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Best of friends: A photographer documents lifelong bonds made on Long Island

Snapshot from "The Boys" /powerHouse Books Rick, left

Rick Schatzberg left North Woodmere for good in the early 1970s. He was bound for college in Ohio after graduating from George W. Hewlett High School a year before his peers, at age 17. But in the ensuing 50 years Rick, now 66 and living in Brooklyn Heights, has never left behind the enduring friendships he formed with 13 other boys who together attended Woodmere North Junior High School.

This tight circle of friends, who still call themselves "the boys" even as they turn 67 and 68 this year, forged lifelong bonds as the first generation of children to grow up in Long Island’s nascent suburbs. They bonded over quintessential 1960s experiences, like going to the Woodstock and Watkins Glen rock festivals, but also through ordinary kids’ stuff like stickball games and sleepovers, schoolyard scraps and bike rides to Green Acres shopping center in Valley Stream and basement parties.

"The thing that binded us early was counterculture," Rick said in a Zoom interview. "At 13 or something, we were listening to Bob Dylan and the Stones, to John Coltrane and the Blues — clearly an influence of some older siblings — and some early dabbling in drugs before our peers, pot at first."

The group also grew closer as they aged, attending one another’s bar mitzvahs, graduations and weddings.

Like their Boomer peers, they have kept in touch during the pandemic via texts and email, while also longing for a return to face-to-face reunions.

Rick Schatzberg, photographed for the book by Rick
Snapshot from "The Boys" published by powerHouse Books
Snapshot from "The Boys" published by powerHouse Books
TITLE IMAGE: A snapshot from "The Boys" (powerHouse Books) of Rick, left, and Mitch. CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE: Photographer Rick Schatzberg conceived of his documentary-style book "The Boys" with this lifelong friends photographed with their shirts off, to show the changes to bodies on the brink of old age — “warts and all.” | Photograph by Rick Schatzberg. A vintage photo shows Rick, center, and John, right. | Photo from "The Boys" (powerHouse Books). North Strathmore Street in North Woodmere, where Rick and John grew up. | Photo by Rick Schatzberg

Gathering as men

Although they grew apart geographically, they had gathered often by twos or threes at one friend’s home in Lawrence. Larger reunions began in the late 1980s with men-only weekends that Rick hosted at his second home, a modernized Victorian house on a former farm in Norfolk, Connecticut.

The most recent boys weekend happened three years ago. At these larger gatherings, communal meals are prepared and eaten to a streaming classic rock and jazz soundtrack, whiskey and beer are sipped by the fireplace, and the boys retell their favorite stories. Like the one about the fistfight in 1984 between Jon, one of the boys, and his brother, Michael, after Jon got married at The Sephardic Temple in Cedarhurst. The brothers had patched things up so Michael could be Jon’s best man, but the truce ended mid-reception after Michael allegedly punctuated his toast with an expletive, prompting Jon to throw the first punch.

"The fight ended pretty quickly," Rick said, "because they were pulled apart by friends and relatives. So I guess you could call it a draw."

The wedding fistfight is among the memories recounted in a photo book inspired by the group’s lifelong friendships. Rick was working on the photo project as his thesis for a master of fine arts at the University of Hartford in Connecticut when tragedy struck. In May 2018, Jon, who had struggled with substance abuse, died at 64 of a drug overdose. Eddie, another one of the boys, died of a heart attack about nine months earlier.

The news of their deaths was "not a surprise, but it was still a shock," Rick said. "I had heard [novelist] Philip Roth talk about the shock of when friends die. You expect your parents to die, but no one ever prepares you for your friends dying. So when it happens, it’s a shock."

Rick continued, "When they both passed away in that time frame, I sort of came to the quick conclusion that I really want to start documenting my friends in a respectful and serious way while I still can."

He discussed his photo project with the friends while making a shiva call after Jon’s death. He would travel to each of their homes to photograph them with a large-format camera. They had the option of wearing a shirt or robe for the photo shoot, but for the purposes of the project Rick preferred they be photographed with their shirts off, to show the changes to bodies on the brink of old age — "warts and all."

The finished book, "The Boys" (powerHouse Books, 2020), was published in December.

"I wanted to show our vulnerability, what we look like, what our skin looks like," Rick said. Many agreed to bare their upper torsos. "It’s definitely not a group of guys who spend a tremendous amount of time at the gym, but I think people were cool with showing who they were," Rick said.

In addition to aging, the photos reveal tattoos and scars.

