Ghosts today

Paul Simon has counted “50 ways to leave your lover.” The TV show “Seinfeld” explored many of these, including the rocking the coke machine analogy and the classic “It’s not you. It’s me.” Romantic relationships can run their course for a variety of reasons, and there’s a lot of precedent for ending them.

But how does one “break up” with a friend? (Yes, Jerry Seinfeld did try this in one episode and botched it.)

Friends may naturally drift apart and mutually turn attention and affections elsewhere over time. Yet when the relationship, for whatever reason, ceases to work for one, though apparently not the other, there’s little protocol for calling it quits. The one who wants out seems to have two options. Either continue to endure or resort to what has come to be called “ghosting” — i.e., ceasing to communicate without any warning.

Most, if not all of us have done it — reached a point in some relationship where we chose, for whatever reason, just to let it drop. In a casual relationship, this ending may not be particularly troublesome for either party. In many cases, acquaintanceships come and go naturally. Yet when you’re invested in a friendship, it can be painful when circumstances bring it to a close; bewildering when a two-way street becomes a one-way street that becomes a dead end.

I realize that ghosting can be and is used in romantic situations, too. It’s reportedly a common go-to in on-line dating. But the deeper the level of involvement, the more difficult that can be. Plus, there are many more proven ways to leave a lover than there are for leaving a friend.

Someone I know — let’s call him “Bill” — has told me about some of his experiences of being ghosted by one-time close friends. He’s allowing me to share parts of our conversations, provided I protect his identify, as well as that of the ghosts.

“The antagonists in my childhood nightmares were not ghosts,” Bill says. “To me, ghosts were fanciful creatures, subjects of entertaining, even amusing stories. They were nothing like the ghosts I have come to know, and be haunted by, as an adult.”

He said three of those current ghosts are former co-workers who had become close friends. All moved away. “Each has returned to the area occasionally, which I find out after that fact. They make no effort to get in touch with me when they do.”

Two continued to send a Christmas card each year. One of those was a friend as part of a group of close friends. “When they’ve been back for a day or two, they get together with one, sometimes two members of the group, but never me, and I’ve known them longer than any of the others have,” Bill said.

“I don’t think the other [card sender] has been back as often. One time they were going to a local event that I would be likely to attend. It would have made sense for them to email and ask, ‘Are you going to be there?’ and maybe meet up for a brief face-to-face, but that didn’t happen.”

The third had been a colleague in a service organization. This person has never even sent Christmas cards, though Bill felt they had been even closer than he was with the two who did. They’ve been back several times over the years. A couple of those visits included being at the same place at the same time as Bill. “Both times, I was greeted like a long-lost brother, but nothing — no contact at all — otherwise in all these years.”

Another former friendship began when Bill was in college. He and this person seemed to click immediately. “We had mutual interests, of course, but also we each brought complementary characteristics into the relationship that helped both of us grow.”

They stayed in close touch for many years. Bill and his wife invited the friend and spouse for visits around events all enjoyed. “And we arranged to stop by and see them several times when we were traveling near their town,” Bill said.

Bill says he didn’t give it any further thought when one of those visits couldn’t happen because of the friend’s busy schedule. “But when we showed up for one scheduled visit, which they’d forgotten about, it gave me pause.” In time, the other couple was too busy to visit Bill, no matter how appealing the itinerary might seem.

“Our communication had mostly been by phone to set up either their coming here or our stopping by there,” Bill explained. “When email came along, I was never able to get an address for them.”

Bill was, for many years, very close to someone in his extended family. There were letters and phone calls, then also emails and, in time, conversations on Facebook around something one or the other had posted. Bill and friend visited each other’s homes, despite the miles in between.

“They bascially invited themselves to my house two or three times, which I took as a compliment. And there was a family event evey two years near where they live. My wife and I would spend a couple of days at their house before or after. Did it for years.”

One year, though, the friend had other things going on and would not be able to host Bill. He chalked it up to unavoidable scheduling. When the same thing happened two years later, Bill chose not to read anything into it at that time. Now, he sees it as the beginning of the end.

