Transcript

472:

Our Friend David
Transcript

Originally aired 08.17.2012

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/472

Prologue.

Ira Glass

One of the first times I met David Rakoff-- this is before he started writing stories for the radio-- he invited me to sit in the window of a department store with him. He was playing Sigmund Freud in a Christmas display window at Barney's. And he was seeing patients in the window. David sat in a chair. I lay on a couch.

My mom was a therapist. David's dad was a psychiatrist. We'd both been therapy patients ourselves at some point or another, and so it was easy for us to play this simulacrum of psychiatry with each other. I don't remember we talked about. It was so long ago.

But I remember very clearly the feeling of it. David generally asking leading general questions like a real therapist would. How are things going? Why do you think you said that? It was easy to talk to him, and, unlike the real Sigmund Freud, he offered advice.

And it was surprisingly cozy, though one wall of the room that we were in was this plate glass window that faced Madison Avenue. The space was narrow and cocoon-like. The muffled street noise that leaped through the window made it feel more womb-like, if anything.

People on the street couldn't hear what we said to each other, so it was both public and intimate. I loved feeling close to him. I left wishing we could do it again. And we did, in a way. Nearly everything he ever made for our radio show was a personal act, made in close collaboration for public consumption, performed behind a plate glass window of one kind or another.

You may have heard the news that he died last week. He'd been on This American Life 25 times. The first time was in 1996-- just two months after we went on the air. The last was three weeks ago. He traveled with the show when we took it on the road and on tour. When the staff and some favorite contributors all had our testosterone levels tested as a stunt for an episode in 2002, David-- to everybody's surprise, including his-- was the one with the highest testosterone.

When my mom died in 2003, and for the first time we had a guest host fill in for me, David was the guest host. Because of that, I have a recording of him handling this next bit of business I need to do.

David Rakoff

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm David Rakoff. Stay with us, won't you?

Ira Glass

Today, those of us who make this radio show have the pleasure of bringing you an hour of stories by our friend, David Rakoff. David helped invent and define what our radio show is. And he was just a great writer. Lucid and funny and mean and big hearted. He was that way in conversation too.

In thinking about what stories to put on today's program, I realized that David has been on the program so often that we have stories covering most of the different phases in his life. We could actually line up the essays in an order and tell his life story. And we're going to that, at least for a bit here. As you'll hear, it is not a story with big, dramatic turns and surprises, but like the old saying goes, great stories happen to those who can tell them. These are very, very fun to listen to.

Act 1.

Ira Glass

So David was born in Canada. He talked about Canada and his Canadianness with me in an interview back in 1997, the third time he appeared on our radio program. He said that, actually, from the day that he arrived in New York City for college as a teenager, he didn't want to seem Canadian. He wanted to pass as a New Yorker.

David Rakoff

My tactics were to adopt a certain kind of world-weary, jaded, anxious neuroticism. And it was taken on as a cosmetic mantle at the beginning, until such time as you simply can't pull the mask off your face. Oh my god, it's stuck. And there you are years later, a jaded, affectless, neurotic, disenchanted sad person.

Ira Glass

I'm told that Canadians tend to know who else is Canadian who's famous.

David Rakoff

All the time-- everything. And to me is chemical. The easy ones-- Kate Nelligan, Hume Cronyn, Cowboy Junkies, Monty Hall--

Ira Glass

Monty Hall. Wait. Monty Hall?

David Rakoff

Monty Hall.

Ira Glass

The host of Let's Make a Deal?

David Rakoff

Yeah. Live and learn, huh?

Ira Glass

Who could be more American than the host of Let's Make a Deal? Even the name Let's Make a Deal.

David Rakoff

And yes, remember, Monty only facilitated the deals.

[IRA LAUGHING]

Ira Glass

Who else?

David Rakoff

Glenn Ford, John Kenneth Galbraith,. But here's the thing about knowing who's Canadian. There is a woman named Shania Twain. She is Canadian. I know that she's Canadian. I do not know who the hell Shania Twain is. I don't know what she does. And yet, for some reason, I know that she's famous in America and that she's Canadian.

Ira Glass

How did this come up? Did your parents talk to you about it?

David Rakoff

I literally don't know. I feel there's a chip in my head. How do these things enter my brain?

