Thursday, September 22, 2005

Perspectives on Friendship while far away from home.

My Friend Gordon

i Reminiscing

My friend Gordon is positive. He sees the world through glass-half-full goggles. He can walk into any room and make it feel as though someone has opened all the windows and allowed a fresh spring breeze to flow through. People inevitably smile when my friend Gordon is around.

When my friend Gordon was simply Gordon, we were working side-by-side in a Trust company, taking care of the incredibly large deposits of our incredibly wealthy customers.

We weren’t so wealthy.

We were first-year university students working at this part-time job in order to keep our fridges full of beer and wine and the occasional loaf of bread or quart of milk. My freshman year brain was bursting with negativity. Why did I have to hold down this part-time job while the rest of the more privileged girls in the all-girl dorm were back in residence laughing, joining sororities, eating peeled grapes and savouring chocolate-filled bonbons (or so my overactive imagination would have me believe).

I would walk into work with the weight of my angst slumping my shoulders into a premature hunch. A quick peek at the interest-rate board would be my predictor for the evening. Interest rates increased one-quarter of one percent? Excellent. My customers would be mentally adding those extra pennies onto their million dollar bank accounts and would be blissfully unaware of my scowling face. A dip of even one tenth of one percent? I knew I was in for an evening of complaints and anger directed at me, the lowly teller, as if I were responsible for the Bank of Canada’s fluctuating interest rates. As the mis-directed vitriol of my pampered customers washed over me, I would peek at the wicket next to me. There was that smiley guy Gordon.

“Good evening Mrs. Wickford Von Pillingham. How is Mr. Wickford Von Pillingham? Muffy’s visit to the vet went okay, did it? Let’s have a look at Muffy. Ah, yes look at the sparkle in her eye. You take such wonderful care of her…”

I would look at Mrs. Wickford Von Pillingham and see how charmed she was by the crap this guy Gordon was piling on.

What a jerk.

And so it would go, day after day, week after week, trudging into the Trust Company, glancing at the interest board, hunching my shoulders, readying myself for the inevitable complaints of the customers. And of course silently cursing the happy guy next to me, with his daily pleasanteries, platitudes, and positive, gung-ho, life-is-great demeanour.

One particularly sunny day I walked in with my personal black cloud hovering ever-so-close to my down-turned head. I put my cash drawer in place and pasted on my best “Can I help you” smile. I looked next to me. Gordon was hunched over his own cash drawer, counting coins, piling up the twenties and tens, calculator in hand. Why was he cashing out so early? I watched him closely, getting ready to comment on the injustice of his early departure.

He seemed to be recounting the same pile of quarters over and over again, pausing, sighing, and piling them up yet again for another go. And then it happened. There was a resounding crash as he threw his cash drawer, contents and all, onto the floor. He swore.

“Fuck”. He said it half-heartedly, arms at his side, staring at the mess in front of him. He started weeping as he bent over to pick up the scattered bills and coins from the floor.

Now this was interesting. Where was all that positive energy? Was my own negativity so powerful as to unnerve Mr. Happy? I couldn’t believe it. I bent over to help him. He looked at me, and we were facing each other, down on our knees on the cold company floor. In his eyes I saw such a look of sadness and defeat that I was left momentarily speechless. Our eyes were locked in that moment of sad recognition for what must have been only a few seconds, but the memory of that gaze, and the underlying emotion it conveyed will always be with me.

We cleaned up the change and bills and tucked them back in the drawer. His tears had stopped, and he looked a little sheepish.

“I’m sorry about that,” he said. “My dad’s been quite sick for the past 3 months. The call just came from the hospital. Tonight is probably his last night.”

He started to count his money again in an attempt to end his shift properly and balance his cash drawer. I grabbed his calculator and pushed the coins back into the drawer.

“Go see your dad.” I could hardly look at him. “I’ll balance your cash.”

And then he did something that is very Gordon, but, because I didn’t know him then, it was new to me. He grabbed me and hugged me in the tightest, most heartfelt embrace I had ever encountered. It took my breath away. He said thank you, and then he left.

