My Long Lost Friend
In which a yenta collapses 3 decades of life into a black hole of pain where mercy has been replaced the Like button.
For an audio version of this story that aired on WAMC (Northeast Public Radio), click here.
Last summer I was at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival waiting to hear choreographer Mark Morris speak about the role music plays in his dances, a rare opportunity to sit a few feet away from a genius talking about his art. Along with many other people, I arrived early to get a good seat, and ended up beside a woman from Long Island who could only be described as a yenta, the type of gossipy person characterized by Leo Rosten in The Joy of Yiddish as being “unable to keep a secret or respect a confidence.” In the way yentas do, she chatted up the people sitting around her, and in the way yentas can, she was able to effortlessly extract intimacies about all of our lives. Within 10 minutes, I had revealed to her (and, I suppose, everyone within earshot) details about my family, my father’s death in Jerusalem, what it was like to grow up in Miami Beach, my finances, my health, and possibly the PIN for my ATM card.
At some point, the yenta mentioned the name of the affluent village on the north shore of Long Island where she was raised and still lives. I recognized it as the hometown of my long lost friend Harold, who was my best buddy during my freshman year of college 35 years ago. We had many adventures in downtown Manhattan circa 1980, plus one indelible psychedelic afternoon in Central Park. More a playboy than a scholar, Harold dropped out after what was then his sophomore year to help manage the prosperous family manufacturing business for which he had always been destined. I never heard from him or of him again.
I told the yenta his name and that of the company, and asked if she knew him.
She knew him very well! He still lived in town, is married with three children (a daughter in her 20s and 18 year old twins, a boy and a girl), and is now the president of the still thriving business his grandfather started in the 1920s. He was also an inventor with patents in his own name! I was smiling and about to ask her to tell Harold his old pal Albert said hello, when she said: “Unfortunately, his personal life is a shambles. He’s a virulent alcoholic. A virulent, virulent alcoholic. It’s destroyed him and his family.”
She said his wife left him not that long ago because of the drinking, and they are in the midst of a messy divorce. As for the kids, the daughters are okay, but the son, she reported, “has taken the path of the father. He has a terrible substance abuse problem. Last year, he was at a wild party with his friends and tried to jump from a second story balcony into a swimming pool.
“He missed the swimming pool. After he got out of the hospital, they sent him to some place in Indiana.”
At that moment, the yenta noticed the look of horror on my face that betrayed the image in my head of a puffy, dissolute middle aged Harold plastered and sitting alone in his living room next to a puddle of vodka vomit not long after his seething wife has slammed the front door shut behind her. And this is not to mention my thoughts of the crack of a young man’s bones against a concrete pool deck.
In a wan gesture of uplift, the yenta said: “Oh, but the older daughter’s doing okay. She’s in Israel volunteering!”
“That’s good,” I told her.
The yenta said: “Hey — I know Harold’s on Facebook. You should friend him!”
And I’m thinking: Lady, are you out of your fucking mind? Do you think I’m going to Facebook friend someone who I haven’t seen in more than 30 years just because I found out his life has unfurled as a (to be honest, not unforeseeable) disaster of dipsomania, pain, and dysfunction? Reconnect via Facebook to what end — so a broken man can look at pictures of my dogs on his computer?
Like most everyone, I’ve become accustomed to the steady stream of news flowing to me via the Information Superhighway. Every day, social media delivers a real-time cavalcade of news from people on the peripheries of my life, more activity than I can keep track of or feel strongly about. But there was something devastating about this yenta’s update about my long lost friend. Part of it was that my brief friendship with Harold was youthful and intense; part of it was that the rough news was delivered to my face with obvious relish by someone I met by pure chance; and the biggest part of it was that the disappointing news she related had taken decades to ripen, to the point where its awfulness was stark, dense, and abject, encompassing not only an entire family’s history of pain, but also the certainty of plenty more unhappiness to come.
Later on, I Googled Harold’s name. If all I’d had to go by were the results I received, I would have come away thinking that my long lost friend was a successful and respected businessman. That much only demonstrates the limits of technology. In the end, Google is a high tech search engine limited to retrieving information you have asked for, though not necessarily the truth. On the other hand, a low tech yenta like the one I met at Jacob’s Pillow is a living, breathing search and destroy engine programmed to broadcast precisely those unpleasant truths you never wanted to know.
A Google search engine doesn’t exercise free will when providing information, and perhaps neither does a yenta — they both just do what they are engineered to do. Even so, I had to wonder — why couldn’t she have just said she would tell Harold his old buddy Albert, after 30 years, still has happy memories of having been his friend?