Each installment of “The Friendship Files” features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks with two friends who met doing AmeriCorps. Though they were only together for six weeks, they got matching tattoos at the end of the program, and have been best friends for seven years. They both say the bond has been important for their mental health and an anchor in times when they felt “social starvation.” They discuss how silly jokes in close quarters during AmeriCorps led to the deep, vulnerable trust they have today, why admitting that you’re lonely is so hard, and the value of a friend who will drop everything the moment you need connection.
Hiren Mistry, 30, a hospital clerk who lives in Long Island, New York
Jesse Newman, 26, an event security guard who lives in Denver, Colorado
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Julie Beck: How did you meet and become friends?
Hiren Mistry: We did AmeriCorps, which is its own little bubble: You’re given a team of 10 to 12 individuals, and you live, work, shower, do laundry, everything together. Before we went off to do projects with our team, [a bigger group was] going through training. I had seen Jesse around the campus then. I did not like Jesse.
Beck: Oh really? Why is that?
Hiren: I was like, Wow, hacky sack all the time. I don’t know—just too much energy. I have a lot of energy, so I don’t know why that was an issue for me.
Beck: We always dislike the things in others that we see in ourselves, right?
Hiren: Yeah, I guess! When it came time to [split up into teams], I found out that Jesse was on mine and I was like, This is not good.
Beck: Were you sensing resentment, Jesse? What was your perspective on this?
Jesse Newman: I didn’t know that Hiren didn’t like me. I didn’t really know Hiren at all before we were on the same team. The only thing that I had seen from him was an absurdly good impression of Gollum, from Lord of the Rings, at this silly little talent show. I didn’t have any feelings other than, That’s that weird kid who did that weird thing.
Hiren: Jesse, what were you, 19 at the time?
Hiren: I was a 23-year-old [at the time], so I was like, Great. This immature little kid from California, on my team.
Jesse: But you took me under your wing.
Beck: What was the project you ended up working on?
Jesse: For six weeks, we were working at a small school in very rural Colorado about two and a half hours southwest of Denver. It was very under-resourced, so we were just filling in the gaps—whatever they needed us to do. P.E. teacher needs help in class? All right, we’re playing games. “Oh you speak Spanish? The biology teacher has some kids who only speak Spanish; you’re going to biology.” Stuff like that.
Beck: What was the general social environment like in AmeriCorps, working and living together?
Hiren: We were staying in this really small church, nine of us in one cramped room on cots and sleeping bags. You can’t escape each other. And it was a town of 300. There was no such thing as personal space.
Beck: How did you go from knowing each other for hacky sack and Gollum impressions to being friends?
Jesse: As soon as we got to this church and saw this little town, it hit me: Oh fuck, this is like the next six weeks of my life. I better be friends with these people. That first night we were all hanging out in this very small room, playing cards or something. Hiren just kept laughing, and it was this very full-body, full-experience laugh. The kind of laugh that makes other people laugh, no matter what’s going on.
Hiren and I are both very silly people, always trying to find a reason to laugh ourselves and to make other people laugh. That was the foundation of us becoming good friends over that six-week period.
Hiren: We had to do laundry in the home-ec room at the school, and one morning we were joking around and I was using this old-man voice for no reason. On the board, Jesse drew this old-man face and goes, “That’s you.” That kicked off this joke where Jesse would call me Grandpa, and I’d call Jesse Progeny, or Prog, for short.
Jesse: We had three projects—after our first project ended, we were all terribly sad, saying goodbye and all going to different teams. For some reason Hiren and I kept in contact for the rest of the program, even when we were in different places. Which is not easy to do in AmeriCorps because you’re often in places where you don’t have Wi-Fi or cell reception.
At the end of our AmeriCorps year, Hiren and I got buddy tattoos behind both of our left ears. I have a tattoo that says Grandpa, and he has a tattoo that says Prog. Both of our parents were like, “Why did you do that?”
Hiren: “You’re probably never going to see them again, and on the very last day you decided to get a tattoo?”
Jesse: Hiren joked that “if we get this, we can’t not be friends. We have to keep being friends for the rest of forever.”
Hiren: Our friendship didn’t really blossom until after AmeriCorps. We just, for some reason, would still reach out to each other. With each conversation, we were talking about more and more serious subject matter. Through that I realized, Jesse’s someone I want to keep talking to.
Jesse: My dad died during our year in AmeriCorps. I didn’t talk to anybody about that, including Hiren. That next year after AmeriCorps, my mental health was really bad. I was talking with Hiren a lot, but not about serious things. My partner at the time was like, “Jess, you should utilize your friend who you’re talking with all the time. I know it’s hard to take a friendship that’s just about joking and silly shit and make it serious, but you need to.” So I did.
Beck: Hiren, from your perspective, what was going on in your life that made you want to invest in that friendship in a serious way?
Hiren: I’ve always wanted a friend. Up until high school my mom would never let me out of the house. I’m like, “Can I go hang out?” “You’ve gotta be back by six.” I’m 17, most of these kids aren’t going to start hanging out ’til late. So it wasn’t until college that I finally had a friend group. AmeriCorps was kind of like high school [for me] in terms of gaining social skills. Knowing what it was like to not have friends and watch everyone else have friends, [this friendship] meant something to me from the very beginning.
When I lived in Iowa [after AmeriCorps], it was really rough because I didn’t have any friends. I wasn’t as good at making friends as I am now. It was just really lonely. All I would think about were the times I spent hanging out with Jesse.
As much as I would joke around with Jesse and say, “We’ve got to be friends forever,” there was a part of me that was like, Well I hope this works out.