Three days later, I was back in the bank. My shoulders hunched a little less, a feeling of anticipation was building up inside of me as I got closer to the front doors. Would Gordon be back? That look that we had shared and that spontaneous bear-hug earlier in the week had left me with a need to get to know him better. When I walked through the front doors of the bank, he was already at his wicket, smile from ear to ear, and waving to me as if he were on the bow of a ship leaving port.

I smiled and waved back.

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that has seen us grow and change and become the people we are today. I know that many of the positive traits I carry and espouse now are because my friend Gordon is by my side, even though he’s a million miles away. His positive energy, his constant eagerness to learn new things and meet new people have inspired me to be a better person.

ii Negative vs. Positive

My friend Gordon is the one who taught me perspective. By age twenty-two, a steady diet of nihilist philosophy, radical feminism and Sylvia Plath poetry had created in me a certain sense of doom. The feminist courses taught me that, as a woman, I would have to fight a constant battle against 50 percent of the population. The philosophy courses were less specific in their battle lines but made it very clear to me that our reason for existence would never be clear, no matter how many books were cracked open or papers written about it. Sylvia Plath, well, that was just the perfect dessert for my already depressing diet of despair for the human condition.

One day, I decided I’d had enough. I sentenced myself to isolation. For my final year of university, I had left the all-girl residence behind, and found a run-down and incredibly cheap 2-room apartment in the Bathurst/College area of Toronto. An acquaintance of mine moved in, and we co-existed, each in our own respective dark bubbles of pessimism. She was studying to be a funeral director. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect roommate.

I had instructed my roommate that during my isolation period she was to tell anyone who called that I wasn’t home and that she didn’t know when I would be back. By day four, I knew she’d had enough. My friend Gordon had called at least ten times and he knew something was up. I heard my roommate yell into the phone, “She’s in her bedroom and she’s not coming out.”

Fifteen minutes later there was a knock at my door.

“Sarah, let me in.”

Of course it was my friend Gordon. I didn’t budge. I wasn’t going to let his positive energy ruin a perfectly good depression.

“Sarah, open the door.”

There was absolutely no way I was going to move. I had taken earlier precautions for just such a confrontration. I had purchased and installed a little lock on the door specifically for my isolation. Gordon gave up. I could hear him stomping off down the hall. I could hear voices and the banging of drawers coming from the kitchen. I could hear his footsteps coming back. And then I heard something else; a grinding noise, a steady “Grrp grrp grrp Ping. Grrp grrp grrp Ping.”

After a few more grinding bangs resounded from the other side of the door, I realized what he was doing. He was taking the screws out of the hinges of the door. In mere moments he had the door removed completely from the frame and was standing in front of me, screwdriver in hand, a big grin on his face. Gordon was indeed very satisfied with himself.

I viewed him with as much contempt as I could muster from the vantage point of my unmade bed. I was a mess, but was doing my best to throw him a powerful look of disdain worthy of Joan Crawford. By the shaking of his head and the positioning of his hands firmly on his hips, it was abundantly clear to me that Gordon wasn't going to tolerate any of my theatrics.

He had a garbage bag in his hand and was picking the various bits of crap from the floor and the shelves that had accumulated over my four days of solitude . He made a stack out of the pizza boxes in the corner and put a little cloth on top. “Ta da. It’s like a little bistro table, isn’t it?” I remained on my bed, arms crossed over my chest, refusing to let any of his energy budge me from my cluttered hideout. He ran out to the front of the house and came back with a fistful of bright yellow dandelions. He put them in one of the many half-full glasses that were lined up beside my bed and placed the homemade bouquet on the newly christened bistro table.

He grabbed my laundry bag from the end of the bed and upended it. Dirty shirts, a couple of sweaters and a half-eaten ham sandwich landed on the floor. Gordon rolled his eyes. He left to throw them in the washer and came back with a clean pair of jeans and a t-shirt. They must have been in the dryer.

“Get dressed.”