During this time, the two friends gained vacation homes, an easy day trip apart. There was vague talk about getting together, but nothing definte until a time when each would be at these homes and Bill said, we’ll be at our place on these dates and can come to your on this day.
There was agreement, though Bill sensed some reluctance on the part of the other. Then just before the time arrived, he got a message with a lengthy list of all the reasons his friend couldn’t host him at that time.

“It wasn’t simply saying ‘something’s come up’ or ‘we’re overloaded,’ maybe giving an example or two. It was too much like begging the question. As the list went on, the more tangential the excuses became.”

The friend said maybe they could meet somewhere when things settled down a bit. (“Meet somewhere.” Not in my home.) They said they’d be back in touch about it. Never happened.
Rather abruptly, Facebook interactions stopped. “Their posts no longer show up on my newsfeed, unless they are ‘public,’ such as a new profile photo. I can see what they post only by looking at mutual friend’s Facebook,” Bill said. “Comments and ‘likes’ from them on my posts went from ‘almost all’ to ‘none.’ Maybe they unfollowed me.

“I guess with the others, they just moved on to other people and interests that edged me out of their lives. It’s sad, but at least I don’t worry that I did something to alienate them. But in this case, we had been like siblings until suddenly we weren’t.”

I asked Bill what seemed to be an obvious question. Why not ask a ghost what happened?
“If someone has made it that clear they don’t want any more contact, what can you expect would hapen? You risk appearing needy. You set up a short-lived awkward situation. Or if possible, they don’t respond at all.”

Many of us may identify with elements of one or more of these scenarios. Ultimately, we can’t do anything about being ghosted. We can’t control another’s actions. We do, however, control our own. We can choose to move on from extinct relationships. We can also try not to ghost other people.

We relied on the kindness of strangers

It would be our second-longest trip in our 16-year-old VW van. But only if we could complete it.

We — my wife, two daughters, aged 8 and 3, and I — were passing through Pennsylvania on our way to a family wedding in Toronto.

Outside Pittsburgh, we stopped for provisions. As we tried to leave, I had trouble getting the van into gear. After all the years and miles, it could be finicky, but it finally slipped into first and shifted easily as we returned to the highway.

A short hour later, we turned off Interstate 79 at the Lake Arthur exit, where we planned to spend that night. As I slowed to merge onto US 422, I attempted to downshift. The gear shift went to neutral and stayed there. We coasted onto the shoulder. I spent several frustrating minutes trying, without success, to engage any gear.

So, there we were, nearly 500 miles from home, not knowing how, when or if our vehicle would go again. This was not just our transportation. It provided accommodations. We had modified the interior for camping.

The first car we hailed stopped. It was a local couple who gave Nancy, my wife, a ride to the nearest public phone and back. They stopped, they said, because of our North Carolina license plate. They had been involved in an accident while driving through our state a year or so earlier. Several of our citizens had been so kind and helpful during that ordeal, they didn’t hesitate to return the favor.

Nancy checked the Yellow Pages for a tow truck that honored AAA membership. Fortunately, this service was available in nearby Portersville, which was not shown in our Rand McNally Road Atlas.

The owner-driver arrived shortly and hooked up the van. We all piled into his spacious cab. He ran one of two auto-repair shops in Portersville. His specialty was domestic cars. In the meantime, his wife was trying to contact the meachanic who handled the foreign market to see if we could drop the van off at his place. The latter mechanic and his wife were out for the evening, and the babysitter didn’t have the authority to accept the vehicle.

The van spent the night at the domestic-auto repair shop, across the road from the owner’s rural home. The owner’s wife gave us a ride to the local motel, which she had already called on our behalf. She would continue arranging to get the van over to the foreign-car garage.

We took the cooler and a few groceries from the van. Supper was an indoor picnic at the small motel, which sat behind its owners’ home. It was definitely economy class. The black and white TV picked up one channel. But it was adequate, and the charge was $20 for the four of us. Even in 1983, that wasn’t a lot for a motel room. The owners let us use the phone in their house freely the next morning as we talked with both mechanics and looked into the possibility of renting a vehicle to continue our journey.

We walked to a nearby diner for breakfast, after which the foreign-car mechanic’s wife, in their wrecker, picked up the van and then me and took us to their shop — beside their house. Nancy and the girls waited at the motel, unsure when they would see me or the van again. The motel operator graciously extended their stay well beyond check-out time. Nancy volunteered to change our beds in return.

