| October 6, 2011 | Comments (0)


A bit more than thirteen months ago – it was September 11, 2010 – my friend, Jack Jacoby passed away peacefully in his apartment high over the Hudson River on Riverside Drive. Jack was the quintessential Californian, born 90 years ago in Sacramento, schooled in the liberal halls of UC Berkeley and seasoned by the gentle social breezes of San Francisco.

We used to sit in his apartment on winter afternoons conversing over coffee, facing each other  through a haze of blue Pall Mall smoke. He would reminisce about walking down Telegraph Avenue looking up at the Berkeley Hills. One day as the wind howled up the river rattling his windows, I stated the obvious, asking him, ” You’re a Californian and love the Bay Area, so what are you doing here in this gray, cold city? You should be out of here and back where you belong! ” Jack’s reply was  gentle, but quick and to the point.  After a puff on his cigarette and a  pregnant pause for effect, he smiled and pointed to the river saying, ” That’s the reason !” Following his finger, I looked out the window – there was a sweeping view from the 14th floor – and saw what to me were the grim cliffs of New Jersey, increasingly desecrated by boxy high-rises. I wondered what  Jack saw in that panorama. When I pressed the point, he laughed and said, ” Chacun a son gout. ” Jack usually ended a discourse by making a point in one of the many foreign languages he spoke; Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, French, Korean and Greek to name a few of them.

I was executor of his estate and faced  a mountain of tasks, as summer turned to Fall in September 2010, that were, by turn, boring, complicated and back-breaking. The most immediate challenge was to empty his apartment and deliver it broom-clean so the building could prep the place for the next tenant. As each week passed and the deadline for vacating the flat loomed closer, I grew frantic as I contemplated the task facing me.  Jack had inhabited the apartment for nearly forty years and for the last decade of his tenancy had not cleaned the space. When we first became friends over twenty years before his death, it was a delight to visit him. As a librarian specializing in East Asian languages, he had collected thousands of books;  they lined his walls in orderly rows – Japan, China, Korea – and were interpersed with ancient pottery and curious miscellany including a large Christian crucifix embossed with a prominent image of  The Buddha. Jack explained in one of his delightful, rambling discourses on Asia, that during a certain period of  Japanese history when Catholics were being persecuted by the Tokugawa Clan, the Christians would continue to practice their religion clandestinely by venerating a  cross that had been disguised as a Buddhist object of worship. 

Jack was a lover of plants and the only person I knew who had success in cultivating a flourishing indoor garden. Pots of all sizes were artfully positioned about the flat giving it an urban jungle atmosphere. My favorites were the banana tree, a large sago palm and a massive elephant-footed plant that seemed on the brink of splitting the urn that held it but which somehow thrived and never burst out of its ceramic confines.

As a backdrop there was always music playing at a barely audible level, mostly jazz and 40s big band sounds and an indescribable odor permeating the rooms. Imagine a mixture of incense burned long ago, the slightly acrid smell of cigarettes, the mellow perfume of very old tomes and the avuncular body odor of an 88 year-old man. The apartment had what could only be called a Jack smell which varied slightly according to the seasons. At Christmas and New Year’s one could detect whiffs of slightly singed currants and brandy, the principal ingredients for his famous fruitcake which he would bake every December. Jack worked as a librarian at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue and would carry his fruitcakes by bicycle to the Museum’s annual holiday party. It was said that the Museum’s Director, Philippe de Montebello, and none other than the grande dame, Brooke Astor, were impressed by his baking skills and always took second helpings. Jack was also a skilled potter turning out scores of fine ceramic creations, vases, bottles, jars, plates and the occasional dragon or two. When he was potting, the apartment took on an earthy, pungent aroma reminding me of  clay hills after a Spring rain.

As time passed, Jack began a slow, barely discernible decline and the apartment began to change.  At first there was a noticeable accumulation of dust. It was everywhere – on the floors, the tables and the book shelves. Never fussy about neatness and order, the dust didn’t bother me in the beginning. In fact, it lent an other-worldly,charming, Miss Havershamish air to the place, making me feel I had entered a Ming tomb as I brushed tiny particles of dancing motes off the spine of an old Chinese volume asking Jack for a translation of the title.

Then he stopped watering the plants, their verdant foliage curling into morbid crispness. Always eccentric in its layout with his bedroom occupying the entrance area of the flat, when Jack stopped making his bed – and later even stopped getting out of it – his charming jungle pagoda palace transformed itself into a flophouse rendered almost unbearable  by the strong smell of urine. The shortest distance from his bed to any receptacle was the kitchen  and Jack began using the sink in place of the toilet for his eliminations.

In August 2010 Jack was taken away to hospital and then a nursing home where he remained till September 10. On that day he returned home with hospice care provided. A kindly, grandmotherish Carribbean lady was in attendance. It was hoped that being back in familiar surroundings with his beloved Hudson River in view, he might bounce back to some sort of recovery or at least  enjoy quiet comfort for his remaining days. The hospital bed was wheeled to the  window and cranked up to a sitting position. His return home was all too short. Jack expired less than 24 hours after reaching his door. The last thing he said to me as he lay in the bed looking out at the river, his eyes moist with tears, was, “Why am I living so long?’


Most of his orientalia are now in my house in the Bronx turning the parlor floor into an eery expanse of Japanese goddess statues,  Chinese apothecary chests, inscrutable folding screens, kabuki fans and a large lacquer abacus. Just when my own urge to get rid of  “stuff ” was cresting, I became the unwilling recipient of  an Asian flea market.

The paperwork connected with Jack’s passing seemed interminable, but finally after thirteen months I received what I hoped was the last bill for medical services rendered. The avalanche of so-called junk mail had continued unabated since his death even though I had made no further payments to the dozens of charities – legitimate and otherwise – that he had  chosen,  in his later years unwittingly, to patronize. I decided it was time to go to the post office and address the matter of stopping this tsunami of posthumous mail.

I queued at the post office and approached the clerk at her counter as she  nodded into a midday near-snooze. When I announced  I wanted to stop mail for somebody who had died, she snapped to a  state of alertness for a few seconds, murmuring,   ” My condolences.” After a decent interval of silence, I pressed her for what actually had to be done. Returning to a deep contemplation of her fingernails, she mumbled, ” It’s simple, there’s nothing to it; just tell the postman not to bring any more mail.”

I had brought a copy of his death certificate and another document indicating I was the executor of Jack’s estate expecting to be asked for something formal, some recognition that Jack had once existed and was now officially no longer with us. I had anticipated and somehow hoped there would  be a formality at the post office, a small bureaucratic flourish, if you will, that would dignify this one final act that could prove  he had lived among us for nearly 90 years.

It was not to be. The clerk had already turned her attention to other matters and was peering intently into her cell phone. I still haven’t decided if I will tell the postman to stop Jack’s mail from being delivered. His body was donated to science and the remains of his remains were scattered at sea. There should be a piece left of him to venerate and remember. Even the tackiest junk mail has a shred of dignity. At least it’s something you can hold in your hand. Something to remember him by. 





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