The last time we had been together, a camera had caught us in a freeze frame: capped and gowned, some swigging, some shouting, some solemn in the face of some sort of future.
Now here we were, gathered around a beer-sticky table on a Saturday night in a McCanns near Penn Station, easing into a year's worth of chatter with two plastic pitchers full of foam.
It was the beginning of two consecutive weekends that, unwittingly, had turned into a first-year reunion. Someone's birthday, and another's graduate-school interview had brought us together. A year ago, we had been caught in the throes of a find-a-job-frenzy. Suddenly, we were a year older, on the road to recovery -- cured by a 12-month dose of retrospect.
We were the class of 1980, several hundred bona-fide baby boomers, poised desperately at the edge of 16 years of non-stop reading and writing. We had tried, during our undergraduate years, to outfit ourselves in suits of academic armor that would protect against the blows of a faltering economy; a jousting match that threatened to knock us off our high horses.
I marveled at the changes.
They weren't physical of course. No gray hairs yet or middle-aged spreads.
No one in the group had gotten married. No one had moved too far away. Still there were subtle differences, betrayed inpart by the jobs we had taken and the topics of conversation we raised.
Tom, the wiry rock-and-roll disciple and former financial wizard in the School of Business Administration, now pushes paper for a nuclear-defense firm. He acted apologetic about his new out-of-character post, laughed at it, even; and, as though to show us that it didn't really matter, he passed out Xeroxed cartoons of mushroom clouds at the dinner table.
Bill was still on the accounting fast track. Ever since I had met him my freshman year, he seemed to be following a timetable handed him at birth. He was there, in pinstripe and khaki -- casual with just a hint of corporate. We left the group for a while to catch up on each other and, in the course of three city blocks, he mapped out his life for me up to age 25. Bill was kind of worried though, because after that things looked a little hazy. Still, he already had a rented house in the Hamptons for the summer -- "not bad for just a year out, huh?" -- a girlfriend/fiance and an MBA planned.
Andy, the only one of us with a Roman numeral planted firmly after his name, still carried his family's wealth with a cheerful Midwestern naivete. He was now a Manhattan bank trainee firmly ensconced in an Upper East Side apartment that was walking distance from the Plaza. He proudly informed us that he sent all his shirts to be cleaned now, and at my request to borrow a sweater, showed me The Closet. Atop the array of Arrow shirts that would make Jay Gatsby jealous lay a stack of multi-colored cashmere from which I chose a modest navy blue. For an entire evening, thanks to Andy, I experienced the touch of woven wealth.
Everyone thought that Pat, one of my closest friends from college, had gone mad. A misguided finance major at school, Pat had quoted Lauren Bacall more than Dow Jones. Her past year read like the screenplay from an old prison escape movie, with her Alcatraz the cubicle to which she was confined in a Chicago bank. She had been tirelessly chipping away through walls of parental disapproval, and finally had managed to tunnel her way to a place in a graduate film program in Boston. She announced her decision in a characteristically dramatic fashion, as if to savor our reactions for use in some future filmclip.
A financial analyst someone knew had tagged along. That evening he boasted somewhat bitterly about being the one who signed Standard and Poor's tear sheets. And to demonstrate his appetite for a good rowdy time, he bit into a beer mug at our last stop on the Upper East Side. He caught some splinters, but lived to tell about it.
We talked about all the people we knew who weren't there. Some were dissecting cadavers and others law cases. They were still different, because they still measured time by semesters and spring breaks.
I had come to New York with an idea that my friends from college would have fallen into neatly laundered professional or pre-professional piles. They didn't. We couldn't possibly have predicted this year's course, although we gave it the old college try. It was comforting, after we said our goodbyes, to know that the first year out was a stumbling block for many of us. gA relief to finally realize it's all right not to know every next step.