In memory of George Z. Bakuli (1984-2014)
I loved nothing more in those days than seeing Amherst through the eyes of outsiders. I'd bring my worlds together, old and new, and watch them collide and dance in what was always a wildly-entertaining and insightful ballet of social dynamics, raw and unscripted. It was a hobby I'd developed, almost an obsession, reserved for the worthy few fortunate enough to get the invite. A damn fine way, I'd found, to get some perspective on where I came from. And in turn, who I was.
"Come see Amherst," I'd say, when I was ready. When they were ready. "You'll like it."
And so it was with great anticipation that I brought my first college friend back to the Happy Valley. Together we made the pilgrimage from the coarse provincial sprawl of Boston to the warm and beckoning and insulated hills of Western Mass. He was my roommate at the time, and we drove. He was excited, as fascinated as all my new friends were by my tales of this far-away place... a land of academics and artists, of thinkers and believers... where the chillness flowed like wine, where the schools were many, where the trees were plenty. A small and welcoming town, at once of heart and grit. A town that flew the flag of the United Nations from its highest steeple while quietly boasting the best pizza in the known world. (And its tallest library.) It was The People's Republic. A special place. A smart place. A strange place. And I had inadvertently become its biggest ambassador.
A small and welcoming town, at once of heart and grit.
It was on this trip that Mr. Bakuli and my roommate and I and a couple of other '02 grads sat around my parent's basement playing cards one evening. (If you were there, remind me. It wasn't either of the 2 evenings of the broken chairs, though. Those were separate, younger, earlier days.) You-call-it poker, $20 buy-in, unlimited refills. It was the tail-end of our mighty Poker Era, and us Amherst-ites, like every other 19-year-old in the country, fancied ourselves card players. And whenever 5 or more of us would be in town around the same time we'd fall right back into our rituals... It took a mere two or three (pre-cellphone-era) calls each, and BAM, we had a game. It was the world we knew.
When the poker bug had hit our town a few years before, it hit hard. Swiftly and without warning, it consumed us, many of us. This dangerous new world of risk and reward, of bravery and deception, of highs and lows, of laughter and anguish.. the thrill of winning a hand, the devastation of being beaten. There were countless hours spent playing in those years, often until sunrise... carrying our quarters in plastic baggies from game to game before any of us had invested in plastic chips. We, many of us, loved this game. We lived for it (as much as a teenager could live for anything) and the transient micro-communities it created... a table, a handful of friends, and cards. That was all that was needed. At the core of the game was a whole new wave of independence it brought us, a new arrow in our quiver of awesome-shit-to-do-as-an-incredibly-hungry-underaged-adolescent. When we played, we focused, and all other thoughts of school and girls and family and life faded away as we came together. We got very close in this way, close to many others who we might not have otherwise. And in doing so learned about friendship, about conflict, about camaraderie. About money, about business. About dialogue, about humor. About being smart, about being stupid. We were fine-tuning our arithmetic skills with real-world consequences. We were learning a new way of socializing with one another (and yes, inadvertently nurturing some budding gambling addictions along the way), an entirely new way of hanging out. Not just because it was an "adult" thing to do, playing cards, but because it was our thing to do. We played weeknights, weekends, snow days and holidays. We rotated where we played. We played, and we played. Even those that didn't play but were around the games often fed off this strange and new energy... We were learning and growing so much, every day and night. And we ate it up.
And George was at the center of it. George loved his cards. He was a regular, always up for a game. Always.
An hour passed with little action. Bullshiting and youthful energy. There was no bedtime. There was no rush.
After graduating high school these nights had become fewer and further apart, and each all the more special. And on that particular night there were maybe five total, all fellow ARHS alumni plus my college roommate, whom I had given fair warning about the chops of Amherst card players. We'd had a head start, I had told him. We hadn't learned from watching ESPN (which at the time was only a year or two into aggressively televising poker). We had learned from one another, the ol' fashioned way. I'd reiterated this. I'd done my part. And the game went on.
An hour passed with little action, jovially we played and talked about who-knows-what... likely music and college life and how different the other side of Massachusetts was (SO different). Bullshiting and youthful energy. There was no bedtime. There was no rush. But George, forever hungry, forever the businessman, was keen to test the new blood at the table. Being the unknown entity in a card game can either be a great advantage or disadvantage, depending on what you do with it. And so slowly and methodically George began to feel out the outsider. He'd bluff hard, call hands he wouldn't have otherwise, taking calculated risks just to see behind the curtain. He'd bob and weave, prodding, sniffing, learning my roomate's every move.