Ira Glass

But at some point, somebody told you.

David Rakoff

I don't even think so, you know? I just think it comes in off the breeze or on a cold front, and I know. I just know in my heart who's Canadian. It's so strange. And of course, the arm on your space shuttle.

Ira Glass

I'm sorry?

David Rakoff

The arm on your space shuttle for making interstellar repairs.

Ira Glass

In Canada, the space shuttle was referred to as--

David Rakoff

The American space shuttle with its Canadian-built arm. Never any other way-- as in the American space shuttle with its Canadian-built arm blew up today.

Ira Glass

No, that didn't really happen.

David Rakoff

No, well I was actually here at the time. But the Canadian-built arm it gets a lot of air play.

[IRA LAUGHING]

David Rakoff

Not down here, huh? In fact, if you were to ask most Canadians, what you think the space shuttle is for, they'd say, oh, you know, to go up and move stuff around in space with an arm.

Ira Glass

And so when a Canadian finds out that some figure is Canadian, what happens in their heart?

David Rakoff

Oh, well, your heart does a little bit of-- a certain special Canadian's chamber opens up and enfolds that name, and you keep it. Or if you mention a Canadian, a famous Canadian, in conversation to a Canadian without acknowledging it, there's a vague flicker over their eyes, like the shadow of an angel's wing passing. And then the conversation will go on and on. And then, just as an afterthought, they'll say, oh, you know he's Canadian, by the way? Of course, it's all you've been waiting to say the entire conversation.

Ira Glass

You would actually say at some point, you know he's Canadian?

David Rakoff

Not even at some point, Ira. Let's try it. Go on. You start.

Ira Glass

All right. So anyway, I was in the car on my way to work, and that song from Bachman-Turner Overdrive came on--

David Rakoff

They're Canadian. That's how I do it. I don't even wait. I don't even wait.

Act 2.

Ira Glass

There are other bits of his childhood that David wrote about over the years. In 1998 in our program, he talked about this incident from high school that was a big turning point for him. At the time, he was part of a Zionist Socialist group in Toronto. Very idealistic about Israel. They would meet every week, and at 15, go live on a collective farm, a kibbutz, in Israel for the summer.

David Rakoff

There we would meet other members of the movement from all over the world and spend many a happy hour engaged in honest labor, sing Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young songs, and-- if one's older siblings were any indication-- lose our virginity.

Ira Glass

From the start, David did not do well working in the fields. He suffered heat stroke. And then one day came, David recalled, that the boys were informed that they would be doing a special work detail that night that was going to begin at midnight. And that no girls would be accompanying them. It was going be men's work, man only. So after 11:00, they gathered and they were driven to the farm's chicken house.

David Rakoff

The chicken group of the kibbutz was a one-storied structure of corrugated iron, about half the size of a football field. It emitted a low rumbling, a vague buzz that you could hear from far away. And of course, from even farther away, there was the smell.

Chicken [BLEEP] is an olfactory insult, a snarling, saw-toothed, ammoniac, cheesy smell-- needlessly, gratuitously disgusting. Rather than making you never want to eat a chicken again, it simply makes you angry. It makes you hold a grudge. You'll eat chicken again, by God. And you'll chew really, really hard.

One of the barrel-chested Israelis shows us what to do. Pick up four chickens in each hand. This is done by grabbing hold of the bird by one leg. "If the leg snaps," he says, "It doesn't matter. Just to get four in each hand. [HEBREW]?" he says. "OK?" He faces us holding the requisite eight, four in each hand, living messes of writhing feathers.

He looks like some German expressionistic cheerleader, his pompoms alive, convulsing, filthy. "Who will see their dreams fall away into the abyss and eventually succumb to the crushing sadness and meaninglessness of it all? We will. And what does that spell? Madness. Louder. I can't hear you." He crams the chickens roughly into a blue plastic crate smeared with wet guano. "And you close the lid and chick check," he tells us, clapping his hands with that's that finality.

Before I even try, I know that I will not be able to do this. It is midnight, and we will be here until dawn, or until the truck is piled to capacity with crated birds. I walk out into the sea of chickens. I reach down and grab one, its leg a slightly thicker, segmented chopstick.

