Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Friends Don't Let Friends Drive To The Airport

Growing up, I was never allowed to say no to anything. Anything. I was scolded harshly around the age of ten because they heard me telling a friend on the phone that I did not want to come over to play. They said that if anyone, at any time, asked you to do anything you had to say yes. So they made me call her back and tell her I would come over after all. And that was just for an afternoon of sitting around her house goofing off.

If anyone at church asked my Dad if I would babysit, the answer was an automatic yes from him. Whatever I had planned did not matter and had to be cancelled. Why? Because someone else wanted something done, and what I wanted was completely irrelevant. Other people always came first.

Of course, as a teenager I was expected to say no to boys, drinks, drugs. If there was the remote chance some fun might be had, the answer was "no". But never, never, never could I put what I wanted ahead of anyone else. Ever. There were no exceptions.

The second inviolable rule was that I was never supposed to ask people to do things for me. I always had to take care of what I needed, by myself for myself. Asking for help was a last resort. Just before death, but not much sooner. This one my parents taught by example more than lectures. But it still came through loud and clear. Asking anyone, even family, for help was embarrassing and to be avoided at all costs.

This kind of selflessness can work in a closed system. A church congregation, a small town, a family. A neighborhood. Where there is accountability, if someone doesn't help out when it's their turn, there are consequences. But in the far flung wilds of Los Angeles, friendship with the wrong people can be a time sucking, energy draining succubus.

For years, my "friends" would call and ask me to drive them to the airport. Help them move. Take off from work to help them through a crisis, only to have them miraculously recover as soon as I got there because they just got called for an audition, and isn't it exciting and do I mind if they rush off. So now I'm an hour from home and have just cancelled $100 worth of work that I badly needed the money from. And they'd always say, as they ran out the door, that we'd get together soon, have lunch, dinner, see a movie. Thanks, and we miss you soooo much.

But these folks only ever called when they needed something. To borrow my ex's truck to move a refrigerator. To borrow my sleeping bags or a tent. To stay at our place for a month or two or three.

It's not entirely their fault. I was trained, early on, to answer the phone in a certain way. When someone called, no matter what I was really in the middle of, if they said, "What are you doing?", the ONLY acceptable response was, "Nothing. What do you need". And that was my cue to immediately drop everything and change all my plans to make sure that I helped them out. Now, you should realize that what they asked me to do could have been completely pointless, and I could have been in the middle of something truly life and death. That did not matter. Slap a bandage on the bloody stump and hurry over to their house.

There were endless lectures about this when I was little if my folks didn't like what I said on the phone, or how I said it. You never, ever admitted to being in the middle of anything if someone asked, because then they would feel bad that you were going out of your way. And that would be rude.

The only time you could turn them down was if you were already loaded into the ambulance on your way to the emergency room and you were too sick to tell the medics to unstrap you from the gurney. Or you were dead and couldn't be revived just long enough to babysit their two year old.

It got so bad, the people who called me over the years eventually assumed I never did anything except sit at home, doing nothing all day long, and so was free to do whatever tedious thing they didn't feel like dealing with. Why shouldn't they? No matter what time they called, day or night, I always said I was doing "nothing". How were they supposed to recognize that for the bald-faced lie that it was?

I am embarrassed to admit how long it took me to stop answering the phone that way. Decades, people. Literally decades. Plural. And I'm pretty sure my parents would, to this day, be horrified to know I've stopped. But they'll never find out, because for family, "Nothing, what do you need?" is still the only answer.

It only really hit home how one sided this was with my alleged friends when, one day, I was the one who needed to go to the airport. I had driven each of these friends to and from LAX on many occasions. In the middle of the night, at rush hour, on major holidays, last minute when they forgot to get someone to pick them up. It could take an hour or more to get to LAX from where we lived. But that didn't matter. Any time, day or night, I dropped them off and picked them up, waited for the airlines to track down their lost luggage and drove them home. But the one day I needed to go to the small airport not 10 minutes from our apartments, not a single one of them was willing to take me. Phone call after phone call, friend after friend.

It's not that I was only doing these things over the years so that I'd get something back. But when you do, say, 20-25 favors for someone and then you only ask them for one favor, one time after several years of doing anything and everything they ever called and asked you to do. And their answer is "No, I'm kinda busy today. I really need to get some laundry done". It's a wake up call, and one I heard loud and clear.

I still do favors for friends, or even strangers. And if there's a crisis or they're in tears of course I always drop whatever I'm doing and run over to help. But I don't, for example, cancel a day of paid work to sit around and wait for their cable guy to show up so they can go to the beach with their other friends. Um, not that I would ever have done that. Not more than once, anyway.

I have fewer friends these days. But the ones I do have would always drive me to the airport. Now I just need to learn that it's OK to ask them to.


At 12:28 AM, July 26, 2006, Blogger paulo said...

I was clicking on NEXT BLOG and I stopped on this one because the little blurb on the side said you were from "the Bay Area" even though you haven't lived there in over a decade. I only recently started saying it less, and I've been gone for 15 years.

I've found most friends are more like associates. The friends that are real friends, though, those are the best people in the world.


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