Jake has been my best friend for over 31 years. Jake was the best man at my wedding. Jake is my family: in the last 17 years, we spent 13 Christmases and 15 Thanksgivings together. He was brother to me and uncle to my daughters—his goddaughters—in a way my brothers have not been. Jake saved my life two years ago when I had a spinal infection.
We met at Princeton. He was a junior; I was a sophomore transfer. We spent many afternoons—drifting into evenings—in Holder courtyard, playing guitar and backgammon, sipping Laphroaig, telling stories, affecting accents, and making each other chuckle. Later in life, we spent many afternoons—drifting into evenings—in his kitchen, cooking and solving crossword puzzles, sipping (he, wine; I, still whisky), telling stories, affecting accents, and making each other chuckle. We never argued, though our tastes were radically different: He preferred Brooks Brothers; I preferred Austin Reed. He preferred the "Classic" Wusthof knives; I preferred Wusthof "Grand Prix" and Japanese carbon steel. He preferred .45 caliber; I preferred .40. When he travelled, he wore a sportcoat and tie "to distinguish myself from those who don't." I generally dress for comfort. Clearly, he was the traditionalist and I the radical. Miraculously, such fundamental differences didn't lead to much friction.
Through the decades—medical school, graduate school, loves, losses, kids, deaths of close friends—our circumstances, hairlines and waistlines changed, but our friendship did not. Spending a weekend with Jake remained one of life's simple and nourishing pleasures: comfort food for the soul.
Jake encouraged me to use his house as a second home. He gave me the key, the garage door opener, and the alarm code. I was always welcome, without notice, with or without kids, girlfriend, dog, or groceries. Departures were always slightly wistful, with the inevitable exhortation "safe home."
Like any visit to a second home, no trip to Jake's was complete without spending a couple of hours clearing "science projects" from the refrigerator and throwing out grub-infested flour and food that had expired in an earlier millennium. Asked why he hadn't thrown out a 9-month old carton of milk, Jake would answer, "there's nothing in nonfat milk to go bad."
Jake was a gifted neurosurgeon who performed meticulous precision work under a microscope in sterile conditions. But outside the operating room, "tidy" was not a word that described him. He was a collector both of fine, beautiful, and functional things, and of rubbish. Little that entered his house left without the intervention of a second party. And while he bought the latest kitchen gadgets, cookware, and so on, he would not let go of anything that still functioned—or once might have. In about 1995, I fixed his ice dispenser by fabricating a part from a paperclip. To this day, it works just fine for me—but in the last 5 years, only one other person (not Jake) could get ice from it. Jake was quite proud of the fact that for about 15 years he drove a used Volvo his parents had given him while he was in college, and that he drove his second car for about 15 years as well—literally until a wheel fell off, along with the axle. At age 51, he was on his third car, which he had purchased used.
Jake's words and actions were quite different, as they are for many people. But while most people's talk is holier than their walk, Jake's walk was holier than his talk. He said the most outrageous, politically incorrect things—about gender, race, religion, handicaps, social class, ethnicity, and physical appearance. When I fell off the vegetarian wagon, Jake staged "The Black Mass of Delhi" to celebrate. He would quip provocatively that communism and universal suffrage were history's two greatest failed political experiments. If you could be offended, he would offend you—probably within 90 seconds of meeting you. But don't y'all pay him no nevermind, that's just the humor talkin'. He always acted generously, chivalrously, honestly, scrupulously, compassionately, with the best intentions, and without desire for recognition. Jake did not take the best care of himself, but he took incredibly good care of the people around him: made them feel welcome, fed and entertained them, gave them generous gifts, employed them or found them work. He even paid for cancer treatment for someone he appreciated who was uninsured.
Jake valued civility above almost everything. (He liked Heinlein's claim that "an armed society is a polite society.") Jake liked to debate, but in good humor. I never saw him fight with an individual—although he has said that somebody treated him "as if I'd knocked up his daughter and run over the family dog on my way out of town." However, he stood up for himself religiously against institutions, as a matter of principle, fighting battles nobody else would. For example, in protest, Jake withdrew from the Medicare system—and passed up several attractive job offers because they required him to rejoin. He had ongoing disputes with the hospital (over a demand to take call without compensation—not for the money, but because it was wrong), with airlines (over disingenuous explanations for flight delays), and the local country club (over links etiquette).
Jake loved—and excelled at—languages and accents. Solving the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in pen every week was a source of some pride. Mixing and matching accents was great sport. We called butter du beurre which, in Modesto became doober. So, obviously, peanut butter became goober doober. Calling each other "dude" and saying "howdy" gave way to "howdy dudie." And since hello was "howdy," goodbye became "ciao-dy."
The week before Jake died, I sent him a eulogy I'd written for another dear friend, who died in mid-October. Jake's darkly funny response was intended to be flattering: "Dude. I'm torn. I don't know whether I want you to eulogize me." I can't express how sorry I am that he lost his say in the matter. Ciao-dy dudie. Safe home.
P.B. Stark, 18 December 2008