I continued to wonder if we would be back on the road that day and, if so, whether we would be in our van or in a rented car. The foreign-car mechanic was cheerfully optimistic. It was probably just the clutch, he said. No big deal.

I had to wait while he and his son-in-law finished fixing a Datsun. Then I learned that to get to the clutch of a VW van, you have to pull the engine and transmission out. No big deal. They removed both in 10 minutes flat, and showed me the pieces of what used to be the clutch. Of course, he had a clutch for a 1967 VW. (Who wouldn’t?) Within an hour, I was ready to roll.

The repair bill was $85, parts and labor. I had paid more than that for a tail pipe at home before the trip. My personal check was fine without accompanying identification.

We were back on I-79 by midafternoon. We decided to drive through to Toronto, no matter how late it got. A campsite awaited us. We wanted to put a lot of distance between us and the trying experience of the preceding 20 hours. Yet we left with warm feelings for all those we encountered. They treated us as guests rather than customers, friends rather than strangers. They were determined, one way or another, to make sure we got out of our predicament with as little distress as possible.

Notes from the beach

My wife and I recently returned from our annual week at the beach. For four decades, we’ve gone to Kill Devil Hills, NC, site of the first air flights in 1903. At the start, we happened upon the Cavalier Motel — now called Cavalier by the Sea — on the beach road at mile post 8.5, and it has become “our place at the beach.” With the kids, we always went during their spring break. After it was just the two of us again, we shifted to fall.

We get an ocean-front room with kitchen. Until a tall building went up next door a few years ago, we could see the Wright Brothers monument out the back window. We share a porch with the other six rooms (two others with kitchens) in the same building. There is an identical building next to us. Depending on the weather, we sit on the beach, the porch or inside, looking at the ocean through our picture window.

This year, I made a few notes and will share them here.

–One day, as I tried to imagine the back story of many of the people walking by, I wondered if other people have similar thoughts while people-watching at the beach. Then I wondered if they ever don’t have such thoughts.

I posed these questions on Facebook: “When you sit on the beach, watching people walk by, do you ever try to imagine their backstories? Do you ever not do this?”

The first two responses led me to realize the questions would best be directed at people with active imaginations, such as writers and story tellers. I ran them by two friends who are bona fide fiction writers. Both said they also sometimes create in their minds stories for people they observe.

–Walking on the beach into a strong wind, bundled up, slipping around in loose sand is a workout. Walking the same beach barefooted and in shirt sleeves, on the terra relatively firma uncovered at low tide is a delightful stroll.

–As always, there were a few kids dipping their feet in the November surf. On one walk, we passed two pre-teen girls doing so. The one with long legs executed a pirouette each time a wave hit her feet and ankles.

–And the dogs are always a delight. You can see them smile as they jump over or into the waves. Golden Retrievers never encounter a person who isn’t their best friend. We also saw one little dog that appeared to about the same dimension in three directions.

–I watched two people in wet suits take their surf boards out into the water to wait hopefully for a wave to ride. I mention this merely to use the word “hopefully” correctly.

–There were two groups of friends there this year while we were. I had two reactions. One was some envy because there have been past years in which we had a group of friends with us. The second was wondering if each group had been in a bubble prior to arriving. They didn’t practice social distancing and no one ever wore a mask.

–One guy was there for a couple of days, one room away from us. He began each day with a cigarette or three, sitting on the porch with a “No Smoking” sign staring him in the face. I wondered how he felt about law and order.

–One afternoon, there were four and twenty black birds, plus quite a few more, on the beach. You usually see just a few here and there among the more numerous seagulls. I don’t know if they were local or just passing through, but when they left altogether, they flew south.

–I took a lot of photos and posted some on Facebook, noting the location. Soon my phone would ask, “How was Cavalier by the Sea?” Was. Past tense. If the phone is so smart, why didn’t it know I was still there?

A year ago, I shared photos of sunrises from the 2019 trip.

Diversity 101

The house my parents bought the year before I was born had a dirt-floored basement, usually called a cellar. Many houses were like that at the time. I think it must’ve been 1956 when we had it concreted. I tend to remember that I was 9. It was summer time.

The man hired to do the work was African American, though that term would come into use decades later. The polite term then was Negro. The derogatory corruption of that word was used by some, though not in our family.

