A little over a year ago I became friends with a group of men in my local Dunkin Donuts. It’s a funny turn of events because I am a woman who doesn’t make friends easily, have always counted on one hand my closest friends, and get antsy outside the workplace when I’m expected to show up somewhere every day at a precise time. These are character flaws, make no mistake. Fifteen years ago I took a “test” online that purported to be predictive of depression, and the online results were very concerned about me, so concerned that they suggested I make more friends. For a while I made a desultory attempt to make more friends, started shaking hands with people for no reason, that kind of thing. This netted no one.
But these guys.
When I first met them I was going to work very early—6:30 AM—and wanted a hot coffee to take with me. At the time they were just a group of men in their late sixties who always sat near the door, same time, same guys. One named Tommy began to wish me a good morning every day. He called me “Smiley” and, later on, I asked him why he called me that. He said it was because I’d come in smiling. But the truth is, I came in smiling because I was so happy he was wishing me good morning. It was friendly. It was affectionate. I happened to be in an emotional place where both were very welcome, even from complete strangers.
One day I just sat down with them. I have been sitting or standing with them ever since, from 6:15 to 7:15 every morning like clockwork at the Dunkin Donuts, and then eventually out in the world at various times. Next week, for example, I’m helping them put siding on the back of Bob’s horse barn. This week Tommy helped me thread line and tie a clench knot for the lure on my new fishing rod (bought at Bass Pro where I got a deal because somebody knew somebody). Several months ago I helped Dominic and Bob and Dick bottle homemade raspberry wine in Bob’s cellar. All the guys coached me last month on how to bid at a local auction and I did bid and I got the item: a handmade prototype from around 1931 of a version of Monopoly that is so cool I have to resist playing it and ruining it.
So too are my guys cool. It’s impossible to explain this. They are right wing conservative Republicans and I am a lefty lesbian. They are from a variety of careers—truck driver, pipefitter at a nuke plant, fundraiser for nonprofits—and I am a college professor in creative writing. They know all about tools and other things men seem to know about, and I don’t. They are all retired and I am not.
They are also all married and I am newly single. When Tommy figured this out, he began to point out women at the Dunkin Donuts whom he believed to be also single and whom he thought I might like. Sometimes he pretends to call them over—“Hey, c’mere, girly”—and I have to say, “Goddamnit, Tommy, quit it.” This kind of thing entertains all of us very much. No “girly” has ever come anywhere near us, since clearly we’re assholes. I’ve never enjoyed being an asshole more.
The wives of these guys began to look askance at me: who’s this woman you keep mentioning? Things looked iffy for a while. Two weeks ago, however, we all met—my guys and their wives—at the Cottage Inn, a dive 20 miles away that has a trained chef. All seven of us got along like houses on fire. In fact, we talked a lot about houses on fire. Bob lost his entire collection of baseball cards and Syracuse University memorabilia in a fire, things worth a small fortune. Tommy presented all of us with little baggies of cashews at the end of the meal, as though to seal our good time together. At any rate, the wives don’t have a problem with me any more.
My guys are full of surprises. Dominic, the pipefitter, has had training at the Culinary Institute. His dad owned a restaurant and he grew up hefting huge, heavy loads of dishes or beer kegs which now bother his back. He’s a woodworker, whose accomplishments include a clever wooden device one puts on one’s thumb which can hold a paperback open—he’d noticed everyone had to use two hands and thought it a waste of a hand. Bob, the fundraiser, has golfed with everyone from Tom Selleck to Jim Boeheim, and he has written books, one about the animals he and his wife have shared, and one, a recent one, about his journey from being a Democrat to being a Republican. He looks back on his Democratic self with a kind of bemused wonder. Sometimes this is how he looks at me. Tommy is a master fisherman from Maine whose truck driving took him all over the country east of the Mississippi, but whose fishing brought him here to Oswego, where he met his second wife and settled down. He is the informal mayor, the greeter, the PR person of the Dunkin Donuts, and the unofficial president of our group. If we can’t make it the next morning for coffee, we’re supposed to tell Tommy so nobody worries.
A few months ago Bob’s wife had a heart attack after a long trip. They’d been to a funeral in Illinois and it was winter and all of us were worried about Bob driving that far. Turned out it was his wife, Joyce, we should have been worrying about. After the heart attack Bob was sick—actually ill—with worry. This is a fact: these men couldn’t love their wives any more. Period. There is no more love they could possibly muster within themselves for these women. They adore them. Their hearts are full of them. I admire this so much that I think sometimes it almost makes me sad. I do not pray but I prayed for Bob’s wife. All of us did. When she got to feeling better she came one day and sat with us at the Dunkin Donuts. I don’t believe Bob, or we, could have been any happier, or felt more.
These men have full lives, lives of activity and love, and yet they made room for me at their table. On the surface we have nothing much in common. But the surface of things is exactly where one doesn’t look for friendship or love. One looks, somehow, at the spaces between things. I think the heart needs to be big enough for these things. And then again I think all of our hearts are big enough for these things. Perhaps such matters are bigger and more mysterious than all the dark waters into which I now throw lures from the new fishing rod that Tommy threaded for me. This much, however, is certain: I love them fiercely, these guys.