I recently had breakfast with my closest friend from high school, a guy I hadn’t seen for 45 years. I can report that by the extremely forgiving boomer standards, we’ve both aged well, in the sense that I am old and fat but not bald and he is old and bald but not fat.
One of the last times I had seen Arthur was on the day after the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination. Schools were shuttered, so we were just hanging out in the street; on this tense day of understandable racial rage, Arthur and I distinguished ourselves by somehow managing to get mugged by white kids. Losers, we were.
And are. We tried to reminisce, but it didn’t go well. Arthur’s very first question to me was whether I remembered that he hid his stash of weed from his parents by parking it inside one of his stereo speakers. I hadn’t.
“Yeah,” Arthur commiserated. “A lot of those particular details are fuzzy to me, too, for some reason.”
He also remembered, but I didn’t, that we once built an excellent hookah in chem lab, using a beer bottle, a two-holed rubber stopper and flexible tubing. We tried to remember mutual friends, of which we had many, but managed to come up with exactly one name, Howie.
Me: You and I called him “Brown,” right?
Arthur: Yeah. The full name was “Howdy the Brown.”
Me: Yeah! Remind me why we called him that.
Arthur: Not a clue.
We both are technically orphans now.
“My mother and father asked to be cremated,” he said, “so I did it, but then they give it to you, and you have to wind up putting it somewhere. I thought about dropping my dad at Yankee Stadium, but they won’t let you bring in an urn, so I’d have to have bootlegged it, hiding it in a special pocket in my pants with a secret drawstring, like the tunnel dirt in ‘The Great Escape.’ ”
At this point I remembered that Arthur and I had become friends because we shared an irreverent, smart-aleck sense of humor. He obviously still has his but doesn’t get to use it all that much, at least at work. He’s a New York tax lawyer with advanced degrees in math, and he works for a big, no-nonsense, button-down company. He told me, regretfully, that he settled into the field before people with skills and training like his were making fortunes in Wall Street, while destroying the economy: “It took PhDs in math to create those collateralized debt obligations,” he said, laughing, and I laughed, too, because I knew this was probably a very funny observation. I tried my best to grasp the nuances of his profession:
“So you do boring stuff?”
“Excruciatingly boring. I taught a class at the New School not long ago. I was talking to these two other teachers. One taught a class in something like Using Yoga in the Subways, and the other, like the Tao of Laying Concrete. So then they asked me what I teach, and I said, ‘A Core Tax Course in Management Systems Auditing,’ and they sort of slowly backed away.”
Finally, I asked him if it was okay if I wrote about all this, and he said sure, but preferred that I call him “Arthur,” which as you can see, I have, and which is not his real name. I asked him why, and he said certain details of his past would possibly not sit well with his current co-workers.
“Really? Things from when you were ... 16?”
Yup, he said, with a sad smile. “I work with people who live in a different universe.”
Up until that moment I was feeling a little depressed. I am fatter than he is, after all, and while his memory is pretty shabby, he was, compared with me, the Amazing Kreskin. But in this small matter, I had it over my old friend. Hey, my life is an open book. Sure, it’s the Adventures of Captain Underpants, but still.
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