This man brought his son, who was about my age, with him. At first — I don’t remember if it was part/most of one day or parts of two days — the kid just hung around while his father worked. An afternoon rain changed that.

There was a garage-sized space under our front porch. Perhaps it was intended as a garage-without-doors, though we never used it as such. The door into the basement with within that space. Even with our junk, there was plenty of room for the boy to stay reasonably comfortable while sheltered from the rain.

Yet, up in our living room, watching TV with one or more neighborhood friends, my sister and I concluded it was ridiculous for the workman’s son to be under the porch, probably bored out of his mind. She went out and invited him in — with his dad’s permission — to watch TV with us.

He was pretty quiet, but I think there was a little interaction around whatever we were watching. The next day, as my friends and I played, we included him. It was a good fit.

One play-time activity popular with boys my age at that time was to reenact scenes such as those we saw in movies and TV shows about World War II. Armed with toy weapons, we would sometimes track and fight an imaginary enemy. Just as often, we’d divide up into Americans and Germans. One specific memory I have of playing with our visitor was an afternoon in which he and I were on one side versus two boys from the neighborhood.

At first, he and I were the Americans. Later, we switched up, and he and I were the Germans. None of the four of us thought about — and maybe weren’t aware of — the reality that a white soldier and a black soldier would not have been in the same platoon in the U.S. Army in WWII. And we were completely oblivious to the irony of his joining me in portraying German troops. We were just a bunch of typical 7- to 9-year-old boys in the USA, mid-’50s.

At the same time, my parents were having a new, modern tub put in the bathroom. The old one was in the yard awaiting removal. My friends and I had a great time crowding in and pretending it was a boat. Our visitor joined us in this activity as well.

A few days after the concrete job was finished, the workman came back by to make sure all was OK. This time he brought not only his son, but also his wife. I was in the “boat” with one or two other boys when they drove up. Their son hopped out of the car and ran toward us, shouting “Wait for me!” We made room for him to climb in. His parents seemed amused. In the short time his dad was inspecting his work, we kids were zipping along the water in a speed boat.

This was, as I said, 1956. Black people and white people lived in different parts of town. We went to different schools and churches. Opportunities for personal interaction were limited by the way society was structured. Taking advantage of that particular opportunity seemed and proved to be the right thing to do.

Teens stumble upon Christmas spirit

[Excerpted from “Let Nothing You Dismay” in Life Among the Letters: Selected Short Stories by John Becton. ]

By morning three to four more inches of snow had accumulated. There was some melting during the day and refreezing after sunset.

“No wheels tonight,” Bill told George over the phone. “But I’ve got to get out of here. My parents are driving me crazy.”

Each 16-year-old had his allotted share of teen angst.

“Mine too. Let’s go over to Barry’s. He won’t have to get permission to take his own car out.”

Barry had a different idea, however.

“I ain’t taking my baby out in this,” he said. “It was starting to get bad when I came in from work. Let’s just walk over to the bowling alley.” He pulled a heavy gray coat out of the hall closet and called out, “Mom, I’m going over to the bowling alley with George and Bill. We won’t be late.” There was a muffled reaction from upstairs. “No, we’re walking.”

Outside, Barry took in a deep breath, let it out with a satisfied “Ah!” and said, “Well, just a couple more days.” There was no response from his companions.

The bowling alley was over on the main highway, about a 10-minute walk from the Barry’s house. The highway came down a steep hill from the west, leveled at the bowling alley and then became a long, upward grade as it headed east toward downtown. Two cafes, a convenience store and a small office complex had replaced homes along that stretch. The city had recently lined the road with bright street lights.

“This will be like glass before long,” Bill said as he and his companions hurried across the highway and into the building.

“Man, it’s getting colder,” Barry said, stuffing his gloves and toboggan into the pockets of his coat. “Let’s get some coffee.”

Their three cups drained the pot. George took a sip and exclaimed, “Tastes as bad as it smells!”

“I wonder how many hours it’s been sitting there,” Bill wondered aloud. “Well, it least it’s warm.”

The local Top-40 station blared over the PA system. There was a lot of loud talking and laughing, as well as the continual sound of bowling balls crashing into pins.