John, photographed for the book by Rick Schatzberg,
Snapshot from "The Boys" published by powerHouse Books
Snapshot from "The Boys" published by powerHouse Books
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE: John, Rick’s oldest friend, said of growing up on Strathmore Street, “We moved in right when I was born, 68 years ago, and it was still potato farms. A lot of houses in the neighborhood weren’t even built yet” | Photograph by Rick Schatzberg. At a Halloween party in the '70s, John, left and David, playfully "smoke" carrots. | Photo credit: "The Boys" (powerHouse Books) Random time spent together cemented friendship among "the boys"; in this photo, David is far left, and John is in the background. | Photo credit: "The Boys" (powerHouse Books)

Pictures tell story

The book took a year and a half to complete as Rick traveled to photograph the friends. At each shoot, he gathered vintage photos from scrapbooks and albums of the friends in their earlier longhair, tie-dye, counterculture days, to include in the book. One of the photos captures them coyly lighting up and pretending to smoke raw carrots at a ’70s Halloween party.

As part of the book project, Schatzberg and his friends agreed that only Rick’s last name would be used. The aim was both to protect privacy as well as give the narrative a sense of universality, Rick explained. In keeping with the book, Newsday is also not using the last names of the men.

Rick, who wrote the text interspersed with the photos, reveals his sentiments about North Woodmere early on in the book: "We’re from nowhere. A place with no history, at least one that was explainable to my friends and me."

North Woodmere actually does have a history, although it is relatively brief. Housing developments were built there in the 1950s and ’60s on land that was formerly agricultural or owned by the Queens County Water Co. The new single-family homes sold for between $18,000 and $30,000, said Millicent Vollono, a retired librarian for the Hewlett-Woodmere Public Library and author of "The Five Towns" (Arcadia Publications, 2010). The new homeowners "were generally World War II veterans and their growing families, who were moving from the city," Vollono said. "Their children, the Baby Boomers, grew up in the more affluent suburbs and had the ability to experience the cultural life of the city — the1964-65 World's Fair, museums, rock concerts and the counterculture of the sixties."

When the boys’ families began moving into the community in the early 1950s, the area wasn’t called North Woodmere, but was part of Valley Stream, said John, of Long Beach, who retired after selling a confectionary business owned by his family.

John, 68, Rick’s oldest friend, said of growing up on North Strathmore Street, "We moved in right when I was born, 68 years ago, and it was still potato farms. A lot of houses in the neighborhood weren’t even built yet." Most of the friends lived on neighboring streets except for Mitch, who lived in a section of nearby Valley Stream zoned for the same schools.

"If you’re looking for the genesis of how the group coalesced, Ricky [Schatzberg’s nickname in the group] and I lived on the same street, and our parents were friendly," John explained. "Ricky and I were together before we could even talk. We were literally put in the crib together, and we played in the sand before we could walk."

David, photographed for the book by Rick Schatzberg,
Snapshot from "The Boys" published by powerHouse Books
Snapshot from "The Boys" published by powerHouse Books
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE: David, who lives in Pittsburgh, was one of the last to join the circle of friends, meeting the others in the seventh grade, he said, “around bar mitzvah time." | Photograph by Rick Schatzberg. In this vintage snapshot, David appears on left. | Photo credit: "The Boys" (powerHouse Books). David, front row middle in this final photo, says that by eighth grade, "Suddenly the world shifted — this group became the center of my life.” He's picture here with John, wearing a shirt with horizonal stripes and David, to John's right. | Photo credit: "The Boys" (powerHouse Books).

'It was middle class'

Later, John, Rick and several of the friends attended Hebrew school together at Temple Hillel in North Woodmere, and they and their other future friends also crossed paths in classes and music programs at the Hewlett-Woodmere School District’s Ogden Elementary School in Valley Stream, and playing on the temple’s basketball team.

"I think it was probably a very unremarkable childhood," Rick said. "We were all from families where college was expected, it was middle class."

The friendship between two other boys in the group, Mitch and David, also began in childhood.

"We met in second grade because I kept making fun of his crew cut," laughed Mitch, 66, a retired New York State Court clerk who lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. After Mitch intimated that David’s hairstyle made him look like a girl, their recess spat escalated into a tussle that was resolved when a teacher took them back to the classroom and demanded they shake hands.

"Whatever she said to us cracked us up. I remember both of us walking out of there and having to hold onto the banister because we were laughing so much," Mitch recalled.

Things were getting a bit more serious by the 1967-68 school at Woodmere North Junior High, when the 14 friends began to gather in one another’s basements and hang out the school in a fenced area known as "The Pits." That year, as extraordinary in its own way as 2020, was marked by protests against the Vietnam War, a divisive U.S. presidential campaign, the assassination of Civil Rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — and the rise of the counterculture against 1950s conformity.

The men profiled in "The Boys" "were right in the midst of" the major events of the era, said Charles G. Backfish, 76, a lecturer in the history department at Stony Brook University and director of the university’s social studies education program.