“No.” I didn't move a muscle, my arms remained defiantly crossed in front of me.

“Okay then. I’ll wait.”

He pulled up a cushion beside the bistro table, opened a magazine and waited. And waited. He hummed and would occasionally laugh at whatever article he was reading. I realized he really was going to wait for as long as it took for me to get out of the bed.

I slowly crawled off the bed, being sure to let out a multitude of long, drawn out sighs as I did so. I peeled off the dingy excuse for pajamas I had been lolling about in for four days, and pulled on the jeans and t-shirt. He smiled and threw me a piece of cloth.

“Put this over your eyes. I’m taking you somewhere.”

I knew there was no point in arguing, so I did as he said. I grabbed the cloth and made a makeshift blindfold. He held onto my hand, led me out the front door and let out three short whistles when we were close to the street. He steered me into the backseat of a car and had me sit down. I could detect a distinct pine and stale cigarette odour that only a taxi could have. He told the taxi driver not to say the name of the destination. He had apparently written down where we were going since the taxi driver hit the gas and we were off without a word.

Already blessed with an incredibly bad sense of direction, with the blindfold on I truly had no idea where we were when we got out of the cab. He led me this way and that, navigating me through God knows what until we were somewhere that my other senses decipherd as being a very small and very quiet room. Without warning, my stomach was suddenly in my throat. We were most definitely in an elevator. An incredibly fast and smooth elevator. My ears popped as the air was sucked out of them. I swayed and my arms flew out seeking some sort of balance. My friend Gordon giggled, grabbed my hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. He was enjoying every second of my bewilderment.

When the doors slid opened, he was guiding me again, leading me with a certain determination that I had become familiar with over the course of our friendship. I knew to let him take the lead, and kept my normally sassy tongue in my mouth. We stopped, and Gordon placed the palms of my hands on something cool and smooth. Glass. Perhaps a window? Maybe a mirror? He gently nudged the back of my head until my nose was also touching the polished, flat surface in front of me . And then he pulled the blindfold off.

I let out a yell. We were in the clouds! Through the gauzy mist on the other side of the window in front of me, I could discern the glittering golden yellows, whites, and reds of the city’s lights. I could distinguish ant-sized cars making their way here and there on the maze of streets and highways below me. What were really skyscrapers when viewed from sidewalk level, were now merely toy lego rectangles, lined up in perfect symmetry hundreds of feet below.

The length of the elevator ride should have been enough of a clue as to where we were, but my lack of sight had disoriented me. We were in the tallest free-standing structure in the world; the CN Tower. I turned around and my friend Gordon had his characteristic huge grin on his face. He grabbed me and enveloped me in that wonderfully comforting bear hug of his. He stepped back, hands outstretched to grasp my shoulders, and looked me in the eye.

“Doesn’t your room seem a little small now?”

I had to agree. With a city of two million people buzzing below me, living, breathing, thinking, and feeling, my self-pity and self-imposed isolation seemed a little silly. We stayed and drank fancy umbrella drinks, watching life go on below us for quite some time. When I got home, I sat at my pizza-box bistro table, appreciating the yellow glow of the dandelions in front of me, and realized how lucky I was to have my friend Gordon to teach me the value of perspective.

iii The Not So Distant Past

Living in Japan, as I do now, home seems a million miles away. It is because of this physical separation from family and friends that I feel a hint of dread when I receive phone calls at odd hours. I know it is Canada calling when a pre-dawn call interupts my sleep. Even while the phone is ringing, my mind races to all the negative possibilities that this particular conversation may bring. I think many expatriates can sympathize with the early morning/late night telephone call stomach flip.

It was 5:00 am on a Sunday morning last July when the phone was ringing out in the kitchen. I rolled over onto the tatami-mat floor and crawled my way towards the source of the noise, not wanting to answer but knowing I must. When I answered the phone with a Japanese "moshi moshi" greeting, it turned out to be my sister, sounding quite cheery and upbeat. She knows of my telephone angst and always tries to put me immediately at ease. The usual talk of weather, family and work followed and the call was winding down when she said; “Sarah, I have to talk to you about Gordon.”

