We All Have That One Friend

Everybody has at least one. They may be just a little bit off kilter, particular, or unique, astray from the “norm.” Their uniqueness is not right or wrong, not good or bad…they are just different.

I have one of those friends. I’ll refer to him as Chris…because that’s his name.

I can use his name freely. It helps me exemplify one of his unique characteristics. It’s not confidence. Confidence has strength, but it also includes bragging and boasting. Confidence is a high level of self assuredness, but it incorporates a great deal of self focus and self aggrandizement. My friend Chris’ unique quality is much bigger, much stronger than confidence. It’s comfort. Chris is comfortable being who he is, and as a result, he has no fear.

The author, and friend Chris, in 1989

An Adventurous Spirit

From this comfort and lack of fear comes a very adventurous spirit. When I use that term, “adventurous”, you may envision a rough and tumble mountain man. Someone trekking the rugged terrain along the Appalachian trail. The person who jumps off that rock ledge, using the tree limbs to slow his fall before he lands in the river below. A lone wolf.

That’s not Chris. We grew up in the city. There are no mountains or rock ledges, there are hardly any trees. The East River is disgusting and when you live in a city of nine million, you are never really alone.

But whether it’s a scene from National Geographic, or the urban sprawl of New York City, the perspective of that person with an adventurous spirit is very similar. They don’t ask “why,” instead they ask “why not?”

We grew up on Roosevelt Island. A small slice of concrete in the East River. It is underneath the 59th Street Bridge and equidistant between Manhattan and Queens. Growing up, the Island always seemed to be in a construction phase. Even now, with the creation of the new Cornell Tech campus, Roosevelt Island is still under construction.

Main Street looking south, early to mid-1980's, construction of subway.

Chris’ First Mountain

In elementary school, the big project on Roosevelt Island was a new subway line, one with our own station. That construction project took many years before it finally opened with the Q and B line. Now it is the F.

The process included several years of trucks, cement mixers and construction crews. All coming and going on a square lot directly in the middle of our island, and behind a big fence. At night, you could see the security crew, sitting in the guard booth at the entrance. There were rumors of guard dogs. Vicious guard dogs.

This construction site was Chris’ first mountain. He just had to climb it, except it went down, below the ground, rather than up towards the sky.

We were probably 13. It was Chris, Steve and I. Just silly boy stuff. Another adventure…with Chris. What would happen if we got caught? I can’t speak for Steve, but just like every boy throughout history, I would have looked at you dead in the eye, pointed at Chris and said, “he made me do it.”

It was dark and we were at the back end of the site. Chris picked the spot. There were bushes that blocked the view of the fence from the road. We had a small flashlight, a smaller keychain light, and a book of matches. We went over the fence. Chris went first.

I remember thinking “what about the guard dogs?” I envisioned two or three large german shepherds, running, panting, and a much larger rottweiler, drooling when he came upon us.

There were no dogs.

But there were definitely security guards. We had seen them at the front gate, which is why we climbed the fence at the back, They must regularly patrol the site? They are probably carrying nightsticks and large flashlights. We had to be quiet.

First set of stairs heading down in Roosevelt Island subway station today, courtesy of Bret Itskowitch

We made our way around to the front with not even a whisper. We were very close to the front gate where the guard booth was. At the entrance were these wide stairs going down to the platform, deep into the ground.

We were silent and didn’t use the flashlights. We did not want to be seen or heard. We felt our way down about one flight and Chris turned on the flashlight. It was large and arched, everything was cement. The stairs were wide and went down the middle of the archway, there were no railings. It was dark both above and below the bubble of light that came from his flashlight.

Today we know that the Roosevelt Island station is one of the deepest in the New York City subway system, about ten stories.

We headed down into the blackness. At the bottom of those ten flights was an atrium. Off to the side were more stairs, also without railings, descending to the platform. There were some lights on.

We made it down to the platform. It was very large and cavernous. It was damp. There was a single flatbed train in the station. An old diesel powered work train. It was stacked with big metal rails and railroad ties, with a little booth at the back for the driver. On one end of the platform, the entrance to the tunnel was blocked by a large sheet of plastic. There was construction debris and equipment everywhere.

With enough light to see throughout the platform, our comfort level increased, but we were still talking in hushed tones. We split up to look around. I wanted to see what was behind that plastic sheet, and take a look down the train tunnel. It was dark and had a musky odor, and there were lights hanging from a wire about a hundred feet into the tunnel. Steve lifted up some cardboard to reveal subway signs. Chris had climbed on to the flatbed train to check it out.

We were just looking around. We had descended into the darkness and it was interesting. Steve whispered “hey, come check this out,” and I headed over to where he was standing. All of a sudden there was this great, loud mechanical sound. It penetrated the quiet and echoed throughout the cavernous cement station, bouncing off the walls. It was a long VREEEP sound. It stopped and started again, two more times.

Where’s Chris?

Chris was on the flatbed train that was in the station. He was trying to start the train. There was a key in the ignition and he was attempting to turn the engine over. Thankfully, there must have been some clutch mechanism to give it diesel that he wasn’t aware of, so the train didn’t start.

“What the hell Chris?”

We had just spent the last 30 minutes or so feeling our way through the darkness, being as quiet as possible, worried about vicious dogs and security guards. We were still whispering when Chris decided to start the train engine, multiple times. At that, we literally flew out of there likes bats outta hell. Up the stairs, through the darkness, and over the fence.

That’s my friend Chris. The key was in the ignition, so why not? No fear.

As I wrote at the beginning, we all have that one friend. Maybe they have a particular passion, or they always say what they are thinking, or they have a unique style. Regardless of their uniqueness, they represent friendship. They are ours and we are theirs. If they are anything like Chris, they are always there for you. They have your back. We need to recognize that they give us a perspective we wouldn’t have without them. And like my friend Chris, they probably also make you smile, often. Not despite of their uniqueness, but as a direct result of that “different” way in which they behave.

This story was originally published by Bret Itskowitch on Medium. You can link to more of Bret's stories here.

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