I had heard that the best writers did their best work in coffee houses, in hip neighborhoods of New York, or Paris. It was 1966, I was not in Paris, nor was I in New York. This might have been the reason that my writing was filled with angst. Also, I was sixteen, and could not drive to San Francisco, where there were coffee houses.
I did the best I could. Within walking distance there was a shopping center, and on the out lying edge there was a pizza parlor that sold coffee. On most Friday and Saturday nights I made my way to this family casual restaurant, I bought a single cup of dark black coffee, which I nursed for a least three hours, while I scribbled in wire bound notebooks with a leaky Bic pen.
I rarely bought a pizza. Correction, I never bought a pizza. I had no money. There were times when I ordered a medium dough, no sauce, no cheese, no toppings. It was just a large cracker, with free catsup.
Months had gone by and I observed, quietly. Too shy to engage with the returning locals that I had come to recognize. I sat huddled in my pea coat, black turtleneck, stolen Levi’s, and Thom McCann sandals (with socks).
I had noticed a young man, possibly near my age, who came in periodically, he scanned the room, and then left. I guess he was looking for somebody. I noticed him because he was well dressed, suit and tie, and an English bowler on his head. Brave soul!
A few weeks later I noticed that he came in and did his usual scan. I got distracted by a thought that I needed to write down. When I looked up, the young man with a bowler, and an umbrella, was standing in front of me. He politely asked if he could sit down. I nodded in astonishment, surprised that I was visible.
He asked if I knew whether there was something going on at the college. The college was only two blocks away. Little did I know that I would end up working there for forty years, at this point I had been on the campus twice, walking through it to visit a friend on the other side.
“No, I don’t know of anything going on. Do you mean like a dance or concert?”
“Well, yes. Or perhaps a lecture?”
A lecture! Well, that was a thought. Why didn’t I think of that? Why I’m I sitting in a pizza parlor looking for cosmic answers? He looked at my inky hands and spiral notebook, and asked if I was a writer. How perceptive? And well dressed.
He was obviously a college student, and he thought that I must have been a college student as well. We had just never met in the Student Union.
It didn’t take long before I confessed that I was a bored high school student, trying to get out of the house. He laughed and said that he too, was a junior in my class. It was a big class, 900+ strong. We hadn’t shared a class or a lunch period. And he never brought his bowler to school.
This was my start with my friend Michael. Michael died this morning.
53 years of friendship. Unfortunately we grew apart over the last twenty years. We had different interests, and lived at some distance. For years he ran a custom hot dog stand, I would go to check in with him, and get a dog. We talked about getting together. We never did. But I loved him still.
I have so many great memories of him. Once, he showed up at my house, dressed in slacks and dress shoes. I introduced him to my athletic neighbor friend, and the conversation moved to sports. I was not contributing, but suddenly Michael suggested that he was pretty good at the 50 yard dash. My jock friend doubted this. Michael was well built, not a wire thin dasher. To settle things, he took off his jacket and toed the line with my friend in the middle of my street. Dress shoes and all.
I gave the signal and off they went. Within three paces Michael was a full body length ahead. At the end has was several yards ahead. Michael was wicked fast in dress shoes. I can still hear his leather steps on the asphalt.
Not every weekend, but several times a month Michael would join me for a cup of coffee. Sometimes he would borrow his sister’s car, and we would drive the neighborhood. Once we stopped at a church on the hillside. Michael had a key, and he ushered me in to the sanctuary without comment. I sat in the pew while he went to the podium on the altar.
He then opened the Bible at a random verse and began reading in a deep sonorous voice. I was mesmerized, it was nearly midnight and I was being churched.
Our vehicle excursions continued for years. Later, in college, his girlfriend was still in high school, and she had a car, and her father paid for her gas. Michael drove her to school, and then kept the car in order to pick her up after. He also arranged to pick me up for lunch at least once a week.
The thing was, we didn’t just go to a local restaurant. We drove at least an hour away to eat at the Nut Tree. We went so often that the waitresses knew our order. I don’t know what the father thought about the gas mileage. We didn’t ask.
I got married, Michael got married, we drifted apart. Michael got divorced with a child, I got divorced with a child. I named my son after Michael. We still drifted further apart.
I had introduced my oldest friend to Michael, and we three got along well. Some years passed, and my friend rented an apartment in Michael’s mother’s backyard. Eventually my friend married Michael’s sister. It was a fantastic occurrence, totally surprising.
And yet Michael and I still drifted apart, even as our connections grew more complex. It still didn’t lessen my deep appreciation for who he was way back then. I loved him then, and love him now. I will always carry my memories, the best of times. Michael, you will always be my friend.