Sunday, March 1, 2015

Hello, Friend

My children and friends often make fun of me because when I run into people, or they come to visit, even the bagger at the grocery store, I always greet them with “Hello, friend.”  One night at a neighborhood driveway party a man came up to me and I could not for the life of me remember his name.  We had a nice conversation. When we were done my friend, Jan, who was hosting, came up to me and said “You have no idea who he is, do you?” I replied “I know who he is, just not by name. We rode the bus together and that’s only one of the few ways I know him.”  She asked me, “Is that why you always greet people with ‘Hello, Friend’? Is it because you can’t remember names?”   I shrugged and said, “It is a useful tool when your short-term memory has some issues.”  She laughed and said, “OK, now I know Tom Sharpe code for ‘I can’t remember your name, but I know you.’”  I laughed too even though I kind of lied to Jan that evening drinking a beer in the suburban dusk by the fire pit.

The real reason I always greet people with “Hello, friend” is this.

In the spring of 1997 I was off after a long business trip and got to stay at home and be with my oldest son, Ben, when he was four.  As we sat on the front room floor playing with cars and trucks, we had the television on.  It was one of the morning shows. Bill Cosby was the guest. It was one of the first interviews he had done since his son Ennis tragically died.  I know that there is a lot of controversy swirling around Mr. Cosby today. That is his business, not mine.  On that day all I saw was a man grieving a loved son who was senselessly gunned down on a roadside in an attempted robbery. He talked about this boy with such potential and promise always inspired him because he never entered a room without touching the top of the door frame and saying, “Hello, friend.”   At some point Ben looked at me and said, “Daddy, why are you crying?”   I said, “I just heard a sad story.”   Ben hugged me and said, “Daddy, don’t ever be sad.”   Ben is 22 now and I don’t think I have ever told him that I lied to him a little bit that day because I wasn’t only crying about the Cosbys.

When I was 20 I went back to the University of Illinois after taking a year off to work and travel. I shared a house with some guys who were also English majors. The house was called “Paradise Lost.” In a literature honors seminar one of my roommates introduced me to a fellow student.  He was from the north shore of Chicago and had a long name like Butler Worthington Smith III, but everyone called him Trace.   I think it came from the fact that he could pull from his memory quotes from poems and stories and in study groups we always said when he was not there, “We are missing without a trace.”

Trace was tall. He had long hair down to his shoulders that he kept swept back off of his face. He wore rimless glasses and always dressed very eclectically.  One day he would look very preppy and the next like some retro-hippy.  He was extremely bright and had the distinction of being one of the few undergraduates who had been published in the literary quarterly. He dated a girl named Lucy, who was equally distinct and that I was also rather fond of. She was smart and in a lot of our classes although she was studying to be a cultural anthropologist.

Trace and I got to be good friends and would meet up for lunch or drinks after classes quite a bit. Whenever I would enter a local bar to find him, he would say, “Hello, friend, well met.” Trace was probably the first and only friend I knew in college that truly understood me. We would talk for hours about books, literature and art. He was the one that helped me through a tough heartbreak with a girl and helped me to carry on to pursue the girl who would one day become my wife. We always hugged when we met or departed. I wasn’t initially comfortable with that but I learned to be a hugger. He was a charismatic and great guy.

One night I came home from my job working as a psychology research associate, after stopping for a couple of beers and a sandwich.  My housemate, Tim, encountered me in the kitchen.  He said, “There’s a lot going around right now and we wanted you to hear it from us first. Your friend, Trace, put himself on the railroad tracks last night… They’re not sure if he died of the cold or when the train hit him…  I’m sorry.”  I collapsed sobbing on the floor and Tim sat with me.  Later that week or so when I went home for the funeral, I saw Lucy. She shook her head in confusion and grief.  When I first saw her though she said to me, “Hello, friend.”

That might be when I first started using the phrase, “Hello, friend” all of the time. Maybe it was after Bill Cosby.  I don’t really know when it started, but it became a habit like a thread that is embedded in my fabric.

Flash forward. I was working for an organization as Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations.  One afternoon after a late Cubs game I wasn’t feeling really bad, had a burning going up my shoulder, so I went home and met my wife at the hospital. While there I had a mini-stroke, which was the first indication that I was beginning my long journey with Parkinson ’s disease. When I came back to the office after recovery I was limping and having trouble with my hands.  A woman named Yvonne, who worked in a different department, in a cubicle near my office came to see me. She closed my office door, which I always kept open. She said to me, “When I see you in the hall you always say to me, ‘Hello, friend.’ and that means a lot to me. I know there is something going on with you but I don’t know what and I don’t have to, but I want to give you a hug.” I got up from my chair and let her embrace me. She then said, “May I pray for you?”  I said “Sure, why not?”  She kneeled down, took my hands and eloquently beseeched the Lord to look out on my behalf.  I have to say it one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me.  I have not see Yvonne in quite a few years but she is still a treasured friend to me.

As I am writing this I am thinking about an old song from the New Radicals. Part of it goes:

First we run and then we laugh till we cry 
But when the night is falling 
and you cannot find the light 
If you feel your dream is dying 
Hold tight 
You've got the music in you 
Don't let go 
You've got the music in you 
One dance left 
This world is gonna pull through 
Don't give up 
You've got a reason to live 
Can't forget you only get what you give.”

And that, my friends, is why I really say “Hello, friend” all of the time. It is a tribute to good memories and a good friend. I figure if you approach the world as if everyone in it is in the same boat as you, well then you might as well be friends.  I find that when I do that even strangers become friends you just haven’t gotten to know yet. I’m lucky. I have a lot of friends. Some that are very close and some that just help me bag up my groceries with a smile, a handshake or a hug. I don’t feel bad about that at all. It is a nice way to live.  You really do get what you give. So, if you see me on the street and I say "Hello, friend" it is not because I can't remember your name; it is because I really mean it.