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Entries in friendship (3)


Blue Highways: Staten Island, New York

Unfolding the Map

I've never been to Staten Island except for a quick stop at the ferry slip after a ride across the water from Manhattan.  In this post, I make a quick stop to reflect while William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) gets lost a little in the Staten Island neighborhoods.   I devote this post to a friend who lived for a time in Staten Island, had a tragedy there, and who has overcome that and other obstacles on her way to happiness and achievement.  If life is a journey, hers is now traversing some good roads.  To see where Staten Island is located, ferry yourself to the map.

Book Quote

"The lanes descended and shot me across Staten Island; just before it was too late, I pulled out of the oppression of traffic and drove down Richmond Avenue to find the bridge across the Arthur Kill into Perth Amboy, the city (if you follow your nose) that gets to you before you get to it.  I don't know how I lost my way on a thoroughfare as big as Richmond, but I did.  I could smell Perth Amboy, but I coudn't find it.  Instead, I found Great Kills, Eltingville, Huguenot Park, Princess Bay, and Tottenville."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 7


One of the most well-known symbols of Staten Island, and of New York, the Staten Island Ferry. Photo by Norbert Nagel and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host site.

Staten Island, New York

I have a friend who once lived on Staten Island.

She's a petite, just-about-to-turn-30-if-she-already-hasn't, somewhat quirky, redhead who has a ready laugh and an endearing mixture of little girl and adult thrown together.

She and I weren't always very close.  We met each other when I was in graduate school, studying for my PhD in New Orleans, and she was assigned to share an office with me.  To say that our relationship was strained was putting it mildly.  I was in my late 30s at the time, she was in her early 20s, and it was like we were from two different worlds.  While we had moments of very good sharing and a realization that we were probably more alike than not, we also had moments of anger, frustration and misunderstanding that occasionally made for a tense office situation.  She was working out her early 20s anger, finding her way and her voice and I, well, I was working out my late 30s anger and trying to find my way and my voice.

I think that it was after she left that we both realized that we really, truly liked and respected each other.  She stayed long enough to get her Masters, inquired into and was recruited by a federal agency, and went to work for the national government helping to protect our country and our leaders from security threats.  I couldn't believe that this little waif of a woman would do this type of work, but my impression was that she loved the job.  Perhaps the agency she worked for was not the greatest - after all, it's hard for any woman to make it in what has traditionally been a redoubt for men.  But she made it through her boot camp and was given important assignments.  When she eventually left they worked very hard to persuade her to stay.

She was stationed for a while in the New York City area, and lived in Staten Island.  She found a boyfriend, a quiet state police cop.  She liked where she lived, which if I remember was a little apartment owned by a retired cop who looked after her like a father might his daughter or grandaughter.  Life seemed to be going well.  She and her boyfriend came out and visited us on their way through New Mexico to visit her parents in Colorado.

The boyfriend became a fiance, but there were signs of trouble.  He was moody, and had been dealing with depression through medication for years.  By then she had left her job.  I hadn't heard from her in a while and then one day she called me up.  She was going to be passing through New Mexico to Colorado again and wanted to visit me.  I asked about her fiance.  She was unusually quiet, told me that he had committed suicide, and that she would tell me more when she saw me.

When she arrived, she looked terrible - flat, and like all the life had drained out of her.  She told me that she had an argument with her fiance.  Before she knew it, he had shot himself in the head with a revolver right in front of her.  She spent some time in an institution where they gave her medications.  She had racked up a horrible set of bills because of her hospitalization and care that she could never hope to pay off.  We talked, I listened.  I couldn't do much consoling, because she was never one who wanted to be consoled.  But I couldn't get out of my head the image of pain and shock, anger and betrayal that I sensed behind the eyes of this young woman who once drove me crazy in the office and who carried a gun and put herself potentially in harm's way because of her job but who now seemed so human and so fragile.  She really seemed like the little waif I sometimes saw her as,  but this time very lost, very lonely, and very afraid.