Jesse: A lot of people can have this mentality of “out of sight, out of mind” with friendships. I certainly do that too sometimes. It’s been seven years since we met each other, and most of that time we’ve been apart. But in the friendship that Hiren and I have, we both want to talk with each other and make sure that we’re doing okay. We don’t have that “out of sight, out of mind” thing.
Beck: Have there been milestones or decisions in your lives where you particularly remember your friendship playing a big role?
Hiren: At some point during 2018 or 2019, there was a girl I was seeing. It didn’t work out, and I was just super bummed out. I remember thinking, I just want to see Jesse. So I asked, “Can I come out?” They were like, “Yeah!” Ten minutes later I’m like, “I’m booked. I’ll see you in two days.”
With Jesse, I feel heard. I don’t feel like I need to re-explain it five different ways only to still feel like what I was trying to say didn’t come across. It always seems that Jesse is not too bothered by me harping on the same thing over and over again. Instead, [they ask questions] to try to better understand the situation. I know that when I’m venting, Jesse’s listening and is invested and engaged.
One of the biggest things that drew us together, on top of the silliness, is we’ve both experienced prolonged periods of social starvation and understand how much it messes you up to have no one. Even someone to just hang out with.
Jesse: I remember many times, particularly in 2016 and 2017, when my mental health was very, very bad. I can just say the same shit repeatedly, and Hiren’s not going to judge me; he’s not going to get sick and tired of listening to me. I don’t know many people who [can do that] without getting annoyed and being like, “Dude, I can’t listen to this anymore. Just go find a solution.”
Hiren: One summer I spent a week at Jesse’s in San Diego, at their mom’s house. Meeting Jesse’s family was a big deal for me, like, Wow, this is how close we are. It was also a big deal for me when Jesse came to my sister’s wedding. Jesse got to see what I’m like with my family.
Jesse: It was kind of funny to me to see Hiren with his big sister. Hiren’s four years older than me, so there’s certainly a dynamic of older sibling–younger sibling in our friendship. So it’s interesting to see his sister giving him a hard time about stuff.
Beck: What have the challenges of long-distance friendship been for you?
Jesse: If we don’t get to talk for like two-plus weeks, that impacts both of us a little bit. But we’ve learned to communicate with each other. Like: “Hey, I didn’t hear from you and because I didn’t hear from you, I felt this way.” Hiren started doing it first, like, “I just want to nip this in the bud before it becomes a big deal.” That’s been a challenge, but it’s also been a point of growth.
Hiren: [At first], it was more of an accusation, it kind of put the blame on Jesse. Whereas now, [I just say] “This is how I feel when I haven’t heard from you, and I know you’re doing X, Y, and Z, but this is why it’s important for me to hear from you.”
Even if it’s just that verbal ping-pong, joking around, [talking with Jesse] makes a lot of bigger problems feel smaller, because I’ve had some release. It’s like being surrounded by a fog and then it clears away. I can look at a problem I’m going through a lot more clearly, even if we just joked around the entire time.
This year, I’ve especially felt safe to say “I am upset and this is why” without having to worry, Is Jesse going to leave? Is this friendship over if I say that I’m upset? [I know] I’m safe. There’s no “Friendship over.”
Beck: What I am observing with you both is that you are not afraid to tell the other person when you’re feeling lonely. I think that can be hard.
Jesse: That’s true, for sure. If we weren’t okay, one of us would just send the other one a text like, “Yo, I’m not good. Are you around?” Like, “I just need someone to talk to.” I remember many times receiving a message like that and being like, Whatever I’m doing, done. I’m talking to Hiren now.
Hiren: Jesse understands what the majority of people who I interact with have not: that absence of socialization. When I say, “I need to talk” because I haven’t had anyone to speak with, I know that Jesse can relate to that, because Jesse’s been in that situation. That’s one of the main reasons that we’ve just gotten closer and closer. We understand the importance of having a friend around, especially a close one, and we feel a friendship is just as important as a romantic or familial relationship.
Jesse: A lot of [my other] friends and I don’t go there. I don’t know why. It’s hard to feel like you trust somebody enough. Whatever the reason that you find trust in another person, that’s undeniably special. Without this kid, I don’t know! It would be a sad life for me.
Hiren: Damn, I wish I could say the same.
Jesse: Shut up!
Hiren: For a lot of people there’s a stigma of admitting that you’re lonely, because then it’s: “Well what’s wrong with you?” It’s even difficult now.
Beck: What’s one thing you’ve learned from this friendship?
Jesse: This feels cheesy to say, but I’ve learned what it feels like to have somebody in my life who I know I’m always going to have in my life, no matter what.
Hiren: As a kid growing up, I never thought I’d have a friend. No significant other. Nobody other than family. And who would want to be friends with a guy like that? I’d look at people, when they’d use the term best friend. I was like, I want one of those. Like a kid at Christmas: “I just want a best friend, can you give me one of those? Can you buy those at Toys ‘R’ Us?” For the longest time, I thought, That’s just something that other people have.
One thing I’ve learned—and it’s scary because it’s that feeling of “too good to be true”—is, Whoa, I do have that. And I have had that for a long time. Being this emotionally vulnerable [comes with] the fear of, What if this wasn’t a thing anymore? What if Jesse died? What would I do? I have this thing now, but it also feels kind of precarious at the same time.
When I see other people who don’t have what I have now, I realize how significant it is. I have what other people are still yearning for.
If you or someone you know should be featured in “The Friendship Files,” get in touch at email@example.com, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique