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 My old dear friend Andy, a Mattoon buddy who has known me since I was in the seventh grade, from crew cut to mullet to what he refers to as “the dandruff years,” called me a couple of weeks ago.

It was a busy night. I was meeting a woman I had one of those mad, depraved crushes on to go listen to some jazz (question for readers, both of you: An acquaintance claims that anyone who says they like jazz is just trying to make themselves look smart, and in fact, nobody actually likes jazz. Thoughts?), and thanks to pressing Ironminds business, I was running late. I’d put on my nicest shirt - with the toothpaste stain almost entirely removed - gargled the cologne, slapped on the mouthwash and even, gasp, combed my hair. I was dressed for success, styling, a New York hipster ready to go beat bam boom pah pah chah chah with the cats with mah fine lady at me side.

Rush rush rush ... Checklist: Cat? Fed. Cardinal calendar? Marked. PlayStation? Played. Ass? Wiped. Let’s go go go ... can’t keep my hot New York date waiting ... hey, my life’s like a Sex in the City episode, or Malcolm X before he went to jail, I’m all zoot-suited out ... New York, New York ... my kinda town ... that’s the wrong song but I don’t care ... schnazzy, spiffy, spiked, we’re off ...

Ring ring. Ordinarily, I adhere to my post-call waiting world rule of not answering the phone unless I know who it is, but this time, I thought it might have been my best dame saying she’s running late, or maybe she scored tickets to the new opera, love that opera, I’m all cul-chah’d now, yessir.

It was Andy. Andy is married now - to an old girlfriend of mine from Mattoon, actually -- and he is a grad student at Illinois State University. He’s spending this summer, however, in Mattoon, hanging out with my cousin Denny, drinking beer, preparing for a move this fall, kicking back. He remains one of my closest friends, and because I’m one of the few people to escape Mattoon and its eternal clutches, he always makes sure to remind me where I came from (and of the dandruff days).

Andy had been drinking this night, and he wanted to talk. And he wasn’t mincing words.

“Do you think we’ve grown apart?” he asked, the first time I’d been asked that question in, oh, a week. This is a common conversation topic for Andy; he’s always convinced that he wants to talk to people more than they want to talk to him, and often, 95 percent of our conversations involve me trying to persuade him otherwise.

“I mean, you’re Mr. Big New York Guy now, Mr. I Made It Out of Mattoon Alive, and it seems like you don’t have time for your old friends. Do you think like that?” Ordinarily, these types of questions are accompanied by threats to withhold sex, so I typically take them more seriously than I did this time. After all, I had a hot date to make.

I explained to Andy, abruptly but patiently, that no, I love all my old Mattoon friends, that my upbringing is important to me, that you can take the boy out of Southern Illinois but you can’t take the Southern Illinois out of the boy, so on, so forth. I even tossed in a joke about still putting the letter “R” in the word “wash,” and mentioned that I constantly write about my old pals in my columns. I haven’t forgotten anybody, Andy, no way ... OK, now that we’ve established that, I do need to-

“Yeah, but you’re always making fun of us. ‘Mattoon plays Ernest movies.’ ‘Everybody in Mattoon marries at 15.’ That type of shit. It’s like we’re your comedic foils, the butt of all the jokes, and you get to sit there and pretend you’re above it all, ho ho, weren’t those the days, you’re much bigger than all that now.

“You’re not, you know. I know you act all self-deprecating, and all I’m just an innocent Midwestern boy, don’t hurt me, blah, blah, but you know you think you’re better than us. ‘Look at me, I’m in New York!’ Screw that. Why is it we always have to call you, you never call us? Too busy for us? No time for your old pals? You hang onto your old friends so you can tell your big New York friends that, yeah, I still talk to my friends from my hometown, how quaint, how droll, how sweet. But if we came out to visit you, you’d just bitch about it to all your friends there, about how they’re invading your space and getting in your way and you’d mock us for wanting to see Times Square or the Statue of Liberty.”

Actually, some of the last couple paragraphs are blind guesses, considering I put the phone down for a moment to brush my teeth again and check out the window to see if my date happened to be walking by. The show started in five minutes, and it was at least a 10-minute walk to the club.

“Listen, Andy, I’m sorry, man ... I know what you’re saying, but I have to go; meeting that smart film woman I told you about. Listen, man, I’ll call you, you’re still one of my best friends, you know that. Just had too many 40s, that’s what I think.”

Andy was undaunted. “You think it’s so much better out there? I tell you Will ... it’s scarier out there. Worse shit’s going to happen out there, and people will use you. You’re going to want to remember the people who were your friends from the beginning, who didn’t care if you were a writer, how much money you made, where you went to school, how much you pay for your apartment. It’s safer here ... and a lot happier.”

Listen, Andy, I’m sorry, I gotta go ... I’ll call you ... “Yeah, yeah, I hear ya. I’ll talk to you soon.”

Released, I sprinted out the door and down the stairs. Successfully surfing down the back of an unfortunate old woman standing outside my apartment, I made it to the club ( beat bam boom pah pah chah chah) just a few minutes late. My date hadn’t arrived yet, so I was allowed a few moments to collect myself. She showed up, looking somewhat harried herself. Being too stupid to call ahead for reservations, we were bonged from the club. On the way to a replacement bar, she stopped, took my hand, looked me dead in the eye and said, “Will ... I can’t date you. It’s too weird.”

That story has an entirely different ending, and really hasn’t ended at all yet, but forget that, because this current one you’re reading earns its own. I made a desperate fool out of myself for a while, pleading, gave up, called her a cab and walked back to my apartment. I opened the door, collapsed on the couch and thought I might just dial Andy, old pal from Mattoon, got time for you now, let’s get caught up, dude.

He wasn’t home.



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