That’s What Friends Are For …

FriendsI don’t remember who my first friend was, besides my older brother. Our family says we were inseparable when we were very young. I remember swimming with Rick, taking naps with him, dressing up for church with him, going on picnics with him, fighting over who got to sit on the highly coveted arm rest in the back seat of our great grandmother’s Cadillac.

There were days of fishing, walking through empty lots, sitting on buses, going to movies, visiting relatives, and just playing around the house. Sometimes people would come over and visit and older kids would spend time with me and Rick but I don’t remember them. Their just blurry faces without names.

Maybe my first best friend was a boy named Edward. His family lived across the hall from my family and we were in the same grade at school. I think sometimes we were in the same classes. We played after school and on the weekends and ran around and got into trouble together. One day Rick, Ed, and I decided to walk down the street to visit a city park. It was a pretty cool park, as I recall, with neat stands of trees that the kids could hide and play in, an attendant who gave out games and toys, and the occasional visiting clown and puppet show.

So the three of us set off down the street and Ed’s mother came out to give him a candy bar. “Don’t be a litter bug,” she admonished him as we walked off. Well, needless to say, once we were out of site, he wanted to throw down his candy wrapper and I wanted to turn him to the Mothers’ Litter Bug Patrol. I must have shouted “Ed’s being a litter bug!” half the afternoon.

We were friends about 2-1/2 to three years and then my family moved. Eventually, we settled in another town and I went to another school. I didn’t really get along with the other kids or know who they were until the morning the principal announced birthdays and put my name on the list. This big scary kid with his arm in a cast walked up to me, slapped me on the arm, and said, “Happy Birthday, Michael! Now you’re one of us”.

Us was the 9-year-old fourth-graders as opposed to the 8-year-old fourth-graders. As I recall, the kids in that school made a big deal about when you were born. Their pecking order was based almost entirely on birth order. Naturally, the oldest kid in the class was the leader. He’s probably road-kill on the highway of life by now, but that’s beside the point.

Somehow, someway, I overcame my fear of the big scary kid in the cast and learned to be his friend. It helped that his older brother befriended my older brother, so we often spent a lot of time together, older brothers sort of looking out for younger brothers and younger brothers keeping each other occupied and out of the older brothers’ ways. We had some great times with those guys, and there were some sad times. I remember when their dog, an Irish Setter, was hit by a car. I never thought I’d see a big scary kid cry, but Steve — the older brother — was mature enough to let his tears flow freely.

We were walking down the street one day, toward Steve and Johnny’s house, when we saw smoke coming from their garage. A car had caught fire and it burned part of the house. Steve and Johnny’s parents decided to renovate the garage and turn the front section into a pub. They immediately had the coolest house in the neighborhood, and I got to visit it almost any time I wanted to because I was Johnny’s friend. That was my first lesson in life about “It’s not what you know but who you know.”

A year later and my family had moved again. I tried to stay in touch with Johnny because my grandparents lived close to his family, but I made a new friend. I don’t recall how I met him, but Keith and I started exploring the city of Miami Beach as only a 10-year-old and 9-year-old boy could do (he was older, so he was sort of the leader, but I was beginning to assert myself by this time). There was no neighborhood where we were afraid to go. I got into a few fights by crossing the wrong boundaries, but my adventures were endless.

Half the stuff we did was probably illegal. Maybe all of it. We’d steal seltzer bottles and have water fights. We’d sneak around people’s backyards to look at their landscaping (they had some cool houses back then). We explored new buildings under construction, condemned buildings not yet torn down, empty houses no one knew what to do with, and hotel swimming pools. It was easy for a group of kids to go swimming in any hotel swimming pool. All we had to do was show up and act like we were there with mom and dad. It was scary the first time and boring by the third pool (too many people in it, too much salt water).

Sometimes Keith and I would accompany my older brother Rick and his friends, and sometimes we’d hang with other friends. There came a day when we were downtown somewhere and ready to go home. I flagged down a passing bus, jumped on, paid my fare, and turned around. Keith was standing in the street. “Come on!” I said.

“I have no money,” he replied. “I’ll see you later.”

I looked back at the bus driver and he said, “Make up your mind, son, but I can’t give you a refund.”

Without thinking I leaped down into the street and the bus drove off. “Why did you do that?” Keith asked me as we set out on a 3-mile walk.

“Because you’re my friend,” I said. “That’s what friends do, isn’t it?”

I hope so.

Through the years, I’ve had many friends come and go. I move around a lot and it’s hard to stay in touch with them. But the best friends I’ve had never stopped to think about how quick and easy the ride home could be. They always jumped down into the street to be with me, ready to face the next adventure, whatever that might be.

That’s what friends are for, isn’t it?