Friday, May 20, 2011

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

This is my friend JJ, who I stayed with while I was in Phoenix. JJ is one of those people with whom, due to circumstances beyond our control, such as geography, I have spent very little time, but no matter how far apart we live or how infrequently we see one another, I still count as one of my closest friends. And I have always suspected that this says more about the quality of person that JJ is than it says about me. My most recent trip to see him only confirmed that point-of-view.

Every single place we went, JJ knew someone. Usually multiple people. The waitstaff at the sportsbar where we watched the Bulls game. Two former roommates at a bar in Tempe - one worked a beer tub and the other DJed. Even at the grocery store, where we had gone to pick up ingredients for the dinner his girlfriend made for us. We were waiting at the checkout when JJ turned to the young woman in line behind us and asked if she worked for the cable company. She did, and recalled that she had helped JJ with a question on his bill one time.

And where he didn't know people, he made friends. We stopped in a dive bar in Scottsdale, and he struck up a friendly conversation with a bartender named Carly after she nearly spilled the contents of a colossal mug of beer all over his brand new iPhone. She then demonstrated to us her "latest invention," a "spill-proof smartphone protection apparatus." She placed an empty plastic cup on the bar and set JJ's iPhone inside. We marveled at the simplicity of this device. (Even in the dive bars in Scottsdale, female bartenders like Carly apparently wear tanktops, short shorts, and thigh-high socks, so, when she was out of earshot, I bet JJ that "Carly" was not her real name, and that she probably spelled it with an "I." Upon further conversation, we discovered that her real name was Karlene, and she grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. At the end of the evening she inscribed a copyright symbol and her name on the bottom of the plastic cup. As we walked out of the bar, JJ looked at the bottom of the cup and confirmed that yes, she did spell her pseudonym with an "I." He chuckled and tossed the cup into a dumpster. ANYWAY...) When we hiked up Camelback Mountain, JJ wasted no time in starting casual conversations with the others at the summit, including a middle-aged couple from Canada and a hiker napping on a flat rock.

To an introvert such as myself, I can never help but observe JJ in these situations with a sense of awe. It is never forced or unnatural, and never once does the other party look uncomfortable or unwilling to engage in the conversations that he initiates. He slips into and out of conversations with friends and strangers with the same ease that invertebrate sea animals curl through the water. It is as natural as breathing. It simply doesn't occur to him not to talk to other people.

On my last evening in Phoenix, it was cool, even chilly. There is a hot tub on the property of the apartment complex where JJ lives, and he suggested that, after our hike up the mountain, it would be a good time for a soak. The pool and hot tub area was silent when we arrived, but when we reached the hot tub, I realized that we were not alone. There were two women in the hot tub, probably in their early forties, who were holding a conversation in sign language.

JJ's mother is deaf, so he is fluent in sign language. He quickly got into the tub and introduced himself. I sat with my head just above the surface of the water and watched. It was a bit like watching a play with no words. And I could sense that JJ was equally as natural, equally as charismatic while conversing in sign language as in spoken word, making the women laugh on several occasions. After a while the conversation became quieter, more focused. I could tell they were working something out, focusing, as if putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

After a few more minutes, JJ explained to me that one of the women was visiting from Wisconsin. She lived in Kenosha, which is where JJ was born. And she knew JJ's mother. It was as though the universe were making some kind of joke.

The next morning I set out on my own toward California. I thought about how it could be years before the next time JJ and I see one another, but I did not feel troubled by this. I suppose most people are magnets, polar, pulling a select few people in as they push others away. But some possess a gentler gravity, one that is less discriminating, and we feel privileged to drift in and out of their orbit, even if only for a short while, before floating back out into space.

Bonus pics of Camelback Mountain:

Near the bottom.
A lizard. I saw many there.

Cacti. I saw many there.
Getting close.
Only gangstas hike mountains in Coach sunglasses.
At the top.

And a video from the summit:

Summit of Camelback Mountain from Willy Nast on Vimeo.

1 comment:

Karen said...

Fanciest blog post ever posted on this blog.