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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Another Brooklyn and Friends (Or the Lack Thereof)

The green of Tennessee faded quickly into the foreign world of Brooklyn, heat rising from cement. I thought of my mother often, lifting my hand to stroke my own cheek, imagining her beside me, explaining this newness, the fast pace of it, the impenetrable gray of it. When my brother cried, I shushed him, telling him not to worry. She's coming soon, I said, trying to echo her. She's coming tomorrow. And tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. - Jacqueline Woodson, Another Brooklyn
I know this is the wrong opinion or whatever, but I really like money. I wish I had more but I'm bad at making money and I'm even worse at keeping money. Oh, did I say money? I mean friends.

Here's a thing you shouldn't do if you're me: go to a training about how to be good and resilient parents and at some point learn about how important it is to have positive social connections. Then, as part of this training take an exercise where you have these little paper dolls handed to you. You take the paper dolls, there are five of them, and you start writing the names of people who you would call if your car broke down at midnight. The deeper you get into that stack, the better position you are with those vital social connections that are important for raising a successful family.

Were you able to fill out all five little paper guys with loved ones who would be willing and happy to come bail your sorry butt out when it's so cold outside and your old car is busted af? Stop reading now because I hate you. Did you instead stare at paper doll number one for a long time and then pretend to scribble something on it so that the other people in your training didn't see how pathetic no-friends Howie is? Cool, let's talk.

By the way, if you do have friends I don't hate you. I am jealous, though. Here's a question from me to you re: the making of friends: how? I don't remember how to make friends. From kindergarten to 3rd grade I had a handful of friends, one of which I could consider a good friend, which is to say I would play at his house. The boundaries of my school were redrawn and so I began 4th grade at a new school. Did I quickly make friends at this new school? I did not. But then I did make a friend. I honestly don't know how it happened, it was probably magic. We did all kinds of great stuff together, we were in a bowling league, we played tons of Lego and board games, and Sega Genesis. I'm not really that different and if I made a new friends I'd be down with doing all of it still.

I learned much later in my life that my 4th grade teacher orchestrated this friendship, or at least helped it along. She'd noticed that we got along in class and then independently told both sets of parents that we should be friends. My mom remembers when she dropped me off at his house for the first time having never met his parents solely on the input from this teacher. As a dad this concept is frightening to me. Anyway, now my friends' parents and my parents are super good friends, too. I'm also jealous of them.

On the first day of 5th grade I sat next to two kids, one on either side of me, again I don't remember the details, but in a fairly short amount of time they were the core of the group of friends that I would have all the way through high school. One of them had a pencil with a working basketball hoop on top where the eraser would go. It had a ball and everything. I remember this so clearly.

Every day we would convene at one kid's house, help one of them finish his paper route, and then play Bomberman or Super Dodgeball on the Nintendo until our parents got home from work. We played trampoline basketball and surprisingly violent football on the church's lawn.

One of those original friends had two brothers, each of the three a year apart, who folded into the group along with their friends and neighbors, and the group got bigger. It was a lot of fun. We spent a lot of time in basements with video games and we played in the back yard with fire and skateboarded or roller bladed all over the place. When we got cars we drove to concerts and worked at movie theaters and knocked on each other's windows when it was too late and we would climb out of our windows and drive around dark quiet streets listening to music. Were there girls in this group? Good heavens no.

We were all good kids, but dumb. We did some really ill-advised stuff. Like one time we bought very realistic looking bb gun pistols and drove around waving them around. Another time we bought Stewart's Cream Soda bottles, that looked just like 40s, and put them in paper bags and ostentatiously drank them while making eye contact with other drivers. Can you imagine if we weren't white? Hilarious.

One time we were driving around in my friend's dad's minivan with those little plastic guns that shoot discs. One of us, and there's a good chance that it was me (like, a really good chance), decided to shoot one of these discs at a neighboring car. Everyone thought it was very funny until she pulled up next to us at the next traffic light and said, "Next time you commit a crime, you should not do it with a vanity plate because I don't even need to write down your license plate number." We went home very subdued and hid in my friend's basement waiting for the police to come arrest us and all of my friends to point their fingers at me and then I'd spend the rest of my life in a Turkish prison, for some reason.

Now, picture us as high school seniors celebrating the last day of school. Each of us has a Super Soaker and we're driving around expressing our white privilege by shooting at fellow high school kids from the car. There's a girl at the stop sign waiting at the crosswalk. I roll down the window and sort of tentatively shoot off a quick stream of water. I have never stopped being shy around girls but thought this anonymous little warning shot would be funny. The entirety of the stream hit her in the face. I mean every drop. We drove away very fast. I have no idea who that girl was who was walking home alone on the last day of school, but I will tell you that I couldn't sleep that night because of your angry face. I'm sorry. How weird would it be if you were reading this blog, though.

That same day, not too long after, we went to get Taco Bell (as one does) and an acquaintance was already at the drive-through. This is an acquaintance with whom I had a complicated relationship with -- he'd be my best friend when it was just the two of us, then turn on me with vicious mockery when someone he thought was more important was around -- and we waved. His brother was in the passenger seat and rolled down the window. After small talk I said "now" and the three of us in the front seat of the truck just started emptying our Super Soakers into the front seat of his truck. It was this amazing slow motion of watching him stare open mouthed, then scream at his brother to start rolling up his window. It took what seemed like an eternity to roll up, all of which found us pumping water into their smug faces. Reader: I do not regret that one bit.

