Lately, when I awaken briefly in the middle of the night, it’s become common to find myself in “whatever happened to?” land. Names that in my waking hours I probably hadn’t thought of in ages enter my mind. I always knew that memory was unruly, often AWOL when you want it. When I really want to access something within, it happens to be on holiday. What was the name of that restaurant in Center City we liked so much a few months ago? Damn, I can’t recall! Conversely, now that I’m being critical, memory is often front and center when it can focus on something I’d prefer to be unmemorable. It should banish the unsolicited replays of my elbowing over a glass of ice water at a formal dinner not long ago.
In the “whatever happened to?” category, most recollections are surprisingly mundane. For example, there was Barry, a college buddy, with whom I occasionally frequented a neighborhood bar. There, for recreation and a bit of alcohol, we shot darts for beers with some of the locals. On what was to be our final visit to the establishment, a few of our opponents, tired of losing to those “damn college kids,” expressed, let’s say, hostility. Barry and I stared at them and, fists clenched, backed slowly out of the bar. On our way back to the dorm, we laughed about the incident which, for whatever reason, I recalled several nights ago.
Barry was a good guy, with whom I could discuss anything--sports, politics, eccentricities of our profs--and never be bored by our conversation. An army vet, his background was far more varied and colorful than mine, but in our friendship, he never exploited that advantage. After graduation, our paths diverged geographically as well as professionally, and, despite intentions to the contrary, I never saw him again. Whatever happened to Barry? Long before I went to college, my world was my neighborhood, and Marty was one of my friends. We lived in West Philadelphia, where my pals and I enjoyed playing a contact sport called schoolyard basketball. In that mutation, knees and elbows were more important than shooting accuracy. Actually, final scores didn’t matter as much as the confidence that you inflicted more than you sustained. We were aggressive adolescents. What more has to be said?
Marty was an anomaly in these contests. Instead of adopting our standards, he adhered to his own. He was speedy, elusive, and physical only when necessary. It seemed to me that his shots were divinely guided into the basket. Where the rest of us were rowdy and provocative, he was superbly skillful, so we learned ultimately to let Marty be Marty, not to goad him. We admired a game we couldn’t replicate. Always, we wanted him on our side when we divvied up teams.
We were certain that in a year, when we entered high school, he would star for West Philly High and after that be the go-to guy on one of our five, highly competitive local college teams. Then, we’d all be entitled to brag that we once played with him.
It didn’t turn out that way. Obviously, we didn’t know that Marty had another competitive life not connected with basketball. In neighborhoods other than ours, he sold drugs. This was a time just before those poisons impacted society so brutally, when news of dealers and habits and overdoses didn’t dominate the news. Still, we were all stunned. “Why would he do that?” we asked each other endlessly. Why didn’t he concentrate on what he did well, something that promised a bright future rather than a dark cell?
He disappeared from the neighborhood. His legacy was wistful head-shaking brought on by our connection with a squandered life. Yes, I would like to know whatever happened to Barry. With Marty, I’m probably better off not knowing. Still, I can’t help wondering what happened to him.
At about the time Marty was on the scene, James occupied a different part of it. Note the name--James, not Jimmy or Jim. Nobody called me “Morton”. I was “Mort,” and my peers generally went by shortened forms of their given names. Absence of a nickname suggested something significant about James, a kind of separation from the informal social flow that engulfed most of us.
He was a classmate of mine in junior high school, the only kid in the class who was smarter than I was. If he’d been an active member of my out-of-school group, I probably wouldn’t have admitted that, but James essentially was a loner. A pudgy, thoroughly ungraceful kid, he just didn’t fit in and, resigned to his status, he didn’t try to do so. Still, I liked him. He wasn’t a classroom show-off; he wasn’t constantly waving his hand in the air to flaunt his “smarts.” Rather, he always seemed reluctant to volunteer in class.
And I liked the fact that the two of us could occasionally discuss happenings outside the confines of the classroom, subjects of no interest to most of my other pals. Our friendship was based on ability to be serious with each other without being self-conscious.
I came to realize that James faced constant pressures. He came from a neighborhood notable for its number of thuggish, dumb kids. In school, I began to observe some of them subtly trying to bully him. They’d say things quietly that I could see by his expression rattled him. Sometimes, one of them “accidentally” elbowed him in the hall.
Obviously, these numbskulls resented his intelligence, the ways he unintentionally emphasized their own dumbness. He was forced to live in a neighborhood where he had no sense of belonging, where what should have been a social peer group daily made his life unpleasant.
I felt increasingly sorry for James. I found more opportunities to talk to him at school; and sometimes, when I detected a problem brewing, I steered him away from its source. Inevitably, my interventions were noticed by the bad guys, a group of whom surrounded me in the schoolyard one day and bluntly informed me that if I valued my hide, I’d better stop interfering. Surveying the rotten crew, I thought I could handle a few of them one-on-one, but gangs don’t operate that way. So I became more watchful, more careful in my efforts to try to protect James. Looking back, I may have helped make James’s school life a bit more bearable, but it both angered and saddened me to see this exceptional kid as a total outsider. Somehow, I must have projected how my secure life would have been different had I been a really fat kid (for your information, I wasn’t exactly svelte), targeted by neighborhood kids primarily for the insolence of being smart.
I remained friends with James for our remaining year in junior high, but it had become a vigilant friendship rather than the relatively open one we’d had before. Then, along with most of our fellow grads, he attended the local high school, while I enrolled at the city’s academic high school far from where we lived. Our final day of junior high was the last time I saw him.
Whatever happened to James? Again, I’m likely better off not knowing because his encapsulating aloneness doesn’t encourage positive speculation. But, maybe, just maybe…. Certainly, there are resources that could help locate information about these people, but I prefer not to use them. I suppose that’s because my optimism genes tend to be regressive.
But counterintuitively, I’ve come to think that uncertainty somehow energizes life. It nurtures curiosity, imagination, and revives affection. It jumpstarts life with its question marks. On the other hand, certainty is finality, which dampens momentum. Strange as it may seem, my answer to “Whatever happened?” is to think affectionately about the past but to accept the advantages of its obscurity.