that, right?
From my workplace in Russell Square to where I lived in Hendon is, according to Google Maps, about seven miles. Not an overwhelming distance and, as I mentioned, I’d been curious about walking it anyway. This final week of poverty seemed like an ideal time to finally go forward with the experiment. So, after a long day at work I packed up my bag and turned onto Great Russell Street at 6:02 p.m.
I walked fast. It was exciting, really. Why don’t people do this all the time? Up, up, I went, along Eversholt Street, past Euston Station, past the Koko nightclub and Lyttelton Arms, through bohemian Camden Town with its weird and wonderful people, past Stables Market and Cottons Rhum Shop, and into Chalk Farm. I moved at a steady pace, passing all the office workers and meandering shoppers. It was I who could not be stopped; it was I who was on a savage journey. Four miles an hour? Please. I’d double that, backwards, blindfolded, walking on my hands.
Belsize Park is an area of London where I have spent much time (I later worked in the area for five years), but I have never really understood it. An old girlfriend lives there, and, like her, everything is a little too precious. I had barely been back to the area since we’d parted ways, and I was reminded why; people in Belsize Park can make you feel like you don’t bathe often enough, like you’re this swarthy minion swooping up from the city’s underbelly, lurking in to sully their happy, lily-white pseudo-suburbia. The whole area makes me want to drink six cans of some cheap, nasty lager, and then fart. Preferably in a crowded Starbucks.
That said, when I walked past Tapeo, a lovely tapas restaurant where the ex and I had spent a lot of time together, the pangs of envy were overpowering. Nobody here chooses what they have for lunch simply on the basis that it’s only a pound-fifty.
Plus, my feet were starting to hurt. I’d noticed it as I went past the Sir Richard Steele pub, which, all considered, isn’t bad. But I was only three miles into my journey and had another four to go. It was 6:47. Not bad time, I thought, but a pace I was unlikely to keep up.
I felt the blister just after going past the Everyman Theatre. I walk on the backs of my feet, something you’d think would help my posture but doesn’t. Right there, on the base, right under my ankle, it started to swell. I kept wondering if it would squish as I moved forward, soaking my sock. But it wouldn’t. Just a squersh, squersh, squersh, as it shifted with each step. But, nevertheless, on I walked. I had declared to my housemates that I would make it back to the house by 8 p.m., and time was wasting.
Through Hampstead, down past Queen Mary’s House on the western side of the Heath (7:23… good pace still) and into Golders Green with its kosher butcher shops and Middle Eastern restaurants.
Speaking of which, it occurred to me that I was starving. I hadn’t eaten all day, which, sad as it is to say, wasn’t that highly unusual a situation for me as it probably should have been. But I was expending energy now, starting to slow perilously toward that 4 mph threshold, and it was beginning to look like calories might not be as wretched as I’d always believed. But the compiled change (up to three quid now!) in my pocket was to be used for tomorrow’s bus rides. No food could be had.
It dawned on me that I was a complete idiot. When people heard that I was broke for the week, I received a surprisingly high number of offers to help. Here, Dave, let me order you a pizza; hey, what’s your bank details? These entreaties were kind, warm-hearted, and downright touching. But, to me, they missed the point. This was a test for myself, one last week of struggle, something to never forget, something to put in the pocket of an old coat and discovered years from now with a fond smile. This was a project. This was life as art.
As I trudged up Highfield Avenue toward Brent Cross station, six miles into my journey, “life as art” was starting to look like a tremendous load of bullshit. I was hungry, cold, and, to my alarm, my calves were starting to cramp up. But, at this point, what choice did I have? I couldn’t exactly waste the whole trip by hopping on the Tube now and wasting valuable pennies. I had to make it home. Wait… is that a hill? Jesus! When did we get hills around here?
If I had been in the Bachman contest, I would have been shot somewhere around the Brent Cross Flyover.
But past the shopping centre I went, almost home now, so close. In the distance, my house. I glanced down at my right shoe. The sole of it was flapping aimlessly. “Come on, matey… hang in… almost there.”
I put my key in the lock. I heard a “Wow!” from one of my housemates. “We weren’t expecting you until 9, at least!” It was 8:11.
Weary, I forced a weak grin. I wanted to curl up on the sofa in front of the telly, and not think about how hungry I was. I shuffled to my room, peeled my shoes off, crowbarred my socks onto the floor, and shuffled back. My housemate, to whom I had accidentally bounced the cheque that had started this whole mess in the first place, was standing outside my door.
“Dave, do you want some food? We made you a pizza.”
