This morning as I sat quietly on the train reading a book about prayer, a tall woman got on at 103rd and stood in front of me. She looked like Dorothy Zbornak if Dorothy had survived a long bout with cancer and was entering the world again for the first time. Her cloudy grey hair was perfectly curled close to her head, her makeup in heavy pink layers, and her long limbs bore not an ounce of fat on them. Yet from my seated vantage point, what caught my eye was the black canvas fanny pack she wore on the outside of her blue cotton shirt and pant set. By the looks of it, the fanny pack had just barely survived a shark attack; one side of the pouch was almost entirely ripped apart. Held together by a series of safety pins, they crissed and crossed the frayed edges to create a miniature Brooklyn Bridge of support for the drooping pocket.
My first thought when I see someone wearing a fanny pack in public is to wonder why. Who hurt them? What made them trust the urge to wear such a thing? My second thought is a question about what’s inside.
In fifth grade, my teacher decided it’d be a fun learning experience for our class to take small stuffed animals and send them around the world. The idea was simple: her flight attendant friends would take our furry friends on their planes and in each place they landed, they’d tuck postcards or stickers from that city into the fanny pack we’d attached around them. This was years before Flat Stanley was a thing but it’s the same concept. I offered up a small plush Eeyore, knowing I’d more than likely never see him again.
The months wore on and we forgot entirely about our airborne friends, but one afternoon in the spring, our teacher bounded into the room with a Cheshire grin on her face, excited that someone’s traveling animal had found its way back. She held up my Eeyore and told me to show the class what was stuffed inside the now full fanny pack fastened around the lethargic little donkey. Eeyore’s collection of souvenirs included postcards, photos, stickers, pens, and coins from a dozen different countries. My Eeyore had gone international! I smiled with cartoonish glee as the other students jealously glared. Only one other student’s animal came back that year, the rest were lost in the great baggage claim in the sky.
The collection inside the fanny pack was impressive, but as it turns out, collecting things is one of my spiritual gifts. In the years before Eeyore’s Wild Ride, I’d become a collector of trophies. I played various sports, all of which I played poorly, and at the end of each season I was rewarded with a participation trophy. I enjoyed the gold statues—shiny mementos for showing up—and I arranged them carefully in ascending height on my dresser. If I couldn’t be good at the sports, I’d at least be good at organizing the trophies.
Truth be told, I was more interested in collecting sports cards. I had a bunch of baseball cards and for a while, basketball cards were fun to collect when my dad surprised my brother and me with a new pack. At one point, I had a Nolan Ryan baseball card and my brother had a Michael Jordan basketball card, both of which were featured proudly on the front page of our binders full of plastic card-holding sleeves. I may not have been able to score a goal but I was certainly a champion when it came to organization. At that age, we’d also ride our bicycles to the comic book store near our house and spend the afternoon digging through the dollar clearance bins, trying to get our hands on our favorites: The Fantastic Four and the X-Men. At that shop, I discovered you could actually collect X-Men trading cards so I abandoned the athletes in favor of the mutants. I slowly built my deck of the heroes and villains of the Marvel world, my favorites of which were Rogue, Silver Surfer, Loki, and Thor. This was before Pokemon was a thing; before Pogs as well.
Pogs were The Truman Show of collector’s games. I truly believe a group of gaming executives popularized them for the sole purpose of laughing while children dug through bins of cheap cardboard discs. Still, I had dinosaurs and Tiny Toons characters on mine and they slid into a blue carrying canister for safekeeping between battles. While there’s a long line of completely idiotic toys in the pantheon of modern toy making, Pogs were probably the worst fad of them all. This is a list that includes the metal slap bracelets that cut your wrists and the Skip-Its which were stupid but had a really good commercial jingle.
I traded my Pogs and X-Men cards with a portly girl in my neighborhood named Eden. She had an uneven bob haircut she probably gave herself and skin that was broken out long before we were teenagers. She wore faded pastel T-shirts that were far too big for her and usually looked like she hadn’t showered, but I didn’t mind. I rode my bike to her house and we hung out in her bedroom where she never turned on the lights. The only light to see by was the orange sunlight glowing through her closed window blinds.
She was a good friend to me, but she was allergic to chocolate, something I couldn’t really understand. Somehow, I equated her chocolate allergy with an STI or terminal illness. I didn’t mean to marginalize her because of her handicap, but I was concerned for her. Then, one spring afternoon, she asked if I wanted some chocolate, which surprised me due to her condition. In the kitchen, she pulled out a white chocolate bunny from her collection she’d bought in bulk after Easter. Placing it in a bowl, she melted the bunny in the microwave and then ate the white soupy carcass with a spoon. I can still see the little bunny’s candy eyes and sugar bowtie floating in the bowl of cream-colored goo. I was so disappointed when she moved away and my card trading days were over.
It resonated with me at an early age that people are the most important commodity in our lives. School friends like Eden sometimes moved away or went to a junior high across town while some church friends moved to different churches. I remember sitting at the kitchen table as my mom told me my church girlfriend’s family was leaving. I protested and said she should stay and her parents could leave, which isn’t exactly how it works when you’re in grade school.
