Feb 12, 2024, 06:29AM

Rolling Pins

Why can’t men be friends? What year is it (#479)?

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A recent Ben Sixsmith Substack essay, “In Praise of Male Friendship,” which tackled a subject that’s common on social media today, piqued my curiosity, perhaps because he dunks on the intolerable, condescending, touchy-feely and generally obnoxious website Vox. He writes: “Men have fewer friends than ever. Be it in the US or the UK, male social circles have been shrinking. Millions of British men have no close friends at all. Three decades ago, more than 50% of American men claimed to have at least six close friends. Now that number has been halved.”

Could be. I’m at an age where my once-large circle of friends is down to almost nil, and it doesn’t bother me much. Every other month, I have coffee with longtime buddies Alan Hirsch and Michael Yockel (as well as Jennifer Bishop), and it’s a pleasurable two-hour activity that I look forward to. Still, even though I once saw Alan and Michael every day, at this juncture, after trading news about family, health, the news and some tame gossip, there’s no real need to make the meetings more frequent. There’s only so much you can say about the latest charley-horse or lamentable state of the media.

Sixsmith is a younger man than me, and a prolific writer who, unfortunately, embraces internet-speak in his columns, and maybe that’s unavoidable, but it still makes me wince. Today’s language, whether online or in print, is somewhat unrecognizable to those of us who practiced the trade of journalism years ago. As I’ve noted before, without real indignation, culture moves on and my generation has, willingly or not, to use the phrase of a 1950s-60s politician, passed the torch to men and women born in the late-20th century.

As Sixsmith points out, Covid and the resulting work-from-home reality has probably put a damper on guys (and again, he’s talking about guys, or dudes, whatever your preference) hanging out at bars after a day at the office, playing poker or, say, leisurely competing in company softball and basketball leagues. Aside from my sons, I don’t know—in person—many younger men, but if the theory is true, it’s a shame. And that’s not just a nostalgic notion.

In my collegiate years, like most people on campus—aside from severe introverts and live-in-the-library pre-meds—there were at least 20 guys, from different spheres, that were legitimate friends; a number that, unsurprisingly, shrunk after graduation and people got on with the next phase of their lives. But in my 20s I kept in touch with several Hopkins pals; one time in 1979, at around 11 in the morning, Mark Borsi and Dave Adam showed up at my Baltimore apartment, unannounced but welcome, and we went to the local Eddie’s and bought the ingredients for a mid-afternoon long lunch. I was the chef, making my mom’s dish “Cataldo,” which consisted of sausage, ground beef, mozzarella, ricotta cheese and parmesan, on top of spaghetti with a spicy tomato sauce. We ate, drank some wine, and then Mark and Dave split, off to the next stop on their road trip. Spontaneity was as natural as separating stems and seeds.

Skipping to the late-1980s and 90s, after long hours at New York Press, almost every weekday, a bunch of us (mostly guys, including Andrey Slivka, Michael Gentile, John Strausbaugh, John Baxter, Sam Sifton and Don Gilbert) blew the 6:30 whistle and reported to a nearby bar, usually Milano’s, the Knitting Factory or 288, on Houston St. just around the corner from the Puck Building. After discussing upcoming stories during the first pint, the conversation switched to music, books, sports and ragging on The Village Voice. If one or more of us had plans with our wives or girlfriends, the caveat of “I’ve got short wings tonight, can’t stay long, or I’ll get the rolling pin treatment” (shortened to “pin,” an antiquated bit of slang) was invoked and respected. On one occasion, an editor was marking his birthday, accepting the shots of whiskey offered, and was very late, and also soused, for a dinner with his spouse. The (figurative) welts on his sorry-ass head were visible the next day.

Often on Saturday afternoons, after a brief stint at the office, I’d meet colleagues (like Michael Cohen and Gentile, shown in the picture), at Tribeca’s Riverrun, a great restaurant and bar owned by Don Berger and Joe Distler that was shuttered long ago. Gentile’s wife was a waitress there, as was my wife Melissa, and we’d hang out for a couple of hours, playing the jukebox—Michael and I collected 45s and stocked the box with our favorites, like “El Paso,” “Down in the Boondocks,” “Eight Miles High,” “You Were On My Mind” and “You Can’t Hurry Love”—and seeing “friends of the paper” like Hunter and Chris, and bantered with bartenders Danny and Dave. Sundays too, although that venue was usually Puffy’s, right down the street on Hudson, where we had a largely different set of once-a-week pals, and participated in Christmas tree trimming, summer barbeques and pranks on the cantankerous owner.

That was part of my social life, as well as going to restaurants—expensive or cheap—outings to Yankee Stadium and hours in the nearby park with our kids, kibbitzing with other young parents, Little League games and strolling through street fairs. Undoubtedly, these are the sort of activities that younger men still engage in, but, if Ben Sixsmith is correct, on a much smaller scale.

Look at the clues to figure out what year it is: Panama’s Noriega surrenders to U.S. armed forces; smoking ban on all U.S. domestic flights less than six hours takes effect; Joseph Hazelwood, former skipper of Exxon Valdez is convicted for his part in oil spill; Jesse Owens is posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal; The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air debuts on NBC; Die Hard 2 makes even more money than the first one; David Souter joins Supreme Court; NFL fines New England Patriots and three players for sexual harassment; Souljah Boy is born and Dexter Gordon dies; John Updike’s (boring) Rabbit at Rest is published; UB40 deported from Seychelles; and Octavio Paz wins Nobel Prize for literature.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023


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