Eulogy for a BFF
At one time or another I had fallings out with all my friends. Except Lonnie.
I’m not an easy person to get along with—I admit it. I’m pushy, curmudgeonly, sarcastic. At one time or another I’ve had fallings out with all my friends.
Lonnie is the one friend I never lost—until last week. She died at age 79 after a long bout with cancer. We were the same age. She was the closest to a sister that I had, or will ever have. She fought fiercely to live. In the words of Dylan Thomas, she did not go gentle into that good night. She raged, raged against the dying of the light. I would never have expected that since she was self-effacing by nature and never fought for anything else.
We met on the March to the Pentagon in 1967 when we were both 25, and wound up instant BFFs after talking for hours on the bus on the way back. I was living with my parents in New Jersey temporarily since I’d given up my Manhattan apartment to follow a boyfriend to South America. I was always following some boyfriend somewhere. Lonnie had a place, albeit a shoebox, in 83rd St. in Manhattan and I’d camp out there while looking for my own place. We both worked at whatever jobs we could get to pay the rent. Not many women had serious careers in that pre-women’s liberation time.
It wasn’t easy being Lonnie’s friend. The word “statuesque” could have been invented to describe her. She had a Sophia Loren type of beauty, head-turning, startling. Walking down the street with her was an exercise in invisibility. Six feet tall with cascading curly black hair, a voluptuous body, and an exquisite face to match, she never faded into a crowd. I was the short, fat friend.
I was in awe of her beauty, but eventually realized that it was more of a curse than a blessing. She simply couldn’t live up to it. Great beauty requires great confidence, and that Lonnie didn’t have. Like Marilyn Monroe, she was lovely but wispy. She wafted through life. Even worse for her— she was a true intellectual—learned, brilliant and witty in her own self-deprecating way. Few people of either sex seemed to appreciate, or even notice, that side of her. She denied it herself—she knew she was beautiful but refused to acknowledge that she was actually intelligent.
Lonnie’s track record with men wasn’t much better than mine. Yes, she attracted them by the carload, but they never stuck around. I, on the other hand, had a hell of a time finding a boyfriend, but when I did, they tended to linger, often past their expiration dates. None of that mattered though. Men were transient, Lonnie and I were permanent.
We spent our twenties and thirties leading a Sex and the City lifestyle in the days when New York City was funky and dangerous but relatively cheap-- a home to artists and working girls like us. We went clubbing, bar-hopping and partying when we weren’t demonstrating against the War in Vietnam or marching for equal rights. We would spend our summer days--when it was too hot for the park--nursing a drink all day at Marvin Gardens on Broadway, or nights clubbing at Limelight in the East Village, or man-hunting at Tap a’ Keg, an upper West Side dive bar, or dancing at a club I forget the name of around the corner from Lonnie’s apartment. Sometimes we visited Hellfire, an S&M club in the meat-packing district because one of our girlfriends was having an affair with a lesbian into S&M.
"Working on a relationship" is one of those trendy pop-psych concepts that sounds easy, but I've managed to do it with only one friend—Lonnie--who, like me, had paper-thin skin. We were temperamental opposites. Lonnie approached life with a tentative, hesitant energy while I barreled my way through. She spoke slowly and carefully and I talked fast, constantly interrupting her, which got on her nerves. She was indecisive so I told her what to do. She hated that. I gave advice and she resented it.
After twenty-five years of blow-ups involving much phone-slamming and mutual avoidance, we had moments when we wondered why we bothered. But we finally acknowledged one day that our long history together plus our sisterly feelings for each other, made our friendship worth saving. So, we maintained an often-uneasy peace by using mutual restraint, trying mightily not to piss each other off. We agreed that keeping in touch was key. Even when we were too fed up with each other to actually get together, one or the other of us would call and say something like "I just wanted to check in but I don't feel like talking." Once it was invented, email helped. We would squabble but then we’d get together and remember why we loved each other and laugh, gossip and gab non-stop for days.
My fondest memories of our Sex and the City days are the hours Loni and spent in Marvin Gardens, the first upper west side yuppie bar. They were called fern bars at the time because they tended to be decorated with ferns for some weird reason. We hated yuppies on principle, being bohemian types ourselves, but Marvin’s had a big front window with a bar facing Broadway and they let us sit there all-day nursing one cup of coffee so we forgave them. On hot summer weekends we’d wile away the hours, schmoozing, watching the people go by. Sooner or later everyone we’d ever slept with would pass by. I thought we were just wasting time, and felt I should be doing something more productive. I wish I known then how precious that time really was.
