A Chicago view

The distance of friendship

In Chicago the air is crisp and the skies gray. For a boy from upstate New York it’s welcoming weather here at the end of November. Sitting in an apartment window overlooking a park I watch bundled locals walk their dogs. At this time of year dog walking is dependent on the owner’s patience, the time of day, and the amount of clothing. A man stands with his arms wrapped around his torso waiting as his pet squats along a fence. A different man stands with his hands in his pockets as his dog sprints back and forth in the caged area. The animal is ecstatic to be freed from the apartment. The man less so, obviously missing heating and insulation.

In the morning though the light is beautiful and Chicago feels like a city. I visit East Coast establishments like Dunkin’ Donuts and mingle with construction workers and doctors. We are here for a friend’s wedding, for a celebration. The days on either side serve as a peaceful break from the rest of our lives.

The celebration and the evenings out are a reminder of the power of friendship and the challenges of distance. So many of the friends here, like so many friends everywhere, met in college or high school. Now all in their thirties these bonds are a reminder of who they were and who they are, friends who can recall early driving mishaps and the lack of cleanliness of college apartments. Friends like these aren’t a necessity, of course. Spending time with those who know us and who have known us is always a luxury. The further we move and the more frequently, the rarer such evenings become. In some ways that’s the best part of weddings, bringing together a group of people who know each other so well and who have shared so much.

On the flight home, far too early in the morning after a late night of deep conversation, I think about how much of our travel is dedicated to maintaining friendships. When asked about our plans or our vacations it’s the location or the specific adventures that we recall, Tokyo’s busy trains or the relaxed feel of Los Angeles. Yet in both cases, in most cases, it’s friends that have taken us there, and friends we will return for. Having moved so often and met so many people their conversation is what I miss, and so much of what brings me to the airport so frequently. Without planes, without sleeping in so many different zip codes each year, those friendships would fade.

The sad truth is they fade anyway. Visiting can not replace living down the street or in the next room. Time spent catching up can’t replace time spent doing, making new memories. This, finally, is teaching me the sacrifice of being constantly on the move, constantly searching for another place to discover. Because for every new person we meet and place we feel comfortable there’s another we have to work to hold on to. Too many messages I write say that we’ll “try to visit this year” instead of “see you tomorrow.”

All this is of course the complaints of the truly fortunate. Given both opportunity and means to travel it is easy to complain about their challenges. Gifted with friends far and wide it is easy to complain about their distance, rather than celebrate their quality. Yet standing in a group of friends who have known each other at least a decade and currently live within a five mile radius is a poignant reminder of the virtues of staying close.

Landing in San Francisco reminds me that I am wrong. The city is warm and inviting. We bicycle to the gym and back in the sunshine. A friend from college, fifteen years ago now, texts to say taking care of our cat was no problem. Another Vassar friend messages about meeting up soon, and a friend in London, whom I met in Japan, writes with book advice. These interactions, all brief and all electronic, make me smile. Because this is why it’s possible to maintain friendships across so many years and so many miles, despite moving houses and countries: we are so rarely truly out of reach.

Which is a good reminder for a week filled with love and Thanksgiving.

California drives

On a Wednesday in November I drive north along the 101 in the middle of the day. It’s been years since I’ve seen the north bay during work hours. In Novato I get the car washed at a place I used to go only before 9 am, on my way in. The crowds surprise me, mostly older people chatting about books and signing cards for the troops. I am the only person under fifty not busy washing cars.

In Petaluma I drop the car off for brief repairs. I’m happy to see the town for a few hours. It’s a place I liked being familiar with. Of course things have changed, some for the better. There’s a combination roaster and coffee shop a block from the tire place, where before there was nothing. The clientele is young and engrossed in their work.

The Fit’s repairs are a minor thing, worth the adventure on this rare day off mid-week. The ride mostly makes me think of the three years of commuting, forty miles each way, from the western parts of San Francisco. Living downtown now heading north is far less convenient. So much of our life then was about proximity to the Golden Gate and comfort in the fog. The new zipper pylons on the bridge surprise me, though they shouldn’t. The truck that moves them was an internet sensation when it debuted, replacing the men leaning off the back of a pickup that had done the job for years. I was always impressed with their ability, slotting each pylon home while in motion, hanging down into traffic. I wonder what they do now. Their skill, calm coordination amidst moving automobiles, seems both widely applicable and of limited concrete value.

The passage of time is shocking at specific intervals. We purchased this Fit five years ago, for this specific commute. Five years, three of them making this drive, have passed since that first fall of automobile-based discovery. Owning a car was such a large step in becoming American, age 31, fourteen years after I’d sold my Volvo for spending money on my first trip to Japan.

Now, commuting by bicycle and train, I often comment on how glad I am not to drive every day, not to be stuck in traffic regularly. But this commute, forty miles up the 101, was how I learned to be American again. Seeing the dry hills on a Wednesday in November is a good way to keep hold of those memories.