I finish work earlier on Thursday than any other day of the week. For going on seven years now, Dave, Max, and Pat come over on Thursday nights to play HeroQuest. Wrapping up a bit early gives me time to get home and prepare for their arrival: laying out the game board and its complement of miniature monsters and furniture, recording the preamble and the week’s unique sound effects and deaths into the soundboard app on my phone, doing some nice thing for Kristen to further safeguard the evening from distraction, exchanging my straw trilby and <quote-01>collared shirt<quote-01> for a baseball cap and hoodie. Then it’s on to the Circle K or Legends and back to the arranged dining room table for hours of play. When we began writing these letters to each other, my Thursdays were still like this: junk-food-filled skipping starts into my three-day weekends. That’s all gone now.
Since lockdown, Thursdays have become far more mundane. We ship out Grammar to his grandparents for an hour or two, microwave a couple bags of popcorn, and stream something. First it was the third season of Ozark, now the first season of Hunters. I won’t bore you with my estimation of either show, but I will quote for you both a line from last Thursday’s episode of Hunters. An old Jewish woman—a Holocaust survivor, small arms expert, and codebreaker—is mourning the recent loss of her husband—himself a Holocaust survivor and master gadgeteer. He just last week failed, you see, to disarm a timebomb on a New York City subway car, thinking it some diabolical chemical weapon instead of the ho-hum regular bomb it turned out to be. Oy vey, am I right? Anyway, in the midst of this old lady’s conversation with her husband’s ghost or something, she asks, “Who’s going to know the stories that gave me these wrinkles?”
In context, the line lands pretty damn maudlin, almost insultingly so. But in a vacuum, it captures perfectly my criteria for an adult friendship. Put simply, I have no desire to set the scene ever again.
<quote-02>I reject the burden of summoning the “story-truth” of my past for strangers. Count me forever uninterested in constructing hyperreal narratives or sensuous descriptions to help stimulate in my listener’s thoughts and emotions what I experienced in the past.<quote-02> I want instead to be with those for whom the “happening-truth” is enough because it happened to them, as well. I don’t want to sit down and tell some uninitiated newcomer about a harrowing evening of circuit-breaking with my childhood friends Wuck, <quote-04>Pat, Koontz, and the Garrobo twins<quote-04>. I just want to enjoy when one of us brings it up, when we all get to return to the memory together, to just get it. And if someone conjures a specific detail, he does so only to prolong our moment of nostalgia, not to recreate it for an audience. <quote-05>Ideally, there is no audience—only the players<quote-05>.
Basically, <quote-06>I want to spend as little time as possible with people who can’t see Megan Tulac in their memories<quote-06>. Do you not remember, Wuck, playing hooky from some California State Thespian Festival workshop junior year, sitting in a couple of aisle seats in the Garden Grove High School Auditorium, and flirting with St. Lucy’s Megan Tulac and Shannon Stark—the former outfitted in a Reese’s Pieces babydoll tee and black volleyball shorts, the latter buxom and beaming in the mold of Becca White?
And you, Hoke, how lame must we sound to others when we wax nostalgic about the end of our freshman year? What kind of loser-seniors, after all, associate with freshman boys? And yet, we know how smoking hot Becca White and Maureen Vantvlie were. How cool. We don’t have to convince each other. We just get to return as kings to <quote-07>that June afternoon<quote-07>, to the sunlit second-story of that colonial revival a stone’s throw away from Wuck’s childhood home.
This. This deep and nuanced shared history—for starters and at the very least—is what I demand from an adult friendship. This isn’t to say, of course, that new memories won’t be made with my lifelong partners in crime—in fact, that goes without saying—but how much richer is each new memory when it sprouts from such fertile soil, alongside such mighty elms, firs, and ficuses? What a tremendous effort it would be to start this kind of friendship in adulthood, how comparatively flimsy the fruits.
Hoke, you’ve more than once mused that Pat could be my Dean Moriarty. But really think about that literary friendship: Dean tries to supercharge his budding bond with Sal Paradise in their cross-country dash by demanding that each passenger narrate his entire life story to the other. Can you imagine? What a tall order! I’ve often thought about how fascinating that might be for listeners and tellers alike if a group of us attempted such a feat on a cross country drive from, say, Brooklyn to Southern California with Wuck’s life in tow. But Dean and Sal and whoever else was in that fictional sedan were strangers by comparison, lost and lonely people trying to achieve the effect of a lifelong friendship in a few days. And while the flame of their friendship burns hot—for what? A few years maybe, a few months?—it’s quickly and wholly extinguished. <quote-16>What a waste of time and energy<quote-16>.
