Old friends are best (at least once a year)
Forty-eight years ago, I grasped my diploma, shook the principal’s hand and graduated from high school.
It was a sun-splashed day in June. It felt as if sun would always splash.
I said goodbye to my classmates and said I’d see them again soon. With a handful, I kept my promise. With most, I floated away — to another city for college, then another for most of my adult life.
I hadn’t seen a handful of my best pals since that day.
But recently, we made a date to reconnect for dinner (isn’t the Internet wonderful?). It would be five of us, in New York City, spouses and significant others welcome, nothing else on the agenda.
It turned into one of the best evenings I’ve ever spent.
We retold locker room jokes. We recalled teachers — especially the Spanish teacher who couldn’t pronounce “Yankees.” We played “What Ever Happened to Him” through three bottles of wine.
But all of that could have been expected. What wasn’t: How easily we reconnected.
These were five men who inhabit all the points of a star. One is a lawyer. Two are in business at opposite ends of the world. A fourth is a prominent doctor and academic in California. The fifth has typed for a living for a very long time.
As I walked to the designated restaurant from the subway, I told myself to prepare for the worst. Life gouges people. Perhaps divorce or disease or destitution has robbed my guys of their sun-splashed spirit. Perhaps the long-awaited evening would be a bust.
The one sentence that got uttered more than any other that evening was, “How in the world did we go 48 years without doing this?”
In second place was: “Next year, same time, same place.”
Since I live in Washington, I am very used to conversations that center around What Do You Do? It’s as if you’re a mobile resume, meeting others. You are looking for common cause when you introduce yourself, but also for a way to shine. It’s a world of winners and losers.
Not so with these boys from the class of 1962. Although we five might have boasted of our accomplishments — and there have been many — we spent most of the evening talking about our parents.
All but one are long dead. The survivor is a 96-year-old mom who doesn’t know what day it is any more.
But rather than mope about this, we agreed that our parents had faced huge odds in the 1940s, when we were born. They were admirable for having prospered.
One father had emigrated from the Caribbean. He came to New York City to seek his fortune, as the saying goes.
But he didn’t define success in terms of dollars. He defined it in terms of books. He became an English teacher in the New York public schools. He never did anything else.
And he wore a bow tie every day. It was his way of saying, “I may not have been born on an estate in Bucks County, but I’m a classy guy nonetheless.”
Another father worked on Wall Street. He faced everything from anti-Semitism to anti-left-handedness.
But he founded and ran his own brokerage, and his son still has the certificate the father received on the day he bought a seat on the New York Stock Exchange.
The doctor among us has been a superstar. A leader in his field, a research giant, now a senior professor.
He said he thinks about his father every day — and about how his father couldn’t go to medical school because of the Great Depression.
“We aren’t just islands living by ourselves,” the doc said. “We all represent our parents, and what our parents couldn’t be.”
And how did these oldster pals of mine look?
The doc and I happened to walk into the restaurant at the same moment. He eyeballed my face. Then my snow-white hair.
“Except for the scalp, you look exactly the same,” he said.
I eyeballed his face. Then his virtually bald head. “You, too,” I said. Then giggles and hugs.
We agreed that our looming 50th reunion would be a must-attend. We vowed to exchange cell phone numbers — and we have. We vowed to help scout job prospects for our now-adult children. We vowed to bring along a copy of the yearbook when we meet again next year.
But mostly, we vowed not to get stuck in the past.
It was great to see my oldest friends. As the cliché has it, we picked up as if we had never left off.
But as I trudged back to the subway, I realized that these guys would be my friends if I had just met them. I chose them then — and rechoose them now — for one simple reason. The best reason of all.
Bob Levey is a national award-winning columnist.