Sunday, May 18, 2014

My Best Friend

When I turned 30 I had low key celebration. Just me and a dozen or so friends from work and school having a few drinks at a bar a few blocks from my place. My best friend Mike was overdue for a visit, so I mentioned the festivities to him when I was first planning them. He was tied up with work that weekend, so he couldn’t make it.

I didn’t think much more of it. Then, out of the blue, Mike showed up at the bar.

It wasn’t outside his character to surprise me, or travel long distances on little notice to help out a friend. The end result: I wasn’t just surprised; upon seeing him I stopped, cried out an expletive and burst out laughing before I got up to hug him. He hung around that night. The day to follow, we shot the shit, ordered Chinese food, watched Step Brothers and ended up at a piano bar, then went out for late night burgers.

I recount all of this not to suggest that there was anything particularly outlandish or story worthy in that visit, but on the contrary to illustrate nature of a friendship that has now carried on for twenty-one years (indeed, one of my earliest memories of us hanging out was at his ninth birthday party). Some friendships are based in common passions, or geographic proximity, or in supporting each other through hard times. No doubt, Mike and I have had our share of all of these things. But overlapping all of those more complex, more profound elements of camaraderie falls something much simpler, exemplified perfectly in Mike’s surprise visit for my 30th birthday: showing up.

I’ve many times recounted the story of Mike and I buddying up on the bus home from school in the spring of 1993, bonding over a copy of WWF Magazine. While pro wrestling fanship was the superficial glue between us in those fledgling days of our friendship, it was really only a starting point (and though my love of my wrestling carries through to this day, Mike outgrew it within a few years).

After we got to talking on the bus I walked to his house—about two minutes from my own, on the opposite end of the same street. Each day I’d get off the school bus and ask my father if it was OK for me to walk to Mike’s. After a few weeks, the question shortened to, “Can I?” Over the summer, I think I stopped asking altogether.

In the months and years to follow, we talked about everything. Wrestling first. Then video games. Mike drew me into his love of basketball--playing it ourselves, cheering on the New York Knicks on TV, and later collecting basketball trading cards. We talked about which teachers we liked and which ones we didn’t. We talked about our budding interest in girls. We watched movies together, maturing from Blank Check to Billy Madison to The Breakfast Club.

And then there were all the times we hardly talked at all. During my high school years, I wrote four novels longhand. Mike taught himself multiple computer programming languages and designed a tutorial application that instructed users on the form of Tae Kwon Do. For untold hours I sat at a corner of his bed, writing my stories while he sat at his computer desk, trial-and-erroring his way through his program design. Looking back, we laugh about one of the New Year’s Eves we spent together in that room, when we each worked, only to look up and see that midnight had come and gone. We wished one another a happy new year and got back to it.

A decade or so later, I told Mike I wanted to start a website about a cappella music. He didn’t question my lack of experience in the field, or the amount of work it would take to launch such a project. He asked how he could help. A year later my writing and his back end design brought The A Cappella Blog to life. We’ve kept it running seven years and counting.

I could write a thousand stories here. About the spring and summer when we went undefeated playing neighborhood kids two-on-two at the public basketball court. About our shaving cream graffiti art jobs on Halloween nights. About all the friends we introduced each other to. The lengths we went to to impress girls. About traveling to Las Vegas, Chicago, Montreal, Providence, Manhattan, Columbus or Houston. About playing with his nieces.

Friends come and go. Many serve a purpose then recede from our consciousness, only to show up again at a wedding or a reunion, or when they happen to travel through your town. And then there are those who stick.

Mike Scalise has stuck with me through not knowing how to shoot a basketball, to nerding out over AP exams, to heartbreak. We may not see one another every day now or talk on the phone quite as compulsively as once we did. Just the same, I’ll never be completely surprised when his name does show up on my caller ID, or when he shows up in person for a thesis reading, a big speech, a birthday party, or any other occasion that’s important to me. He’s the best friend I could ever hope for, and I love him like a brother--maybe more so.

Happy birthday, Mike.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

My Pet Monster

When I was six my parents gifted me Honk.

He was a blue-furred creature, with red and purple hair, big yellow teeth capped with green mold, and a green, hard plastic nose that protruded three inches out from his face. At full height stood about as tall as my chest at the time. He was a My Pet Monster.

For the years to follow, Honk was my single most prized possession.

Things were never simple in the imaginary worlds of my sister I created. Thus, each of our stuffed animals had its own name and identity; moreover, its own distinctive silly voice assigned to it. There was John Crusher the giant panda and his son Bob “The Slob,” the hapless cook who specialized in “glop;” there was Tammy the snow leopard to whom John was betrothed, who had a proclivity for biting butts. We had Joe Iceberg, friendly polar bear and John’s drinking buddy. Walter, the snooty gray housecat. Petey the musclebound rabbit. Brownie and Spot, Pound Puppies and early favorites who receded to lower profile roles and never developed fully fleshed out personalities as our collection expanded and grew more interesting.

