Sorry, The Position's Been Filled
I didn’t have many friends as a child. It wasn’t for lack of interest. Every day, I went to school and surveyed a playground of peers, many of whom seemed like they’d be fun to hang out with. As far as I can recall, that was my sole criterion. The fact that most of them didn’t think I would be fun to hang out with has perplexed me for 40+ years and is also the likely source of all my adult insecurities, but that’s another essay for another time.
Point is, I didn’t think about who I wanted to be friends with in elementary school. We were friends or we weren’t. Liked each other or didn’t. As I aged, my friend selection process didn’t change very much. Into high school, college, and well into my 20s and 30s, people entered my life and we bonded deeply or connected briefly or ignored each other like people in line for a Cinnabon at McCarran Airport.
Around the time I hit my late 30s, something shifted. No longer did I meet peers on playgrounds, We didn’t mix in classrooms, dorms, quads, or clubs. No pickup basketball games or weekly happy hours at the neighborhood bar. No shame-based clique of cigarette-smoking colleagues slowly killing themselves while huddled on a loading dock.The easy, coincidental, and consistent interactions of people who had something nominally in common had ended. I wasn’t forced to interact with the same group of people on a daily basis. Making a friend required conscious effort. It was an active choice that demanded a protracted commitment over time.
In middle age, friendships happen intentionally and by design. If I met someone new, which was rare, we had to make a plan to see each other again. And then make another plan. And another. The process required ongoing and vigorous consent to the no-longer-organic process of becoming friends. Absent this deliberate effort, we simply wouldn’t spend enough time together to form any kind of meaningful relationship.
This protracted timeline, this effortful undertaking meant that I became more judicious in choosing whom I would pursue a friendship with. Gone were the halcyon days of side-by-side swing set conversations, summer camp revelations, sitcom-style roommate shenanigans, and shared first-job-out-of-college misery. As making a friend became an increasingly conscious choice, I began to evaluate my prospects by asking a single question. Do I already have this friend?
I no longer had time for redundant friends. Given the patience and effort that now went into forming a meaningful relationship, I wasn’t about to start down that road with just anyone. Any new friend had to be unlike any friend I already had. Are you an ex-New Yorker who moved to SF and became a doula-slash-yoga instructor? Already have one of those. Do-gooder documentarian fighting the good fight on behalf of immigrants and other marginalized peoples? Covered. Tech bro whose liquidity event has turned him into a philanthropist-cum-mountain biker? Dime a dozen. Wisecracking lesbian divorce lawyer on her third marriage? Sorry, the position’s been filled.
It’s not that I was being snobbish. It’s simply that making new friends in your 40s is too damn hard to waste the effort on someone who's already on your roster. I recall meeting a guy at a party or was it an art opening or maybe a restaurant with mutual acquaintances? Who can remember these things now? Our kids didn’t go to school together. We weren’t in the same line of work. We knew only one or two people in common. We didn’t share a hobby. We were never going to cross paths often enough to become friends in any familiar 20-something way. But this guy was interesting. Son of a Maine lobsterman whose dad died young. Grew into a hard partying 1990’s ad man in Boston. Gave it all up to move to the West Coast and become a painter. He has an artist’s sensitivity, an ad exec’s cynical intellect, and the rub-some-dirt-on-it toughness of a grizzled Mainer. I didn’t know anyone like him. Of course, I didn’t know that yet.
All I knew was that he seemed novel; a person who might be worth investing time and energy in. He passed my redundancy test. But then came the hard part. How do you ask someone to be your friend? I already had friends. I assumed he did, too. Presumably neither of us needed another friend. Which meant that we were going to have to mutually yet silently commit to putting in the effort despite having no real reason to.
This wasn’t like dating. It had been decades, but I could dimly recall the glorious romantic awareness that comes from seeing someone across a crowded room and knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that you want to fuck each other. Whether you’ll act on it another matter, but at least you know you’d get there in time. You can see it in their eyes. Meeting a potential friend isn’t like that. You don’t size someone up over 10 minutes of small talk on how vegans feel about leather car upholstery and just know that four years later you’ll be telling this guy about how much your parents’ divorce made you terrified of confrontation.
And so begins the obscenely awkward dance of becoming friends with someone in your 40s. Start with a ballgame. Hey, we both like sports! Maybe dinner out with the wives? Then dinner at our house followed by dinner at yours, first with the kids, then without. Hey, are you into hiking? Me, too! I’m having a birthday party with some of my oldest friends but I want you to come because I’m implying that you are entering that inner social circle, but that also means that you’re going to have to sit through four hours of inside jokes and maudlin reminiscences of my high school years. You up for that? Great! Do we want to join you and your wife on a long weekend? Sure. I guess. And so on and so on.
All of this plays out over months and years and none of it really means anything because none of it, at any point, includes any actual trust, any actual vulnerability or confession or plea for support during a rough patch that is the line of demarcation between a true friend and someone you just kill time with.
And then it happens. You’re hanging out for the 10th or 20th or hundredth time. And one of you finally decides to go there. It’s about to get personal. You’re going to share something, a secret or weakness, a fear or a shortcoming. Once you do, there’s no turning back. You can’t unsay, my Scoutmaster liked to give massages or my daughter is bulimic or I’m worried I might have a drinking problem or my wife doesn’t give blowjobs anymore. You’ve laid yourself bare to someone who may have been happy to remain at the acquaintance level for another three or four years before eventually drifting apart and forgetting each other's last names. But someone had to make the first move.
Problem is, this isn’t sex. Reciprocation or denial isn’t immediate. It takes time. Sometimes it doesn’t come. But what’s the point of a friendship with someone whom you can’t trust, whom you can’t get real with. Those people are hard to find. And sometimes it's worth the risk. I’ve met a thousand people in the last couple decades. I’ve made maybe a dozen friends. If that. Friendship isn’t easy. Maybe that’s why I never had many. In hindsight, I think I’m okay with that. But I still can’t figure out what I was doing wrong in elementary school.