She moved away from Staten Island.  She went back to New Orleans to finish her PhD.  I'm not sure if that is what she wanted or if it was because she didn't know what else to do.  But finish it she did, despite the usual academic obstacles that are thrown in the way of graduate students.  Once she received her PhD, she got a job at a small southern Alabama university.

She has become one of the most popular teachers on her campus, bringing a new life to her department and inserting some feminism into criminal justice studies on campus.  She threw herself into a stuffy academic program and brought her talents and best features to bear.  She found herself, somehow and somewhere, in the depths of her tragedy.  She pulled on her vast resources of inner strength to grasp at the opportunities presented her.  I don't know if she has any post-traumatic stress disorder from what she went through, but I do know that she has succeeded in spite of them.

I have been proud of her and her accomplishments, and I care for her very much.  Recently, she got married.  Though I wasn't able to attend her wedding, she and her new husband visited us recently.  It was great to see her happy after all these years, and wonderful to hear about her accomplishments.

If life is a continuous series of journeys, and if one can map lives, I can imagine what her life map would look like.  There would be roads and pathways through forests of indecision, dangerous passages through mountains of hardship, drops into the darkest and deepest valleys of relationship and loss.  There would be forks in the road where choices must be made and dead ends where the choices didn't work out.  But, there would also be, especially lately, flat roads along the ocean shore of happiness or the endless plains of contentment.  On these roads, she can look toward where the sun sets and know that wherever her life leads from now on, she has the capability and the wherewithal to meet any challenge ahead of her.

So, using a nickname that is a remainder from our contentious office days, I'll give her a shout-out: "You've done so well, shithead!  It makes me happy that you are happy, it makes me proud that you've come so far despite the hardship and tragedy, and I will be in your corner for as long as you need me."  She'll blow off my kudos, but inside, she'll appreciate it.

Musical Interlude

The band that I most associate with the woman I wrote of above is a band that she really enjoyed, Garbage.  This song, Push It, has lyrics that I think probably best embody my friend.  It helps that she and Shirley Manson have a slight resemblance in build, hair color, and style.


If you want to know more about Staten Island

SILive (Staten Island Advance) (newspaper)
Staten Island Borough President
Staten Island Ferry
Staten Island History
Staten Island Museum
Visit Staten Island
Wikipedia: Staten Island
Wikipedia: Staten Island Ferry

Next up: Lakewood, New Jersey


Blue Highways: Cheshire, New York

Unfolding the Map

We head into the Finger Lakes region - a beautiful region that I was lucky to visit in years past.  William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) makes a longer stop here to recharge with an old friend.  He feels like he needs it in order to continue onto the remainder of his trip.  I envy his ability to reconnect with his friend, as you'll read below.  Greg Brown provides a musical interlude.  To reconnect with where we are on the journey, get back in touch with the map.

Book Quote

"Chisholm rolled a fat round stone out of the trees.  I grabbed and pulled.  I was capable of lifting it, but it was so close to the limits of my strength, I didn't want to try.  Working with someone I knew less well, I would have picked it up, but with this old friend I could concede my limit and let the boulder take my measure.  Nothing showed our friendship better than that rock I walked away from."

Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 2

"We passed a foundation of a barn that had collapsed, a toppled chimney, and a weedy depression where an icehouse had stood.  'These are all dreams we're walking over,' I said.

"Chisholm looked at me strangely and went quiet for some time.  When he spoke again it was about the dogs.  Afterward, I thought I understood his silence:  I had undercut the stone wall we had built, our accomplishment.  The wall looked enduring, and it would serve for a while, but there would come a time when it would be a pile of rock to no end.  I had undercut the biggest dream of all - the one for permanence...."

Blue Highways: Part 8, Chapter 4

Hamlet of Cheshire sign in Cheshire, New York. Photo hosted at the Cheshire Canning blogsite. Click on photo to go to host page.

Cheshire, New York

Recently I have been examining my friendships.  I am a naturally introverted person, so making friendships in the usual places people make friends outside of institutional settings, such as school, churches, or other settings where one is forced to get to know people, is very difficult for me.  I can't just walk into a bar, approach someone and strike up a conversation.  That's not in my nature.  Nor do I like to draw attention to myself though I do like good attention when I get it.

