Bob, my mother’s boyfriend, will argue that Happy Days jumped the shark several seasons before Fonzie actually strapped on his water skis. In his view, the show’s lethal injection with schmaltz came the moment the Fonz sat down with the Cunninghams around their Christmas tree and read “The Night Before Christmas.” When the onetime breakout character paused between stanzas to ask, “Can you dig it,” Bob saw the handwriting on the wall. “That,” he’ll say, “was when you knew they were out to sell lunchboxes.”
Though Bob may be right in a limited way – I had one of those lunchboxes – Fonzie’s giddiness at having been delivered (by Richie and Mr. C) from an evening over his hot plate manifests a profound truth. Every fringe character needs at least one solid contact in the middle class. Sociologists define the middle class according to various criteria, but I’ll extend membership to anyone who owns more than one vehicle and the 2,000-plus square feet he lives in. That definition excludes me; it includes my friend Rick and his wife, who played the Cunninghams to my Fonzarelli this past Christmas.
Rick and I owe our entire friendship to my tumble down the American social pyramid. When I quit graduate school, I also excised myself from my circle of friends. It seemed like the morally coherent thing to do: if failure shouldn’t entail social ruin, what should? I cast myself as the disgraced cadet in a B-movie set in a military academy, the one who walks a gantlet of his former comrades. As he passes, they turn their backs to him, formalizing the end of their peerhood. In more practical terms, I did not care to torment myself with reminders of my old schoolmates’ success. Several months after 9/11, I happened to notice a friend’s byline on a Newsweek report from Afghanistan. Since then, scarcely a day has passed when I haven’t dreamed of burying a hatchet in his breast.
Victor Hugo writes of “that bastard class composed of coarse people who have been successful, and of intelligent people who have descended.” That is where I ended up, and I found Rick waiting for me. He was co-owner and co-founder of the debt consolidation firm where I applied to work. Perhaps my lingering grad-student airs made me stand out from the rest of Rick’s work force, since Rick befriended me at once. His friendship carried certain practical benefits: I stayed on the payroll long after I’d proved my incompetence, and was spared tongue-lashings for the times I returned from cigarette breaks with reeking half-smoked butts in my pack.
I did not envy Rick his success because, deep down, I couldn’t respect it. His operation danced on the very threshold of fraud. To my eye, the wilted flower children and parolees who occupied his sales floor looked like gibbering goblins. Their comfort with cold-calling seemed related to a general unconcern for personal boundaries. “Hey, Bro,” one would begin – only to follow up with the details of an arrest, a tooth extraction or a caesarian section. If presumption made a good closer, I was proud to be a bad one.
In certain respects, Rick looked like the Best in Show member of their species. He did not speak so much as he barked. And, dear me, what he barked! N-words and c-words poured freely from his throat, along with one of the f-words. (En Riquais, gay men were “pickle-sniffers.”) To me, still close enough to the academy that I spoke of rubrics in casual conversation, friendship with Rick was Spring Break – a fun diversion that could not possibly endure.
But as Rick and I began spending weekends together, I came to see that his speech and the way he earned his living were the only coarse things about him. A self-taught chef and bona fide foodie, he disdained anything fried and could discern the quality of olive oil blindfolded. He took his vacations to places like San Francisco and Europe, where he could, as he put it, “start the morning with an espresso and a baguette, read the newspaper, then see me some fucking art.” Despite working an industry where a black Escalade marked the successful player, Rick opted for a silver BMW M3 – Continental elegance with a hussar regiment under the hood. Saturday mornings found him flying down the Hohokam Expressway at 160 miles per hour and dreaming about Autobahns.
In the years that followed, Rick nurtured his inner bon vivant and became a solid citizen while I discovered my inner scumbag. Riding high through boom and bust alike, Rick took to wearing Italian loafers, married a Montessori kindergarten teacher and moved to a house with tile floors and 14-foot ceilings. After making a number of lateral moves – from Rick’s company, to mortgages, to Bob Cratchitlike jobs in banking – I found myself in the spiritual trap of near-poverty. Unable to afford soul-expanders like travel, education or love, I settled for soul-contractors like booze and drugs. I began talking like Rick – or rather, like Rick had talked when I first met him. When your bosses demand you adopt Jamie Dimon’s vocabulary on John Henry’s wages, the c-word can ring like a clarion call.
Despite my declining fortunes, through my darkening moods, Rick remained my friend. Over the same period, the condescension I’d once felt evolved into something approaching reverence. Now that I saw the narrowness of the corporate ladder, Rick looked like a prophet for having stayed off the thing altogether. If he made his fortune by exploiting the weak and gullible – well, who didn’t? Certainly he was no worse than the bank that held the adjustable-rate mortgages it paid me to foreclose on.
And yet, that Rick never polished his act completely helped preserve the illusion of parity between us. I have never seen him type a capital letter; I would not swear he knows what they are. When he calls on me to draft a business letter, or coach him on the spelling of prosciutto, he is reminding me that my one-and-a-half degrees are not quite worthless.
This Christmas, as I sat on Rick’s leather sofa beneath his high ceiling, eating his organic turkey, watching The Longest Day on his 50-inch plasma screen TV and nuzzling his purebred basset hound, I committed the humblest act any egotist is capable of. I allowed myself to live vicariously through Rick. For those happy hours, his life and his tchotchkes became mine, and I became a respectable bourgeois by association. Just before the holiday, a friend wrote to express the hope that I’d be “surrounded by love.” Well, I was — but I was also surrounded by stuff. Sometimes one’s as good as the other.