Backfish, who lectures on 1960s and ’70s history and pop culture, was 25 when he began teaching at Smithtown High School in the fall of 1969, a few weeks after the Woodstock festival.

"Music was a very important part of the culture," Backfish noted, "and the sex, drugs and rock ’n' roll trilogy became part of it as well as we saw a more permissive culture emerge in the 1960s."

David, 67, a clinical psychologist in Pittsburgh, was one of the last to join the circle of friends, meeting the others in the seventh grade, he said, "around bar mitzvah time."

"By eighth grade we left most of our elementary [school] friends behind, because this group was more interesting," David said. "Suddenly the world shifted — this group became the center of my life." He quit violin lessons, which he said, weren’t "cool anymore."

Instead, the group devoured the pop culture. Influenced, perhaps, by older siblings, they read such books as "Steppenwolf," by the Swiss-born novelist-poet, Hermann Hesse, verse by the Beat Generation’s Gary Snyder, and introduced one another to recordings of the blues, jazz and the emerging rock scene. They went to The Band and Jethro Tull concerts at what’s now LIU Post in Brookville. "We saw a lot of old Blues men, like Bukka White, at Sonny’s Place," a jazz club in Seaford, John recalled.

Mitch said that his new friends turned him on to "artists and people in the world who I didn’t know existed," like the Delta blues that originated in Mississippi and "On the Road" novelist Jack Kerouac.

The teenage friends did their fair share of experimenting with drugs, in particular at The Pits or on camping trips to places like Harriman State Park or The Sam’s Point Area of Minnewaska State Park Preserve in Ulster County. They saw Marx Brothers comedies and cult movie classics, "El Topo" and "Performance" (both 1970) at the Mini Cinema, a former art house in Uniondale. Afterward, they’d hang out at the Sherwood Diner in Lawrence.

Mitch, photographed for the book by Rick Schatzberg,
Snapshot from "The Boys" published by powerHouse Books
Snapshot from "The Boys" /powerHouse Books Rick, left
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE: Mitch spent his Long Island childhood in part of Valley Stream that was zoned for the same schools as "the boys" who would become his lifelong friends. | Photograph by Rick Schatzberg. In this snapshot from "The Boys" (powerHouse Books), Mitch appears on left. In this the final snapshot, Mitch is on the right, with Rick. | Photo credit: "The Boys" (powerHouse Books).

Defining moments

And then there was Woodstock, a defining 1960s moment that took place when the boys were about 15. Rick missed going because he had to attend a wedding in Florida, but three of the boys went, including David and another friend who tagged along in an older brother’s Camaro.

When the Camaro got stuck in a traffic jam, David and his friend got out to hitchhike the rest of the way to Yasgur’s farm in upstate Bethel where some 500,000 music fans gathered for the three-day festival. David remembers the generosity of other fans who offered the boys water, food and "chemical substances." He remembers the lack of sleep and the muddy conditions and the "incredible" music acts — Sly & the Family Stone was his favorite.

Back home, the trio that went to Woodstock regaled their friends with their Woodstock adventures. Together they went to see "Woodstock," the 1970 documentary.

Fifty-one years later, David said of Woodstock, "If I had to pick something that cemented everything between us and the culture and possibilities of life and music, this was the peak moment."

Another group went together to the 1973 Summer Jam at Watkins Glen rock festival to see The Band, The Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers, John said.

After high school graduation in the early 1970s, the friends continued to meet, mostly in twos or threes. Most went to college and kept up the friendships, visiting each other during school breaks from SUNY New Paltz; Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey; Columbia University in Manhattan; and Adelphi University back in Garden City. In the ’70s, Ricks’s loft in downtown Manhattan became the popular meetup place. By the 1980s most were married, had kids and were working as professionals or business owners. Nowadays, some are divorced and some have grandchildren. Although two remain on Long Island, the rest have scattered across the five boroughs of New York City and farther, to New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Florida and Oaxaca, Mexico.

"Ricky has been the glue," according to David, although Rick himself gives other friends more of the credit, saying, "there’s different people who provide the impetus [for gatherings] in different ways."

David, who relocated to Pittsburgh in 1977 to attend graduate school and settled there, expects the friends to remain close into old age because, he said, "we formed a bond that created a very safe space."

We "have evolved and changed a bit as the years went on, but there’s a solid, solid core," David said. "Even though we did successfully separate from one another, it was not a severing."

Two other friends, Brad and Fred, whose portraits are also in the book, died in early 2019. Of the 10 boys who remain, Rick said, "there’s no immediate plans to get together" for a book party, "especially because of COVID."

But, he said, they keep in touch "all the time," texting about movies they’ve seen and new IPAs they’ve tasted.

As 2021 begins, and the friendships endure into their eighth decade, Rick said: "I do feel like there’s true continuity in these relationships even if it has been a while since we’re together as a group."

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