I’m going to risk sounding like a real dick right now, but almost every relationship I’ve made and maintained since high school has been motivated by professional self-interest. Take Omar, likely my closest friend beyond our immediate group. The only reason I acted friendly with Omar at first was so he’d let me intern his Analysis of Poetry course, and the only reason I fanned the first sparks of our friendship—sending along emails I thought he’d like, dropping by his office with a quip about the previous night’s Angels game, making room in my schedule for a quick lunch off campus—was because I figured he’d be a useful ally in the job markets to come. As fate would have it, we had enough in common so that an actual friendship could blossom, and I’ve enjoyed his company probably as much as I could from a person who can’t call Megan Tulac or Becca White to his mind’s eye. Even so, I wonder if his biggest contributions to my life haven’t been professional. I mean, his personal phone calls and sparkling letters of recommendation helped net me my first part-time teaching jobs, my fellowship, and my current full-time position—he probably deserves, like, 30 percent of my salary. And, sure, the roots of our relationship now run thirteen-plus years’ deep, but what’s thirteen compared to my twenty-three with you, Wuck? Or to my twenty-six, Hoke, with you?
Further, how much more formative were those first handful of years? Have I changed that much since I first met Omar in 2007? Not really. But what about the ninth grade Murph compared to the seventh grade Murph you knew, Hoke? That kid went from angrily drawing superheroes in a lonely corner of the library to delighting the hottest girl in our high school of three thousand!
Once you asked me, Wuck, why I didn’t invite Omar to Guy Night. But Guy Night is not about me; it’s about us—The Guys! Omar cannot simply become one of The Guys. The only late-stage route into Guy Night, I think, is the one Dave navigated, and he could only navigate it because he possessed enough of The Guys’ shared memory. He went to elementary school with you, Wuck, <quote-08>played AYSO soccer with me<quote-08>, <quote-09>Little League with Pat<quote-09>, went to Pioneer with you, Hoke, attended high school keggers with Paul, saw the leaves of the sweetgum go from green to yellow to orange to red. His childhood McDonald’s was our childhood McDonald’s! As soon as he made the New Harmony Ranch pilgrimage for Koontz’s bachelor party and wedding, he was in. He gets it.
You know, this Doctor Murphy fellow is constantly having to project a version of himself for others—for colleagues, for students—having to say witty things or practice compassion at a recommended distance. When it comes to my friends, I just want to be myself, to speak a shared vocabulary and invoke a shared memory, to know that my allusions will land, to forgo justification. Take, again and for instance, this Koontz fellow—whom I’ve jokingly called “the worst” at least twice in these letters. Koontz exists either on the mainstage or in the wings of almost my entire life story; he can nod knowingly along to tales of Megan Tulac and Becca White. He’s in forever as far as I’m concerned; he has a place to stay and an attentive ear in times of need. He gets it.
<quote-10>So when you tell us, Hoke, that your father hasn’t made any good friends since childhood, I get that too. Had I somehow drifted from you all, I don’t think I would have any either<quote-10>. But it wouldn’t be because I feared the awkward emotional terrain between my life and the lives of others—this isn’t the 1950s—I’m just pretty sure the ends wouldn’t justify the means. It’s no coincidence, after all, that the adult men in my father’s circle of friends all grew up on the same street; The Westchester Rat Pack, they called themselves. I’m pretty sure this is how it works more often than not. Maybe we find—as adults—someone in constant proximity whose personality is compatible with ours and with whom we share an important interest or two. Add to that a life-changing event and maybe you’ve got something: my father also became brotherly close with his beer-and-football loving next-door neighbor who lost his wife in a car accident. Anthony and Dennis owe their adult friendship to a similar confluence of forces, I’d imagine. In both cases, though, that’s but a single friendship. Think of the Zoom meetings we’ve been capable of these past months! How lucky we are!
<quote-11>I sometimes wonder how long Jesus could have kept the band together had he not died<quote-11>. Even with another handful of outrageous miracles, I’m guessing another year or so tops. Hell, say I started playing softball with Jesus, maybe he popped into 1868 N 1st for a miracle or two—banishing the maladies from my mother’s joints, for instance, and stocking the garage fridge with an endless supply of suddenly-impossible-to-come-by Dr. Pepper Ten on the way out—I’d certainly be forever grateful, probably stump for him a bunch more, maybe even let him hit leadoff before me. But, like, I wouldn’t invite him to Guy Night.
Speaking of Guy Night, what do <quote-12>your wives<quote-12> make of us? I mean, really. I could see how the group might seem impenetrable to them, how that might function to pit them against us at times. I ask, maybe, because of the mystery of your sudden disappearance from Hope Island last weekend, Hoke. Wuck literally had me thinking you were dead—your bloated corpse bumping along the murky bottom of Skagit Bay—<quote-13>and Rachel wouldn’t even text me back about your well-being. I had to send in the big guns and have Tom call her; everybody loves Tom<quote-13>.