“There are more people here than I expected,” George noted. He stuck a cigarette in the corner of his mouth and let it flap up and down as he talked. “Lot of locals. See those guys over there? They’re from Westfield High. That’s the problem with living on the edge of town — too close to the farm boys. Probably looking for trouble. They might find it.” He lit the cigarette. “I guess we might as well bowl a game or two.”

“I’m ready.”

“Me, too.”

After Barry picked up a spare, Bill sent his ball down the right side of the lane. He leaned back to his left while watching the ball slip off into the gutter. “Damn thing wouldn’t hook,” he said as he turned around.

George gazed up from the scorer’s table and off to the side. Barry looked at George and then off in the opposite direction. Bill knew what this meant: “We didn’t see it. So it didn’t happen.” He pressed the pick-up button and rolled an official score of 9 for the first frame.

During the seventh frame, they saw the four Westfield students leaving. One looked back, smiled and waved.

By the time Bill, George and Barry had finished bowling, cars heading into town were beginning to slip and slide coming down the hill toward the bowling alley. Even though there was less traffic, crossing the highway would be more of an adventure than before.

“We may never get across,” Barry observed.

Bill motioned toward the now-icy grade that led to downtown. “Look at that.”

Three large trucks were stuck at various spots. One had slid over into the outbound lanes.

“This is getting to be one big mess,” George said. Then he grinned. “Well, we can stand here and watch cars pile up.”

As the boys continued to wait for a chance to cross the highway, a white Chevrolet Bel Aire came across the hill from the west, followed by a red Plymouth Fury. When the cars hit the ice, they slid sideways, bounced off each other obliquely, spun around and collided again.

A third car managed to get around them, but a maroon MG came across the top of the hill too fast and crashed into the Fury. A fifth car clipped the back of the MG and slid off the road. The next one stopped at the top of the hill. Drivers and passengers all got out, apparently uninjured. They began pushing the cars to the side of the road. Even though there were more than enough people, Bill said, “We’d better help.”

“Yeah,” Barry replied. “It’s a good thing we’re here.”

“You two take care of things here,” George said. “I’m gonna stop traffic from coming over the hill.” He trudged up and beyond the top of the hill. He diverted two cars onto a secondary road and stopped a Trailways bus.

“You’ll never get into town this way,” he told the driver. “It’s solid ice on the other side and there are three tractor-trailers blocking the highway on the other hill.”

“You think we can get through these side streets?” the driver asked.

“Yeah. The city buses go that way.”

“What about the conditions?”

“They’ve got snow, but not ice.”

As soon as the wrecked vehicles were out of the way, the car at the top of the hill inched down toward the bowling alley and turned onto the road by the office complex.

George rerouted two more cars, but another refused to stop for his signal. The driver looked straight ahead and kept the wheels spinning steadily toward the top of the hill.

“Son of a bitch!” George yelled, jumping to the side. From the top of the hill, he watched the offending vehicle approach the wrecked cars. The brake lights came on. The car slid into a telephone pole on the left.

“Serves you right,” George muttered. His traffic shift apparently over, he moved on down the hill to examine all the damage. A police car arrived about that time. Before the officer sorted everything out, he got to witness three more fender benders.

“I’ve had about enough of this,” Bill told Barry. “We’ve seen about a dozen cars pile up. It’s getting boring now.”

“Yeah, let’s go. Hey, George, let’s get out of here.”

They cut through the 7-ll parking lot to Mimosa Drive.

“Could you believe the way that Chevy and Fury smacked each other?” George chuckled.

“Man, it was something,” Barry said. He let out a small laugh. “That S-O-B that tried to run over you wrapped around that pole pretty good, didn’t he?”

They didn’t dwell on the subject for long because talking made their teeth hurt. Two blocks down Mimosa, they turned on to Spring Hill Road, which would take them into their neighborhood, just across Parkview Road.

“Man, I’m cold,” Barry said. The other two just nodded. George put his gloved hands into his coat pockets. Bill folded his arms across his chest.

The residential streets had the old, incandescent street lights at three- or four-block intervals. The one at the intersection of Mimosa and Spring Hill was not working. All the houses they passed were dark or dimly lit. There was no traffic. The powdery snow cushioned their footsteps. It was so quiet, it was either serene or deafening, depending on your state of mind.

