My Friend, My Adult Friend

Hal Stern
4 min readNov 16, 2019

Maria’s text is the pebble that triggers the avalanche of memories.

“You were with us in Atlantic City?”

No further context in time or space is needed; she’s referring to the Phish concert run at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, a night of many firsts. That date — October 29, 2010 — is indelibly engraved in my memory, as it was my first Phish show, and the night Maria first introduced me to her long term boyfriend George with the disclaimer “You’ll end up liking him more than me.” More important than my indoctrination into the traveling circus of Phish shows, the concert marked the night I made an adult friend.

Childhood friendships are primarily accidents of geography or alphabetization. Your neighbor’s kids, your parents’ friends’ kids, the kid you sat next to in homeroom or English class or were stacked next to in post-recess lines became your first social network, foisted upon you. I’m still good friends with Steve who sat next to me in sixth grade, but through no causal effect beyond “Sh” and “St” being alphabetically approximate. Adult friendships are more carefully curated, drawing on your network of networks, where you choose your friends over time based on interests and views and how much you make each other laugh. While childhood relationships travel down a somewhat linear path starting with those adult introductions, adult friendships start in the middle, coloring our historical friend selection and opening a window into the future. When you can move forward and backward in your relationship timeline, you structure relationships differently; your adult friend is an onion and an archaeological dig whose layers and levels are revealed through forward motion.

This is how I grew to know George as a true, generous, and wonderful adult. As one of our mutual friends remarked, he lived the lives of ten men: parent, husband/boyfriend, student athlete, entrepreneur, Army reservist, scratch golfer, friend, Deadhead, long term cancer survivor, and connector. You were lucky if you knew him in three or four of those contexts, but yet he excelled, in his own way, in each of them. He always and vividly brought some artifact that impressed you, while uncovering more of the backstory of just how he earned his adept nature and grace. George excelled in way that is so rare, the usual star diagram of skills blown out to supernova symmetry in all axes and measurement. As his friend you wanted to be gauged to that standard, not to be measured in his shadow but to be able to reflect on the company of a true “mensch.” Michael Chabon writes in “Yiddish Policeman’s Union” that it was “warming to be held up in that light,” and there is no better description of how George radiated the elements of friendship. For nine years, I believed that it was acceptable and even encouraged to have flaws, because we laughed, repeatedly, at them.

From that chilly night on the Boardwalk, George invited me into his traveling circus of Grateful Dead and Phish friends as if we’d known each other forever; his affiliation began as a kid at a Dead show and continued through several hundred of us singing “Ripple” at his memorial service. My first Phish experience, and perhaps his hundredth, were the outer skin of the onion. From there — sharing show tickets, pre-show dinners, introductions to the friends of friends of friends, we had a friendship that was a lake house and summer camp in intensity and memory. Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio sings about “the ancient secrets of eternal joy and never-ending splendor; the trick [is] to surrender to the flow.” That was George in concert mode; the flow wasn’t just music, it was a rushing current of love and fun and experiencing the network effect that makes those feelings grow exponentially. He never considered himself a super fan or entitled but was only there in his element, wrapped up in at least three hours of splendor, a favorite tee shirt and the company of good friends.

As I went to more shows with him, I began to keep ticket stubs, stickers, a guitar pick Icaught at a show with him, and the other ephemera that are themselves merely objects, but collectively form a long lived memory. They are taped, annotated and tucked into a small leather journal, my personal, carefully documented view into a decade of live music. I tried to repay his innumerable favors — I once snuck him into an event where our mutual poker heroine Annie Duke was speaking, so he could get an autographed copy of her book, and he had that childish, ear to ear grin of having being rewarded for truancy. The simple pleasures — a good drink, meal, music and friends, were balanced by his navigating the complexities of life — parenthood, competing interests, constrained time.

In just under ten years, George showed me ten men’s lives. There is an eleventh man, too, that was only exposed through his loss — he was a brother, not just to his siblings but to me and countless others. In so being he made me a better sibling to my own sister, a gift we will both cherish.

Maria’s text came a few weeks after his memorial service.

“I found his book of tickets stubs and wristbands, and I think he’d want you to have the one from Atlantic City”.

I should have known he’d keep that paper trail as well; it was another layer uncovered only when it was too late to share and compare our micro scale museums. I treasure highly tactile, personal memorabilia, like the rubles of my grandfather’s exodus from Russia, now joined by a wristband that simply references a famous hall. It is taped in my own book, out of chronological order. What should be first by all rights temporarily sits last, until this summer’s paper, and the next, and ideally the next, are carried on the wind from beyond the mountains to my desk, where they tell a story from the middle.

Pebbles and marbles like words from a friend
Make us hold tight but are lost in the end
When we’re alone we all seem to tend
If we find a marble in dust
To wish someone left it for us
” — Tom Marshall and Trey Anastasio



Hal Stern

By day: CIO for R&D at a drug company. Scalable computing, data privacy, performance. Non-day: husband, parent, phan, bass player, career coach and ally.