Several weeks ago, as I crossed Main Street, a stranger was crossing in the opposite direction. When we neared each other, I said hello, and he returned the greeting, which wasn't unusual.
What was unusual, however, was that he called me by name.
Obviously, he knew who I was, but I had no idea who he was. I puzzled over that a bit and decided if I saw him again, I'd ask him who he was and how he knew me.
Then, early this week in town, who should be coming toward me, but the same stranger.
Now, I told myself, "I'll ask him who he is," but when he got about 10 feet away, I didn't have to, since I suddenly recognized him. His name's Mike Newman, and back when I put labels on friends, he was my best one.
Way back when
It all began on the first day of summer school of my 13th year.
I was waiting in the hall for my class, and a kid I'd never seen was there with me. Somehow, we struck up a conversation, and almost immediately, we formed a bond.
I've no idea why that was. Certainly, we couldn't have come from more different backgrounds. He was a summer resident, a kid from Yonkers, raised in a Catholic family with eight kids and with a fair amount of freedom. I was a hick from the sticks, from a Jewish family and had only one brother and a single mother, who could be generously labeled a martinet.
But it doesn't matter why we got along, it only mattered that we did. That summer we saw each other at school every day, but we hung out a lot on the weekends, too. And when he went back to the 'burbs, we stayed in touch by the long-lost art of letter writing. Then, that winter, we started our own special "tradition" of spending alternate Christmas vacations at each other's houses.
Going to Yonkers was an exotic adventure for me. Not only were the suburbs a totally different world, but being in a house with nine people was like a visit to a foreign planet. Plus, we were cut a lot of slack - a heady change-of-pace, to be sure.
I can't remember exactly how we spent our time. I know we listened to a lot of rock and roll on the radio, played cards, told jokes, goofed around and wandered off to pizzerias, if the mood struck us. No matter what we did, we had a lot of fun doing it.
A lot of the time his brother Joey hung out with us. Joey was closest in age and temperament to Mike and was his favorite sibling. He was a funny, sweet kid without a mean bone in his body. He was my favorite as well.
One visit, I remember clearly, because we took the train into New York by ourselves and spent the day ramming around there. The highlights were going to the top of the Empire State Building and going to Greenwich Village - intoxicating stuff to a country bumpkin. In the Village, I got to browse in a bookstore, which was loaded with paperbacks of all ilks - something unknown here. I bought an anthology of Beat Generation writings, which I read and reread, and which I still have.
When Mike came here, there was a lot less distraction than on his home turf. But my mother, who adored Mike, made sure he got the best that an Adirondacks winter had to offer: She scrounged up ski equipment for him and took us to Pisgah every day so we could ski to our hearts' content.
I don't know why Mike and I drifted apart. All I know is after our senior year in high school, we never saw each other again, unless by accident. And then, after a few minutes of awkward conversation, we went our separate ways.
Twenty-five years or so went by and I found out he came up here each summer, so I gave him a call and we got together for a day. I had a good time, especially since his brother Joey - still as sweet as ever - was there. But somehow we never got in touch afterwardstill our meeting on the street last week.
Here and now
And there we were, two ancient versions of our adolescent selves, reminiscing.
"And you know what I remember most about coming up to Saranac in the winter?" he said.
"No," I said.
"Going to Pisgah every day."
"Yeah," I said. "It was fun, wasn't it?"
"Fun? Are you kidding me?" he said. "Your mother'd drop us off and I was stuck there, falling all over the godforsaken mountain, freezing my butt off all day, till she finally picked us up."
"I thought you liked it," I said.
"You never complained," I said.
"Your mom seemed so happy doing it, I didn't' want to hurt her feelings," he said.
A moment went by. Then he said, "Joey died last year."
"Oh, no," I said.
It was all I could say.
After that we talked about Joey - how he never lost his almost childlike sweetness, warmth and upbeat humor, how much he fun he was, how he was just a great guy.
Then we went silent.
Suddenly something hit me.
"You were my best friend," I blurted.
"And you were my only friend," he said.
A long moment floated between us. Then I broke the silence.
"So what the hell are we doing?" I said.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"I mean, we were best friends for a bunch of years and it really meant something," I said. "And now what? We'll say goodbye, wander off and maybe see each other again at the other's calling hours?"
He didn't say anything. Neither did I.
"So why can't we stay in touch?" I said.
"No reason," he said.
"And even if we can't," I said, "we can at least try, can't we?"
"Yes," he said. "We can."
And that's how we left it.
So do I think I can still be friends with a guy just because we were great childhood pals? Am I truly that nave?
No, I'm not.
Then again, I'm not so cynical that I won't give it a real good try.