Letter From Katie: First Person, Pluraled

Parties, petty disputes, friends with benefits, and the benefits of friendship.
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Letter From Katie
First Person, Pluraled

Illustration by Vidhya Nagarajan

I am not an easy friend. In fact, one of my current pals said to me in the produce aisle at Kroger the other day, “I do love you, but you can be the most irritating person I’ve ever known!” It was a just verdict.

I am easily overwhelmed, unable to commit to anything: I get panicky. I love people, but just let the phone start ringing with invitations, and I’m sitting at my desk on the verge of an anxiety attack. On the other hand, let the phone stay quiet for a while and I am lonely and despondent.

Luckily, I still have two friends, Becky and Christine, who have been with me through the good and the bad, through sickness and health, and through my many changing moods. I met them in 1968 when all three of us lived at the Forum Apartments in Clifton. Sometimes I wonder if the fact that our friendship was nurtured in the 1960s at the Forum accounts for its resilience. Or maybe the fact that our friendship survived the ’60s at the Forum was the key. Either way, I don’t know that life would have been the same anyplace else.

If you lived in Cincinnati back in the 1960s and early ’70s, you’ll remember that the sprawling hillside apartment complex was widely regarded as a wild party place. It was when I lived there that I summoned the bravery to buy tickets to see Hair and my then-husband took it into his head to become a member of the Playboy Club, which should give you some idea of what moral peril we were in at the Forum.

A lot of professional athletes lived there, though they stayed in the pricey building across the way from us. Musicians lived at the Forum, too, as well as newly divorced people and young executives from General Electric and Procter & Gamble. It was diverse, which was part of its appeal. Black, white, Hispanic, gay, straight—we were all suddenly around people who were different from us, and we were fascinated by those differences. One neighbor called an Oldsmobile 225 a “deuce and a quarter.” Someone used that expression recently and I thought, I haven’t heard that in 40 years!

If you didn’t feel like being social, you could stay home on Saturday night and watch Mary Tyler Moore throw her hat in the air. But if you wanted to have a little fun, you just walked up and down the corridors listening for The Rolling Stones (in ’71, Sticky Fingers was in heavy rotation) or sniffing out the smell of cigarettes and alcohol, and you’d find a party. Christine says that today, when someone snickers about her having lived at the Forum, she’s matter-of-fact. “When people ask,” she says, “I just say that I stepped over the writhing bodies on my way to work.” With her deadpan delivery, people assume she’s joking. She is not.


 

 

Becky, Christine, and I lived next door to each other. Christine and Becky were roommates, and—after I became one of the Forum’s many going-through-a-divorce residents—I bunked alone. Since we were in such close proximity, we became fast friends. The three of us were in our early twenties, from small southern towns, and we were itching to begin our lives in the big city. We wanted everything at once: promotions, boyfriends, foxy wardrobes, and adventures. For better or worse, life just kept denying us things at the pace we wanted.

Temperamentally, we were very different. Christine had energy enough for all of us. She spent every Saturday cleaning like a madwoman; the vacuum cleaner went on by the crack of noon, no matter how late Becky had been out the night before, and Becky, invariably still in bed, would roll over and groan.

Becky was the brains of the outfit. With her long, thick brown hair, her black cotton turtleneck sweaters, and her large dark glasses, she looked a bit like Jackie Kennedy. Her politics were as far left as Christine’s were right, and they disagreed on almost everything. But they had been friends since grade school and had learned to respect each other’s boundaries well enough to survive a few slammed doors here and there. Their roots were a bond: they both came from West Virginia, and they both had been raised Catholic.

I was from Alabama, so I was a bit of an outsider. When Becky said Christine was her oldest friend I would get jealous, and the slightest disagreement triggered my anxiety. Becky and I quarreled one day during Star Trek, her favorite TV show, and she threw her clean laundry at me and stomped out. I pulled a pink sock out of my hair and got depressed, which caused Christine and me to fight, because Christine had no tolerance for depression. But despite some volatile outbursts, we just couldn’t stay mad at each other.

I was the creative, sensitive one. I got lonely. I kept a typewriter on their kitchen table where I wrote vignettes based on our lively parties and profiled our hopeless boyfriends. I penned tales that reflected our unpredictable existences, or—more hopefully—created elaborate scenarios about where we might all be in 25 years.

Becky worked at General Electric as a computer programmer, one of only a few women in that position in her division; when she got laid off, she launched into an MBA at Xavier University. Christine worked as a bookkeeper, but was out of a job for a brief time too, and I was a typist at General Electric until I quit to sing with a bluegrass band. So, as fate would have it, our unemployed/marginally employed/grad school years coincided, and we were all poor at once. We lived in blue jeans, survived on White Castles, and helped each other when the rent was due. We dieted constantly; one of us always had to “lose 14 pounds by Friday.” Though, looking back, we didn’t need to. When I look at a photograph from those days, the three girls I see are slender, with long, silky hair. Though we weren’t movie stars, we had everything going for us. Why did we worry so? Because we were young women, I suppose, and concerned about what the male world thought of us.

The men who tried to hit on virginal, devoutly Roman Catholic Christine were destined to fail. But she did give one member of the Cincinnati Reds a run for his money. Becky liked a very thin young artist who was hot and cold about their relationship, and I was going through my divorce. Clearly, romance was not as successful as other parts of our lives. And so we talked on the phone too much at work, stayed out too late at night, and “loved not wisely but too well.”

