On the Backstreets of Bethesda
Although we’ll be posting the video of the May 23rd memorial service for Greg soon, I thought I would also share in prose what I said at the event:
I will be honest. I don’t know how to fully capture a friendship with someone who I’ve talked to just about every week or two for the past 30 years. Greg was my best friend, my confidant, my rock, my slightly-older but far less mature brother.
Our friendship was unwavering, unrelenting, sometimes honest to the point of painful, but always constructive, always fulfilling, always substantial. I don’t think I can adequately explain it. But I can tell you some of my favorite Greg stories instead.
Greg and I met in 9th grade in Ms. Heyman’s English class at Walt Whitman High School, right down the street from here, just shy of 30 years ago. Even at age 14, Greg gave a booming, smooth as silk, fluid rendition of Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. I can still remember it now. He had all the girls swooning. Everyone kept asking me, “Who’s that new guy from Iowa with that great voice?”
He used that voice and his natural eloquence to his advantage: first on the debate team and then to run for Student Council Treasurer. I remember being in the high school auditorium when Greg gave his stump speech to the entire student body. I was way in the back, sitting next to Mr. Dickerson, our varsity basketball coach, who turned to me and said, “Is that your friend? He’s giving one helluva speech for a kid!” I pointed to the many hand-printed KAHN stickers on my binder and nodded. I was so proud that he was my friend.
In our junior year, Greg and I became inseparable when we both wrote for the sports section of our high school newspaper, the award-winning Black & White. At first, we lamented that all we were allowed to write were silly junior varsity sports roundup articles. Then we bonded over the idea that we should put our ample journalistic skills to the test. Given my obsession with hockey, we decided – or maybe I twisted Greg’s arm – to write a feature article related to the Washington Capitals. We weren’t able to get a player interview, not surprisingly, so we decided to do the next best thing: write a story on the guy who drives the Zamboni machine at what was then The Capital Centre. My recollection is that Greg wrote the bulk of that article and I ran around the Cap Centre looking for hockey players. The article ended up being about the fact that, no matter which team wins or loses, the Zamboni guy still has to come out and smooth the ice day in and day out, period after period. Exciting? Probably not. But it won us all these awards! And “the Zamboni” became one of our many shorthand jokes over the years. In fact, three weeks ago, I was at a Caps-Rangers playoff game at Madison Square Garden and texted Greg a photo of the Zamboni machine and nothing else. He responded immediately with a zillion exclamation points.
Our senior year, Greg and I decided to write Pro/Con opinion pieces on the editorial pages of the Black & White debating the US bombing of Libya. Now, you may ask yourself, why would anyone care about the foreign policy opinions of two seventeen-year-olds living in Bethesda, Maryland? And you would be absolutely correct – they wouldn’t. Greg was for the bombing of Libya. He was going through a “hawkish” (and thankfully short-lived) conservative phase in his political development. I was not going to let that stand alone so I wrote the counterpoint. That’s how our arguments generally went: we didn’t let each other get away with much without hearing a strongly worded other side.
Our friendship grew and strengthened the most during the summer of 1985. That summer, Carolyn Karr, Greg and I spent just about every single day together. We sampled all the different pizza places in Bethesda by day and we took advantage of the low drinking age across the DC line to sample many different bars by night. With all of our various and sundry Whitman friends, I still remember so many nights sitting at Maggie’s or Four Provinces – with pitchers of Bud on one side of the table and Coors Light on the other more conservative side – telling the same stupid jokes over and over and laughing uproariously every single time. There were “strikes” given for terrible jokes. There were random “spot checks.” There was an enormous amount of discussion of baseball minutiae and a certain “masked man.” We would drive around in “Rosalita,” Greg’s VW Rabbit , with the windows wide open, fists pumping, heads bopping, singing Springsteen lyrics at the top of our lungs.
That summer, Bruce was playing at RFK Stadium and Greg – with Mike and Jon Eisen – decided he would camp out for the best tickets. The old RFK stadium neighborhood was pretty sketchy, and Carolyn and I were not allowed to stay overnight there. So Greg camped out for five nights in front of the stadium while Carolyn, Jessica and I and other friends kept him company during the day. It was muggy, it was sweltering, we were sitting on asphalt, yet somehow it’s still one of the most fun memories I have of high school.
