In September of 1969 the NY Mets were in second place, the Vietnam War was raging out of control, and Blind Faith released their self-titled album with a naked girl on the cover. And I was walking along 67th Avenue, across Queens Boulevard, past 108th Street, on my way to my first day at Forest Hills High School.
In history, the teacher put me and this kid who also had those old-school, Coke-bottle-bottom glasses together in the front row. Henry was even younger than me. Being the youngest kid in a grade lost its appeal the moment girls decided they liked older guys. Henry was young for 10th grade because he did 7th, 8th, and 9th grades in two years, having tested into the SP class. I pretty much just started kindergarten early and moved on from there. That made Henry officially smart and it made me, well, just young.
When the Miracle Mets won the World Series, some of the summer's optimism generated by the Apollo 11 moon landing and Woodstock returned. But then Lieutenant Calley was charged with killing 109 civilians at My Lai, the Chicago Eight went on trial for being annoying, and all around us sides were being taken, lines were being drawn, stakes were being raised. We stopped cutting our hair, started going to protests, and looked to rock and roll for meaning. When the baseball coach told Jimmy to cut his hair or get cut from the team, Jimmy proclaimed the situation a mockery and walked off.
I started hanging out at Sage schoolyard with Henry and Jimmy and Ritchie and Sam and Freddy and others. Except Freddy never played ball at all. Freddy could talk and Freddy could drive. He was the first one of us to get a car, even though he was not the first to get a license. Our energy was focused on consuming greater quantities and varieties of drugs, playing ball, and trying to get girls to like us. If we couldn't get them to like us, then we tried to get them to have sex with us. Equally unsuccessful opportunities.
One evening, sweaty and tired from basketball at Sage, we walked by Tung Shing Chinese Restaurant when it was down by Queens Boulevard and Yellowstone. The door past the main entrance was open, revealing a tiny bar and a table filled with complimentary appetizers. With no bartender in sight, we ducked inside and began stuffing ourselves. The bartender entered and we ordered beers. Instead of laughing and tossing us out, he set us up with a row of drafts. Sure, the drinking age back then was 18. But we were 14 and 15.
In those pre-cellular, pre-digital, pre social-anything days, that tiny bar became our information hub. It's where we gathered before heading out and Eddie could always tell you where each of us were. And on more than one occasion, we accepted a ride home from Eddie when walking was going to be an issue.
Nixon's draft lottery was introduced that December, and while we had a few years till our blue plastic lottery capsules would be drawn, the draft cast a shadow over everything. For the guys who "won' the lottery, their lives were changed instantly. It seemed that the more we learned in school, the more confusing the world looked. By then, Henry had figured out that formal education held little value for him. That's how smart he was. Me, well I knew that I wasn't smart enough to be smart without school.
Forest Hills had an open campus at the time -- or at least we thought it did. The school was on triple session and students were always coming and going so Henry and I would head over to one of the deli's on 108th Street for lunch. One day, we got into one of those deeply focused, intensely clear conversations that reveal the secrets of the universe, and nothing at all. It wasn't until we got back to school that we realized we had never even got our check. While laughing hysterically I noticed I felt comfortable.
I'd always been an outsider, a first generation, oddly named, child of Holocaust-era parents who mixed three languages into most conversations, with thick accents that I never heard. But none of that mattered as much my eyes. Their desire to focus one at a time meant it was impossible for me to look people in the eye. If I looked right at you, you would think I was looking past you. And I couldn't figure out a way to adjust my head to compensate. Think girls here. Think teachers. Think job interviews. But mostly think girls. The doctor called the condition unusual but not uncommon. He was wrong. It made me unusual and uncommon. The only advantage it ever provided was when I was quarterback at Sage. The defense had no idea where I was looking.
I'd gotten used to being an outsider, hanging out on the margins. But Jimmy and Henry and Sam and Ritchie and the others, they were not outsiders. They were amused by my eyes when it was funny -- and did not hesitate to laugh -- but mostly they didn't give a shit. Jimmy maintained that our bond came from not having brothers. Jimmy and Henry didn't brothers, but some of us did. What none of us had, were brothers-in-arms, blood-brothers. Calling someone your brother was a thing back then, but for us, it was about family. All families begin with strangers and we had formed our own. Together, triumphs were made sweeter, and defeats were softened.
And then I went to college at SUNY Binghamton while the rest of the guys either went to a city college or didn't go at all. After college -- my college, Henry only took six credits -- Henry and I rode my motorcycle across the country. The guys sent us off with a long night at Tung Shing where someone thought it was amusing to sign Henry's name to the tab. After LA, Henry returned to the city and put those six credits to better use than most MBAs, and I returned to Binghamton where Nisa was finishing her degree. When she was done, we headed to LA, then DC, finally ending up in Northampton, Mass. and I saw those guys less and less. They spread out a bit but stayed connected to NY and each other. My parents left Queens and I started a family and years passed without any contact.
And then my mother died and I was in NY sitting Shiva. I was outside, taking a break with my boys, away from the well meaning guests, when I heard a booming voice call out, "It's a little Elan."
Henry was looking at my son Ezra, who he had never seen. Didn't matter. Sam, who was a member of the same synagogue as my mom got the Shiva call and thought Henry would want to know.
Henry got me invited to the next big gathering and I saw everyone. There was no reason for them to take me back in. We had all changed. We had all become different people but different still didn't matter. It turned out that nothing any of us had done had altered our DNA. It turned out that our trust did not come from having history; our history came from having trust.
We held reunions at Tung Shing, which had moved west on Queens Boulevard. For a while, our families met there the day after Thanksgiving and then played ball at Sage. When Tung Shing closed their doors a few years ago, the pre-cross-country-motorcycle-ride tab still remained unpaid.
If someone called a Boys' Night Out, I answered. If someone called an Emergency Boys' Night Out, or if something was an accusation rather than a proclamation, or a declaration, well, Jimmy ruled on those. If you weren't sure of the rules, you saw Jimmy. But first, you show up.
And showing up turns out to be almost everything. May not be the only thing, but it's a big thing. I reconnected with Jeff and Larry and the group picked up some worthy stragglers like Steve, but the core remained, self selected by showing up. There's been some stints in rehab, some surgeries, some arrests for heroine, one death by overdose, another after a short and one sided battle with pancreatic cancer, and one was banished for betraying the trust. But Henry's limitless capacity for fun remains contagious, and Jimmy continues to mock time by playing on two different softball teams at the Great Meadows -- hair, no longer being an issue -- and we all keep showing up and doing new things.
In this small group we have a Nisa and a Nilsa and a couple of Denise's. Coincidence? Who cares? It's cool.
I spent much of the '60s and '70s looking for a revolution and instead I found friends. I really had no idea how rare that would turn out to be.
There's no formula or prescription for why it works, but the result is outstanding and it guarantees that I can't get rid of these guys.
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