My friend Gordon is like a son to my small family. I remember 5 years ago, when his mom died, he called and said “Sarah, I’m an orphan.” I told him my family would adopt him. I don’t know how many 32-year olds are formally adopted, but I do know my parents would be the first to sign any papers that would allow it. They love my friend Gordon.

The seriousness in my sister’s voice worried me. I gripped the phone tightly as her voice travelled miles over land and sea to deliver the news.

"Sarah, Gordon is positive."

Through the fog of the early morning, my mind couldn't immediately register what these words meant. My first thought was of how incredibly positive Gordon is. Why was she telling me this? My sister, after a few moments, had to break the silence with three small but meaningful letters.


I sank to my knees on the cold kitchen floor. Sadness and dread washed over me as I looked all around, searching for anything to ground me in this moment of shock. But I was alone. My sister’s voice was trying to get through, knowing I was not handling the news very well. Through the steady buzz that was building in my head, I could hear her throwing words like they were life preservers, trying to keep me afloat on the sea of sadness into which I was beginning to sink. She was doing her best to reassure me. Some of her more upbeat offerings included;

“Gordon is fine..." and, "He's handling it so well..." and finally, "He’s not sick at all..."

I silently added the “yet.”

iv The Here and Now

It is now well over a year since the news was broken to me. I know the final outcome of this positive status, and it isn’t good. For the first time in his life, for my friend Gordon, being positive is not to his advantage. He visited me here in Japan recently. He looks older and I would sometimes catch him lost in thought as he would gaze out the train windows at the passing scenery. Those pensive moments were few and far between, but I was very aware of them when they happened, and I knew what he was doing. He was making an indelible etching in his memory of all the new things he was seeing here. He was creating an image that he could pull out at a later date when he may not be feeling so great. My friend Gordon has a talent for finding beauty in the mundane. He has the extraordinary ability to unearth meaning in daily events and chance meetings and it is this ability that I so cherish and admire. I would miss so much if I didn't have my friend Gordon to remove the blindfold I still often wear unconsciously.

On his first day here in Japan, we were walking side-by-side on a street close to my apartment. I had been talking for I don't know how long when I realized he was no longer beside me. I looked around to find Gordon was about 50 feet behind, laughing and pointing at something on the ground. I walked back towards him to find out what was so fascinating. He was staring at a sewer cover.

“Have you ever seen this before?” he was asking as he pulled out his camera. He was hovering over the cover, zooming the lens in and out in order to get the best angle. I leaned in to get a better look. The iron sewer cover was emblazoned with a six-legged cartoon character. It was the stamped raised image of a bug with a smiling face and 2 antennae, and it covered practically the whole surface of the covering. It truly epitomized city life in Japan to find something so cute and sweet in the centre of gray concrete and ever-present soot. Although Gordon's discovery was practically outside my front door, I had never noticed it before. I rationalized that one sewer cover in a city covered with thousands would be easy to miss. I was wrong. That day we saw dozens of those same covers all over the city as we criss-crossed Nagoya from temple to castle to shrine. That happy little bug was everywhere. Each time we saw one, we would laugh and Gordon would grab my hand and give it a little squeeze. I now see that bug each and every day and can not walk by without smiling and thinking of Gordon.

v Lessons for Tomorrow

My friend Gordon has taught me to appreciate the small things in life, to pay attention to the little details that surround me everyday. He sees beauty in dandelion weeds and sewer covers. He understands sadness and loss but can turn those experiences around to become something positive. He learns from the sad events that have occurred in his life, and he doesn’t hesitate to share what he has learned in his own Gordon way.

The time bomb that is ticking away inside him has made him acutely aware of his own mortality and it has made him even more positive, more in-tune with the people and things that surround him. He never hesitates to let people, even strangers, know what is special about them. Simply put, Gordon makes people happy.

Positively beautiful, beautifully positive. That’s my friend Gordon.