Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Aimless Reading: The M's, Part 35 (James M. McPherson)

McPherson, James M.
Battle Cry of Freedom:
The Civil War Era

Purchased online a few years back when I was on a Civil War jag. A great history of the era, if you happen to be looking for one.

I left off the other day wondering about friendships that actually survive over time, despite geographic distance, changing life circumstances, or even wholesale changes in beliefs. I am not really sure what makes these kinds of friendships survive, but I have come to believe that they are the exception instead of the rule.

Friendships, left to their own devices, fade away and die. Reversing this trend requires a lot of effort.

Throughout my life I have been the one who usually put in this effort. Moving around a lot as I have, I used to spend hours on the phone each week maintaining my many friendships. At some point I tired of this process and started making fewer phone calls to fewer and fewer friends. When I stopped calling, most of these friendships ended. A couple of them have survived over time and evolved but only with an extraordinary amount of work.

My friend P., who I have spoken about before, has been my friend since about 1992. We met at Fordham, when I was taking graduate courses to see if I wanted to continue on after I finished. He was working on his PhD in English. We met through a mutual friend we both admired, J. Our initial contact began in J.'s apartment in the West Village. We had a long raucous night walking around the city, talking about about anything and everything.

The night ended in acrimony, however, when P. revealed that he planned on leaving graduate school. J. began to tease P. and P. felt embarrassed about being teased in front of someone he'd only just met. They argued for a while and P. stormed out of the apartment. I assumed that would the last time I saw him, but it wasn't.

After graduation I took a teaching job and moved down to the East Village. One afternoon while walking with a friend, I saw P. dressed in a brown UPS uniform pulling dolly up a short flight of stairs to the door of an apartment building. In a memoir he was working on a while ago, he described the scene as follows:

I shouted his name and said, What the hell are you doing? He turned red and said, I am earning some extra money for the holidays. We exchanged a few words and then I moved on. As we walked down the road, he heard me say to my companion, That guy's got a master's degree!

He eventually forgave J., and they became friends. The three of started hanging out often, and then P. and I developed our own friendship apart from J. I used to call every night in the midst of grading papers to see if he would come out for coffee. We'd meet at Odessa or the Falafel place on Avenue A. Sometimes we'd get egg creams at the little news stand next door to Odessa and walk in circles around Tompkins Square.

P. became very politically active around this time. He wrote for Z. magazine, worked on the campaign to write-in Jerry Brown and wanted to talk politics all the time. While our views were similarly left, I have never been much of an activist type, but that didn't keep us from talking. P. was also part of the infamous writer's group I have spoken about in the past. When he left the group, it imploded, or did it ex-plode? I am not really sure.

Anyhow, I left New York for a year to live in Ecuador and returned to live in the East Village again from 1995-1997. P. moved briefly to Brooklyn (which he referred to as a "benighted wilderness") and then moved back to the East Village.

He went through two major crises during this period. First, he gave up writing. And when I say gave up, I mean he sold his library, threw out his notebooks, burned the floppy disks for his computer. Everything. Writing had become too painful for him, so in order to preserve his sanity he just stopped.

He also began to question his politics.

This all had a curious effect on our friendship. He refused to talk about literature or writing, so we could no longer talk about one of the passions that brought us together in the first place. On the political side, he began to drift toward the center and eventually to the right and then to the far right. We were never shy about talking politics, but these changes caused a lot of friction. For several years things would get very testy every time the subject came up.

Then a curious thing happened. In 1996, the Yankees won the world series. I had grown up a sports fan but had stopped paying attention to sports because that didn't seem like something intellectuals and artists were supposed to care about. But being in New York during the series, I found myself constantly in front of televisions with the game on. By game three I was sucked in. P. started watching also. They won the series on my birthday, October 26, 1996.

I remember sitting together in Life Cafe after the game. P. was drunk. He'd been watching the game with his brother. He got a bit surly. He started decrying art-lovers as phony poseurs and asked me whether I thought there was any significant qualitative difference between a passion for art and a passion for sports. I couldn't really think of one.

Not long after that, my father died. He had introduced me to baseball as a kid. We used to bet on the Dodgers-Yankees series in the late seventies. I found that baseball made me feel connected to my father again, if only faintly. More importantly, baseball became a bridge to my friendship with P. It was something we could talk about, learn more about, and enjoy without rancor. We rooted for the same team and we had fun. I think it is safe to say that if we hadn't found baseball, our friendship might have ended.

To be continued...

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