And what about this project? Kristen goes back and forth between pretending to care and calling it “your stupid pen pal whatever.” Her love for the members of the group, of course, remains boundless; honestly, it’s one of the reasons I married her.
As for my little family, we’ve been taking to the midnight streets pretty regularly since lockdown began, at least since the end of March when Kristen ordered one of those bike trailers for Grammar, like a little nylon Airstream for your buckled and helmeted toddler. She’d been itching to get out of the house more often, and when the thing finally arrived, she immediately made me put it together so that they could go out after dinner. She figured the later the better, fewer passing cars and unmasked dog-walkers and the like. Still, she didn’t feel completely comfortable braving the streets at night alone, especially with Grammar along for the ride in newfangled fashion.
“What if something happens?” she always says.
So I dug out my shitty inline skates, leashed up Ben, and off we went. The first couple times Grammar was content to remain in the trailer; we didn’t go far, just over to Third, down to 18th, west to San Antonio, and back. By the third or fourth time, however—especially as the nights grew warmer—Gram started getting antsy, wanting to roam more freely the empty boulevards of Upland with mom and dad and boy’s best friend. And were they ever empty—not a pair of headlights to be seen, even when crossing Euclid. So our next time out, I humped his scooter over my shoulder, and we set off for the culs de sac on Winston just south of 18th. It was such a success that the very next evening we departed 1868 as autonomous, wheeled entities: Kristen on her beach cruiser, Grammar on his three-wheel scooter, and I on my shitty skates. I want to call them by far the worst pair of inline skates I’ve ever owned, but that’s not entirely true.
I first asked for inline skates the Christmas of 1991, roughly three years after leaving my bike in a thicket of juniper and <quote-14>vowing never to mount it or any bicycle ever again<quote-14>. Because I had made so demonstrably good on my promise, my parents balked at the request. “We had to donate your top-of-the-line bike to Goodwill because you couldn’t stand the sight of it, and now you want us to buy you top-of-the-line and equally treacherous inline skates?” was the soul of their defense. To my nine-year-old credit, I appreciated their reasoning and agreed to a super lame pair of Fisher Price Flash Tracks as training skates. If I stuck to it, they proposed, I could ask for a nicer pair when my birthday came around. So that Christmas afternoon—three or four hours of Streets of Rage and Toejam and Earl already under my belt—I wrestled my shoes into the adjustable plastic shells, pulled tight the three Velcro straps, and began the first of hundreds of rickety journeys back and forth along Buffington, five-hundred feet one way, five-hundred feet back. By the end of Christmas vacation, I was circling the block with relative ease, and on Valentine’s Day—more than a month earlier than promised and with exactly two years left in his life—my dad took me to Chick’s after school.
<quote-15>Do you two remember the wall of inline skates at Chick’s Sporting Goods?<quote-15> What a wonderland that place was, <quote-17>filled with spinning racks of aluminum baseball bats, wooden and composite hockey sticks of every conceivable length, soccer balls and cleats in every imaginable color<quote-17>. Back then you could go to a brick-and-mortar store and purchase top-of-the-line items. These days, most first-class sporting goods—your $300 softball bats or $4,800 kayaks—must be special-ordered from a niche retailer. All you can find in person anymore is cheap shit; for most people cheap shit will do, I suppose.
I remember sitting cross-legged on the family-room carpet that night with the opened box in front of me: genuine Rollerblades—black boot and frame; Saturn yellow liners, laces, and wheels; ABEC-5 bearings—my Lightnings. When I outgrew those, it was a pair of Rollerblade Macroblades, then Rollerblade Coolblades, and finally, toward the end of junior high, Roces M12s—all top-of-the-line skates and among the most prized possessions of my youth. I can see the evolution of each pair in my mind: new laces, mismatched wheels, a gray replacement brake. <quote-18>How adept I became with an Allen wrench!<quote-18> My last memories of skating as an adolescent are down to the Garrobo house, probably as a junior when I instead should have been wooing Megan Tulac.
These present-day shitty skates were purchased on a whim one day in 2007 at some now-defunct sporting goods store by the Montclair Plaza; Kristen and I both got a pair. We were playing a lot of tennis back then, and I think we’d stopped in for a can of tennis balls. She probably rode hers two or three times before stuffing them away in the recesses of our garage; I got more use out of mine than she did—the wheels are currently in dire need of rotating—but I was always painfully aware of how shitty they were, slow and loud and rattly. For as often as I used them, though, they did the trick.
