Is friendship possible between two people who share only scraps of each other’s language? Isn’t language at the heart of identity, and doesn’t friendship imply a lowering of the guard, a taking of chances, a mingling of one’s self with another? I ask myself: Could I befriend a person who was deaf, dumb and blind? To say no is not to denigrate such a person, but how much would I, someone who revels in the written and spoken word, be willing to sacrifice for the sake of friendship? I have no abstract answers, only an unlikely friendship.
The custodian in our building is thirteen years my junior, married and has three kids. I’ve exchanged greetings with him five days a week for almost five years. He is Manuel, I am Señor Patrick. He was born in Mexico and is a little fuzzy about how long he has lived in the U.S. He has a second job, working evenings for a catering service. He impresses me as tidy and hard-working. He does all the customary tasks – emptying waste baskets, dusting, buffing the floor of the main corridor – but periodically asks if he can vacuum the carpet in my office. I know this is not a mandatory part of his routine, but I eat lunch at my desk and the floor gets crunchy. I, too, you see, am tidy, and appreciate his attentions. When working, Manuel customarily wears earphones. Several years ago I asked what he listened to, and he handed them to me, I put them on and heard accordion-heavy conjunto. “Flaco Jimenez?” I asked, and got lucky. It’s not music I know well but it’s happy music and I enjoy it. I told him about La Pistola y El Corazón by Los Lobos and he ordered the digital version.
So what, besides music, do we talk about with his ragged English and my threadbare Spanish (which always amuses him)? There’s a smattering of gossip but mostly it’s kids and the weather – eternal topics, conversational lubricants, not to be derided, the stuff I would talk about with any native English speaker I might see regularly but briefly. In Houston, the weather is a remarkably fecund subject, with extremes of Biblical proportions. Manuel came from a very dry place, and stands in awe of rain. Our talk about the weather is more nuanced and amusing than many conversations I have with nominally more educated or sophisticated people. Dr. Johnson did not lightly dismiss the topic. In The Rambler #99 he writes:
“It is commonly observed, that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.”
Note the non-satirical tone. Talk of the weather is a form of dance, elegant and comforting, a subject we all know intimately. Its drama is ours. Johnson knew friendship and its mortal importance. Boswell reports him saying: “If a man does not make new acquaintance as he advances through life, he will soon find himself left alone. A man, Sir, should keep his friendship in constant repair.”