I recoil and stand up. I take a fetid breath, regroup, and bend down with new resolve, grab the chicken by its body with both hands, thinking somehow that might be preferable, although how I think I'm going to get eight of them this way I'm not sure. Its ribs expand and contract under my fingers, a dirty, warm, live umbrella. I drop the bird as if it were boiling hot.

I leave the coup and go out to the trucks. Hoisting myself up onto the flatbed, I start to help with the stacking of the full crates. I know that my unilateral decision to change my task is met with displeasure on the part of the men who run the coup, but I do not care. They're muttered comments are predicated on a direct poultry-penile relationship. I might as well have spurned the stag party whore or gone into the wood shop and fashioned myself a sign that said "fag."

"[HEBREW]. What's the matter with him?" the head of the work detail asks when he sees me on the truck. "[HEBREW]." He is answered using the female pronoun when referring to me. "The lady doesn't like the chickens."

It would be years before I was referred to as "she" again, and then, very rarely, and only as a joke by friends. I turn around to look at the men, making it quite clear to them I understand what they're saying. The man who called me "she" avoids my eyes and busies himself with straightening a pile of crates and tightening the tarpaulin on the side of the truck. "You're right," I tell him in Hebrew. "She doesn't like the chickens."

Have you ever had one of those moments when know that you're being visited by your own future? They come so rarely and with little fanfare, those moments. They're not particularly photogenic. There's no breach in the clouds to reveal the shining city on a hill. No folk dancing children outside your bus, no production values to speak of-- just a glimpse of such quotidian, incontrovertible truth that after the initial shock at the supreme weirdness of it all, a kind of calm sets in. So this is to be my life.

At that very moment, I saw that I would never live on a kibbutz. I would not lose my virginity that summer to any of the girls from the group. Indeed, I would not care to do so. I am grateful to that macho blowhard. He made me consciously realize what I had always known, but been somehow unable to say to myself. He's right. I don't like chickens. I like men.

Now I live in Manhattan, the un-kibbutz, where nobody would dream of touching a live chicken, where whatever spirit of collectivist altruism people might have had dried up long ago. At camp when I was young, I and the other children of affluent professionals would gather under the trees every day to sing before going into lunch. One of the songs was always "The Internationale," the hymn of the proletariat. One summer, we were even taught to sing it with our left fists raised.

We were none of us, by any stretch of imagination, what could be described as prisoners of starvation, retched of the earth, or enthralled slaves. Admittedly, they are all catchier metaphors and easier to scan than "arise, you children of psychiatrists." But they had little to nothing to do with us personally. And yet, for those few moments when we were singing, those words seemed so true. How can I describe you that 11-year-old's sense of purpose, that thrill of belonging to something larger, something outside of my own body, the sheer heart stopping beauty of a world of justice and perfection rising on new foundations?

And that one line-- "we have been naught, we shall be all." "Naught"-- it spoke as much about my wish to be delivered from this preadolescent self-loathing as it did to any consciousness of liberating the masses. But it held such premise of what might hope for that even now, as I write this, I can still call up that old fervor. It still makes my breath catch in my throat.

Act 3.

Ira Glass

You're listening This American Life. We're hearing stories by David Rakoff. So David goes to college at 17. He has an incredible ear for mimicry. He has a real gift for languages. He majors in Japanese at school. He told me once that was because it was the hardest language he could find.

After graduating, he moves to Japan. He moves to Japan, gets a job. It's 1986. And in this office job, David was convinced that he understood something about their business in this office that no one else in the office could see.

David Rakoff

Primarily, the office was an advertising agency. But what they were setting up was this thing for expatriates who were living in Tokyo at the time, or perhaps all of Japan. And it was like a network on a computer. And they would set up a newsletter on the network, and people could, quote, log on to the computer and talk to one another or do research.

I just looked around the room and I saw these computers, and could only think, what kind of loser would log onto a computer, talk to someone-- then in fact, that night in my diary, I had written something like, this is like those comic book enthusiasts who actually read the little instructions at the bottom of the panel that said, "For more on the Green Goblin, check out Spidey #137."

And almost the only moment of decisiveness in my entire adult life-- I've certainly never equaled this-- I went in the next morning and I quit. And all I could think was, sayonara, suckers. Good luck with your network. And we know exactly what the network was. It was the internet.