They had. It was most wonderful.
This week wasn’t even half over. And all it took to wear down my “I don’t need help, this is for me, I must prove myself and remember and make it last” was an oven pizza and two warm housemates on an old battered sofa, administering a Cosmopolitan mag quiz (“What Kind of Lover Are You?” I think it was), huddling up in blankets, staying safe.
Because your friends, the ones who are there for you, they would have no place in the Long Walk. If you slow down, they don’t shoot you. They crouch beside you, offer you their shoulder, take your arm gently, rub your back, and tell you, “I’m here.” Then, once you’re up again, you carry on down the road, together, scarred but stronger, ready for the larger, fiercer battles ahead.
I have just this moment finished reading Off the Road, the autobiography of Carolyn Cassady, where she tells in unrelenting detail tales of life with her writer husband Neal, novelist Jack Kerouac, and poet Allen Ginsberg in their prime, when their chief objective was ripping shit up, putting it back together, tearing it down again, and then gracefully elucidating the glory of it all just when they were about to become too insufferable to withstand any longer. It’s a fascinating book, not just because of her observations — as the most lucid, sane pseudo-participant, which was no great feat really — but also to see how the trio was a pack, the boys, like-minded in the important ways, fundamentally distinct in the tragic ones. The three of them pushed each other, farther, into the gorgeous nether of madness and chaos and beauty, and back again. They were each other’s muses, and burdens, and inspirations, and anchors. They struggled together. And it seems like they never really questioned themselves. But they did, because they must.
There’s something wonderful about the notion of a pack, particularly for literary folks. Who among us has not felt that our friends, ourselves included, are somehow the most enthralling people on the planet whose peculiarities and eccentricities must be chronicled for future generations to understand and appreciate? This is why we have friends. They’re interesting. I have met people in this world whom I would have thought it impossible to exist in real life. And yet, there they are.
These are the people we want to throw all caution to the proverbial wind with, the people with whom we just want to jump in a car and do something crazy. We just want to experience life with them, record their perceptions, expand on our own, try to make some sense of this constant pandemonium that swirls endlessly, find the absolute peace and splendour we all perceive is out there, somewhere, somehow, it has to be, right? And we love people just as nuts as us. People who see the world the way we do; as scary, beautiful, enchanting, aloof, full of awe, something to be tackled and dealt with, however we deem fit.
Man, I love these friends. Something about them makes me feel like I’m a part of something bigger than myself, that we are a troupe, that we are sages, seeing the world like no one else does. I’ve had many of them over the years, and just thinking of them gets me fired up. It’s the one aspect all my closest and dearest friends – male and female – have in common; they are all seekers. They are introspective, questioning, inspiring, alive. They are wild bulls of souls, unleashed, rampaging onward, trying to find the meaning, the truth.
But I am romanticising them, I realise now, as I sit here watching the bright, waxing moon. They were all those things. They are all those things. But they are not just all those things. They are real people. At the end of the day, Neal Cassady had to make a living. We live in a different time now. My friends are not in school anymore. They are grownups. They are married, or they are getting married, or they are worried about the mortgage, or the direction and financial security of their companies. I blinked, and they all became regular people. Somewhere down the line, they saw where they fit in in the universe, and they adjusted accordingly. They saw one path leading to mental destruction, and they chose the other, healthy, wise one. It is to be a visionary to question this whole existence; it is to be an adult to shut up about it and make sure the bills are paid and the trains run on time.
And I am still out there, adrift, wondering which way to go.
Can I simply be? I wrote a Facebook message to a group of old friends the other day, one of those impersonal, hey-look-you-were-included-on-my-closest-friends-list type of things. It was a pithy little comment on how I was doing something particularly domesticated that evening, full of self-mocking and look-at-what-it’s-come-to faux irony. One friend responded to the list saying, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that I was right, David had become a blissful little suburbanite, he’s going for walks and cooking and watching the Olympics and buying Nike and voting and all the things you’re not supposed to do if you’re the outsider doggedly resisting social mores. It was funny and played into my joke. Then another friend responded to him, hitting a little closer to home:
(I’m paraphrasing) “Which do you think he likes more? Being domesticated, or the fact that we’re all sitting here talking about him being domesticated?” And he was right, of course. I’d always enjoyed being the little ugly duckling that everyone looked at as the peculiar one. His words disturbed me greatly, because he was so right. Did I really still want to be that guy? Why didn’t I shut up and play ball, live like a normal person? Nothing all that special about me. Nothing all that special about any of us.