I’m barely scraping the surface here.

There was Honk. My favorite. Sometimes politician, sometimes professional wrestler, sometimes author, sometimes voracious enough eater to consume small planets in a sitting. On one fateful night, on the eve of a new school year, our make-believe world became a school, with each of the animals assigned a teacher role. That night, Honk became an art teacher, a role through which he gained his last name: Creative.

And there was Mud Puddle. My sister’s favorite, an over-sized brown Pound Puppy, wedded to a fancier border collie named Shannon, with whom he raised his son, a miniature version of the same Pound Puppy we creatively dubbed Mud Jr. Mud was a scientist most of the time, but also fairly often a musician with a Rowlf the Dog-like propensity for flopping on the keys of our toy piano to sing songs (a bit morbidly, often songs about death).

Honk and Mud were best friends. Mud, the more straight-laced, intellectual of the two; Honk, the wild man who wasn’t especially brainy. Think of Mud as the Donatello from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Larry from Perfect Strangers, Harold Ramis’s Egon from Ghosbusters; think of Honk as Michelangelo, Balki, and Bill Murray rolled into one. As a pair, they were the objects of adoration when my sister, grandmother and I forged The Honk and Mud Fan Club. The purpose of the organization was never entirely clear, but we kept it up for some time, complete with regular agendas and the taking of minutes; I seem to recall us collecting dues at some point, again with little clear purpose to which we could apply them.

But beyond the imaginary worlds we created, Honk was my constant companion when I would otherwise have gone it alone. I’d bring him with me to sit on the steps by the front door to read, or write, or draw. I’d bring him to the basement with me for company while I played Nintendo. And, yes, I’d cuddle with him while I slept at night.

As I mentioned before, each of the animals had its own distinctive voice. Honk’s was a high pitched, crackly one that I put on to embody the character’s eccentricity. That said, the choice may have been prophetic. By the time I hit puberty, I had outgrown most of our make-believe world, and so, too, had I lost the ability to speak in Honk’s original inflection.

And there was Honk’s nose. The boldest part of the monster, which designers didn’t necessarily engineer with a great deal of foresight. Yes, it looked impressive, but, no, it wasn’t built to withstand a kid’s rough and tumble. The nose cracked at its base, the fracture spreading by degrees until the whole thing fell off of him.

I stopped carrying Honk around the house. Then I stopped sleeping with him. When I left for college, I left him seated on the shelf of my bedroom closet, all the while cracking weak jokes about actually having a monster in my closet. When I came home for breaks, I’d always take a moment to pull open the close door and look at him. Sometimes I’d even hug him, for old time’s sake.

One year, my sister bought me a new My Pet Monster for Christmas--a sweet, if impractical gift that I’m sure was meant to celebrate a piece of our shared childhood nostalgia, but which I didn’t have much to do with, living ten months out of the year in college dorm rooms. The new model was a little smaller by every proportion, most notably with a much smaller nose, better plotted for a long life with one’s face intact. I put the new monster up in the closet with Honk.

More years passed. After college, I rarely came home aside from Thanksgiving and Christmas. Then, not long after I moved to Baltimore, Thanksgiving fell from my regular visitation schedule as well, so that more often than not I was back in the old house for just three or four nights a year. Perhaps it was the scarcity of the visits that renewed my interest in saying hello to Honk each time I was home, as often as not snapping a picture of him on my phone, or taking a second to rub his head like a dog or shake his hand as if he were a man.

A couple years later, I started the slow process of moving the last of my remaining possessions out of the old house, loading two or three boxes of my old things in the trunk each time I went home. As I neared the end of that process, there came a point when I looked at the two monsters in the closet—the old one that I knew I’d never want to say goodbye to altogether. The newer one that I didn’t feel so attached to. I thought of taking Honk back to Baltimore with me.

I hesitated to separate him from the newer monster. As absurd as it is to think such objects have thoughts or feelings, I’d infused enough personality and care in Honk for a long enough period, at a formative enough time in my youth, that I don’t know I could ever look at him as entirely inanimate. I worried that taking him to Baltimore, where I still wouldn’t interact with him regularly, might mean a starker fate for him.

Then, I looked at him in juxtaposition to that goofy newer model. Leaning toward him, with brighter eyes, while Honk stared straight ahead, as if refusing to make eye contact.

I thought maybe the youngster was annoying him to death.

In the end, more rational heads prevailed, and I set aside my concerns for either monster’s emotional well-being, wrapping Honk in a garbage bag, placing him in my trunk, and seven hours later, setting him up in his new home in the bedroom closet of my little apartment.

I can’t claim to play with Honk these days. Truth be told, the way I have my closets organized I don’t even need to go into the closet where he sits on a daily basis. But I know he’s there.

On nights when I think of it, I keep that door open when I sleep. I imagine my old buddy might watch out for me like he did when I was a kid. I know I’ll smile if I wake up and he’s the first thing I see.