This was a good group of friends. We'd fight sometimes, and I struggled with the same insecurities I do now. It always felt like if I didn't go to my friends' house first, they wouldn't come get me, or even remember that I existed. But maybe we all felt like that. I hope I wasn't a tag along, but even if I was, I appreciate that I was allowed to. These friendships seemed to just happen. We weren't especially popular and we represented a spectrum. My sister called us "the scubbies." Some of my friends were kind of preppy, and others were super skater, and I was somewhere in between. I would see kids just sort of getting through the day without a group to play hacky sack with after school and I dimly realized how lucky I was, but didn't dwell on it a lot.

After high school some of us went on missions, some made new friends and then went off to different colleges and moved to different towns. I live an hour and a half away from my hometown now, and when I'm visiting sometimes I see some of them but most times it's hard enough just to get in the family time we want. It took the drug overdose of one of them for us to all see each other again, eating at Tony's Pizza after the funeral, then a barbecue where we scattered his ashes in a gully where we used to play. If my car broke down in Ogden where I'm from, I'd have no problem finding five people to call, even in the middle of the night. But as an adult I just can't figure it out.

The first time I moved it was to Cache Valley, where we lived for almost ten years. We go back to ski and snowboard every year, and I'm kind of sad to realize that there's barely anybody to visit. I have other friends who, when they come back to their town, have to keep it a secret because otherwise they'd be inundated with calls, they have so many friends. How did I live in a town for 10 years without making a single close friend? The only possible answer: I'm a bad person.

Here I am looking at year 3 in a new town, and again, nobody to watch football with. Nobody to play Sega Genesis with. Nobody to call with a broken car. Nobody to take me to the airport. And you guys, I admit it, it's frickin lonely.

In Jacqueline Woodson's Another Brooklyn, August finds her group of friends, and the tight knit group of four girls support each other through unimaginable trials. August's mom has died, but her father hasn't told her yet, insisting instead that she is in a mental hospital and will come home soon. Angela is a gifted dancer whose mom is a different kind of dancer, and a drug addict. Gigi is an aspiring actress who struggles with depression, Sylvia comes from a well-to-do family that considers themselves above their fellow black neighbors and whose father won't allow her poor friends into her house. Brooklyn is beautiful and vibrant but also poor and scary. White flight is underway.
I watched my brother watch the world, his sharp, too-serious brow furrowing down in both angst and wonder. Everywhere we looked, we saw the people trying to dream themselves out. As though there was someplace other than this place. As though there was another Brooklyn.
The four support each other against the world around them. The adult men who leer at them as the girls reach puberty, the junkies in the alleys, and the teen boys who fear the girls when they are a group, but prey on them alone. They carry razor blades in their socks. They grow up too fast. It's the 60s, and they learn about the starving children in Biafra; family members die or come back maimed from Vietnam; and August's father converts to Malcolm X's Nation of Islam. "Maybe this is how it happened first for everyone—adults promising us their own failed futures."
Somehow, my brother and I grew up motherless yet halfway whole. My brother had the faith my father brought him to, and for a long time, I had Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi, the four of us sharing the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn, as though it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves saying, Here. Help me carry this.
This friendship ends for multiple reasons, and upon returning to her town, August reminisces on her childhood. "This is memory," is repeated throughout. At times she doesn't remember exactness, and is unsure of the timelines. "I know now that what is tragic isn't the moment. It is the memory."

I am so, so lucky. I have a great job and a wonderful family. My extended family is a rock-solid support for me, and I love both of my brothers-in-law and adore my nieces and nephew to the point of potentially inspiring jealousy in my own offspring. I have a handful of close friends in other cities with whom I text when our football teams are playing with each other, or who, once in a while, will share a great lunch with. But sometimes you want someone to come over and eat dinner and play board games.

My son, who is now in 8th grade, doesn't have a friend group. He doesn't get invited to parties and doesn't have someone coming over to play video games. He has friends at school but I've never met them. When I chat with him about it, he seems fine. He seems like a self-contained kid, but by 14 it's already impossible to know what's going on in there. He and I watch football together and play Lego and video games. I don't know if that's enough. At the same time he doesn't have anyone telling him how funny it would be to drive around with realistic looking bb guns, or lighting gasoline on fire in the back yard, or shooting each other with bottle rockets, or doing drugs or whatever. So what do I know?

There is something to that last quote, though. "The four of us sharing the weight of growing up a Girl in Brooklyn, as though it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves saying, Here. Help me carry this."

As my 20-year high school reunion looms, I've been thinking a lot about those days. They were hard days. They were stressful and scary and the weight of them could be overwhelming. I'm glad I had someone to help carry the bag of stones of just being a regular kid in a pretty normal suburban town.

It's tough making friends as an adult, and the people I know who are good at it make a concerted effort. Part of it is that they consider themselves a friend worth having, and assume that anyone they choose for a friend would be ecstatic to have them. As someone so deeply aware of my own shortcomings I find that assumption very difficult to make. I'm not sure I would want to be my own friend, so it's pretty tough believing that someone else will. That's something to work on, huh? I'll get right on it, I've got 40 ounces of cream soda to get through first and this paper bag is wearing thin.