I met an old friend for lunch today at a neighborhood deli. The portions were generous. The food was good. Our sandwich and burger came with complimentary pickles the size of commercial pontoons.
We found a table in the corner. We ate. We laughed. We talked about olden days. About our age.
He is graying, there are lines on his face, and his hair is so thin he now resembles the late great Fred Mertz. It’s too bad everyone can’t avoid aging like me.
And as I sat there, eating my monster-pickle, I thought about how lucky I am to have friends.
When I was a kid, I remember a framed piece of embroidery hanging above the toilet in my aunt Eulah’s guest bathroom. The embroidery read: FRIENDS ARE OUR CHOSEN FAMILY.
I remember being fascinated with this item when I was 10 years old. I remember sitting and looking at it for long moments of powerful reflection. And as I flushed the toilet and zipped up my Husky jeans, I pondered this phrase.
Friends are our chosen family.
What did it mean? Why would my aunt go to the trouble of embroidering and framing these words?
Then again, my aunt always was a strange bird. Her house was littered in porcelain clown figurines, and her couch was covered in plastic. Her guest bathroom smelled like Shalimar bath powder.
Moreover, the whole bathroom was adorned in pink frilly stuff. Pink this. Pink that. Pink bathmat, pink shower curtain, pink decorative soaps shaped like little pieces of fruit. Pink hand towels.
Even the toilet seat had a fluffy pink carpet-cover perched atop the lid. Carpet toilet-seat covers are never a good idea. Especially if your bathroom is visited by 10-year-old boys with bad aim.
Friends are our chosen family.
This phrase mystified me. What is a friend? Why do we have them? Why are they important? Who were my friends? My real friends, I mean. Not the fake ones.
Because the world is full of fake friends. I have plenty of fake pals. So do you, probably. They’re not bad people, necessarily. They mean well.
They smile at you, they tell you what you want to hear, but they’re just sort of playacting. They aren’t your authentic friends.
They aren’t family.
Deep in your heart, you’re not even fooled by their acts. Because somehow you already know these people are just fair-weather folks. You know that if you were to ever need this person — truly need them — they would be “busy.”
If you ever landed in the emergency room, for example, a fake friend would not sit in the waiting room, texting your family members, surviving on vending machine food, sleeping on vinyl chairs until they knew you were OK.
Your fake friend would never end their Hawaiian vacation early to come home after your father died suddenly.
No. True friends, I believe, are the essence of life itself. Like condiments on a hotdog. Like paprika on a deviled egg. Like salt peanuts at a baseball game.
Have you ever had an unsalted peanut? Because I have. And they’re an affront.
My uncle Tommy Lee used to have blood pressure issues, so his wife used to make sodium-free roasted peanuts. Her peanuts tasted like eating limestone gravel.
Peanuts without salt have no purpose in this world. Peanuts are salt-delivery vehicles. That’s their reason for being. And what’s life without salt? It’s tasteless. It’s boring. It’s bland. It sucks.
Do you see where I’m going with this? Well, I hope so, because frankly I don’t have a clue.
I thank heaven for friends. For this friend in particular. He met me for lunch today and reminded me that we have been through some tough times together and survived.
He is a friend who once joined me for lunch at this very deli, when we were young men. Young men who both lived on the wrong side of the trailer park. Young men who had no prospects in life.
He sat in this booth and once told me that friends were like stars. Sometimes you can’t see them, but they’re always there.
He once let me cry in front of him when someone broke my heart. He told me I was going to be OK, although he had no idea whether I would be. And once I was finished crying that day, he even let me eat his pickle.
Because that’s all a friend is, really. A friend is the pickle that comes with your life.
Or you might say they are the salt of the earth.