I have a negative capacity to identify trends. Like when, in college, I went to see Madonna at Danceteria, which was a club downtown-- like 1982 or whatever. And I thought, boy, is she lousy.

Ira Glass

Are there other examples besides Madonna and the internet?

David Rakoff

Other than Madonna and the internet? You need another example? When I was in an editorial assistant working in publishing, I was handed a manuscript to read. And I think wrote something like sub-literate, borderline misogyny, an easy pass. And somebody thought, I'm just going to take a look at this anyway. It was Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.

[IRA LAUGHING]

David Rakoff

These are--

Ira Glass

Pretty big, iconic ones.

David Rakoff

Yeah. It was like, have you fellows heard that crazy lunatic in the marketplace inveighing against the Pharisees? He'll burn off like so much morning fog. We'll never hear about him ever again. It's just like that.

Act 4.

Ira Glass

So David's living in Japan, and he's only there for two or three months in this new life that he's made for himself when he gets cancer for the first time. Hodgkin's Lymphoma. He's 22. He flies home to Canada for treatment-- radiation and chemo. It takes over a year before he'll be well again.

There's a story that David wrote years ago, and just a few days after he died, I listened back to it. I hadn't heard it since the year 2000, when we first broadcast it. David was 35 when this aired. In the story, he was looking back on this first experience that he had with cancer back in his 20s. He was treated at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. And there's this scene in the story where he describes what it was like to go there and get treatment.

David Rakoff

The radiation room itself is a lead-lined interior chamber of the hospital. Two red laser beams cross over the exact center of the table where the patients lie. Using the cross of four small black tattoos on my torso, the technicians line me up and ready me for the thousands of rads of radiation.

The machine is bulbous, huge, and a dull hospital green-- a death ray straight out of '50s sci-fi. I lie down and look up. Above my head, directly at eye level, someone has drawn a hastily rendered happy face in magic marker. Underneath that is written the message, give us a smile, like Rita Hayworth's picture that graced the side of the atom bomb they dropped on Bikini Atoll.

There's something so pathetic, so vastly outmatched about this little happy face. It is like putting a garnish on annihilation. Still, I never fail to smile. Even when I reach the point in the treatments when most of my hair has fallen out and my throat has been burned to such an extent that I cannot swallow, I smile.

They haven't stopped at the happy face, either. Every time the lead door closes, latching with a booming clank, so too begins the music. The same song every time, the same place in the same song every time-- the full horn section buildup of the chorus to the song "You're Just Too Good to Be True." The plutonium drops down into the central cone, a warm wind starts to blow on my chest indicating that I'm now getting the equivalent of a lifetime's worth of the recommended dose of gamma radiation, and I smile.

Act 5.

Ira Glass

Two decades later, the cancer returned and killed him. The tumor was in that very same spot where the radiation had shot into him in that room in Princess Margaret Hospital. David had what's known as a post-radiation sarcoma. That's not what he's writing about in this essay, though. He's writing in this essay about how he remembered that period of his life, and specifically, how numb he was whenever he thought about that period of his life, how he usually shrugged it off as no big deal-- his long, first trial with cancer.

"It has only recently occurred to me," he wrote, "that perhaps I might stop glibly insisting that the cancer wasn't real, that the doctors popped me into an easy bake oven where a 40-watt light bulb halted the metastasis in its tracks." David said that looking back, he felt completely detached from the fear or the relief that somebody might feel in remembering this kind of medical, slow motion, near-death experience. And he described revisiting the old hospital years later, this place that was so important in his life, that saved his life, and just going back there and feeling nothing. And then he launches into this passage, which is just intensely personal.

David Rakoff

They say that times of crisis are the true test of one's character. I really wouldn't know, since my character took a powder that year, leaving in its stead a jewel-bright hardness. I was at my very cleverest that year-- an airless, relentless kind of quipiness. Every time a complex human emotion threatened to break the surface of my consciousness, out would come a joke. Come on, give us a smile.

I was thanatosis's rodeo clown. I still am, and Eros's as well, as it turns out. Years later, in a tender embrace in bed with my first real boyfriend, he said my name. "Oh, David." I stopped, sat up, and responded in my best Ed Wynn, "Yes?" This kind of behavior essentially killed things between us.