But as Kristen and Grammar and I began canvassing our sleepy neighborhood more and more often, I found myself longing once more for the top-of-the-line. The kid was literally pacing me in downhill stretches; it was unacceptable. So, twenty-eight years after my initial request, I again asked for a pair of genuine Rollerblades for my birthday. When the skates arrived, I was shocked by how similar the packaging was: the same cardboard box, the same logo, the same Ziploc baggie filled with screws and Allen wrenches. It was extraordinary nostalgia, not unlike the warmth I’ve recently experienced in restoring my GI Joe collection to glory. And the skates themselves—holy shit, it’s like they’re motorized. These motherfuckers are fast! I’ve still yet to top them out, I think, either holding back so that Ben can keep up with me or employing a ponderous downhill slalom across all four empty lanes of San Antonio.
I’d say we go out after dark—the four of us—three times a week on average, but I’ve enjoyed the familiar freedom so much that I’ve been skating on my own as well—usually up Euclid to 20th, west past San Antonio, north through the little community where Jordan Chechitelli and Greg Custer lived, back to San Antonio on 21th, down to 18th via slalom, and homeward past Pioneer. Nearly imperceptible proficiencies have begun returning to me with the requisite speed: the subtle shift of weight to my back foot to maximize a level-stretch coast, the brief drag of a front wheel before taking a sharp downhill turn, a relaxing of the knees before launching from curb to asphalt. There are moments during these rides when I am absolutely transported to childhood—some exact combination of speed and terrain, lit just so by a triangulation of streetlights, with a whiff of orange blossoms in the perfectly western breeze—<quote-19>my own late-night suburban madeleine, magical<quote-19>.
Alas, there are only a handful of spots throughout north Upland where this time travel remains possible. Two summers ago, the city began replacing the orange streetlights of our youth with white LED lamps. For whatever reason, Buffington was one of the last streets to be converted, so I was able to spend a little extra time savoring them while taking out the trash each evening. During the span of those weeks, I could sense my little halo of orange diminishing night after night. The effect of this ever-encroaching surgical brightness was so oppressive, made me so sad, that I couldn’t help but commandeer Kristen’s Nikon to try and capture for posterity the dull orange glow that enveloped my summer nights for so long, to rage against the dying of the light, so to speak. Two years later, I remain grateful for these photographs, three of which I’ve saved to my phone and return to from time to time. Thankfully, these low-pressure sodium-vapor lamps remain up and down Euclid and in places where older streets have become freeway overpasses—like San Antonio between 19th and 20th—but they are entirely gone from our neighborhoods. Almost.
We were returning along 18th from one of our late-night adventures two weeks ago when Grammar—who often determines our improvised routes home—took an unexpected right turn into the dark alley between Second and Third Avenues. This was Adam Shear’s alley, the same one from which Paul Nurre’s Analytical Theatre persona sprinted to the tune of Duane Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser.” <quote-20>Were you one of the characters giving chase, Hoke? Did you leap from a trash can?<quote-20> Someone—Gualt maybe?—was definitely dressed as a pirate. Cooter was Indiana Jones, I think. This is exactly the stuff I don’t want to have to depict for strangers, by the way. Anyway, that alley.
So. <quote-21>Grammar turns into this almost pitch black alley<quote-21>; Kristen has a light on the front of her beach cruiser, and the soles of Grammar’s sneakers are filled with the same LEDs that now light our avenues, so we’re doing okay. There’s a little crook in the alley right before Adam’s old house, and just as we overtake the bend, it reveals itself to me, buried in the middle of the alleyway, in the center of that block: an untouched orange streetlight. Like a watering hole from days gone by, one the new highway veered away from but has somehow managed to stay in business, it sits there, its glow wholly undisturbed by the glaring lumens that otherwise frame the block, hidden by them too. It’s like an oasis, guys—especially so last Thursday night when a bouquet of flowering jasmine wafted its way there, the garbage cans all newly emptied.
Still, I get that there’s nothing objectively beautiful about the orange light these low-pressure sodium-vapor lamps emit. Honestly, if it weren’t for the unparalleled brightness of the new LEDs, my family couldn’t safely join me about the neighborhood; Gram, at best, would still be relegated to his caboose of nylon, plastic, and zippers. More probably his trailer would already have gone the way of Kristen’s skates, banished to the discarded recesses of our three-car garage. I won’t, as such, champion these lights like I will the felled sweetgums, the majestic trees that once filled my neighborhood with their abundance of leaves rippling in the spring, summer, and fall breezes. I won’t even object to descriptions of these lights as dim or murky, ugly even. But I also won’t pretend that I don’t love them or that they aren’t a part of me. The nonbelievers, as far as I’m concerned, can persist in their nonbelieving.
They get it or they don’t.
Either way, my heart soars when I skate through the little orb of apricot-colored light at the heart of that block.
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