Another example to prove my rapidly shifting point: I was talking to another friend who knows me as well as anyone the other evening. She met me several years ago here in London, at one of my many self-congratulatory birthday parties. She was a friend of a friend, so on, and I was still relatively new to the city, not that long removed from island life. That birthday evening, I was the new guy in town, telling my tales of the Caribbean, of ex-girlfriends and beaches and journalism adventures and self-doubt and romance and transcendence and insanity and the loss of God and anything else that would make it more likely this gorgeous girl in front of me would continue to listen, and she was staring at me, weirdly fascinated. She told me the other evening that she was compelled that night not so much by my stories — who could be? — but the fact that I had been somewhere, that I had done things. “I was looking at Kim [her other friend] and was like, ‘Er… we went to Mexico for a week once. We live just down the road from each other.’”
And I had been nowhere, really. I had done nothing. It is all relative, and ultimately, like everybody else, I’ve sold out. Real curiosities, the true lost souls of this world, will forever be roaming, searching, struggling, dreaming, wondering. I’m beginning to feel I don’t have it in me anymore., that it is no longer worth it for me. That I want to play ball.
In the end, I was far more like my friend than the weirdo whimsical outsider I once wanted people to believe I was. I am a dreamer, but I am also a human being, one who just wants happiness and serenity and a comfy chair to prop my feet up at the end of the day. Calm.
I might never again just hop in a car with a cohort and drive across the country for assorted aesthetically realised misadventures, I will never be nuts again, I will never cut all ties and just go go go GO, man! Not anymore. I like my flat too much, I like my monthly salary too much, I like my comfort too much. I am tied to this world, in a way the true visionaries never were. I cannot step outside it all, pretend that I am Neal Cassady, just not giving a fuck, ambling about, seeking seeking seeking seeking seeking. No longer. My peace is to be found in a flat that’s clean, in bills being paid, in the overseas family I can call at the end of the week. I didn’t think that’s where it was found. But I think it might be. This doesn’t make me any different than the rest of humanity. It is who I am. It just took me longer than most to realise.
So where does this leave me, or any of us who are starting to understand that, after a while, it takes too much energy to try to be the special unique snowflake all the time? That being normal has its advantages? That there’s a reason people choose comfort and relaxation and playing the game the right way? That’s OK, isn’t it? Isn’t it?
But, Dave, you say, this whole series of incoherent ramblings seems to have been focusing on some sort of final goal, some sort of intangible Meaning Of It All. We want some sort of resolution. The answer to this whole thing, it’s not becoming a corporate drone, is it? Is that what this all means? Do you conquer the demons and figure out what it all means? Do you find a way to be yourself in this universe without becoming what you’ve always fought against? Well, I’m afraid, this story has a rather mundane, mediocre conclusion. I’m just a regular guy, a squirrel trying to get a nut. I have a boss, and rent due, and bills, and a recently-acquired goldfish that needs to be fed. I have visions of a life I go home to every night, with a girlfriend or wife, and neighbours from whom I borrow tools, and membership in the golf club, and maybe a dog. I hope to get there someday. I am not Neal Cassady. Far from it.
I recognise… What is pulling me back to earth here? What has made me see the notion of settling as something that ain’t nothin’ to run from no more? Is it an inherent islander’s desire to have a home, happiness, tranquility? If that was what was important, why would I have ever left the Caribbean in the first place? Or was I just fooling myself then, thinking there was something else out there? Does it even make a difference? I just don’t want to run anymore. I don’t want to search. I just want to be normal. I want to work and go home and have a drink and relax and listen to music and watch sports and not be so damned peculiar and hungry for answers anymore. Is that so wrong? Is it? Seriously. Is it?
But no matter. Worry not. In a week, I’m sure I’ll feel the exact opposite. I am crazy, you know!
When I played football as a child, there was this guy on the team named Joe Alvarez. You could go to every practice, read all the names on the team-sheet and play countless matches together, and of all the kids there, Joe was the one you’d notice the least.
He was quiet, sure, but lots of kids were quiet. (I, alas, was not one of them.) Joe just happened to look like every youngster. He was normal height, normal build; his cap sat too far down over his eyes like every other guy that age. Absolutely nothing exceptional existed about Joe. He wasn’t cuter than anyone else, he wasn’t fatter, he wasn’t any more talented, he wasn’t any more anything. No one really hung out with Joe, but no one ever made fun of him either. Joe was the type of guy who would play in every game and never score a goal. Joe was just simply there.