Making friends, therefore, has been for me a painstaking process built over years, and I often wish that once the friendships are cemented they can remain static.  I sometimes wish time and distance didn't matter in friendships, and I used to think they wouldn't.  A friend for life is a friend for life, I believed.

But time and distance do matter, as does the effort and energy each friend puts into the friendship.  I was naive to think that all my friendships would remain the same.  Of course they've changed over the years.  I've made new friends, I've lost track of some friends.  I haven't put the energy into some friendships when I should, and they have drifted away.  I have put energy into other friendships where my level of commitment wasn't returned, and the friendships gradually became more superficial, shallow and in the case of some, eventually faded.

This is on my mind now because I am negotiating my way through what feels like immense personal change - change that will make me a better person.  My world feels like it is transforming around me and even people who I considered longtime and very close friends seem to be drifting away and new ones are starting to come in.  I have been very nervous about change throughout my life, and very hesitant to let it happen, so my instinct is to try to fight and hang on to what I had with dear life.  And I'm combating this instinct very hard.

For example, I have two friends, one on each coast.  One is a friend from my undergraduate institution.  I have always felt very attuned to this friend.  To me, it was as if we had a window into each other.  We are both introverted, thoughtful, curious about the world, willing to examine tough questions, and open to exploration.  Yet I found that to maintain the friendship, I had to make most of the effort.  Many phone calls I made would go unanswered.  His response to my annoyance was that he felt that at whatever time and whenever place we connected, we just always picked up comfortably.  To him it didn't matter when or where.  However for me, I wanted that connection and I wanted it more often, and I wanted him to show some commitment to our friendship.  I have given up complaining, given up making efforts, and I am letting that friendship drift.  It is sad to me.  I like him a lot, and have always felt more than friend with him, almost as if we were two spiritual mates seeking answers to similar questions.  But I can't wait any longer for him to share my commitment, and will let him seek me out if he wishes.  I just cannot put extra effort into the friendship any more because I just get too disappointed.

Another friend is very similar.  We are of different temperament.  He's a bit more extraverted than me.  We were thrown together in a community setting, and we became close.  We are both very competitive in our own ways, and occasionally clashed on that score.  I was best man at his wedding, and am godfather to his daughter.  I saw him often when I went to the East Coast for business.  However, since I've gotten farther from the East Coast, and my visits there far less frequent, I've seen him less.  I made efforts over the distance to maintain the friendship, and he has too though his family commitments made it more difficult for him.  In the past year, since I stopped being as proactive as I used to be in communicating, we have had only one exchange by e-mail.  Some actions, bad choices, in my personal life a couple of years ago, perhaps disappointed him in me but I don't know.  Part of my personal growth has been to try to rectify those personal issues that led me down paths that were destructive but I haven't been able to share that with him.  That friendship, one that was very important to me, seems adrift now and I don't know what to do about it except let it go where it will.

I'm not trying to make myself out as a good friend all the time.  I have two people that I was getting to know and that I like very much that moved away and I haven't been proactive in contacting them.  I have not kept up with some other people that are important to me.  Perhaps the disappointment I feel in my other friends are something that these other people feel with me.

I've also made some new friends who have become close.  I've learned that friendships are not static as much as I would like them to be.  They change, they grow, they fall apart.

But I'm struck by LHM's quotes, above, where he just enjoys a friend's company and the easy way they have with each other.  He makes it very clear that they have no need to impress each other, but are just fine being themselves in each other's company.  To me, those kinds of friendships have been inestimable gifts, and is at the root of why I'm sad they are changing.  LHM underscores change by using the metaphor of a wall to show the different perspectives that can be taken by each party in a friendship.  LHM marks the impermanence of what humans construct, include friendships that once seemed as solid as bedrock.  He acknowledges change, based on the changes in his own life.  His friend is troubled by that notion, rooted in the solidity of his lifestyle as it is now.  In the midst of my change, I am more willing to notice and acknowledge change around me.  I am at once filled with hope and terror at the same time.  I don't want to lose the friendships I have built over time, but my own growth might make it inevitable.  I love my friends, but I can't imprison them, nor myself, in my past if I am to move forward.  Maybe the love I have for them is the only thing that I can hold permanently, even as they slowly disappear into the distance.

