RIP, Jack….Another Cuppa Java?

| February 5, 2011 | Comments (7)

(DEAR READERS,  Lest you think these pages are turning into an obituary column, I hasten to inform you: that is not the case. Yes, this IS the second RIP-titled column this week, but please rest assured, it is only a coincidence. There is small chance of another one…until you read mine !)

I am writing today about my late friend, Jack Jacoby, seen on the right in this photo taken a few months ago in front of Grant’s tomb. At the time of the  outing,  a five-minute uphill hike from his apartment in the Columbia University Faculty Housing on Riverside Drive, Jack was 89. He passed away on a Saturday in  the early hours of 11 September 2010.

Over the past twenty years I visited him often. We would usually go out – to a museum or a restaurant or, weather permitting, to the park, but as time passed Jack seemed less inclined to venture out into the world. It wasn’t a question of physical decrepitude. Nearing four score plus ten, he ascended stairs like a ballet dancer even though he was a pack-a-day Pall Mall smoker.

It was just that he had grown tired of  living. With a smile on his face, he would tell me, “Sam, it’s been a good run, these years of my life. I’ve been everywhere and done almost everything I wanted to do. Now I am ready to go…. I hope it’s soon. I pray for  release everyday.”  Ever the man of Asia that he was – he had lived in Japan and was an Asian language specialist –  Jack likened himself to a Confucian figure who chooses, in his wisdom, to withdraw gracefully from the world at the right time, troubling no one and leaving behind him  good works and happy memories.

Good times and accomplishments to be proud of,  he had in spades. As a librarian with a speciality in East Asia, he  left his  innovative imprint on some of the major university and museum libraries in the United States and Mexico. 

His friendships ran deep and wide. Who else would bother, at the crack of dawn, to  fish a friend out of jail as he did for me after I had spent a night in the unfriendly precincts of  the Chinatown Center Street hoosegow  where forty inmates in a tiny cage  fought over ten baloney breakfast sandwiches  and I was lucky to emerge unpulverized  by  the drug dealers and wife-slammers who shared my cell ?

And who else would be invited to join a friend and his new bride for a  honeymoon  a trois, as they wended their way,  romantically, through European picture postcard destinations ? Only Jack could do that.

My favorite memory of Jack occurred on a rainy Saturday, much like today when I write these words, looking out my window at gloomy February. As was my custom when I visited 560 Riverside Drive, I would ring his bell and, once inside the apartment,  head directly to the kitchen. I would  make very strong coffee for us before settling in across from him at his table in the living room next to a huge window over-looking the Hudson River. The table was white plastic, a small, round 1950s garden patio piece of furniture he had found on the street one Thursday night when people put out all sorts of interesting trash for collection. Many of the items in his apartment were remnants he had picked up from the sidewalk including three huge, beautiful,  glass globes he had rescued from a Columbia University demolition site. They now housed lights that glowed mysteriously, giving an other-world shimmer to the statues and figurines that lurked throughout his apartment.

Often we  sat in silence just drinking our coffees with Jack smoking one Pall Mall after another. Even with the living room window cracked open a bit to let in some fresh air,  the distance beween us became thick with blue haze,  Jack’s face through the smokey blur resembling an image out of a misty 19th century photograph.

In the background,  barely audible, there was always music playing on the radio,  usually a jazz station em-ceed by the velvet-voiced  savant of tunes,  Jonathan Schwartz.  That Saturday a program of  early Sinatra music  was on the air; those  1940s songs when Frank’s voice was high, clear and boyish. Ears full of the “Chairman’s”  lyrics,  my eyes swept the panorama  beyond the living room  window; looking down to the river below I saw tiny sailboats jousting with tankers, the cliffs of New Jersey in the distance. Returning to the smoke-choked enclosure, my gaze fell on a shelf  housing rows of ancient volumes, their  leather spines inscribed in Chinese.

I asked Jack what these books were about and, replying that they were the ancient sayings of  Confucius, he  reached up to the shelf,  selected one and started to translate the timeless passages  for me.  As Sinatra crooned an early ballad somewhere beyond the billowing Pall Mall clouds , I think he was singing “Nancy with the Laughing Face”,  Confucius  spoke to me across the centuries. What more could you ask for on a rainy Saturday in New York City ?

Another cup of coffee, Jack? I like your blend !

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Comments (7)

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  1. Candace Laws says:

    I met Jack many years ago while a guest of Sam’s; we had breakfast together. A charming and erudite man, I wish him peace and contentment in the hereafter. His was a great gig. RIP.

  2. Petra says:

    Beautiful, wistful, insightful musings. Your blog is a true pleasure to read, Sam!

  3. DIck says:

    This blog has an elegant layout I like very much. And the content reveals a sensitive writer with a feel for the significance of the small things in our lives. I look forward to reading more.

  4. Joe says:

    Dear Sam,

    What a suprise! I have been looking for you just to get in touch to say thank you for what you have done for me. Just to refresh your memory does Kyi-Taung-Kan near Pyinmana in Burma ring a bell.

    Please drop me a line on my email. I am now in South Africa.
    Best wishes,
    Joe

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