Sometimes the contrasts of life can sneak up and catch us off guard. This past week, for instance, after interviewing prospective students and meeting with parents and Old Boys in exotic places like Hong Kong, Beijing, and Tien Jin, I couldn’t help but get caught up in the energy and enthusiasm of Asia. It’s no secret that a big part of the future will take place in that part of the world, and we need to figure out a way to prepare for and embrace that reality today. Like everyone else who has spent any time in that far away land, I find myself returning home, singing the gospel of globalism.
On the flight back to Toronto, though, I happened to watch Barry Levinson’s 1982 film, “Diner,” a wonderful flick about a close group of late adolescent guys, coming of age in the early 60’s in the grimy streets of Baltimore. It’s about gambling, sports, and dating, but more than anything else, it’s about friendship. Baltimore’s band of brothers is as flawed as the city they call home; yet despite the fact that these characters are immature, impulsive, and painfully sexist – even for 1960– they are a constant in one another’s lives. They are always there for one another, and always, too, in the background there is the diner, the psychic hearth around which they gather to reflect on life’s ups and downs.
(An aside: Some of the dialogue in “Diner” anticipates the mindlessly funny banter of “Seinfeld” which debuted just a few years later. You can’t help but think that a young Jerry Seinfeld dreamed up his own diner scenes with George Costanza and Kramer, while watching this film.)
Part of what unites this parochial group is their undying devotion to the Baltimore Colts, and it’s ironic and something more than sad that their NFL team deserted them and “Charm City” for Indianapolis, of all places, just two years after the film was made. We all know about Joe Dimaggio, but where have you gone, Johnny Unitas?
What strikes me – again, after a week in Asia and two hours in the “Diner,” is the simple truth that, while internationalism is intoxicating, it isn’t cost- free. To follow a path that takes you around the globe, by definition takes you away from your roots and from your friends.
There is a certain sadness to Levinson’s movie. Baltimore is crumbling, and the diner is decaying, too. Diners are now dinosaurs; they’ve been replaced by Tim’s or Starbucks or Second Cup. We’ll pay too much for a cup of coffee, but we do so, not so much for the drink itself, so much as for the sense of place. The coffee shop has become that “3rd option” — that extra location that compliments home and school or work.
Some of you here this morning, especially those of you from Europe, Quebec, South America, and Asia may have already had this experience – that sense of gaining and losing simultaneously as you venture far from home, and you may have your own insights into all of this. I’d like to hear what you make of this experience.
I’m hardly a cosmopolitan myself, but I remember Tennyson’s “Ulysses” who claimed, “I am a part of all that I have met.” I’ve had the good fortune to live in 3 countries, and while I’ve been enriched by this experience, Levinson’s film makes me realize — in the rearview mirror, or course, where most realizations tend to hide, that sometimes, in following dreams, we inadvertently sacrifice a sense of continuity, a sense of place, and a sense of security. These sacrifices may be worthwhile, but they are not insignificant, and sometimes we make them without giving them much thought.
The simple truth is that Hong Kong, Beijing, and Tien Jen have all blown the socks off dear old Baltimore. Things change. The Colts snuck out of town in the middle of the night. Ray Lewis won a Superbowl for a team named after a poem. We all move on. Today’s Peyton Manning plays for something called the Indianapolis Colts.
It’s also true that while it’s great to get an email from an old high school buddy, it’s still not the same as spending some time with him. Instead of paying too much for a chai tea latte at an overpriced Starbucks with our laptops in tow, most of us would rather share a plate of greasy fries with a friend – even in dirty diner in downtown Baltimore.