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Prologue: I know it when I read it.

The photograph shows six young men--perhaps 19 or 20 years old. They are standing on a white-painted concrete apron alongside a swimming pool filled with blue-green water. They wear boxer bathing trunks, their hair is wet, and their skin is dark from a summer spent as staff members at a boys' camp in the woods of upstate New York. The heavyset guy on the left has bent his arms across his chest in a burlesque of a body-builder's pose, and the rest have placed their arms around each other's shoulders, laughing as they lean toward the camera.

From left to right, they are Nate, Chico, Bruno, Ben (the tall, thin one with the fresh goatee that's supposed to signal Mephistophelian leanings), Dave, and Nick. Our fellowship, as I well recall it, was founded on contempt for the camp administration, affection for midnight cruises on the lake in hijacked canoes, and the conviction, gained over the previous six week, that God had for some reason brought together at this summer camp the cleverest and most engaging group of guys in the world. A few weeks after this photograph was taken, we all stood in a parking lot in Brooklyn, where we'd been deposited by a bus, and we shook hands and went separate ways.

I have always belonged to gangs. When very young, I rode a bicycle with a gang of boys who cruised the neighborhood, looking for good places to refight World War II. Weeded-over lots were excellent for crawling through South Pacific jungles, cradling our stick rifles in our crossed arms; while unguarded construction sites, with their mounds of fine sand, were perfect for beach landings, whether at Normandy or Iwo.

Then came the gang with whom I played basketball, softball, punchball, stickball. Then the gang with whom I mocked the world. Then the gang with whom I formed a rock band for the purpose of acquiring the admiration of groupies. Then the gang with whom I mocked the world once again, this time with insights gained from Camus, Sartre, Lennie Bruce, and my failure as a guitarist and womanizer. These days, I participate in a number of gangs. One gathers in living rooms on occasion to eat take-out and talk about books or Bach. Another meets in steakhouses to talk about Life. And another calls itself the Economic Development Advisory Board and meets once a month in an overheated conference room in Town Hall.

In most lives--and perhaps more so in men's lives--the gang, whether it robs banks or studies scripture, is the predominant shape of friendship.

It's an admittedly awkward shape, and evanescent. It dissolves at the end of summer or a term of office. But it is also wonderfully forgiving, as true friendship is not. When a member of any of my gangs is in difficulty, I may pay a visit or I may telephone or send a card or just think good thoughts, and feel that I have discharged my obligations. But when my friend Bill woke up one Sunday morning about 10 years ago pinned to his mattress by terror, I had no choice but to drive to his house and lean over his sweated body, and embrace it as I tried to lift it, and fail, and look into his dead eyes and plead with him to rise, and tell him that I loved him. (Actually, I didn't exactly tell him that I loved him. I said "Bill, we love you," which is close enough for most guys.)

Still, gangs can be intimate. The man in my book discussion group who sits at the other end of the sofa, balancing his plate of Chinese food on his knees as he tells me why he was moved by A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when he read it at age 16, and hated it when he reread it at age 55, reveals worlds. And when I--BC's director of marketing communications when I'm not editing Boston College Magazine--wax on at a meeting of the Economic Development Advisory Board about how to communicate with the world, I stand naked in my vanities. What I once knew and still remember about Nate, Chico, Bruno, Dave, and Nick--about insecurities, mothers, girlfriends, dreamy aspirations that will never come true--still seems considerable and deep and moving almost 35 years to the day after I walked out of that parking lot.

In her memoir Virgin Time: In Search of the Contemplative Life, Patricia Hampl tells of sojourning at a Cistercian women's monastery in northern California, and of attending a Mass where, when personal intercessions were invited, another visitor, a man "with a small, bent body . . . who never speaks," said, "I pray for everyone I ever met, especially those I never think about."

"They're all there," marvels Hampl, "that crowd of former intimacies. . . . The pilgrims and strangers, the lost and the luckily forgotten. All the cameos in life. . . . Love them."

Ben Birnbaum

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