Sunday, May 31, 2009

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Tell the story of one of your oldest and dearest friends

Tell us the story of how and why you are connected with one of your oldest and dearest friends.

One of my oldest and dearest friends is Henry Carlo Service, but to me he’ll always be Carlo.

We met when we were both summer student workers at the Department of External Affairs in Ottawa. He wore a suit every day, but it was usually club suit (this being 1988, he wore 1988 styles... think Bobby Brown). I wore t-shirts and shorts a lot, I think.

Hard to believe that was 21 years ago. But when I see photos of me with a flat-top and him with a jheri curl, I accept it really has been more than two decades. (The photo is much later, from my wedding day in 2005.)

We really didn’t hang out at the time; we didn’t connect much at the time and two years later we admitted to each other that we’d feared the other was a sell-out. Even typing those words now makes me laugh at both the absurdity, given what I know of Carlo, and the stupidity of (in my case) an 18-year-old’s socio-political prejudice.

But the next fall Carlo and I were in the same Intro to World History class at the University of Alberta, and we formed a mini-caucus in the class on African issues, dueling as necessary with goofs, and the following year, because of him, I got involved with the Caribbean Students’ Association which was host to fascinating, extremely loud discussions on Africentric issues in the late 1980s.

Keep in mind the times: Oprah was still a little-known talk show host, but Spike Lee was the most controversial and important American film-maker with the 1989 summer release of Do the Right Thing; Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions were leading the development of political hip hop, with a range of artists including X-Clan, Queen Latifah, Kool Moe Dee, Ice-T and Ice Cube who included songs with socially-relevant lyrics andon their records. Africa medallions, kente cloth and fezes were common, as were t-shirts with Africentric images and slogans. The beginning of 1990 saw the release of Nelson Mandela and the beginning of the end of (formal) apartheid.

So it was the hey-day of the Africentric Consciousness Movement—film and music and politics expanding synergistically. And so it was for my intense friendship with Carlo.

He and I—although we look nothing alike (he’s a way better looking dude than I ever was, damn him)—were together so much that many people thought we were siblings. We recorded a hip hop song together... planned and spoke at anti-apartheid and anti-racism rallies together, and we even ended up dating the same woman (not at the same time, of course) which ended up very badly for one of us.

But throughout it all, I saw what a magnificently warm, dedicated, honourable man he was. And also the funniest guy I’ve ever known, the only person who can make me gasp for breath from laughing so hard. He’s the best story-teller I’ve ever known, too—I could probably fill books if all I did was put a microphone in front of him and asked him to tell me about all the battles he fought in defense of other people in his work as an attorney, a public school teacher and an office worker.

He’s also an excellent father, and I’ve been inspired as a father by the example he sets, his gentleness with and dedication to his children.

When we were separated by geography for many years, I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to reconnect. Sometimes you find you’ve got nothing more than nostalgia, and that’s a painful and doomed way to try to restart a friendship.

But when I visited Carlo in 1997 in Kansas City after five or six years apart, I was amazed at how we simply restarted as if no time had passed, discussing new issues in the news, our relationships, our defeats, our victories. I was honoured and moved to find that we could talk with each other about the pain beneath the anger in our lives... that we could speak as older, more mature men than we were when we'd first connected. That we could share some of the worst because we already shared the best. That we could trust each other with our vulnerabilities and wounds.

Sometimes a dude is your friend, but you don't know if you can reach that level, and if you didn't in the beginning, you don't know if your friendship can turn that corner to become a far richer, deeper friendship. Ours did.

And that's why the character of Yehat Bartholomew Gerbles in my first published novel, The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, is in part based on Carlo. Certainly the intensity and quality of the friendship--the brotherhood--between him and Hamza and is based on Carlo's and mine.

I told him once, years ago, that I’d always been Robin to his Batman. He told me, in surprise, that he’d thought he was the one who’d been Robin. Amazing.

Doesn’t matter. He’ll always be a hero to me.

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So now, tell us the story of how and why you are connected with one of your oldest and dearest friends.

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