No kid. Wife at work on the night shift. Nothing and no one calling my name. I’ve called all four people who might have something to do with me tonight. They left their phones unanswered or had other things to do tonight. I’m home alone.
When I was younger and had nothing going on a Saturday night, I felt sorry for myself. Youth has fallen away. The urgency of social life has passed. I don’t go to poetry readings anymore. I skip lectures and stay home from music events. I like the opera and symphony and enjoy when I sit in front of those beloved institutions. But right now, as for many months and even years, I spend Saturday nights alone, alone.
I always have movies.
I do have a social life. It resembles the party-and-bar existence I lived in my 20s not at all. It’s much different from the AA-meetings and dinners-out-with-AA-friends evenings of my thirties. I’ve been married long enough that an evening at home with the wife is good enough. When she’s not here, I feel a pang of loneliness, but not so that it motivates me to get out of the house.
The local coffee house is the center of many aspects of my social life. I meet with Phil for coffee one afternoon a week. We have been acquainted for a decade and a half. I knew his dad well, and, in some ways, I have watched Phil grow up. We first met when he was 16. His dad asked me to take him out and talk to him about being a writer. I was working as a journalist at the time. We walked that night in Sunnyside Park with my dog Bob. I listened to him tell me about what he wanted out of life and felt invigorated by his youth.
Though he is twenty years younger than me, conversation works in lively and interesting ways. We pose scenarios and answer them in philosophical ways. We bemoan the state of state and national politics. We gossip about local politicos and movers and shakers. I walk away from our discussions invigorated by more than the coffee.
I have another friend who I walk my dogs with a couple of times a week. Dog walking is a nightly exercise—two to four miles at a lively pace. Walking with Jerry makes the time fly and the walking faster. The both of us need daily oxygen.
Jerry and I worked as journalists together back in the 1990s. We have had a lot to do with each other over the years. Our conversations dissect the intricacies of language, its use and misuse. Latin and Greek etymologies pepper the evening. We talk to each other about the state of journalism and the sad state of the daily paper. Family affairs and fatherhood take up a large part of our discussions. It’s a pleasure to spend that hour or hour and a half together on downtown streets.
My social life takes me into interesting places. Bill and I met in 2004 when I wrote an article on the ethics of stem-cell research. We have come to know each other well over the last 12 years. We lunch together at his scientific research facility once or twice a month.
The conversations Bill and I have range over the wealth of subjects that life presents. I get to drill him about the medical sciences, the vagaries of DNA, and books. Since we find many topics outside our disciplines interesting, there’s never a lull in the conversations. We often wander into existential topics, and there are many reasons for it. Bill has been thinking of mortality and the (im)possibility of a life after this one. I spend a lot of time wondering about the purpose and meaning of life. Seeing how our viewpoints differ and where they are the same makes for some in-depth discussions. I treasure our time together.
I meet with an old friend every occasionally for coffee. Gary and I have known each other going on twenty-five years. He and I share a common history. Gary is almost 20 years older than me. He has grown grandchildren. Though he is much my senior, he doesn’t treat me as a father would a son. Instead, we are on equal footing, my experience as valid as his.
Gary and I also share something special. We canoed together from Kansas City to St. Louis once. I think food bonds people together. Fishing does the same. But time on the river together bonds more tightly than anything else.
My good friend and confidant Ken and I have also spent time on the river together. We speak a couple of times a week on the phone. I spent weekends with him and his family up in his roost—his attic office—where we stink ourselves up with tobacco and get riled up on too much coffee.
Stan and I get together once a week for lunch at a Chinese restaurant on 39th Street. He is one of my closest friends and confidants. We have much to talk about and no subject is off limits. He calls me on my bullshit and while I try to call him on his, he deflects my criticisms with wit. I first met Stan in the 90s. We became acquainted again in 2004. We quickly molded to one another. Hand in glove.
Jose and I have been friends for going on 35 years. We went to school together at UMKC back in the 1980s. He is an artist and poet, which gives us plenty to talk about. He is principally the agent of what social life I have beyond my family and close friends. I have been to poetry readings and music events with him. He has taken me places that my complacent self cannot find the energy to go itself.
I use my cell phone for two things. I look up things on the internet—the definition of a word, the biography of someone I’m interested in, a piece of history I don’t know that much about. But the lion’s share of time on the phone I spend with two friends: Pat, who lives in Utah and who I spend at least one weekend a year with; and Peter, who lives in Topeka and works as a journalist. I have known Pat for thirty years and he has gone through a lot with and for me. When I need an ear, I have Pat’s. Peter’s been there for me, too. As a matter of fact, when I walk the dogs tonight, I will chatter with Peter or Patrick. I must log a couple hours of discussion a week with these two, or more.
This list seems heavily male, and it’s true that my closest friends are men. But there are women, too. I run into an old friend, Linda, about twice a year. We sit down to coffee and talk for hours. Cindy and I get together every couple of months for a nice long catch-up and discussion. I have known both of them most of my life. Kelly and I share conversation every now and then, as do Janet and I. They are as important to me as the rest of the people I have talked about here.
There are others, as well. I have friends whose connection to me is the Missouri River. I just found these friends this year after a rendezvous of people who have paddled the Missouri in whole or in parts. We floated down the river from Kansas City to Miami, Missouri, in October. In April we will get together for an outing that will take us from downstream of Jefferson City to New Haven, Missouri.
During our first outing, I found that much unites the group of us. We disagree on politics. (I disagree with almost everyone, being an avowed socialist.) We don’t see eye-to-eye on the death penalty or tax policy. They drink and I don’t. But the Missouri is bigger than us. I love being out there with other people. We share a sandbar, a fire, and lively conversation.
So, after this meditation, I find that my social life, while it doesn’t take up all my free time, is rewarding and full. If I can carry on like this for the next thirty years, I will have lived a happy existence outside of family and work. People will come. Over the years, many will die. But that’s what friendship is about. Good and ill. Presence and absence. Conversation and just being in the presence of others.