On Mermaid Avenue II, there is a song, lyrics by Woody Guthrie, music by Billy Bragg, that was never my favorite, but always arrested me and made me pay attention. I am repeatedly struck by its conceit, and it is that conceit, and Billy Bragg's expression of it, that, in the end, makes me kind of love it. The song is Meanest Man, and the conceit is that the singer would be an angry, cruel, terrible man if it weren't for nice people. He'd be a louse and a drunk if it weren't for his wife's kisses and people talking and letters from his friends. He sings it almost like he'd like to be that terrible person, but all these lovely people moor him to humanity, and over and over he is made better once again, by them.
I have been thinking about this song, and it has opened up a little window in the world. Through that window I see a vision of all of us who stand in this life with at least most of our realness in tact, who stand mostly unbroken, standing that way thanks to a series of people who have saved our lives. No gods, not nature, not even ourselves, all of that can be essential, some of it definitely is, but first we need that leg up, that catch, first our lives must be saved, saved by simple, on the ground, actual people. Nothing else will do.
If you are lucky, your parents may save your life, a sibling, a grandparent. Maybe some teacher will save your life along the way, and later the world opens up and, like Billy Bragg sings it, the life saving is all around you.
Surely, for me, there were little catches, moments, pieces of being saved, that let me hobble along; a cousin, a friend's mother, my sister's teacher, just enough to keep me from starving to death. But I was fully 15 years old before I met someone who wholly saved my life. There have been others since then, including the life saver who dwarfs all others, and has been saving my life daily for more than 20 years (see "wife's kisses"). But the first one, the unchangeable first one, who saved my life at age 15, was Grape.
It is beyond the scope of this essay to tell you who I was at age 15, hanging by a thread to the world, too clear eyed and hurt for me to convey here. But let it be enough to say that I was bitter and amazed and unable to walk that simple but unbearable path from myself to the world.
I had known Grape for some years in that way that you know all your classmates. I have some memory of being in a seventh grade English class with him, but there was nothing beyond that. Nothing until, early in tenth grade, he was suddenly friends with an old, fading best friend of mine, and, all at once, he was there, in my world. And he was dazzling. How he was to himself was no doubt very different, just a fifteen year old boy, really, but there, in my world, he was popular, and funny, and idiosyncratic. He was interesting, a seeker, brave and beautiful and part of the world, discovering things before or after or simultaneously with my own discoveries. Yes, essentially he liked me, perhaps even as much as I liked him, and that was life saving, to be able to be liked so much by a person I so passionately admired, but also he was like me. All unlike me, he was dazzling and easy and graceful in the world, woven into the world, so functional and seeming fearless, and yet he was also, soul to soul, vision to vision, like me, full of a resonating harmony and clear eyes and kindness that I could actually believe. Suddenly a bridge stood in the world. I could not walk on it yet, but I could see that there were ways across, from me to the world. And instead of one delicate thread connecting me, there were dozens of threads, his threads, and then others and they wound and wove together and were string, and eventually rope and I was able to pull into that connection, and I could begin the long fight to finding my way back. He gave me that. He gave me the world. He saved my life.
My friend Grape and I remain friends to this day. We have a rich history, and the adventures of our adolescence, and the adventures from the long, halting starts of our manhoods, seem terribly, almost painfully sweet in the nostalgia of it. Full adulthood, lived far apart from each other, and the changes of life in general, have done some fading on that friendship, but it stands true, some chord-ringing shared heart sounding underneath everything.
Our birthdays fall quite close to each other, and we have always made some fuss, one way or the other, about them. Sometimes they have been grand, like our joint fortieth birthday party, and sometimes they have been a bit ragged, with late, rather desperate gifts. I have a couple of past their expiration date CDs to send him this year. I haven't sent them yet, even though today itself is his birthday. And he'll probably send me something eventually too, avocados maybe, half mashed in transit. It's nice, anything he sends, but it doesn't matter. He has already, long ago and through the years, given me an incalculable gift, and it rings out, through my life, and forever.