I think we find ourselves most lucky when we realize that, for whatever reason, someone is still a part of our life after a long period of time. So much of our time is spent interacting with acquaintances, coworkers, random friends-of-a-friend, and people who matter a lot in the moment but have no staying power in the long run. Facebook has made it easier to feel like we’re still as connected to those people, but even in our social media age, true friendship takes concentrated effort to maintain. Like hedges or a beard.
At the risk of sounding super braggy, I’ve been able to retain meaningful friendships throughout the various phases of my life and I didn’t know that was atypical until I met people who felt they were truly alone. I’ve never felt truly alone. I’ve felt lonely, but never alone. Though it’s been shorn over time, my phone-a-friend list is robust and reliable, a collection stacked with people I can count on no matter what the ask, the reason, or the gap in time since we last talked.
Durable and lasting friendship has to dig deeper than similarities and hobbies–those things change over time so if that’s all you have, you’ll eventually grow out of each other. In grad school, I learned that relationship is rooted in communication and in order for that to function properly, both channels have to be open for both giving and receiving; to speak and listen, to challenge and be challenged. That means being able to have a dialogue though you may not see life through the same filter. Durable friendship means being able to have conversations and disagreements that don’t end up sounding like “I’m right! You’re wrong! And your sweater is ugly!”
I read an interview with Stephen Spielberg in which he was asked about the fourth Indiana Jones film and its obvious problems. Spielberg said of writer/producer George Lucas: “I am loyal to my best friend. When he writes a story he believes in—even if I don’t believe in it—I’m going to shoot the movie the way George envisaged it.” Perhaps that’s the perfect definition of what a friend should be, and that’s exactly what I found in college.
I believe our group was pieced together at some point as if by a spiritual or meta-physical connection and truth be told, I don’t think any of us would’ve been friends had we not come together the way we did. One person was connected to another and then that person to another and after a while, they became the group of people I’d always wanted in my life. I’d been a part of a group of guy friends in elementary school and I’d had great do-anything-for-you sort of friends as a teenager, but what I stumbled into on 7th Street in Waco, Texas, was something completely different. I found a sort of boundary-less, no-holds-barred type of friendship that’s all consuming, moderately cliquey, and completely fulfilling. Nothing was off limits to talk about, even if it seemed scary or wrong. Nothing was too random to experience, even if it seemed childish or ridiculous. No time in the night was too late to show up, even if that meant crying or sobbing hysterically at one another. Sometimes, you don’t need to cry with someone, you need to cry at them, and within this group, we had the freedom to do and be whatever we needed to do or be.
Whether we were doing the cha-cha through a downtown San Antonio New Year’s street festival or playing Mad Gab in our pajamas as the clock struck midnight, we always laughed. Whether we stayed up all night running note cards before exams or stayed up all night in the hospital after some particularly rough food poisoning, we always stuck by each other. Whether we danced at a formal event or danced outside the pizza place we loved and drove an hour to get to, we always danced freely. Whether we sang together on stage or sang together in the car in the middle of the night, we always sang. We were our own self-contained party; ready to adventure at any given moment. We also spoke in a shorthand that made other people dizzy; finishing each other’s sentences and relaying inside jokes with only a glance. We were each other’s loudest cheerleaders, toughest critics and most brutal reality-checks.
We also fought harder than anyone I knew. There were weeks of “not speaking to each other” and immature arguments about mature topics, but we always circled back because our bond was greater than our differences. That’s the great thing about true friendship: there’s no score to keep.
During those four years, I experienced the full spectrum of life with these five other people and we were, in ourselves, a collection of people who fit like a puzzle. We were even given a nickname, “The Six,” a moniker we first adopted in jest but came to wear proudly. Our connection was of the “thicker than water” sort—like a family—and no matter how far away we get from those years living together in Waco, we continue making the choice to be stuck with each other.
With the never-ceasing popularity of the TV show FRIENDS, people openly pine after that sort of friends-as-family lifestyle; living close to each other and doing everything together. I was sitting in a Manhattan coffee shop the other day and I overheard a couple twentysomethings quoting the show. This is a language I’m fluent in, so my Scooby Doo ears perked up. Over the course of their conversation, they talked about how much they wished they could have that sort of life. I smiled to myself, for the first time realizing how lucky I was to have already lived it. And it truly was an amazing season.
As much as I transferred schools to pursue a certain career, the real reason wound up being the people who’d upend, untangle, enable and encourage me. Yes, I earned two degrees during my time there, but everything that mattered about college was tied to this collection of people in some way. In twenty years, if I ever win an Oscar or a Pulitzer or a blue ribbon at a county fair for butter sculpting, I will thank them. Even in the years since we graduated and dispersed around the country, the way I approach friendships and even my relationship has been shaped by them. That’s what I learned in college: how to be a real friend, how to truly support someone, and how to fight for the people you love, even when it’s scary. That’s a bit much to fit on a diploma though, so it just says Communications.