We all knew it was coming. We saw the writing dripping down the wall. But there was nothing we could do. We all knew George's game well and knew one another's games well. I, trying to be a good host, attempted to help the newcomer as much as I could. We all did. And the few times we'd challenge George or stay in hands too late for the sake of my floundering friend, George would calmly back out. He didn't need to trifle himself with the us then. It wasn't part of the plan. He would get to us later, when he was damn ready.
Our efforts were futile, of course, and when George had decided the time was ripe, when he knew the outsider and his game through and through, he stepped on the gas over a couple of hands and it was over. My roommate bought back in quickly, and George again cleaned him out, just as fast. I, like George, tried to keep a straight face through it all. (I had tried to help him!) But alas, within just under an hour of starting the game (which was the equivalent of 10 minutes in poker-time for those of us used to playing 4-6 hour stretches), my roommate was cashless. Done. Defeated.
And George sat back with his massive pile of chips, poised and pleased, the king of the table. In the calmest and most effortless of ways, he had gobbled up everything the outside world had brought to him, to us. To our table. And the game went on.
I sat there amused by it all but equally torn, harboring a great obligation to entertain my now-bored guest, but also a duty to honor my roots and to keep playing. And in that moment I sat on the division of both worlds, old and new, Amherst vs. the world. Who knows how that particular game ended or how long it went on. We'd usually play until someone had won everything. Until the biggest single pile of chips or quarters had formed in front of one of us who would in turn walk away with a trivial yet hugely-satisfying victory over our peers. Or until the sun rose. It mattered not, of course, in the grand scheme.
The rest of the weekend went swimmingly, showing my college buddy "how we do things" back home. But for years he would remind me only of that night (he still does), only of that game. Whenever the 413 would come up back in Boston he'd tell others about "the night Ariel brought me home and some kid cleaned me out in poker in 10 minutes." And I could never help but crack up and shake my head and think of George. And remind my roommate that I had warned him about those Amherst kids... that they were a chill group, but smart. Dangerously smart.
I had warned him about those Amherst kids... that they were a chill group, but smart. Dangerously smart.
That is how I will always remember almost everyone I knew in Amherst, of any age, of any walk of life. Cool and smart, open-minded and true. And George was the ultimate manifestation of that balance. A huge heart and a sharp mind, keenly aware of the difference and the dynamics between the two. As fellow pad-bro Schillstien put it in his earlier poker-related memory, George was "this bizarre, incredible blend of prudence and childlike spontaneity... a perfect example of how life should be taken seriously and not seriously at all." It's a dance so few ever learn it seems. But one that came so naturally to so many I knew back home, and certainly to those I was closest to.
Despite that one tale, I struggled with pulling out and isolating specific memories of George. As I've told to friends over the phone in recent weeks, he was in what seemed like near every memory of mine from high school. A constant fixture in Amherst. Even as my college roommate had realized from his single night playing cards with us – and in turn helped me see for myself – it's nearly impossible to think of Amherst without George's face.
I'll be the twelfth person to mention his laugh. His boisterous moods. His more quiet and contemplative stares. His aggressive and fearless humor. His logic. His "logic." His warmth. His poker face. His ability to fit in where he so chose. His ability to be independent. His good taste. The melodic rising and falling and rhythms of his voice and delivery... a sturdy ship floating on swelling seas just before a storm. And the many days and nights hanging around town. The endlessly-frustrating yet raw and visceral thrills of watching the turn-of-the-century Celtics teams. Miracle Milt. The aimless driving in cars.. often accompanied by discovering the outside world through its music. The muted, half-serious formality of FBLA meetings. The pre-season ground-ball drills on the hallowed fields behind the wood shop. Rec-League hoops. The dish sessions on those quirky teachers who'd earned it. And our first meaningful encounter: a physical skirmish in Mr. D's 7th-grade homeroom (far too early in the morning for such things). The jokes, the long wandering nights, the lively debates and discussions inside or outside of class. High school.
We were a good class, a good group. And we were many.
The last time I saw George was at our 10-year reunion. After weeks of telling myself I couldn't go, I found a way to be there. Equal parts excited and anxious, I walked into ABC that night, navigated past the confused and overwhelmed doorman ("All good man, we're with the band. All of us, it's cool. You're cool. All cool.") and George was the first person I saw. Standing, grinning, greeting. The ultimate welcome. In an instant we were laughing. In an instant, home.