Musical Interlude

One of my favorite songs, a bit melancholy, is Greg Brown's The Poet Game.  It is an acknowledgment of our own choices, life's changes and a reminiscence of people who made a mark on our lives and for whatever reason have moved on.  One lyric which right now is especially poignant to me is the following:

I had a friend who drank too much
and played too much guitar -
and we sure got along.
Reel-to-reels rolled across
the country near and far
with letters poems and songs..
but these days he don't talk to me
and he won't tell me why.
I miss him every time i say his name.
I don't know what he's doing
or why our friendship died
while we played the poet game.

And this:

Sirens wail above the fields -
another soul gone down -
another Sun about to rise.
I've lost track of my mistakes,
like birds they fly around
and darken half of my skies.
To all of those I've hurt -
I pray you'll forgive me.
I to you will freely do the same.
So many things I didn't see,
with my eyes turned inside,
playing the poet game.

Lyrics from Greg Brown's The Poet Game
off of his album of the same name


If you want to know more about Cheshire

This is about the only thing I could find remotely connected to Cheshire:

Cheshire Community Action Team

Next up: Hill Cumorah, New York


Blue Highways: Superior, Wisconsin

Unfolding the Map

We have crossed into Wisconsin, a state with which I am very familiar, as we continue our eastward trek with William Least Heat-Moon through the northern part of the U.S.  We'll breeze through Superior on our way south into America's Dairyland.  To find Superior, look at the map!

Book Quote

"On Superior Street I ate smoked cisco, then crossed the bridge above St. Louis Bay into Superior, Wisconsin, then down broad and empty Belknap Street running from the ore docks past old walk-ups and corner taverns, on to route 35, and out of the city."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 11

Downtown Superior, Wisconsin. Photo by "Thundertubs" and posted at Click on photo to go to host page.

Superior, Wisconsin

Wisconsin is special to me for many reasons.  For the first 22 years of my life, I was a California boy.  I rarely left California.  In fact, the only time I was outside of California in that time was in 1979, when my parents decided to take advantage of cheaper prices and bought a cruise to Alaska out of Vancouver, British Columbia, for our family. 

An interesting side note to that trip - when we took the cruise the Soviet Union had just begun to occupy Afghanistan and the ship we were to take, the M.V. Odessa, was a Soviet-flagged cruise ship with a huge hammer and sickle on the smokestack!  As a result, our vacation was not as cool as it was supposed to be, because the U.S. shut off ports and the iconic Glacier Bay to our ship except for the port of Skagway, Alaska.  All we could do was cruise om and out of the Western Canada fjords (which we could do because the ship had side screws allowing it to turn 180 degrees in one place).  I developed a heavy crush on our Russian meal server, Larisa (who kissed me when I left!  My heart still flutters remembering that!).

But I digress.  After college, I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  I lived there for nine years.  To date, besides California, I haven't lived anywhere else for a longer period of time.  22 years in California, nine years in Wisconsin, seven years (and counting) in New Mexico, six years in Texas, four years in Louisiana.  I anticipate, barring a complete life change, that my years in New Mexico will overtake Wisconsin sometime, but Wisconsin will remain special to me because it was my first break with what I knew.  Wisconsin gave me a chance to discover myself, address issues I never knew I had, provided opportunities for personal growth, and introduced me to new challenges.  Without Wisconsin, I would have never developed the adventure for travel and exploration that I did.  I wouldn't have thought about living anywhere else outside of California if I had not taken that step to live in Milwaukee's inner-city, volunteer in an inner-city school and for unemployed people, and make it my home.  It was a home that was very difficult to leave when I eventually did, and I still look back upon the state with a lot of fondness and wistfulness.