Joe was a year older than me, so when he moved up to the next level, any thoughts I might have happened to have of him vanished. He had rarely entered my mind in the first place, and once he was out of my severely limited circle of awareness, he might as well have never existed in the first place.
Which is why it was strange when my mother took me aside after dinner one night, when I was 10.
“David… you remember Joe, the boy from your team?” Mum had an odd look on her face. She wasn’t sad or anything, or at least it didn’t seem like it, but her eyes were pinched, narrowed, serious. It was almost comical the way she looked. I hadn’t seen her look that way before; it must have made an effect, because I remember it all these years later.
I told Mum I kind of remembered him. “He played on the wing, right?” But Mum wasn’t thinking of Joe’s position in the field. “Listen, David… Joe had an accident. He wasn’t feeling well, and it turned out, something inside of him burst, like a balloon. They took him to the hospital, but it was too late.” I asked her what it was too late for. “David, Joe… Joe died. He died.” She didn’t cry. She just stared at me, as if I were about to make a vital decision about something. It seemed as if I was being tested.
Here is where my memory fails me. I have no idea what I did next. Did I cry? Probably. I would cry if I got benched back then. But I wouldn’t have been crying out of grief. I think I would have been crying because that’s what I assumed I was supposed to do. The next part, I do remember. I went to bed early that night and stayed awake for hours, trying to think. I wasn’t thinking about death, or if I could die, or if Mum or Dad or one of my siblings could die. I was thinking of what I remembered about Joe. I didn’t come up with much.
But Joe suddenly became a centerpiece of my life. I found myself scouring my brain for little details, a certain hat he wore, his place in the team, the number on the back of his shirt. In life, he was one of many; in death, he rose up, a singular entity, worthy of studious remembrance and commemoration. Joe was no longer an anonymous face in the crowd; he had become the crowd.
It occurred to me that if I had known him better… it would have been unbearable. But that didn’t stop me from trying to make friends with every single teammate I had, from then on.
As I have grown older, I have faced more death, and more loss, and more suffering. Each and every time, it seems impossible to grasp. They were here a moment ago, and they’re not now. What left? Where did they go? I should have been nicer to them, I should have sent them a Christmas card, I should have not been so busy all the time. I should have known a day like this would come, sometime.
I’m not sure why I suddenly thought about Joe again today. But the thing about sudden tragedies, you see, is that whoever has been lost has a tendency to spring from the depths of your brain to the forefront. Every interaction with them, every second you spent with them, whether it was to tell them you loved them, to fight with them over the last chip, or simply to provide them, a passing acquaintance, the woman you see on the train once a week, with a “bless you” when they sneezed, the memories seem to gather the gravity of scripture. It all takes on a glow, like they were followed by this white gleam shining beneath them, a pale, endless spotlight. You don’t even need to have met the person; when they’re gone, even passing conversations about them seem etched in time. It was like they were the most significant part in your life, though you never could have known it.
If there is a better reason to celebrate life while we have it, and everyone we come into contact with in our cluttered tunnels, I haven’t found it.
Did any of you ever go to a summer camp as a child? Could anything better summer camp? For anywhere from one week to two months, whoever you were at home — whether you were the youngest in a family of eight, a nerd with no friends, or just a regular boy looking for a change of pace — none of that mattered. You could completely reinvent yourself because you were with people who didn’t know you from Adam.
Your friends at camp weren’t the type of people you usually hung out with; they were just the guys who happened to be in your group, or the guys you were assigned to activities with. As far as they knew, you were the most popular guy at your school. You could actually be cool, for a week or so.
Gav got married a few years back, and his wedding was about as close to summer camp as this adult will ever get. On the grownup hand, everything was gorgeous, the bride looked ravishing, the food was fantastic, the reception was at this Devon hotel with a stunning, picturesque vista, or something. On the other hand, it was one big huge tequila-soaked party. That’s my kind of wedding.
Will is American and in some sort of sales. He went into greater detail about what exactly he does the night of the rehearsal, but it was loud at the bar and I couldn’t really understand him. He spent a lot of time on his mobile, though, talking about accounts and end-of-the-month sales goals and quotas and dammit, Joanne, just file the papers, file the freakin’ papers. Will is an excellent golfer, nearly bald, and lives in Philadelphia.
Josh is about to get engaged, I think. I’m told he’s in a serious relationship, and it’s only a matter of time. I couldn’t tell you what he does for a living. Something in engineering, maybe. Josh is a terrible golfer, even worse than me, is rather tall, and lives in Ireland.
