The Comforting Illusions of Friendship

by Geoffrey Clarfield (April 2011)

Let there be no noise made, my gentle friends

Unless some dull and favorable hand

Will whisper music to my weary spirit

 —-Henry IV, William Shakespeare


I can’t remember when first I met Richard and I can’t remember how we became friends but it may have been through music. I have a vague recollection that I met him at one of those jam sessions which were not quite concerts, where young teenagers from different junior highs and high schools within a subway ride of our school, would converge in the basement of a local Catholic Church, Our Lady of the Assumption, to play rock and roll. 

I can’t even remember if I ever got up on stage. I think I was too dazzled by the lead guitar of young Les Hoffman who always had a girlfriend that looked like a picture out of a British Pop Music Magazine like Rave, – a girl who looked more like a woman, with cheek bones that were different than those of the girls I knew, who dressed differently and whose body language reminded me of that which I had seen in films. I think I first met Richard there.

I think it took a few years for me to finally realize that Les and Brian Jones were not one and the same person. It is clear to me now why Les’s girlfriends seemed to reflect the images of the popular culture that dominated our waking and sleeping thoughts – they were not Jewish.

Only decades later do I realize that despite the model of suburban sobriety, progressive values and behavior that my beloved suburb presented to the rest of the world and which was immortalized in that classic sociological study, Crestwood Heights, the inner life of my suburb was a hidden book of secrets. We, that is my friends and neighbors, had grandparents whose first language was Yiddish, whose second was Hebrew, whose third may have been Russian or Polish and whose fourth was English.

They came from history books and Walter Cronkite documentaries. Their lives were lived in the black and white films where we would see Churchill give the victory sign and waddle off the screen like a duck. My grandfather spoke of Cossack attacks on his house when he was a boy, of pogroms and mystical Rabbis, of hunger and Eastern European snowy winters, not the winter that I knew which was best for sleigh riding and Chinese food.

My father and his friends did not talk or look like the other men their age that we mostly came across as teachers in school. My father and his friends spoke with the accents of American film stars from the forties. They did not have typical Toronto Canadian accents. They looked and talked like residents of New York City and to this day many of my colleagues think I was born in the States. I suppose that when growing up poor and Jewish in Toronto during the depression there were few role models of hope in Canadian society.

In those days there were no Canadian films and those Canadians who had made it were trying to be Englishmen. I can still remember my shock when as a graduate student at the University of Toronto; I would see novelist Robertson Davies walking about campus with his cape and cane and hear his Oxford accent on various television talk shows. I still can’t believe that he was born in Ontario, just like me.

So my father’s generation saw men of hope, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart and Ernest Borgnine and built their persona on the movies while spending the war serving the King and waiting to be sent to Normandy.

Richard seemed American too. He had blue eyes and an enormous natural Afro, He spoke softly, like many Californians that I have later met, and as a teenager he seemed to have had a way with women, whereas despite the fact that I may have been in the hearts of some, I could only respond to the affections of a few. If truth be told, in those teenage days, I did find one girl that I thought I could truly love and since my love could have been returned, I spurned her, out of fear, since I could not yet believe in my own happiness. So for some time I had a teenage darkness of the soul and happiness only returned in my twenties. But despite my dark mood, my friends were always there for me.

How silver-sweet sound lovers’ tongues by night

Like softest music to attending ears…

but come what sorrow can

It cannot countervail the exchange of joy

That one short minute gives me in her sight

When I went to high school at Forest Hill Collegiate Institute our lives were lived in color. Going to school and watching the four seasons pass was the same as watching a film as they said “in living Technicolor.” Hitler and my grandparents had all happened in black and white. And since color came after black and white, and my life came after my grandparents then, there was no doubt that my life and my friends’ lives would end the way all Walt Disney films end, happily.

If after marriage and children love still remains a mystery, so hard to define, and so different for different people, how much more mysterious is friendship? The Bible says man is not whole without woman. There are many myths that at the beginning of time there was neither male nor female. Then as the elders tell it, there was an archaic separation and ever since, men and women have each been trying to reduce that separation and thus they cleave to one another. But friendship, what is that? And when it is gone, what was it?

Youth’s a stuff will not endure

How did I become Richard’s friend? Why was I unaware that I was just as much his friend and he was mine? Why was it that we never spoke about friendship, real friendship in school, that at best, June Callwood, the ever so hip and liberal pop psychologist of our day would come to our school and tell us that friendship was “OK,” whereas guidance councilors would caution us against “peer group pressure.”

What would Shakespeare have told us about the value of our friendships? Had he lived down the street from me near Forest Hill would he have written plays about our lives?  Hamlet and Friends, the Friends of Henry IV, Romeo and Juliet (and their friends). Are friends on Facebook really friends? Not really.

Is not Don Pedro in Much Ado About Nothing, as good a friend as one could ever ask for? For what greater gift can one friend give another than to convey his desire to the love of his life and bring about the union thereof? Richard would have done that for me had I asked it, and I for him. When I read the Bard as a father, I suppose I am always reading the plays watching out for friends and signs of friendship and love among the players. For is not a life without friends and the love of family a kind of madness? Is that not the real point of King Lear?

