I was in first grade when my parents and two older sisters moved me to Upstate New York from New York City. Being so young, it seemed to me that they all sat down and weighed and balanced all of life’s options before the move. No one asked me because I didn’t know life’s options. I was just suddenly over three hundred miles away, in the deep sticks outside Syracuse, in Liverpool, New York. I knew the real name was Hickland, the name some of our Brooklyn relatives called our new home. To them, there was The City, Brooklyn, for both sides of my family, and then apparently some forlorn other places.
Across the street from my little nuclear family’s new house resided a family with a boy close to my age. Over the next several years, that boy, Gordon, tried to teach me that there were essentially two options in life: achieving and talking. He was an achiever. I looked and sounded like a talker to him. Yack, yack, yack. He’d try to lead by example, but I might be hopeless because I came from that odd family that just moved up from NYC. Everyone knew New York City was essentially a titanic human experiment sinking into its own polluted swill. It must have been the billions of tons of concrete weighing down on some sad slivers of land down there, sinking it all into that swill, that made nervous wrecks out of those billions of people, so that they ranted and raved and never shut up out of some desperate need to resolve their psychotic, correct, fears of everything around them.
Gordon was born steady, sure, and never, ever afraid. He never rattled on. He simply did his best to perform tasks better than others. He was better than I was at baseball, football, and basketball, ice hockey, track and field, and wrestling. He was better at math, history, English, science, and making friends. He was taller, until puberty hit me, stronger and, from what I gathered from him, better looking. Most of all, he was calmer.
I didn’t know, for years, that he might not be so calm on the inside. I didn’t know that I might be less calm than I’d like to be, at least partly because of him. He might be what made me nervous. How could anyone be so damned accomplished?
No one in my house resembled Gordon, but they didn’t resemble anyone else outside my house. It wasn’t ethnicity or race that separated my family from everyone. It was their New-Yorkness. My father dressed up in expensive suits. He told funny stories at parties—drinking parties that were always at my house—and argued with anyone who disagreed with him about anything. He, alone, would have exhausted the neighbors but add my cigarette-smoking, fast—very, very fast—fast-talking mother, and the neighbors only came to try to watch and listen.
If they ever attempted to get a word in, my two sisters put a stop to that. My sisters, who somehow always remained more NYC than I did, could never understand the slowness of the neighbors. If I thought Gordon was a dynamo, well he seemed to be a bit of a sad sack to them. He didn’t have anything to say.
I began to question the absolute authority of Gordon. Why not question that taciturn steadiness? It wasn’t doing me much good. Right? It took a few years, but I noticed Gordon couldn’t engage in conversations with adults. I could. I noticed Gordon got especially awkward around my sisters and never tried to talk to girls at school. I did. When he gave me a hard time about yacking about something, I started saying something back, like. “Well, I’m bored. I think I’ll go hang around my sisters and have a few laughs.”
Yeah, I pushed back, verbally.
My family moved to another neighborhood, and then high school came. I befriended other people who were achievers, but compared with my family, no one upstate was a talker. Some people liked some of what I had to say. I liked high school and my new friends. Jim Suback sat in the back of the class and made simple, sarcastic remarks, about everything. Outside of school, Jim could spit father than anyone else.
I joined the debating team. I was chosen to captain one side of the issue being debated that year. My side won by a large margin. We had to represent the opposite viewpoint. My side won again, by a large margin. Gordon should have been pleased, being one of the three other debaters on my team, but he was rankled. It was written all over his face. He just couldn’t get any words out.
I wasn’t even distantly aware of Gordon anymore. My mother spoke with his mother on the phone occasionally and would pass on something that I barely heard. I read in the paper about him winning the New York State high hurdle championship one year. That was impressive, but I was just seen by many in my school as considerably cooler. It turned out talkers did better after puberty. Seemed that way to me. I honestly didn’t enjoy his predicament; I didn’t give it any thought. I had interesting new friends, some of them talking girls; profoundly interesting girls who painted and read books. I was busy rebelling and barely getting into college.
Gordon got his Ph.D. in psychology, my mother told me years later. We had a bit of a laugh about that the way talkers do, talking. Ironically, repressed Gordon was telling other people how to stop being repressed. I think, without saying it, that my mother and I knew he’d be a very good psychologist. Gordon didn’t do things halfway.
A couple of years later, my mother told me another story about Gordon; the last one. He was killed in a car crash. A reckless driver hit his car from behind. Gordon’s wife and two tiny children were at home. He was twenty-nine.
Because of Gordon, I admire achievers. I like talkers, too. But, because of Gordon, I tried to be both and I’m still trying.
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