That night, with George and with all, hours passed and jovially we laughed and talked about who-knows-what... likely music and adult life and how different the different sides of the country were (SO different). Bullshiting and youthful energy. There was no bedtime. There was no rush. To many of us, it didn't feel like much of a "reunion" at all. Simply, the *next* gathering. A mere continuation of so many days and nights like it passed years before. We picked up conversations right where they left off, however long ago they had last trailed... whether that was 12th grade or middle school or 5th grade or earlier. Things had changed. Nothing had changed.
Later, the lights came on. There are laws for such things, for when the lights go on. For when the lights go off. But those laws weren't our laws (they never had been) and our laws told us to go across the street and get pizza. So that's what we did. A good many of us followed our instincts like hippos to water and found ourselves devouring pizza and owning the sidewalks and quietly mocking college kids like we had a decade before. We were in a time capsule and again George was right there in the driver's seat. Or at least squeezed into the front of the car. Somewhere up there.
It was a nice night, cool and breezy like I'd remembered so many New England Novembers. And as our numbers thinned George and I and a few others slowly migrated to the corner of Main Street & North Pleasant, the great intersection itself, the epicenter of town. We started cycling through more memories and the endless list of things we'd rather do together than whatever it was we were going to be doing the following day. And options for the night, naturally. There was talk of NBA Jam and parking lots and poker games and The Diner and the usual late-night basements, of the pad at la casa Sorcinelli. A check-list that was so ingrained in us, so easy to dust off after laying dormant for so many years. We asked around but no one had a Sega. We wondered aloud whose parents would be least phased by us wandering in at that late hour to hold court in their kitchen or downstairs like we once had. A phone call or two may have even been made.
Those Amherst kids. Cool, chill, dangerously smart. And hungry. Forever hungry. Another thing I remember about so many of my fellow Hurricanes. A shared understanding we had... this unspoken rule, another law... almost a way of life, that seemed so simple: There was more, always more. Why turn in when there are more rocks to uncover... more stories to share... more questions to answer... more laughs to be had? Squeeze the lemon. Milk the night. Stretch the day. George embodied this, I'd always admired him in that. It was a commonality I always cherished between us. Few things were ever finished. The show always went on. And almost always got better.
There was more, always more. Squeeze the lemon. Milk the night. Stretch the day.
The eve of the reunion was no different, and the clock ticked on as we stood on that corner. And finally, out of respect to our fatigued and travel-weary bodies, with a wink and a sigh we pretended we too were ready to call it a night. I offered to drop George and Jonah off en route to my brother's place in the woods of northwest Connecticut. First stop was for Jonah at his folks' place on Southeast street, then we banged a left onto Route 9, as the roads took us. And on that stretch, down to two and for the first time in the quiet, George and I attempted to catch up about "real world" things. Cocktail-party chatter of the empty, tiresome nature we had long ago come to detest. But we quickly caught ourselves and came to our senses and turned up the music and instead talked about how good everybody had looked that night. How good it was to see people again. Much more fun. Much more honest.
Just past the Applebees he directed me to take a left across the divide and I pulled into a hotel driveway I'd never been in. It seemed so shiny, so new. (It wasn't.) "The Howard Johnson, man?" I goaded him.
His laugh boomed and he made fun of my rental car in return. (Ah, the joys of exchanging jabs between old friends. George had always been as fine a boxer of the wits as they came.) An uninspiring little automobile it was, my rental, to be fair. More soulless than ugly, but nevertheless out of place. Again, a relic of the outside world... welcomed in our town, but quickly noticed.
Out of good form he invited me to crash in his room, on his couch or cot to avoid the drive. I cordially declined, terrified at the thought of the early morning it would entail. So we shook/slapped hands in our Amherst way and bade one other farewell, both realizing it would be a good long while before we'd see each other again. A good long while before we'd see many of those we saw that night again. But it mattered not, and we knew it.
The drive south down 91 was long and it was easy. The roads empty, surprisingly smooth. There was much to chew on, to digest, to smile about... as new memories of old friends slowly began to solidify atop of all the previous. And Amherst; the very soul of that little town as tangible to me in that moment as the cold air I blasted from the vents of my rental (to keep myself alert along the drive).
That evening had been one of my best experiences home, ever. Undoubtedly heightened by the long time away. A night that I'd gleefully describe to any and all who'd listen in the following days and weeks and months back in Chicago, and beyond. "Did you go to your 10-year reunion?" I'd ask, hoping they'd in turn inquire about mine. Hoping I could tell them about my town, about my people, about home. About why I'll never give up my 413 area code. About the reunion. With George, of course, as its bookends. It's stout and loyal and unwavering and perfectly-fitting bookends.
Good ol' George. Our friend, our president. Always and forever in the mix.
Mad love, my man.
This post originally appeared on ourfriendgeorge.com on June 12, 2014.