I think it was my son’s first encounter with black humor, but more to the point, I think it may have been his first glimpse of the way men are friends with each other.
Most men learn to be friends with each other from their fathers — and the men our fathers called friends.
I don’t know how it is for men without fathers, or men whose fathers didn’t have male friends to speak of— I know a few of each, and some seem to do all right in this area and others don't. The ones that succeed at friendship without that example — well, I don’t know where they get it. Maybe the movies. Maybe they just pull it up out of themselves, an instinct. An imperative, maybe a gene that can skip a generation or two.
I remember my old man taking me by the hand through the taverns in his old neighborhood in Chicago. My father was never a big drinker, but that’s where his boyhood friends spent their evenings and weekends. The men would be drinking red wine from highball glasses or Schlitz beer from long-necked bottles. The taverns were dark and woody, the air curdled with green cigar smoke; neon Schlitz and Hamms signs over the back bar. Instead of a bar rail, the men rested their feet on cases of empty beer bottles. I was introduced and handed around as “Bobby’s boy.” My dad seemed to be a celebrity. Over a few short beers he made them all laugh. Everything he said seemed to be hilarious to these men. With each punch line, someone would tousle my crew-cut hair and wink to say, “What a riot, your old man!”
One joke I remember catching, and I must have been 12 years old at the time, is set up as a fight between my parents — not an unusual event — over some movie he wanted to see that had been condemned by the Catholic Church. My father stormed out of the house only to return two hours later. When asked by my mother where he had been, he said, the movies. What had he seen? “Navarone Sunday...I mean The Guns of Navarone!” This brought a chorus of guffaws, and my dad told the story at three different taverns. Even I got it. Never on Sunday was the condemned movie.
It was a long time before I realized why my father was such a well-loved character in these west-side bars. He was a hero because he made it out of the neighborhood and was loved because he came back fairly regularly. But more than that, he made these morose, working-class men laugh.
About a year ago, I had one of those surprise afternoons of happiness that God rations out like a short-pouring bartender in a Chinese restaurant lounge. I was moving out of my apartment with the help of two friends and my 13-year-old son. The circumstances were fairly down-beat; my mother’s health was crapping out in the middle of nowhere, Illinois, and I was fresh from a bad ending to a soured love affair. I had to leave San Diego and move to Chicago in the dead of January. This was costing me money I didn’t have; and I had just flushed my Prozac prescription down the toilet, having decided the stuff was too weird even for me. Still, I was laughing my ass off for most of the day. So were my two friends. My son was nearly convulsed with mirth as we hauled couches and chairs.
My friends, I’ll call them Mack and Steve, hadn’t really met each other before. They were here to get my stuff into storage and put me on a train. They got along with each other immediately on the level of competing comedians. The fact that I was laughing at all under the circumstances was voodoo enough, but my son isn’t easy to crack up.
We took a lunch break and sat at a table in the sun outside of Fiore’s Delicatessen on Washington in Mission Hills. Steve, a bartender and friend for eight years, was chewing pizza and grinning, his eyes narrowing and wrinkling beneath his Red Sox cap. We were listening to Mack, a commercial research scientist and my friend for four years, tell us about his father, a Long Beach fireman.
“The fire department would be the first to arrive at a lot of hairy scenes, and one time they responded to a call about a domestic dispute with gunfire involved.”
My son was listening attentively. It was heartening to see that bright focus trained on something besides a video game.
“Apparently this guy had taken a couple of shots at his wife with a .45 and missed her. By the time the ambulance arrived, along with my dad, the guy had put the gun in his mouth and blown the back of his head all over the walls.” Pause here, to look at my son, back at Steve and me. “The wife was hysterical, of course. She was pounding her fists on my dad’s chest and telling him to do something...give him mouth-to-mouth or CPR. My dad took the woman’s wrists and brought them down slowly and said, ‘Look, ma’am, the purpose of those measures is to get oxygen to the victim’s brain.’ He indicated the mess on the walls and said, ‘Your husband’s brains are getting plenty.’ ”
My son got it, all right. He was laughing with a kind of pained helplessness as though uncertain that he should be laughing at all. The rest of us were howling like we just watched the Roadrunner drop an anvil on Wile E. Coyote. I think it was my son’s first encounter with black humor, but more to the point, I think it may have been his first glimpse of the way men are friends with each other.