On a typical Saturday when all the singles who could afford it were in Fire Island or the Hamptons we’d cool off in air-conditioned Marvin’s, a refuge from the misery of summer in the city. We were too poor for air-conditioning, or the Hamptons—barely surviving from paycheck to paycheck at one dumb job or another.
We may not have had money but we were rich in time. Neither of us was ever busy—the scourge of friendship today. There were no cell phones, no computers, no frantic emails from bosses that demanded work on the weekend, nothing else to do but hang out.
All male eyes swiveled to get a look at Lonnie as we walked into Marvin’s. She ignored the attention; she was so used to it. I basked in her glory. I’d accepted my role as the fat friend and took a perverse pleasure in being the sidekick of someone so glamorous.
“So, tell. Who’d you go home with last night?” I’d ask her. We settled into our barstools facing a panoramic view of upper Broadway, our favorite stretch of New York real estate.
“Ooooh, I ran into this guy from the neighborhood,” she batted her eyelashes flirtatiously. “We’ve been giving each other the eye for years, every time we pass on the street. He’s tall, luscious, and sinewy... you know the catlike type who slinks along stalking his prey. I just couldn’t resist getting dragged into his lair,” she sighed, languorously. Lonnie really had languorousness down to a science. While my movements tended to be rapid, jerky and frantic, Lonnie’s every gesture radiated slow-motion grace.
“Lonnie, tell me something, “I asked as sweat evaporated from my steamy body. “How is it you are always meeting men on the street who’ve been giving you the eye for years? That never happens to me.”
“I think it’s my dog. People always notice you if you have a dog. Why don’t you get a dog, Erica?”
Lonnie adored animals and always had a few, mostly unruly, rescues. At one point she had two collies, Muffin and Betsy, who dragged her all over the city. Muffin was especially rebellious and often escaped in the park and she had to search for him. She would be frantic, but somehow he always turned up.
“Lonnie,” I replied, exasperated. “I could walk down the street with a panther on a leash and after a while people might start saying hello to the panther but ten to one they’d all be little old ladies who wanted to tell me their problems. Sometimes I think I have ‘social worker’ stamped on my forehead. Men who need either a therapist or a mother or both are irresistibly attracted to me.
“It would help, Erica, if you’d put on some makeup. Can’t you at least buy another pair of pants? The jeans you always wear look like they’ve been through the Boer War.” Lonnie loved nice clothes, though she really couldn’t afford them.
She was right. But they didn’t make decent jeans in my size at the time. Fashion wasn’t kind to fat girls in the seventies.
“Erica, isn’t that Bill whats-his-name?” Loni pointed out the window. “The hot guy you met at Tap-a-Keg? Whatever happened with him?”
It was Bill what’s-his-name. I didn't remember his last name myself, though we'd had a two-month fling. I put Loni's magazine in front of my face. I didn't want to see him. I'd been thirty pounds thinner when we last had sex
I loved that Lonnie actually showed an interest in my life rather than just talking about herself and expecting me to listen like everyone else I knew. We might have been temperamental opposites but we were intellectual soulmates, sharing an outsider sensibility. We loved Richard Pryor and Lennie Bruce and later on Roseanne Barr and Sandra Bernhardt. She introduced me to South Park. The more irreverent and outrageous the show, the better. Lonnie was a scholar at heart, read omnivorously and was as likely to quote the Bible as Beavis and Butthead. We both were fans of Mike Feder, the acerbic WBAI storyteller, who did a radio show every Sunday that we made sure to listen to and discuss. My last words to Lonnie on the phone were about Mike agreeing to contribute to my newsletter, but I don’t know if she heard me. She was too busy dying.
I don’t remember how that particular summer day ended, but probably like all the other Saturdays at Marvin’s. We’d maybe have squid with rice and black beans for dinner at Victoria China, the Cuban Chinese joint, and wander up Broadway to Lonnie’s apartment at 106th, hang out for a while and maybe go back out barhopping later. I’d get home very late with or without a man in tow. We were unrepentant sexual adventurers. It was the 70s, that golden time after the pill and before AIDS.
Nostalgia is a powerful retrograde emotion that I usually try not to indulge in because it whitewashes the dark times of the past. Were those really the good old days? Or do I just see them that way in retrospect?
No, for us they really were.
Lonnie and I were single and carefree in a way that young women no longer get to be. We weren’t expected to pursue careers but simply kill time while waiting to find a man. We took full advantage of that freedom. We were suspended in time–together–in the most exciting City in the world and it was glorious.
If there’s a heaven there’s got to be a Marvin Gardens and Lonnie has to be there so we can watch the people go by just one more time on our beloved Broadway.