The place is a diner with red and white checkered curtains. You can put whatever name you want on the sign out front. It really doesn’t matter for the sake of this story. There are thousands of eating establishments across this land that are just like this one. Tile floor. Dependable menu. A lunch special on the chalk board. On Fridays, it’s a Fried Catfish Plate with fries, coleslaw, hush puppies and a slice of pie. Pecan or apple. Sweet tea in a mason jar to wash it all down.
Three old men walk in and take a table in the corner. The waitress comes over to get things rolling. She is cheerful, even though she’s been on her feet since six o’clock this morning. She’s young enough to be their granddaughter. Brown hair in a ponytail. Even darker brown eyes.
“How you Gentlemen doing today?”
They are polite and respond to her exactly like they are gentlemen. Their banter is courteous and respectful, which is something she doesn’t get with every customer. They notice her name tag.
“Mary, we’re doing just great. Hope you’re having a good day.”
She takes their orders on a small pad. Two specials and one order without all the fried stuff. Old guys have to be careful about what they eat.
“I’ll be right back with your sweet tea.”
These three guys haven’t seen each other in nearly a year and a half. This is what a pandemic does. They are separated by miles because they have moved on since retirement. But worse than that, they have been separated by an inconvenience that no one ever expected or wanted. So, this lunch today is a fresh ocean breeze in a life that has been put on hold for far too long.
Friendship thrives best with actual human contact. You sit around a table like this one and you realize that even though time and distance doesn’t diminish the friendship, making eye contact revives the old spirit.
These men are college professors. Academic types. Some of the smartest men I have ever known. One, in particular, made my life difficult when I was just a snot-nosed kid without much interest in history. All three were classmates back in the late 60s, early 70s. All three put in the sweat and paid their dues to earn their PhDs. All three eventually returned to their Alma Mater to teach. Two of them shared the distinct honor of serving as President of that institution, one after the other from 1984-2006. But what matters most is this. Over five decades later they remain good friends.
The tea is good. The fries are hot and salty. Extra ketchup. A little tabasco sauce, which is wonderful and dangerous all at the same time. One prefers fresh squeezed lemon on his fish.
“So, how’s the move to the new house? I’m glad you could make the drive down.”
“Oh, I’m enjoying being closer to my boys and their families, for sure. Since Belinda passed away, it just seemed more important to be near them, you know. I guess I’m having the time of my life. Both of you look well.”
“Can’t complain. I’m just glad we could meet up today. Seems like it’s been forever.”
There was no discussion about textbooks today. No complaining about students. No business on the agenda. No neckties and no leather satchels in tow with papers to grade. And yet, no shortage of things to talk about. Old friends always jump right in where they left off, whether it’s been 18 months or 18 years. The bonds that hold them together stretch across all disruptions of geography and global pandemics.
It’s true. You can go for years without seeing an old friend, then one day, two or three of you are standing around, leaning against the bed of a pickup truck in the shade of a Pecan tree in a familiar backyard, and you talk about life like you’ve never missed a beat. What is known among old friends never goes away.
I don’t know much, but I know that when friendships are marked off in decades that surpass some of the shirts I’m still wearing, life is rich. We drove cars way too fast when we were young. We stood up together at weddings. We’ve watched our kids grow up and move on. We brag about grandchildren. We’ve buried our parents together. You don’t get that without an investment of time.
Mary comes by the table to refill the tea jars. “You fellas doing okay? Which piece of pie you want?”
“We shouldn’t. But I’ll have the pecan. Apple for me. Me too.” It’s a collective agreement. Pie is good.
“One pecan and two apple pies coming right up.”
Lunch lingers into early afternoon. The regular crowd has long since shuffled out the door. But these guys have nowhere else to be. Nowhere else they’d rather be for the time being.
Old friends are like a pair of good jeans. Faded and worn by time. A small rip in one knee. A couple of stains that won’t wash out. But you like the rip and the stains. You know exactly how they got there. You remember where you were and what you were doing when it happened. You can point to each little mark and imperfection and tell the stories about how you’ve lived your life. You’ve got newer jeans. But these are your favorite because they are comfortable, and they fit just right. So it is with old professors who have known each other through some good and pretty awful times.
“Gosh, I hate to be the one to call it, but I’ve got to get on the road. If I wait any longer, NASCAR will be in full swing on I-285.”
“I know what you mean. Glad I don’t have to head that way anymore.”
“I don’t know about you two, but this was just what the doctor ordered. Thanks for getting together. Y’all think we could pull this off next month? Same place?”
“Absolutely. I wouldn’t miss it.”
They all leave a gracious tip on the table for Mary. They know that they’ve overstayed their welcome. A few shoulder pats and handshakes later they pull out on the highway feeling more full than when they came. Partly because of the pie, but mostly because of their friendship.
Whomever it is in your life that you think of as a friend, hang on to them. And if you don’t feel like you have any, then be one to somebody else. Friendship can be timeless and heartbreaking, demanding and forgiving, exacting and beautiful. All this rolled into one lifetime. And if it’s been too long, find a diner somewhere and have lunch.
Jobs come and go. Houses fall apart. Hobbies get old. Achievements are all forgotten. But friends are forever. At least, that’s the jest of what Clarence told George Bailey.
“No man is a failure who has friends.”
I couldn’t agree more.