Friendship is an odd thing when you think about it. Sometimes you develop a best friend because of proximity. That happened with my first one, Jimmy Conrad, because he lived around the corner. That one ended when his parents split up and I have never been able to figure out why. My second one was Tom Cairoli. Unlike Jimmy who was two years younger, Tom was a year or so older. And whereas Jimmy was a dominant personality, Tom was a meek one. He lived in the next town over (New Milford). And I probably would have never met him other than that he was in my bowling league. Bowling was way bigger back then. And who knows how we became best friends, but we did. The poor guy probably still has emotional issues and scarring from the association. This is one of our stories.
As stated, Tom was meek. He was the son of a CPA and was well off. But instead of being arrogant and snobbish, he was mild and goodhearted. For some reason, that combination of traits meant that he always got the worst of our relationship. For example, he had this gorgeous girlfriend named Barbara. Barbara was one of those sprites with perfect skin and sparkling eyes. I was envious. But I shouldn’t have been. She was an awful flirt and loved to drive Tom crazy. Tom and I bowled together in one night league and Barbara would flirt with me incessantly. It wasn’t that I was a hunk or anything. It was just what she did. So Tom would have this ultra-pained and exasperated look on his face when this Barbara would sit on my lap in between frames. I wasn’t going to complain. But I probably should have been a better friend. Barbara ended up breaking Tom’s heart and I at least helped him pick up the pieces.
There was another time when he agreed to help install an eight-track player into my 1969 Oldsmobile Cutlass. He must have gotten the wiring wrong and when he went to give the system power, every wire fried to a crisp and almost took Tom with them. But Tom would always forgive such mishaps and he was always at my house, especially on Saturdays for hamburgers. And he always beat me in bowling except when there was money on the table and then I would take him every time.
This particular story is about the time Tom and I decided to go to Shea Stadium to take in a double-header between the Yankees and the Orioles. I am assuming that it was 1974 as the Yankees were still in their own stadium in 1973. I tried to find the exact date and nothing seemed to match up in either 1974 and 1975, but the memory has a way of playing tricks on you after all these years. Three things I am sure of: It was at Shea. It was against the Orioles. It was supposed to be a double-header.
Getting to Shea was no problem. Tom had this beautiful red Mustang with a white fur and leather interior. It was his pride and joy. The car would later get stolen (Tom’s second heartbreak). The police said they could do nothing even though Tom kept getting parking tickets for it over the years. Anyway, it was in this car that we went to the game and we got there with no problems. The first game was also no problem. Sadly, I don’t remember any of it. The drinking age was eighteen back then.
After the first game, a freak storm overtook the area. In Maine, we call that a gully-washer. It must have rained two or three inches in a half an hour. The rain stopped, but the field was toast and the second game was postponed. Disappointed, we filed out along with everyone else.
Once we got out of Shea, the ballpark was surrounded by this wide sidewalk and the parking lots were outside of that. Since everyone left at the same time, that sidewalk, though wide, became snarled with humanity. I mean we were moving about a foot a minute (or so it seemed). Nobody was walking off the curb and in the parking lot and that seemed stupid. Yeah, there was a puddle there but how deep could it be? Getting our feet wet had to be better than waiting in line going nowhere. So I tugged at Tom’s shirt and said, “Let’s go this way.” The phrase would become a long-lasting joke.
As soon as we stepped off the sidewalk and off the curb, we sunk to our thighs in water. Tom looked at me as if to say, “Got any other bright ideas?” I just laughed.
We got to the car and Tom was already ugly because we were going to have to sit in his beautiful car with its white interior with our jeans covered in dirty water. His mood did not improve any when we found out that the city had closed one of the bridges that was our route back to New Jersey. We were redirected through some of the seamiest neighborhoods New York had to offer. Tom was sweating bullets. I was too naive to know the danger.
We had to stop at a stoplight in one of those neighborhoods. That made Tom nervous. And I don’t know what possessed me, but Fords at that time had the automatic shifter on the floor between the driver and the passenger. Some evil shoulder angel made me slip that shifter quietly into neutral. Tom was too busy looking around to notice. So the light turned green and Tom gunned it. Except the car revved and didn’t go anywhere. He tried it again and the same thing.
By then, Tom was in full-blown panic. “We can’t break down here! Oh God, we just can’t!” Seeing that I had done enough evil for one day, I told him to put the danged car in drive and we would get out of there. His relief was mixed with murderous intentions as he looked at me. I had pangs of guilt that last in mild form to this day, but at the time, I laughed until it hurt.
Somehow, Tom remained my best friend after that even through the winter of 1975 when I went to New Hampshire for my first year of college. We picked back up in the summer of 1975, but I worked odd hours and by then Tom had met another gal he would later marry. My family hated this gal as she was everything Tom wasn’t. Apparently, she felt the same way about us and although we were invited over his place a few times, things drifted apart. I had also met a girl I would later marry and I never returned to New Jersey after 1976. Tom was the best man at my wedding in 1977 and he would still go over my family’s house for hamburgers on Saturday nights, but we drifted apart and soon he and my family would too. I tried to track him down via the Internet the past couple of years, but could not seem to pinpoint a Thomas Cairoli that fit the bill. But I’ll never forget him and memories like that aborted double-header at Shea.