We made mistakes, and we turned them into triumphs now and then. Unfortunately, I spent my entire divorce settlement on a bright yellow Fiat convertible, which was the worst investment I ever made. It broke down every other day in some inconvenient place, like the middle of the Brent Spence Bridge. When a mechanic finally got a look at it, he said, “Why did you buy this thing?” I stood mute, like so many other women, judged by a man holding a monkey wrench.

I made friends with an Appalachian mandolin player named David, who was outrageously funny. He left a note under my door one Saturday saying he had “gone muffler-huntin’” on I-75, and returned later with several suitable mufflers that had dropped from old cars. These he patched up and sold, augmenting his meager musician’s income. He was from Wolfe County, Kentucky, and once, in an emergency, he put an old leather belt in my car and made it function as a transmission.

I met David in the bluegrass band I had quit work to sing with, and he started making repairs on my Fiat. Word got around about the miracle of the leather belt, and people lined up outside Aunt Maudie’s, the bluegrass bar, to watch him clean my points, change my oil, etc. When Becky saw his work she was amazed, but when he offered to put a clutch in her Volvo employing similarly jerry-rigged wardrobe accessories, she politely declined.

We laughed a lot, and then we laughed some more. Whatever it was, we could count on Christine saying, quite seriously, “I don’t get it.” And so we laughed some more. We were beginning to take on identities, and that statement was “so Christine” that it fixed her character in time and space for many years.

The important thing was that we learned to laugh at each other, a habit which sustained us when things were rough.

Becky’s new friend, Michael, drifted over to the Forum a few times a week to cook, where he taught me to eat steak medium rare. I returned their hospitality with well-done hamburgers, and they accused me of trying to kill them with my “suet burgers,” and that became part of my identity. I learned to eat clams from Michael, too, prying open the stiff jaws of the shells and digging out the tender, succulent meat inside. At first it seemed a lot of work for a small reward, but the taste grew on me, and I ended up shucking shells with the best of them. Once a friend of Becky’s sent us a box of live lobsters from Boston. David drew the line when it came to throwing fresh lobsters in a pot of boiling water. “That one’s lookin’ at me,” he said, and he turned his back on us as we cooked. When we went looking for David’s lobster we discovered he had liberated it; it was scuttling across the rug toward the balcony and freedom.

Meanwhile Becky was developing into a true scientist in the kitchen. She became obsessed with curries, researching, preparing, and teaching us about the exotic spiced meats and the side dishes that accompanied them. Sometimes she worked on her recipes all day, combining ingredients like a chemist playing with a new formula. Her holy grail was a quest to duplicate the fabulous flour-less chocolate roll served at Lenhardt’s. When she couldn’t get the cake to roll just right, or when the cream refused to whip up correctly, she’d pass us the cracked cake with the under-whipped cream without a thought, and she’d start again immediately, baking another one. I loved that chocolate cake. Even when it wasn’t perfect, it was so light and so soft and sweet, it was like eating a kiss.

 


We each brought something different to the relationship, and of course it was from Christine that we learned to clean up after these sumptuous feasts. So it was no surprise that, years later when I had knee surgery, it was Christine who was there for me, cleaning the house, doing my wash, ready to bring order out of the chaos of my disability.

I was lucky to have fallen in with Becky and Christine. They were strong and principled women, and they raised me to their level. They liked to have fun, but nothing got out of hand, and their support for me personally and career-wise over the past 40 years has been something so important and so valuable that I wouldn’t be myself without it.

They accepted, and still accept, me just as I am. It’s not that we never criticize each other, or fuss and fight, but when we do, we do it with a lot of laughter and a lot of affection—the kind of acceptance that can change your life. If it could be bottled, it would be for sale at a great price.

Friends can be the making of you, and developing them is a matter of luck and of hanging in when you’d rather do something else. Why else do well-to-do people send their children to posh, exclusive eastern schools? It’s not so much for the education, it’s so that their children will make the right friends, of course.

Becky, Christine, and I still do everything we can to keep our friendship healthy. And sometimes that includes dipping back into our history to revisit the moments that brought us together.

One of my favorite memories has to do with Merle Haggard. Just about the time that I started singing with a bluegrass band, Becky and I fell hard for the country western singer Merle Haggard. We saved up our money and went to see him when he came to perform at the Taft Theatre downtown. We even arrived early, and giddy as teenagers, watched him walk from his tour bus into the theater.

After that, we used my blossoming musical career to justify another scheme. We talked Christine into giving up her Neil Diamond fixation for one night, and the three of us drove down to Nashville to see a show at the Grand Ole Opry. I had been there as a child; my father had taken me. But now Nashville’s mother church took on a whole new significance in my life. We had to go.

Christine, being Christine, had the foresight to bring binoculars. Which was a good thing: the Opry was held in the vast Ryman Auditorium in those days, and the sightlines in the old tabernacle weren’t great. We started out passing the binoculars around politely, then just grabbed them away from one another willy-nilly. We had a wonderful time and closed out the evening at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop around the corner from the Ryman. Then we turned around, and in the middle of the night, drove the four and a half hours back to Cincinnati.

We could do things like that in our twenties; we had the stamina. If we made the trip today, of course, we wouldn’t have to: we can afford motels. But a decent night’s rest couldn’t possibly improve upon the glue of that trip to Nashville and back: Excitement, adrenaline, and the thrilling assurance of barreling into the future—no matter how unknowable it seems—with people you love.

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