They say old friends are the best, and I agree. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I did a lot of hanging out with people who were the age I am now, and beyond. I had, besides older friends, plenty of young ones, too — people my age.
But my two sets of friends were different.
My older friends reminded me of thick novels. Their lives had chapters that were filled with intrigue, tragedy, pleasure, success, survival — you name it. My younger friends — me included — were more like short stories. Or rough drafts still waiting to be shaped and developed.
My old friends took their time revealing the events of their lives. They didn’t feel that every little aspect of their day was worth sharing. They only asked that I be a willing listener, and I was.
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Their stories evoked other eras that were populated with legendary characters. My friends Carl and Bernice, who were married, used to have me to their house on Sundays to play Scrabble, eat dinner and drink “martoonies,” as Carl called them. In his 80s, he still had a full-time job writing headlines at the San Francisco Examiner, where I worked. He didn't need the paycheck. He just liked being vital.
One afternoon at his home, Carl opened his desk drawer in his den. “Look what I came across the other day,” he said, handing me a typewritten note. It was from F. Scott Fitzgerald, thanking Carl for returning the umbrella to him that Zelda had left in a bar a few nights before. “I got drunk in Paris with them one night,” Carl told me, before returning to the Scrabble board, beating me yet again.
The stories that my old friends told me were more than pure entertainment, though. They contained universal themes and lessons for living. I was too young then to grasp many of their deeper meanings. My old friends didn’t come with Cliff Notes.
Their Gifts Live On Within Us
Most of them are gone now. But I think about them a lot, especially since I’ve gotten older. Every so often I’ll have an epiphany about something one of them said to me. When I do, I feel their presences.
I wasn’t BFF with just any old person I met, mind you. They all had led — and were still leading — active lives. Some, like my friend Caroline, had money and lived in fancy neighborhoods. She, like Carl, also worked a full-time job at the SF Examiner long past her retirement age. The older she got, the more beautiful her writing became, winning her awards. In her mid-70s she traveled to Cambodia, Mongolia and Iraq, writing stories about each locale. Her philosophy of life, as she once explained it to a colleague of mine, was, “I get up, put on my dress, and say yes to everything.”
Once when I was living in New York, I left her a voicemail on her home phone. "Join me in Venice," I said, "I'm going there on vacation." She did, too. "Don't ever invite me somewhere unless you're serious," she said to me when I met her a week later at the Venezia Santa Lucia train station on the Grand Canal.
Some, like my friend, Lelane, had to watch every penny. She had been a soprano at the New York Metropolitan Opera in the 1930s, singing under her real name, Lillian Clark. But when her top notes left her, and her husband, too, she fled to Argentina. She returned to New York as a Latin, Carmen Miranda-like diva in tutti-frutti hats. As Lelane Rivera, her new name, she spent the next 20 years singing, dancing and playing the piano in nightclubs and cruise ships. “When you make a big decision in life,” she once told me, “kill the alternative.”
My Scrabble pal Carl had once been a gag writer for Groucho Marx. "You can make a joke about anything," he once told me, "as long as the wit overcomes the vulgarity." Whenever I start to write something that I think could be offensive, I invoke his words.
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Each of my old friends had suffered the tragedies and losses that come with longevity. Still, they didn’t become bitter old cranks or stay-at-home recluses. They managed to combine a childlike joy for living with mature judgment and wisdom. Now that’s a formula I’d like to bottle.
I was having dinner the other night at a trendy Thai restaurant with my friend Karie, who’s half my age. We spend a lot of time together. Every Sunday night we watch Breaking Bad while eating ice cream. During dinner she took out her smartphone. I guess my conversation is boring her, I thought. Just then Karie snapped a photo of me and the pad Thai.
“Hangin’ out with John!” she tweeted to her young friends.
Who knows? Maybe when she’s my age and I'm long gone, she’ll remember something I once said to her — perhaps it was something imparted over a dish of Ben & Jerry’s, or Asian noodles. As my older friends taught me, “The End” doesn’t mean the novel’s over.