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
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."
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