You take the worst thing that can happen: death, cuckoldry, despair, oh, disease of the dick of some kind, and you put it out on the table, shine a light on it in such a way that it looks like it’s happening to somebody else, blow it up like a balloon, and then touch your cigar to it with a few well chosen words. Ba-boom. Your worst nightmare is a cartoon.
A few years earlier, I was rooming with Steve, my bartender friend. We had a small two-bedroom in Mission Hills with a great view of the airport. We had been in the place for about six weeks when I was diagnosed with lymph cancer. Steve and I got drunk and did what men do in situations like this — completely avoided talking about it.
Instead we talked about his obsessive, toxic, dysfunctional relationship with a Point Loma woman (without using any of those words), and it wasn’t until the end of the night when we were both close to going into a coma that he acknowledged the bad medical news. “You’re a sick unit, Buckrod,” he said. “But then you’ve always been a sick unit.”
Buckrod is what Steve calls me because of my fantasy to front an all-girl R&B group called Johnny Buckrod and the Love Pumps.
For the next ten months, Steve drove me around to doctors’ appointments, chemo and radiation treatments, CAT scans, etc. Some weeks I felt better than others and could have driven myself, but I had to sell my car since I was too nauseated to work with any regularity. All that time, I can’t remember Steve talking about cancer at all. Just “You’re a sick unit, Buckrod.”
During this time I was involved with a woman too. She would sometimes drive me to treatments or stay up with me all night while I tried to puke my stomach inside out. But sometimes we fought, and I’d drive her away for days or weeks with ingeniously ugly displays of assholery. Steve didn’t go anywhere. He seemed immune to my self-pity and rage and fear. Like everyone else around me who was close to me, he was afraid too. Afraid for me. Afraid he’d lose a friend, maybe even a little afraid of me; I could sense a repulsion even in family members — as if cancer were contagious. But Steve didn’t ever let that fear tell him how he was going to deal with a possibly dying friend.
During a month-long hiatus in chemotherapy, Steve bought a bottle of Bushmill’s. It was St. Patrick’s Day. He said, “Can you have a drink without projectile vomiting all over the living room?”
“Yeah, it’s been a while. My liver will chuckle at this stuff.”
“Good. I will personally buy you a case of good whiskey every six months if you quit smoking. Buckrod, do you have any idea how incredibly goddamned stupid it is to smoke...YOU’VE GOT CANCER, ASSHOLE!”
There it was. He had said it for the first time.
I nodded and said, “Yeah, I do, but it's not lung cancer.”
“You’re hopeless. You are about as messed up as one man can be and still walk around. I’m not kidding about the case of whiskey. All you can drink for the rest of your life.”
“I know you’re not kidding.” I knew he wasn’t.
We drank the Bushmill’s, and he told me about his old man, who ran a tavern in Pittsburgh somewhere. His dad was referred to as “El Supremo.” “One night the Supremo was hanging out with Bobby Johnson, an ex-cop and my dad’s partner in the bar. Supremo didn’t hang out at night as a rule, but this one night he got fairly whacked and staggered in about midnight. My mom clucked and tisked, but she didn’t hassle him. It was an unusual thing for him.
“Well, he got up early and probably still fried. He put the clothes on that he had been wearing the night before. He got my mom to put some lipstick marks around his shirt collar and had her call Bobby, who would have been opening the bar about then. He had my mom tell Bobby that Supremo had never come home the night before, and had he seen him?
“Well, Bobby was concerned. He said, 'Gee, Helen, we had a few drinks at the VFW, and Steve [Sr.] left about 11 or so. He didn’t seem to be in bad shape. I’m sure he just stayed over at Donny’s or Eddie’s place. You want me to call around?’ My mom said no, that was okay.
