Class reunions help us shake off the Big Chill

DAN RODRICKS

December 05, 1992|By DAN RODRICKS

There are people, most of them well into their 60s and 70s b now, who grew up in neighborhoods that no longer exist. There are probably thousands of them around Baltimore. I've met a few along the way.

The East Street gang had reunions, celebrating their wonderful life as kids in a vibrant immigrant neighborhood that urban renewal wiped away years ago. They all had vivid memories and funny stories about the people on their street, near Belair Market. One of them even remembered the exact conditions for buying a bicycle on the "put-away plan" at a neighborhood department store.

On Lombard Street one summer day, a man pointed to a high-rise housing project when I asked where his father's bakery used to be. He wept. I felt bad for having asked. "But that's life," he said. "Life goes on. The generation that worked here made it possible for my generation to move on. We moved on and never looked back."

But, of course, we all look back, even if it hurts.

The folks I describe -- they were the World War II generation that grew up in Baltimore, moved to the suburbs and created the Baby Boom -- still live around the Beltway somewhere. They still feel connected to the city. But not like before. They lost the old neighborhood. They lost the homes they grew up in.

But they never lost the spirit that bonded them to the old neighborhood -- and to each other. The strength of that bond is something everyone covets -- especially Baby Boomers.

It's why we go to high school reunions.

"Nostalgia is death," Bob Dylan said. But nostalgia is only half the story. Reunions fill a significant emotional void created by distance and time in the fast-paced, unsettled world Baby Boomers have known almost all their adult lives. We can't relive childhood. But we need to revisit our extended families. They have been good to us.

They listen to us. They forgive us. They take us in. They grant warmth against the Big Chill.

At my 20th reunion, there was instant intimacy, men and women talking to each other as if they had been conversing every day for years.

"My therapist is wonderful," a woman said. "He's become my friend. That's what he is. He's my friend. I do paintings. I gave him one of my paintings. He says, 'Why do you give me one of your paintings?' I said, 'Because you are more than a therapist, you are my friend.' "

"I felt the same way about my guy," the man across the table said. "Until he died of cancer. My God, can you imagine? Is that unbelievable? This guy is all the time listening to my problems and he's sitting there, the whole time dying of cancer."

TC "That's awful," the woman said, and that's where, thankfully, Therapist Comparison At The Class Reunion stopped.

But it was allowed, see. Among my old crowd, no one ever gets kicked out in the cold with their baggage.

The guy who blew up the railroad bridge showed. He looked good, too. Handsome and clean-shaven. Apparently, he did not do enough time to get a jail face, or it had worn off.

The last time we were together, "The Doors" were breakin' on through somebody's eight-track and my old chum was fresh out of federal prison. For nothing more than kicks, he had stolen dynamite and blown up a wooden railroad bridge. As this was considered interference with interstate commerce, federal authorities were called in, and he went to federal prison. By the time he got out, high school graduation had broken up that old gang of ours.

Now, 20 years later, he was married with children, and all dressed up in a responsible three-piece suit. He had survived "the badlands" Bruce Springsteen used to sing about. Others were not so lucky.

We lost a classmate to disease, another to drugs, another to a car accident. And many of the rest of us, showing signs of success and happiness, still counted ourselves among the walking wounded of modern life.

Many had had marital problems, those long, dreary episodes of love turned bad, love turned black and blue. Many had been through divorces followed by second, even third marriages. Many had drinking problems. Too many had experimented with drugs. But most had grown up, established solid careers and started families and their own businesses, taking life's lumps along the way.

We talked about almost everything, with a lot of mutual respect and no rush to judgment about anyone or what they had done with their lives. These were the people I grew up with, from the old neighborhood. The spirit that bonded us endures. After 20 years and all that mileage, it's nice to know.

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