x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Observing life: The meaning of friendship

They might have weird or annoying habits, but real friends prove their mettle when it counts.

A few years ago, back when I lived in the States, I used to hang around with a guy named John Gonzalez, who had a habit of offering you money to do stupid things. "I'll give you 50 bucks if you go to work without any shoes on," he'd say. "I'll give you 30 if you go over to that woman and sing Happy Birthday." Mostly I declined, but there were times when I was tempted. I remember staring at a bottle of red-hot barbecue sauce one night, wondering how much damage it would do to my insides if I drank it. Gonzalez was prepared to pay $75 to find out. I took one sip and ran to the toilet in tears. Oh, how he laughed.

I don't think the aim was to inflict pain and humiliation. Instead, I think Gonzalez enjoyed watching his dilemmas play out. He'd study your face as you considered whether or not to smear spaghetti sauce in your hair before leaving a restaurant ($25), fascinated by the expressions of doubt and anxiety. He was either a student of human behaviour or a nut, it's hard to say. The weirdest thing about all this, perhaps, was the precision with which Gonzalez calibrated the pros and cons of his proposals. What he really wanted, you felt, was to create a situation where the conflicting impulses of risk and reward were so evenly balanced that the choice became impossible to make.

It was better yet if you were desperate for cash, if he could offer a desultory amount and still get your instincts in a twist. For instance: Gonzalez was the owner of a ratty old cat, named Cat, who smelled so bad it made your eyes water to be in the same room. I remember once he offered me $10 to wear Cat on my head, "like a hat", for 30 seconds. In the end I refused, but I was broke enough that the end was a long time coming. And that, for Gonzalez, was a victory in itself.

One thing you could say for him, though: Gonzalez was always happy to pay out - in fact, he was never happier. He seemed to derive a special pleasure from watching self-preservation succumb to self-gratification. It was as if he was setting out to prove a point. There were times I wondered what lengths Gonzalez might have gone to if he'd been a wealthy man, whether his offer of $20 to lick the wheel of a bus would have moved on to more ambitious levels: $10,000 to let the bus run over your foot; $10,000,000 to let it run over your head.

The last time I saw my friend, I was going through a bad patch. There had been an illness in my family. I had to fly out of the country. I couldn't afford a ticket. "How much do you need?" Gonzalez asked me one night. I waited for the "How bad do you need it?" but that didn't happen. Instead, he pressed the money into my hand, hugged me tightly and walked away.