Sunday, April 16, 2006

A Friend In Deed

A Toast
Sorry for the long absence. My family had been here visiting and Georgia isn't a place to let your guests fend for themselves. But more on that later. I've got a long story that's been festering in my brain for too long.

I wanted to explain something about friendship here, how there’s a different timbre to it. People like to toast to friendship a lot, and I do too, but when Georgians speak of it, it is shaded with some intensity that sounds dire to our ears. I wanted to talk about how a promise of friendship is not so much a pleasantry as an implicit vow of action. At home, I don’t need friends offering to die for me, I can just call the cops, see. But nothing in Georgia’s history has instructed people to rely on government agencies, institutions, the benevolent sorting justice of the law. So there’s friends and family, and where government and law shrink back, these others grow in to fill the space. I've got a story about all that. It's a little long and too earnest by half, but it's been a while, no?

Felix is this orphan kid who’s had just one lucky thing in his whole rotten lot in life and that’s his friends. They also happen to be my friends, and they know Felix from years of volunteering at a local orphanage. But he’s turned 18 and is too old for the orphanage. They found a property for him in an outlying village, a piece of land and a beat-up old shell of a house that once belonged to his grandmother.

A roof over his head is good news for Felix, but the vultures didn’t stay long at bay. The new neighbors took one look at this 18 year old kid, this orphan who has nobody, and they saw a soft target and had aims on his house and his piece of land. They started giving him a little trouble. And this place, awful as it was, was the only thing between Felix and the streets.

So Felix told my friends, and here’s what friends will do.

They loaded up two cars full of supplies. The kid had heartbreakingly nothing. They got cooking supplies and staple foods, dishes and silverware, bedding, tools, an axe so he can chop some wood for warmth and cooking. We all piled in and went to his village to show the neighbors (and the whole village, really, because if anything can give the speed of light a run for it, it’s the speed of gossip traveling through a village) that Felix wasn’t alone and that he had friends that weren’t to be messed with. My job was to stand around and be American, one task I can reliably perform reasonably well here.

We came clanging into the village like the circus coming to town. Honking horns, yelling out the windows asking for unnecessary directions to our friend Felix’s house, driving slowly, turning as many eyes our direction as possible.

At Felix’s house, the neighbors were leaning over railings to get a peek at this production. Lasha, normally reticent and a bit mumbly, transformed himself into a circus barker for the occasion. While the rest of us were preparing things inside, he raised his arms high towards the neighbors, and shouted greetings, begging them over for just two drinks, please, we’d love to meet you.

This act was repeated around the property until Felix’s dirt-floored hovel was flush with bewildered neighbors, who’d gingerly peeked around the doorway only to be yanked inside by one of us and had a glass of wine pressed into their hands. Lasha was a whirlwind; it was exhausting just watching him. He was springing into things as if two carloads of city slickers out in the sticks to fete a bashful orphan boy and his new neighbors was regular as clockwork.

So I guess that rather than fix things with unfriendly letters or legal action or neighborhood associations, here, this sort of thing is fixed by wine. When Lasha began his first toast, I could understand only bits of what he was saying and so I watched the effect on the gathering instead. It was satisfying, in the way it is to watch a craftsman practice a honed art, seeing him work this room, with mounting feeling. He was talking about Felix, and what kind of guy he was, and how we wanted to meet these neighbors, and how important these community ties are, how like family, how special for our friend here, what family means for someone who doesn't have one.

The neighbors were noticeably thawing. The older women looked pleased at this young man who knew all the right, proper things to say. The young guys responded in turn, trying to best one another for eloquence. The old guys, they just beamed and nodded their heads strenuously. They were eating it up.

By the time Lasha finished his first long toast, the room was his. You could just feel it. One woman raised her glass in return and said that she had a son herself, just Felix’s age, and she would make sure that Felix was taken care of just as if he were her own. One of the young guys turned to Felix with a raised glass and told him, “you’re not our neighbor, Felix, but our friend.” The old man raised a glass and told Felix that he’d help him plant a potato crop and teach him how to grow and harvest on his land. What great friends you have, they told Felix who was so shy from the attention he could barely lift his lashes. And so it went on: more toasts from us, more from the neighbors until we'd all exhausted ourselves entirely with good wishes and parted with smiles and handshakes, which is a lot better than the subterfuge and harassment greeting Felix before.

It’s hard to say how much the neighbors meant of what they said. A lot of fine empty words are spilled over wine. And even with their help Felix will have a hard go of it in this life. I hope he'll be more secure and more respected as a result of this social intervention, but there’s really no telling. Still, he's got people in this world that will come in like that and stand by his side and spend their day making sure his home will not be under threat. I've been known to begrudge my friends a lift to the airport. To some degree, I suppose we've evolved beyond needing friends for elemental needs. Crisis and catastrophe sometimes forge valuable things, things that can be lost in comfort. The loyalty I've seen among friends here was born of necessity; I hope that it can outlast it.

[below: a neighbor (left) toasting Felix (right)]


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