At the intersection of Spring Hill and Parkview, a white compact car sat silently facing east on Parkview, its right side in the shallow ditch. The boys walked up to the driver’s window.

Behind the wheel was a woman in her late 20s. There were two small children in the back seat. All three occupants looked frightened. The doors were locked.

“Need a push?” George called out.

The woman rolled the window down only a couple of inches. “Oh, yes, thank you. That would be so great, if you could.”

The boys had little trouble getting the car back onto the road. They jogged along behind as it crept around a curve. When the wheels began spinning on the incline by the park, they started pushing again. After a long block, the road leveled.

The car proceeded several yards without their help, then stopped. They walked around to the side. The woman rolled the window more than halfway down. She looked relieved.

“Oh, thank you so much. I think I can make it from here.”

“How far you going?” George asked.

“Malvern Woods.”

“Just a couple of miles and no real hills. Yeah, you should be OK,” Bill said.

She opened her pocket book and reached in. “What do I owe you?”

Each boy stepped back. “Nothing,” Bill said.

“Well, I want to give you something for your trouble.”

“Oh, it was no trouble, really,” George insisted. He started making zig-zagged lines in the snow with the toe of his right boot.

“You were so nice to stop and help. I don’t know what I would’ve done if you fellows hadn’t come along. And you look like you’re really cold. You could be home with your families in your warm houses.”

“No, we’re OK. Just fine,” Barry said. “We’re just glad to help.”

“You just don’t know how much I appreciate it.” She took three one-dollar bills from her pocket book and held them out the window. “Please take this.”

“It really isn’t necessary,” Barry protested. Bill and George shook their heads in agreement.

“I insist.”

The boys didn’t budge.

“Well, here. It’s yours. Merry Christmas.” She threw the bills down in the snow and drove off.

They stood staring at the money.

“I wish she hadn’t done that,” Bill said.

“Me, too,” Barry agreed. “You boys keep it.”

“Nah,” George said. “I don’t want it. You do something with it. Or you, Bill. Put some gas in your Dad’s car.”

Bill just watched snow starting to fall on their reward. Then he looked in the direction the woman had driven away. Then at the tracks the car had made while they were pushing it.

“Boys, this money is just going to get wet,” Barry said. He picked up one of the dollar bills and shook the snow off of it. George and Bill reluctantly did the same.

“I still wish she hadn’t done this,” Bill said.

“Yeah,” George said. “I feel like we owe her.”

Obligatory moon-landing story

I had just graduated from college and was headed to Boston for graduate school in the fall. Part of my existence and a big part of my identity for several years before and after was as a musician. I spent most of that summer performing folk and folk rock at a small club in Augusta GA, Monday-Saturday nights from (I think) 8 or 8:30 p.m. till closing.

By mid-July, I was ready for a short retreat back to Asheville, where my parents and brother still lived in the family home. Saturday closing was at midnight, as opposed to 2 a.m. the rest of the week. On Saturday, July 19, I headed north as soon as my last set ended. I got there at 4 a.m. My brother, eight years older, came in shortly after that from an “all-night” gospel-singing concert in the Asheville City Auditorium.

Apollo 11 was orbiting the moon. It had been only 66 years since the Wright Brothers’ first flights at Kill Devil Hills NC, and yet now three men were flying all the way to the moon. They would land that very day, July 20, 1969.

My life-long friend, Larry Freeman, was living at his grandparents’ house across the street. I had gotten to know him from his frequent visits and some-time residency at their house, beginning as far back as I could remember. He was almost two years older, and by that point enjoying a successful career as a jeweler and watch-repairer.

He came over to visit and watch the moon landing with me. I’m sure that our childhood fantasies, at one time or another, included being spacemen. Now we were 20-somethings having our minds blown by surreal reality.

I was impressed with Neil Armstrong’s cleverness, when he seemed to ad lib the “giant leap for mankind” quip. I was disappointed some years later to learn it was scripted. Nonetheless, it was an impressive event, to say the least.

I was back on stage Monday night. I was refreshed from the short trip. I find myself wanting to say something dramatic such as, But I was a changed person, because the world had changed. Seems a bit over the top, but something was different.

It would take the astronauts a few more days to return to the Earth.