One thing I remember about Wisconsin, and Milwaukee in particular, is the corner tavern.  LHM mentions the corner taverns in Superior in his quote.  I don't know if Superior is like Milwaukee, but in Milwaukee you could live anywhere within the city, it seemed, and be steps away from a corner tavern.  In Wisconsin you'd see Pabst, Schlitz and Old Style signs beckoning you into the smokey environment within.  When I walked into a corner tavern, there was often four or five people at the bar, maybe 2 together and the rest drinking alone.  Sometimes there might be someone playing pool, darts, shuffleboard or some other gaming amusement for the patrons.  A TV might be on in the corner, showing the Bucks, Brewers or Packers, but silent, to make way for music from a jukebox.  Or the place might be silent save for the clink of the glasses.  What was a mystery to me was how these places stayed in business, because if I went back even months later, often the same patrons were there, and nobody else save for the one non-regular guy like me who was just looking to duck in and have a beer.

It didn't matter in the neighborhoods I lived in whether I went out my door and turned right or left.  At the end of any corner was the tavern.  It was a bar, but it was always more depending on what you needed.  It could be a shelter from the weather, a place to bide your time if you needed a place away, a psychotherapist's office if you needed to talk to someone, a place to meet friends, a place to meet potential dates, a place to forget the troubles of the world, or a place to rail about the troubles of the world with perhaps a sympathetic ear.  It was a place for politics, for religion, for love, and sometimes a place for anger and fighting.

Another thing I remember about Wisconsin was how guarded people were about themselves.  You could tell that Northern Europeans were the main early settlers of the state because everyone tended to avoid outbursts of emotion and anger, and were hard to read.  I didn't think about it much while I lived there, but it only made an impression on me when I had lived in Texas and New Orleans for awhile.  Texans are big and boisterous, filling up the space around them because there is so much of it and so much of them.  New Orleanians are outgoing and industrious people with an opinion on everything.  Ask a New Orleanian about the New Orleans Saints, the local professional football team, and you're in a for an hour-long discourse on everything that is good and bad about the team, detailed opinions on what the coach did well or did wrong, and prognostications on what will happen in the rest of the season or next year.

In contrast, we visited Door County, the long thin peninsula that stretches out from Wisconsin into Lake Michigan.  It is a beautiful area, especially in the fall when leaves are turning.  We walked into a shop and were perusing things, and my wife tried to strike up a conversation with the person behind the desk who was wearing a Green Bay Packers jersey top.  Brett Favre, the quarterback at the time, had just set the record for touchdowns thrown in a career.  "Pretty amazing about Bret Favre, huh?" my wife said.  "Yep," the shop owner said.  That's it.  Nothing else.  It doesn't matter whether the issue is something exciting or something deeply personal.  Wisconsinites tend to maintain a flatter aspect about things in general.

Which is why it is always surprising when you hear about major protests taking place in Wisconsin, like we heard of this past summer in the state capital of Madison.  Yet, Wisconsin has a history of political innovation, populism and protest that belies the pastoral images that comes with being "America's Dairyland."

For what they keep under their vests, Wisconsinites are very generous and very giving, but like I learned in Germany (which to me Wisconsin most resembles), it can take a while to develop relationships.  However, some of my best relationships and friendships were forged in Wisconsin.  The state is an integral part of the colorful tapestry of my life and I will always treasure the time spent there and the people I knew there. 

Most importantly, it was in Wisconsin that I met my wife and where we married in 1995.  For all these reasons, I can heartily say On Wisconsin!

Musical Interlude

Another thing I remember about Wisconsin was the awfully dreary winters.  I seem to recall that during the month of January or February, one could go a month or more without seeing the sun, just a gray dark overcoat in the sky above.  Joan Baez sings a song of northern Wisconsin called The River in the Pines where she makes mention of "Wisconsin's dreary clime."  It also references the lumber industry that was so prevalent in that area of the country.  It is not a happy tale.

If you want to know more about Superior

City of Superior
Superior Telegram (newspaper) Superior
University of Wisconsin-Superior
Wikipedia: Superior

Next up: Pattison State Park, Wisconsin