Richard and I played a lot of guitar, sang a lot of songs and played for a lot of friends. But Richard was from a different suburb. He had eventually moved to Forest Hill after I had met him and he still kept up with the kids from his home area. They were more urban and reckless than my lot and by the time they were sixteen or seventeen they had somehow managed to rent a house (through some older friend or elder brother over 21) and used it for all night parties and weekends.

They would converge there till the early hours of the morning sipping herbal tea, doing Yoga, and then once in a while, they would hire a high school hall, invite their friends and the friends of their friends and just like that, an instant event, a dream of midsummer would appear on the stage and a series of performances would move through the night. They called themselves the Green Fence.

With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino

That o’er the green corn field did pass

In spring time…the carol they began that hour

Richard was one of them and as his friend I was a welcome guest. But I found their freedom and ease too much for my Puritan soul and never spent a full midsummer’s night “crashing at the green fence.” Richard did regularly.

Perhaps that is why he could write songs when he was a teenager and I couldn’t. We would perform them at high school ceremonies and bathe in the glow of our friend’s admiration. For that is why we played, for our friends. During our last year in high school we managed to get a week long gig playing blues and folk rock in a town east of Toronto, where folkies and motorcycle gangs somehow mingled, and where the laments of Robert Johnson somehow struck a chord on those Anglo Saxon souls. That was one of the last things I can remember about our friendship.

Orpheus with his lute made trees

And the mountain tops that freeze

Bow themselves when he did sing

To his music plants and flowers

Ever sprung, as sun and showers

There had made a lasting spring

I thought high school would last forever. It just seemed to go on and on. In Ontario it used to end after thirteen years and unlike Americans, almost no one goes to “college.” Canadians, like the French, mostly go to massive universities with fifty thousand students, as I did, and within a few months, and although you may make a few new friends there, you quickly realize that you have left behind “community” and entered “society.”

It was during my undergraduate years that I lost touch with Richard. I had other interests and he didn’t take the university route. My musical tastes changed and I plunged into what later came to be called “World Music” like an angry young fanatic, making a point not to listen American pop music or rock and roll during  my undergraduate studies. Only when I had my degree in hand did I start to mellow and return to my former pastimes.

Youth’s a stuff will not endure

And just as I can’t remember exactly when I became Richard’s friend, nor can I quite remember when I lost touch with him.  His brother married a relative of mine and soon after I heard news that all was not well with him, that he had been hospitalized, some sort of nervous disorder they said – he was in and out. I had much else on my mind and my character was not quite adult in those early undergraduate years.

Why, it is hard to say. Somehow from the day I left Forest Hill till the day of my college graduation I was in emotional limbo. I was fighting something but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. My mood was often dark, although to my friends and family I was very, very funny, hilarious at times, like a stand up comic. Perhaps I had not yet developed a true sense of self. So I suppose when I found out that Richard was declared schizophrenic I further retreated into my skin. Richard’s illness made me feel uneasy. Perhaps I feared that some similar and strange fate awaited me. Otherwise I cannot explain why it took me years to be able to face him again.

 Men shut doors against a setting sun

But face him I did. Again I can’t remember how I reconnected but I am pretty sure why. The phrase that comes to mind is “to bear witness” not to his illness, but to our friendship. I saw him on and off a few times. Once he called me on the phone and told me he was about to marry Bob Dylan’s daughter. I could not help him and felt a deep sense of loss.

Richard was drowning in an ocean of madness that I was frightened to enter myself lest I be brought down with him, fearing a form of primitive contagion, like some episode in the Golden Bough. As he was tossed upon the waves of madness, in my life, the colors slowly grew richer as the joy of living came my way once again.

Richard returned to the land of black and white, to the legacy of his parents who came from Poland, who I came to realize had experienced things during the Holocaust that they never told him about, but could not hide from him in their behavior. Whenever I saw them I knew that there were dark tales that lived in their eyes but that could not be spoken. Richard was the youngest son and so was I, but my Canadian born parents stood between me and the pogroms experienced by my grandparents.

No one stood in between Richard and his parents and, despite the genetic component of his illness, which no doubt randomly jumps across generations, like the grim reaper, I felt, perhaps wrongly, that their grief eventually overcame him. Like all younger sons he did what they wanted, succumbed to their grief. And, I supposed then that their madness was stronger than our friendship, would that it had been the other way around.

I now wish that when Richard went mad, I had been older, married, with children, leisure time and resources. I would have tried to get more involved, to see if I could have been of assistance, find a better doctor, find the right therapist, and be there for him. If the nature of his illness was and is greater than its nurture, it may have made no difference at all.

But in those days I was not yet whole. I was less than half and I was busy not only looking for but desperately searching for that lost half of me so that I could be made happy once again. And I suppose in my case that when it truly arrived my love for a woman was as strong as my friendship had ever been and, I discovered that there was much friendship to be found in a woman’s love.

As I entered early adulthood, despite its many surprises and pain, I found myself finally walking on dry land among the colored flowers of the plain on a spring or summer day. But while I dwelled on the plain, Richard was lost at sea. He did not return to shore. He had returned to the land of black and white films. Had I been a stronger swimmer perhaps I could have swam against the current of his madness and brought him back to shore with me. But that, no doubt, is one of the comforting illusions of friendship. 

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas’d

Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow

Raze out the written troubles of the brain

And with some sweet oblivious antidote

Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff

Which weighs upon the heart?


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