Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Friends of Proximity

You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family.

It's an old adage, a cliche, wisdom served up straight from the fortune cookie factory.

But how many of our friends our already chosen for us? Friendships decided not by shared values, or similar interests, but location?

Sometimes we meet people who do share our interests, forming bonds that transcend both time and distance. We pull them into our orbit and never let go, regardless of where they have moved or what they are doing, they are eternally bound to our minds and hearts. We may not talk to them for years, but the moment we reconnect, the gap of time closes in an instant.

Time and space cannot weaken a true friendship.

Then there are friends of proximity.

Friends of proximity are friendships of shared experience, momentary attachments based not on shared interests or values, but on immediacy. Proximity friendships are short lived and transient, based an our neighborhoods, our homes, our work place and our families. Quit the job, move to a new neighborhood, and most of your friendships quietly disintegrate, dying an invisible death.

With a friend of proximity, you don't share common interests, you share common experience.

One such friend was Tom. Living beneath the heel of our tyrannical property manager, we were united in our dislike of the warden, prisoners sequestered under the same roof. A waiter at Canter's Deli and older than me by a good ten years, Tom was calm and affable, he showed me how to bet on the ponies and I helped him write a script.

We saw shows together, griped about politics, and were always unified in our hour long "bitch" sessions about the craziness of our dictator roommate and his unreasonable demands. (Like shutting off the power to my room, telling me how I should park my car in the drive way, or insisting that one of us was stealing his silverware.)

After I moved, I promised to stay in touch, but somehow I never really did. Not long after I left Tom moved out as well, and that was the last I heard from him. We no longer had our common experience, both of us had moved on to different shows, to different venues.

A week ago I walked into Canter's to have an open beef brisket. Canter's has probably 300 things on their menu, but only five of them are good. (Corn beef, matzoh soup, brisket, pastrami, and of course, the brisket - as a rule, stick to traditional Jewish food when eating here.)

I look for Tom, but don't spot him.

"Does Tom still work here?" I ask at the register.

"No," the woman replies, counting my money, "Tom passed away a year ago."

I try to hide my shock and fail. "What? What happened?"

"He had a heart attack." She answers, handing me my change.

Tom's dead? Dead? I exit the deli in a daze. I still have his number on my phone. I haven't called it in years, but I call it now.

His voice mail picks up. "This is Tom, leave a message."

For a moment I don't know what to say, maybe the woman behind the counter was wrong? Maybe she was talking about a different Tom? Don't phone companies cancel voice mail after no one pays the bill?

Or is your voice mail like MySpace or Facebook, a digitized ghost casting a pixeled shadow, remaining up on the web even after you are gone. Death is no longer marked by a mere gravestone, but electronically encrypted bits of data zipping around the world, locked into place until someone makes a conscious decision to erase your electronic thumbprint.

A week later I never hear back from him. I call a second time. Nothing.

Does it even matter? Tom vanished from my life years ago. He was a friend of proximity, a connection of convenience. The moment we stopped living under the same roof was the moment our friendship vanished into the ether.

How many friends have I met in LA? How many people have I met and formed friendships with only to never speak with them again? Thinking back I can barely remember half their names. Former roommates, people I worked with, teachers I've known, writers who moved away - so few remain friends.

But when they're gone, you don't really miss them.

They're no longer in your proximity.

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