“Meanwhile, Supremo gets in the car and drives to the bar. He rushes in and says, 'Bobby, you gotta cover for me. I met this woman last night at Eddie’s bar. I stopped off for one more, you know — after I left you at the VFW? This woman was unbelievable, Bobby. I couldn’t help myself. Listen, if Helen calls, you gotta tell her I spent the night here in the back room.’ “Well, Bobby was really in a jackpot. He said, 'Steve, Helen already called. I said you probably stayed at Donny’s or Eddie’s. I said I hadn’t seen you since about 11 last night.’
“ ‘Well, you gotta call her back. Tell her you just found me in the back room and that I’ve been here all night.’
“ ‘Jesus, Steve. All right.’ So Bobby calls up my mom and lies through his teeth. El Supremo never did tell Bobby that he was messing with him. It was just this private joke he always carried around with him.
“Another thing he did was, Bobby always was complaining about these college kids coming by and throwing empty beer cans on his lawn. Well, every chance the Supremo got, he would load up his car with empties from the bar and drive by and drop them on the lawn. One time he dumped about three cases of empties on the lawn, then rang Bobby’s doorbell, and ran next door where he had parked the car. The next day Bobby comes in to work, and he says to my dad, ‘Those little college bastards are getting cheekier. They even rang my doorbell yesterday, but they took off before I could grab ’em. I almost got ’em, Steve, I almost got 'em.’ ”
When Steve [Jr.] had finished his story and we both laughed for a while, I said, “So that’s where all this fucking with me comes from.”
Steve nodded, smiling. “Exactly, Buckrod. It just seems like the thing to do.”
When I met Mack, he had just gotten his Ph.D. in biology (he was wearing a button that read THAT’S DR. FUCKHEAD TO YOU!), and his marriage was ending. I welcomed him to singles hell. We stood back to back in a few minor skirmishes in the battle of the sexes, and then eventually each of us got involved with women on a steady basis and our contact became more sporadic.
That men lead lopsided personal lives is possibly not an original observation but something worth mentioning. During my last excursion into romantic folly, I would turn down opportunities to spend time with these friends and others if I thought I might spend the time with HER. My almost complete neglect of my friendships is something I still wince over. Fortunately, both Mack and Steve have been there too and might do their own wincing now and again.
While I was in northern Illinois in the dead of last winter with my ailing mother, the only events I really looked forward to on a daily basis were the formations of wild geese that would wing south from Canada, the drunken duck hunters blowing away their own duck blinds with shotguns on the frozen lake outside my window, and the calls I got from Mack every few days.
Mack seemed to know I was pretty much cut off from what I called my “regular life” and would rack up his phone bill telling me the latest spate of blond jokes that were circulating in Southern California.
It wasn’t all we talked about though. The 2000 miles between us seemed to open up areas of conversation we hadn’t really explored while hanging out at Jose’s in La Jolla or trying to get our computers to talk to each other. We started talking about ourselves and religion and women and dogs and fathers. Mack’s relationship seemed to be going all right when one day in late spring he called and I could hear something very different in his voice. No blond jokes, no imitations of Sterling Hayden in Dr. Strangelove, didn’t even mention his dog.
“Sandy is boffing this guy who works in the lab with me. I know it. I saw his van out in front of her house this morning at seven o’clock.”
While I was coming out of the dark weeks and months that follow love gone south, Mack was just entering the shadows full of therapists, Prozac, heavy drinking (he called it “hitting the reset button”), and the bitter hard-on that accompanies fossilized emotions that visit in the night like banzai creditors.
It was my turn to call him every few days. My turn to say things like, “Hang on, man.. .you’re better off... you’ll feel bad for a while, and then eventually you won’t....” All the inanities, the mouthings, the empty words and fictions that are somehow so vital.
The things he had said to me.
If I made anything like a New Year’s resolution, it is probably something like: Never, ever shine your friends for the sake of something that even remotely smells like true love. Never shine them. Period. Even if they call you up in the middle of a busy day (or the middle of the night) with absolutely nothing to say, it may somehow be vital that they say it. If you don’t take care of your relationships with people whose interest in you and your interest in them is more abiding than any romance—they will go away. And a man without friends is truly dickless and heartless and useless.
If I can teach my son anything besides chewing with his mouth closed, not getting wise with policemen, or never eating in a Mexican restaurant that does not have menudo on the menu — even if menudo makes you sick — it would be something like that.