This is not to say that everything was roses in our friendship. We had lots of arguments. That same summer, we were at the traffic light just down the street here. It was late and there was no one on the road at all. So Greg, of course, being all of 17 with his foot heavy on the gas pedal, decided to run the red light. Well, I flipped out. Some of you know that I’m a very law abiding person. And Greg was playing at being a rebel at the time. So I start overreacting and screaming at him and said (and I quote): “We clearly have different values, you and I! Maybe we can no longer be friends!” We didn’t talk to each other for days after that. And then of course we laughed about it, decided that we actually did have the same values and we could continue to be friends. Last year when I was making plans to visit Melissa, Benjamin and Greg in Singapore, I had sent an email with some possible dates with the caveat, “No pressure, babe, I can adjust dates based on your schedule.” Greg wrote back to me: “The last time I recall feeling pressure from you was in 1985, when I resolutely refused to stop at the red light at the corner of Whittier and River. Now that was real pressure and, as I recall, it almost ended a beautiful friendship…. :)”
Greg and I very rarely lived in the same city after high school. But our friendship was most definitely fueled by these crazy stream of consciousness letters we wrote to each other constantly. You’ll remember that when Greg and I went away to college in 1986 – Greg to Houston and me to New York – there were no cell phones or personal emails. So we wrote letters. We have over the years amassed a huge pile of letters–and more recently, emails, Facebook messages and tweets. I vaguely recall that we once promised each other that we would never posthumously publish each other’s letters. I’m not sure what made us think our letters were worthy of being published. They are not! But, I think Greg would be ok with me reading a few excerpts.
For example, Greg and I spent a lot of time talking about politics, as I know many of you did with him as well. We were very opinionated … though clearly not always the best at picking winners. In July 1988, he wrote “I’ve been watching a bit of the Democratic convention, and I’m pretty excited about Dukakis’ chances. But I still have this lingering fear that this country is so politically wacky that they’ll vote in Mr. Bush. I’m planning on working for Masters Dukakis and Bentsen in Houston, where Bentsen is really popular, and maybe if they win in November, I’ll get appointed to a position in the White House next summer. Or… maybe not.”
We also loved serious debates over ridiculous points of pop culture, adding postscripts to emails and letters like:
· Who is better looking – Maggie Gyllenhaal or Jake Gyllenhaal?
· Who was the network executive who was stupid enough to take “Sports Night” off the air?
· Was John Cusack better in the “Sure Thing” or “Say Anything” or maybe even “Gross Pointe Blank”?
· Name a sportscaster more annoying than Bob Costas during the Summer Olympics?
· Is it bad to be “friends” on Facebook with people you actually don’t remember from high school?
· Was Don Draper less likeable in Mad Men THIS season or last season?
· What WAS wrong with Molly Ringwald?
Just 3 weeks ago in April, the universe gave me a gift for which I’ll always be grateful. I was on my way to London for work and decided to change my flight at the last minute to arrive a day early, so I could meet up with Greg who was also there on business. Greg and I spent a rare, gorgeous spring afternoon in London walking through the Tate Modern, crossing over the Millennium bridge, checking out the Sloan Square and South Kensington neighborhoods, and of course drinking at a couple of London pubs. We made plans to go to Wimbledon and the French Open next year. And maybe catch a couple Springsteen shows on his upcoming European tour. We talked about the loves of his life – Melissa and Benjamin. We gossiped. We caught up. We looked ahead. It was a perfect afternoon.
I want to end with some of Greg’s own words to me – from a letter he wrote to me in 1986. Even though that was nearly 30 years ago, I think it sums up our friendship pretty well.
“In retrospect, Ani, you are the best friend I’ve ever had. You were always there when I needed you, and we shared the experiences of NYC and Bruce Springsteen and drinking beer in my room and sleeping over at each other’s houses and Mr. Atwood and Ms. V and your parents and my parents and my sister and your sister and ‘The Breakfast Club’ and ‘St. Elmo’s Fire’ and ‘The Sure Thing’ and ‘Diner.’ We spent hours and hours together but certain seconds stand out in my mind.
“I remember driving home after seeing ‘Silverado’ with you and Carolyn waving at some cute guy in a pickup truck with me trying to maneuver closer to him so that you guys could get a better peek.
“I remember our philosophical discussions on the phone every couple of weeks, our parents yelling at us because we were tying up the phone lines. I remember having fourth period end and seeing you stand by Dr. Galvin’s door waiting for me, and then I would try to convince you to skip class so that we could eat lunch together.
“If you remember nothing about our friendship, Ani, at least remember this: ‘When I’m quiet, it just means I’m talking in parentheses.’ Remember: ‘Carolyn, why is Dr. Marco in your kitchen?’ Remember that when in doubt, always say ‘Harsh Toke.’ Remember that I’m always laughing with you not at you. Remember after the Bruce concert singing Rosalita as I drank beer and fruit loops and started doing pushups. Remember to ‘Rock on baby, coz you only rock once.’ Remember ‘You call me baby, you call everybody baby.’ And Ani, remember that Rock & Roll never forgets.
”And in the immortal words of Bruce Springsteen, remember that ‘We swore forever friends / on the backstreets until the end.’”
Goodbye, my friend.