I collected myself and started the car, noticing that I was still half-jutting into the road, fortunate another motorist hadn’t tail ended me.
Jason Sheftell. I wondered what happened. He was so damn young – and now his life was over? I’m almost his age – just 5 years younger. He could have been my big brother. Hell, in some ways it felt like he was. We had just talked to each other…when had it been?
It’s not that we were very close, great friends who saw each other frequently. In fact, I hadn’t seen him for more than a decade, since I worked with him as an intern at Yankelovich Partners, no, after that, at my sister’s wedding when he tore up the bar and charmed all the bridesmaids. But Sheff was always someone I liked and respected, a smart guy with a realist’s zest for life but the warped sense of humor to enjoy it all. Glasses and a smile under shocks of genius hair. I remembered he yelled at me once because the Chinese food I brought into the office for lunch stunk to high heaven, so he made me take it into another room. Hahaha Sheff! I was young and broke, so he gave me extra work organizing his apartment. I marveled at all of his books, running my hands over their spines, removing some and fanning through the pages. How could one person read all of these words?
It wasn’t until last year, a decade later, that we became reacquainted. I had just penned my first book and was told to seek out quotes or reviews from influential people. He, successful writer, former magazine penman at Playboy, Cosmo, Esquire, and Maxim, among others, and now, real estate columnist for the New York Daily News, was so high up on a literary pedestal to me that I had trouble gathering the stones to approach him. But he was one of the only professional writers I knew – or the only one who wouldn’t “big time” me.
We got in touch through Facebook and caught up. He’d had a tough couple years because of some family stuff, but “Things were pretty darn good now. Life is good,” he said. He asked what was new with me, and I shared that I was living in Costa Rica, writing, having sold all of my possessions and left the U.S. to chase that dream. His interest in my humble project was genuine, and more appreciated than he’ll ever know:
“Norm – What’s your book about? I hope it's fiction. First one? Very exciting. Agents, book industry, all really fun. Bottom line I feel is that good writing will always have a place in this word. McCluhan was right. Not the medium--the message. Not the time you write, what you write about. What did faulkner say in his nobel acceptance speech? Affairs of the heart. Missiles whizzing all around him bc of the cold war, and he's writing about the death of an old southern gothic family. I love absalom absalom. I love you're in Costa Rica finishing your book. Right now, what you’re looking at and hearing, must be pretty extraordinary. Make it count, every single word.”
His words of encouragement were golden, jumping off the page, but some parts I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, though sensed I should. Who was this McCluhan person? Missles were flying? At who? I mean…at whom? And absalom absalom? Was that a real thing, or a typo? I went out and found a used copy before someone could accuse me of not being a real writer, like Jason. He was right – it was incredible.
When my own book was done I’d returned to the states to promote it (or attempt to). He offered to read it and even write a blurb (which was pure charity, believe me).
Upon reading the first couple of chapters he sent me an email late one night, a scrap of affirmation to a hungry neophyte that tasted better than any 5-course meal I’ve ever had. He said, simply:
“It’s good. It’s funny. It’s human.”
I’ll take it.
He read the rest, liked it, and wrote a way-too-generous blurb. But I never ended up using it – it got prickly when it came time to put his words on the book cover because he couldn’t be quoted in an official capacity as a Daily News reviewer, just a friend who happened to work there. So I shelved his blurb and with that bit of awkwardness behind us, we settled in to a pleasant correspondence as two writers, and friends.
He shared thoughts on his job as a real estate journalist, which he loved:
“Being a columnist is cool. Very adult. They allow me to be an artist by going and finding neighborhoods to write about. It's like travel writing...you take a subway somewhere you have never been or seen before, and you let your feet and eyes do the work. It's not a job, it's pure bliss.”
I shared with him my version of pure bliss: dropping out of society, absconding from my material possessions, and instead traveling the world, exploring this grand play called “life” and and telling people's stories along the way.
“Ok, i knew i liked you when i met you, i knew we were kindred, but this calls for congratulations to you--dropping out, your own path, not easy. huge pat on the back. I'm here for u whenever you want. when you met me, i was heading there, and i went full force and sticking with it made me who i am inside and out. i still hurt bc of it. not married, dating amazing people, writing is my religion, literature is my philosophy.”
Wow. So that’s how you do it - you become it. I couldn’t learn that in any book.
We exchanged notes on words and bliss like that, on and off, for the next year. He told me about his time in France, reading Blazac, Camus, Henry Miller, flirting with absinthe and beauty. He revealed his secret to writing well - which was to have no secret at all, just douse yourself in life and set it alight and dance until you’ve gone mad and then commit it all to the page:
“I've never taking a writing class in my life. It’s just storytelling and craft. I've just read fiction all my life no matter where I've been.”
His advice helped, for until then I was a boat with tattered sails, no compass or direction. But more than all that, he was just a nice guy. Cool. Nothing to gain from little ol’ me, yet he took the time to be a big brother in writing. He said we definitely needed to get a beer when I was in New York next. I agreed.
“It's a pleasure to be back in touch with you, an honor to know you then and now. Call on me and when you like. Let's enjoy these times and communications.”
I did enjoy them, treasured them, even. I told him he was appreciated and how much his guidance meant to me. For that, I have no regrets.
Then we didn’t talk much for almost a year, but it was one of those things where it’s enough just knowing the other one is there. I’d moved to Nicaragua, sequestered in a local barrio, by the sea, with my laptop and a stray dog. Over those months I worked my butt off to improve, to learn our craft. I wanted to make him proud.
My second book came out this April and I sent him a copy, this time just as a friend. He emailed back a few weeks later:
“Thx Sir. U keep writing. U v good.”
And that’s the last I heard from him.
I pulled the car back onto the road, tires spitting sand. The smell of pines sweetened the air, sunlight fighting to filter through, still thawing the spring even in June, warming the great north in a hot blooming rush toward blueberry season, and then, inevitably, fading into another long, gray winter.
I glanced in the rear view mirror, half expecting to see his smile, his glasses, that genius hair, but I was all alone.
Rest in peace, Jason, and thanks again. You’re all heart, bro. You made your life count, every single word of it.