It’s funny how we meet people, make friends, start dating, bonding and get into serious relationships. It’s not like we wake up one morning and say, “Let’s make some friends today.” When I was fifteen years younger, I might’ve thought, “I need to get laid tonight,” but I didn’t exactly sit down and plan for something like that. Regardless of what some of you may think of that thought process, the fact is that there have been times in my adult life when it has been amazingly easy to become friends with folks. Complete strangers with little in common other than a school, a church, a city, a bar or a job site. With a wife, a son, and the “lofty” positions of consultant and professor, it’s not so easy to be friends, even with my current friends.
One goofy example of how friendships have happened in my life was one Friday twenty years ago. I was in the middle of my sophomore year at Pitt, with a full class load of existential philosophy, macroeconomics, Shakespeare, the second half of Biology, and a writing seminar for history majors. I was working full-time at Pitt’s computer labs, somewhere around 36 hours a week between the end of January and the beginning of April in ’89. It was a busy schedule, but I needed the money and thought that a semester of Keynesian economics and Kierkegaard’s “teleological suspension of the ethical” would be fun. Yeah, sure. With work and classes taking up so much of my time and energy, it was difficult to find a social life that would bring some balance.
It took one Friday at the end of January to solidify one group of folks who I would count in my circle. After a long week, I wasn’t feeling particularly hot, so I went home after my Bio class and took a long nap. When I woke up, it was already after seven. I quickly washed up and decided to spend the evening at the student union watching TV since I didn’t have any plans. Poor me.
I went to the TV room and started watching what seemed like the three-thousandth episode of Dallas on CBS. I hadn’t seen much of the show since Victoria Principal’s character had awaken from a year-long dream about losing her husband, played by Patrick Duffy. Almost two years had passed between episodes for me, yet it only took one twelve-minute segment for me to figure out the new story line. I turned to Kenny and his tall friend, both of whom were sitting behind me in the next row, and said, “This story’s ridiculous.” Nothing particularly profound. Except that opened the door for Kenny to fire off some jokes, which then allowed me to put my sense of New York irony and sarcasm to work.
Before long we were having a good time making fun of the show. I soon learned that Kenny and his friend were from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s state capital, which I’d gone through only by Amtrak. “I’m sorry,” I said in hearing the news. Still, it wasn’t Mount Vernon. “That would be worse,” I thought. Over the next few minutes, Michele, whom I’d met the previous semester, had come into the room said “Hey,” and joined in on our hilarity of the show. Two others came in over the next twenty minutes, others that would form part of a group that I’d stay in touch with for a decade. First there was Bryan, a short White dude with John Lennon-type rose-colored glasses whose hairline was already receding and thinning at the same time. He dressed like a young professor would, with a big green and blue-striped scarf that hanged down to his knees, along with khaki slacks. Bryan chimed in immediately, aware that we weren’t really watching the show.
And then came Terri, also short and different. At five-two, she had short dark-brown hair and also wore glasses, though not as cool as Bryan’s. There was something about Terri that I knew was different, that she wasn’t just “Black,” whatever that meant. She was one of the first openly biracial women I’d come to know. It seemed like those were the first words out of her mouth. Maybe not. But Terri did tell us she was “half-Black and half-White” before the night was over. Terri and Bryan obviously knew each other, as they came in together already in the midst of another conversation. She immediately jumped into our growing conversation once they sat down and criticized Dallas as one of many examples of lily-Whiteness on TV. That launched a whole new discussion, with everything from The Cosby Show to 227.
After about an hour of debates, jokes and wonderful conversation, we all went out into Oakland. We started at the The O, Original’s for those who’ve never been to Pitt or Pittsburgh. It had already been a mainstay for students and ex-steelworkers in need of cheap food and beer since 1960. The Pitt football team often drank and caroused there, often getting into fights with Pitt Police. This Friday it was overcrowded and dirty, and we wanted to talk. Terri had already become the leader of our pack, and took us over to Hemingway’s as an alternative. The bar and restaurant was The O’s opposite, very quiet, very reserved, very much an older and Whiter crowd. It was also the first time I’d been carded, so I couldn’t have a drink even if I wanted to.
The six of us talked until well after midnight, with me being the first to leave. We exchanged email addresses and phone numbers (in some cases) in the process. I was amped after having met so many folks so quickly and with so little effort. All it took was one innocent comment on Dallas.
Bryan, Kenny, Terri and Michele became a big part my existing and increasingly diverse group of acquaintances and friends. I continued talking to and hanging out with Elaine, who worked at Hillman Library. I eventually met her older sister Donna, who apparently had gotten Elaine her library job. Elaine also introduced me to her goofy cousin Kendall, goofy yet cool at the same time somehow. I learned that Elaine was one of six kids, each following in ABC birth order — with Elaine obviously the baby sibling — grew up in Homestead, one of Pittsburgh’s great steel-mill suburbs before USX (formerly US Steel) closed its plants in the mid ’80s.
It was another branch on the chain of discovery for me, discovering how to be a friend and how to maintain friendships. It was digging beyond the initial “Hi”s and small-talk conversations to real issues, hopes and dreams, jealousies and minor flaws of others that made me cherish these new people in my life. Of course, I still talked and occasionally went to lunch or a movie with my friends from my freshman year, like Regis and the Henderson twins and numerous others I’d come to know since the fall of ’87. I finally felt comfortable at the University of Pittsburgh, and for the first time in years, more comfortable with my awkward and goofy self.
After years of playing the role of loner and otherwise just not trusting anyone, it felt good to finally have folks in my life that I thought I could trust, or at least laugh out loud with in and out of the classroom. Seeing myself through their eyes enabled me to not see myself as an abused twelve-year-old anymore. Seeing myself through the eyes of my new set of friends allowed me to see myself beyond those years at 616 and in Mount Vernon, maybe and truly for the first time.