That pretty much sums up all the personal information I have on each. Oh, and Will has this really loopy father who wears tweed jackets, writes books on American history, and actually tells knock-knock jokes with a straight face.
And for four days, Will and Josh were as close a group of friends as I’ve ever had.
Will and Josh were the other two ushers. Gav’s brother was the best man. (Isn’t meeting lifelong friends’ siblings a fascinating experience? If my friend Gav had chucked the corporate life and became a long-haired primary school teacher, he would be his brother. It was like Bizarro Gav.) But he brought a date, and, as tends to be the case, he was preoccupied with her most of the weekend. (Gav’s brother aside, considering his girlfriend was pretty and nice, I ask, why do we bother bringing casual dates to weddings? They’re always more trouble than they’re worth.) Will and Josh were dateless, like me. So, essentially, it was summer camp. Three guys, with everything paid for, with endless fountains of alcohol, scrubbed up real nicely and ready to stir up some shit.
Whatever you do when you’re home, when you’re thrust into the decadently formal chaos of being an usher at an out-of-town wedding, the normal rules of engagement no longer apply. It’s a world of endless free booze, attractive women in tight, sparkly dresses, and everyone in a raucous, joyous mood. The outside world doesn’t matter anymore.
And it was basically the three of us. Gav was busy, you know, getting married, so we were on our own. Almost immediately, it was us against the world. There was a wedding going on around us, but we were in our own world: three guys, drinking, talking girls, sharing old stories about the groom like we’d known each other forever.
We picked enemies, whether they deserved it or not. Most of the other guys in the wedding party were the brides’ friends, not the groom’s, and we, not to put too fine a point on it, found them insufferable idiots, total snot-nosed kids whom we ultimately labelled “The Yahoos.” We joked about which bridesmaids were the hottest. We sucked tequila shots off the table. We sat in the corner and snidely mocked anyone, really, who wasn’t us. Because we were the only cool ones.
It had the feel of a locker room. To be honest, it was a lot like a sports team, actually, to the point where we even started using sports clichés to describe what made us such excellent ushers. We talked about “giving 110 percent” and “leaving it all out there on the altar.” We stayed up late and blabbed every night. All we were missing was towel snapping.
Hanging out with Will and Josh helped me to understand why people join fraternities. Just a bunch of fellas, causing trouble, being guys.
The night before the wedding, after the rehearsal, the entire wedding party shambled over to a nearby watering hole and commenced more heavy drinking. Will and Josh settled in with a group of attractive women, of course, and I caught Gav’s eye. After a few shots of tequila, we decided to go outside and get some fresh air, and, the night before his wedding, talked for about two hours, man to man. When we both came to London, around the same time, we were the two single guys with no girls around, ever. And here he was, almost a married man.
You know that point when your friends make that leap into true happiness? When they put themselves in a position where you know they’ve got it, they have it all figured out? When they become a man? That was Gav that night. I’d never seen a guy just grin like that. It was all he could do not to start jumping up and down, twirling about, shouting, “I’m getting married tomorrow! To her! Me! Woooo!”
It was really something to see. I felt honoured to have the opportunity.
Ultimately, the wedding came and went, we all drank, I had the strange experience with a tennis player, and we folded into the hotel room. I was quite intoxicated and, thanks to my recent breakup, rather depressed.
OK, a lot depressed. By the end of the night, with Josh, Will, Will’s wedding hookup, and another friend in the room, I had decided to lie down on the floor between the air conditioner and the bed because “I didn’t deserve to be anywhere but on the floor, like the pathetic worm I am.” Many of my friends would have left me there, or tried to reason with me, or told me about how they’d had troubles with women too. Not Josh. He walked over and blurted in his Irish brogue, “Jeezus, David, get oop. Christ.” And I did, and we talked for three hours, and he pulled me out of it, and the Ushers reigned triumphant again.
The next day, everybody left to go back to their lives. I shook Will’s hand, then Josh’s. I made them promise to invite me to their weddings, eventually. I’m sure they won’t. I’d be surprised if I ever see either of them again, to be honest. But, for one weekend, we were the Three Ushers. We left it all out there at the altar. We pushed ourselves to be the best. And we drank. Oh, how we drank!
I was chatting with Gav and asking after the other guys a few days ago which is why, perhaps, this whole piece has the feel of a postcard, a note containing nothing but in-jokes that only those involved would understand. That’s fine. That’s the way it should be. That’s summer camp.
I want to touch
falls gently on
through open windows,
and unlocked doors
in moonlight like December
this night air,
ruffling the pages of
an open journal
bookmarking your name
for only a moment…