Lessons From a Friend

Artie was, from the very start all those long years ago, something else. That’s what we’d say about him, swinging our heads when he was out of earshot: “That guy’s something else.” We regarded Artie with a combination of bemusement and wonder, poking at him to see how he’d react, laughing and recoiling in equal measure.

Artie was an exotic to me and my freshmen dormmates in Arizona. He was a purebred, no-question-about-it, full-grown, non-stop-talking, as-I-live-and-breathe New Yorker.

I never had met one. I knew instantly we’d be friends.

As unmissable as a hot dog cart in the desert, Artie absolutely commanded that first fall on campus. In the dorm’s TV room, as the rest of us sniffed around each other looking for friends, Artie stood up front, exactly where you’d imagine a New Yorker to put himself. He was loud, unflinchingly outspoken, and shamelessly free of any self-doubt. He had an opinion on everything that mattered to college-aged boys-to-men. Sports. TV shows. How to best kick a field goal in an epic game of table football. Laverne vs. Shirley. Drinking. Women. Sex. Everything. He had a take on all of it, even if he wasn’t all that knowledgeable about much of it.

You didn’t have to agree with what Artie said. It was a measure of braveness, at first, to stand up to this blustery Northeasterner. But whether you liked it or not, Artie (who was, we would soon learn, from Great Neck, out on Long Island) would have his say.

Artie had come to Arizona with a simple plan. He was going to make the school baseball team as a walkon — the Sun Devils historically have one of the best collegiate teams in the nation — become starting catcher, get drafted, work his way up through the minors, and someday play for the New York Yankees. He was dead serious about it, too. He carried a baseball mitt everywhere. Thurman Munson was his hero. A Yankees cap almost never left his prematurely balding head.

When he didn’t make the team that first year, he did what any self-respecting New Yorker would do. He came up with another plan. He filled in as the track team’s equipment manager to keep busy in sports. He worked toward his degree in physical education. If he couldn’t play for the Yankees, he figured, he would be a coach. Even if he had to start from the bottom, go back to Great Neck and work at a high school teaching kids how to bunt, that’s what he would do.

He was not (it seemed to us) particularly athletically gifted. He was not, as many of us were not, a wiz in the classroom. But, my god, he was absolutely relentless. He gave everything his everything. When one of his PE classes, oddly, required him to learn how to skip rope — this is how Arizona State earns its sizzling academic reputation — Artie literally jumped in with both feet.

It was the second semester of our freshman year, shortly after I ditched my first roommate (a forgettable character who went from National Honor Society nerd to “Ed the Head” in those first few months away from home). At the start, Artie couldn’t make it past a single jump without the rope either knocking off his cap or getting caught on his toes. But he would practice outside our AstroTurfed room — the faux-grass carpeting was his idea, naturally — on the second-floor walkway that rimmed the courtyard of our dorm. Endlessly. Annoyingly. At all times of the day and night.

Slap, slap, slap on the concrete. The ping of the rope brushing the metal railing. For hours and hours on end.

The guys in the room below complained. Everybody laughed. But by the end of that semester, Artie was practically double-dutching his way across Tempe.

Artie made us egg creams that year — nothing is more New York than that — and always swore that a Nathan’s off a cart in the city was the height of culinary bliss. He explained, patiently, his Jewishness to a bunch of clueless gentiles from California and Arizona and Delaware.

In our spare time, we’d bang a tennis ball back and forth at the courts across the street, a routine that always devolved into me throwing big swooping breaking pitches to him — mitts were always around — or him pitching to me. We’d dig into an imaginary batter’s box, racket/bat in hand. We drilled a lot of balls over the fence toward Apache Boulevard.

Artie was, almost needless to say, not like the rest of us. He was a clean liver, which is a hard thing to be in college, especially at a renowned party school like ASU. He ran all the time and worked out regularly. He ate relatively well. He never drank. But I don’t remember him looking down on those of us — pretty much all of us — who did.

Artie was not, as the rest of us were, embarrassingly drooly over the women at school, either. He would not do endless laps around the Devil House on the banks of the Salt River, ridiculously thinking Miss Right was standing there sipping a beer waiting on zitty drunk dudes with bad haircuts and dirty jeans. Artie would never think of hitting on a woman in a bar.

Part of his new plan, once it was clear that playing for the Yankees wasn’t happening, was to find a nice girl to take back with him to New York. He was completely tangled up over a woman in one of his classes. He mooned endlessly over her, and he’d swear that he was going to marry her.

He finally asked her out. It didn’t go well. He was crushed. I did my best to console him.

As Artie did, as any true New Yorker would, he kept asking. She never budged. Ever.

After a while, as sometimes happens, our tight group began to drift apart. Artie was seen, by some of those who didn’t know him well, as a naive dreamer, a hopeless square, just a blustery New Yorker. He was, to them, an early college fancy that gave way to more important ambitions; women, drinking, parties. Artie was much too serious for any of that.

He eventually moved in with one of his friends who had followed him from New York. I moved out to a cheaper, off-campus place with a bunch of other guys. Artie and I kept in touch. But it was never the same.

Toward the end of my time in Tempe, after Artie had graduated, I heard he had accepted a job as a teacher in a public school district in Phoenix. I took a bus to visit him one hot afternoon in his drab, unadorned apartment overlooking the freeway in the north part of the city.

The job wasn’t what he expected. He missed the guys. He still didn’t have a girlfriend. He longed for New York. He was as down as I ever saw him.

And I never saw him again.

—-**—-

Artie, I like to think, eventually made it back to New York. Years ago, maybe, he found another girl of his dreams. He spotted her in the bleachers somewhere, or at the gym. Maybe a friend or someone in his family introduced them. But he and his wife have three kids, all of them now with families of their own. He’s wrapping up a long and successful career as a beloved teacher and a respected coach. That’s what I like to think.

I like to think, too, that Artie is more at peace now than he was the last time I saw him. But the reality is I long ago lost touch with my friend. I just don’t know.

I do know this: Whether you realize it immediately or not, you always learn something from those closest to you. And Artie, for a period of a couple years in a crucial time of my life, was one of my best friends. We ate together. We slept, in the bunk beds in our ancient dorm room, literally on top of one another. We talked into the night. When things went wrong, we commiserated. When they didn’t, we laughed. 

Artie, I finally now understand, showed me something back then that escapes many of us still. He was utterly unafraid to chase his dreams and to share them openly. He was fearless. And when he fell short — as we all do; then, now, and always — he remained unbowed and unapologetic.

That was Artie. Dream loud. Reach. And keep reaching. No matter what.

I know this, too, at last: Whatever failures he suffered in his life, whatever snickers he wordlessly endured back in college — shaking his head proudly, defiantly no doubt, in return — Artie was right. About a lot. From the start. Just like he always said he was.

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