There was a period during the illness when I was at my very sickest, at 115 pounds, hovering in and out of consciousness. This month and a half was the one period in my life when I was not faking it-- where I was not deflecting every emotion with repartee. That it would take millions of cancer cells lining up for their big Esther Williams finale in my lymphatic system for me to finally shut up is sobering-- or would be, were I to think about it, which, of course, I choose not to.

What remains of your past if you didn't allow yourself to feel it when it happened? If you don't have your experiences in the moment, if you gloss them over with jokes or zoom past them, you end up with curiously dispassionate memories, procedural and depopulated. It's as if a neutron bomb went off, and all you're left with are hospital corridors.

Act 6.

Ira Glass

David returned to this thought-- that cleverness could substitute for intimacy-- in a few pieces of writing. It's in his book Half Empty. And it came up memorably, in the interview that David did with Terry Gross on Fresh Air about that book.

Terry Gross

In your chapter about your therapist, you have a great description of yourself when describing your thoughts after telling the therapist that you are going to stop seeing him. And I'd like to read that for us.

David Rakoff

Yes. This is when he-- I'm not talking about terminating. I seem to be avoiding the topic. And finally he stops me one day. I'm ranting about, I think, human rights in China or something like that. And he finally says, look, we've got to talk about you terminating. This is a big thing.

"Turning things around, I asked him what his feelings were about our ending things. 'I'm incredibly angry,' he responded fondly. 'How dare you. You should at least have to come and have coffee with me once a week.' I asked if he felt this way about most of his patients. 'Not really,' he responded. Sigh. Should you happen to be possessed of a certain verbal acuity coupled with a relentless hair trigger humor and surface cheer spackling over a chronic melancholia and loneliness-- a grotesquely caricatured version of your deepest self which you trot out at the slightest provocation to endearing and glib comic effect, thus rendering you the kind of fellow who is beloved by all yet loved by none, all of it to distract, however fleetingly, from the cold and dead-faced truth that with each passing year you face the unavoidable certainty of a solitary future in which you will perish one day while vainly attempting the Heimlich maneuver on yourself over the back of the kitchen chair-- then this confirmation that you have triumphed again and managed to gull yet another mark, except this time it was the one person you'd hoped might be immune to your ever-creakier, puddle-shallow, sideshow-barker variation on 'adorable,' even though you'd been launching this campaign weekly with a single-minded concentration from day one-- well, it conjures up feelings that are best described as mixed, to say the least."

Terry Gross

I just want to point out, since our listeners don't have a copy of your book in front of them, that most of that reading was one sentence-- one very well-balanced juggling act there. So I just want to ask you, did you consciously intend to keep that one sentence?

David Rakoff

Yeah. Well, I like a little ranty sandwich of a sentence or a lasagna of a sentence or a [INAUDIBLE] of a sentence, to be perfectly homosexual about the metaphor. I like things that build in that way, with semi-colons and em dashes and things like that.

Terry Gross

Do you think of yourself as somebody who is the kind of fellow who is beloved by all yet loved by none?

David Rakoff

We are verging into territory that's a little too personal--

Terry Gross

That's fine.

David Rakoff

So let just say--

Terry Gross

OK.

David Rakoff

Yes, I do.

[LAUGHING]

Terry Gross

OK. We'll leave it there, I suppose.

David Rakoff

Yes, I guess so.

Act 7.

Ira Glass

If you're just tuning in, it's This American Life. Today we're remembering David Rakoff. When David was 23, after recovering from Hodgkin's lymphoma, all he wanted to do was move to New York City. He arrived in the city, got low-level jobs in the publishing industry, first at a literary agency, then at a publisher. He wanted to write, but he didn't write. Instead, he was an assistant.

David later wrote about this for a show that we performed at Town Hall in New York City for the fifth anniversary of our program. He said assistants like him did the same work as the professional secretaries but got paid a lot less, with the thought that they were climbing the ladder to real publishing jobs. He said they were miserable. They hated the work. They resented the menial tasks they had to do. And they drank-- a lot.

David Rakoff

Our drunkenness was two-fold. First, there was the liquor. But there was also the intoxication brought on by the self-aggrandizing conviction that we happy few, we cheery booze hounds, were the new incarnations of that most mythic bunch of souses, the Algonquin Round Table. This pipe dream sustained not just us, but I suspect countless other tables of publishing menials all over town.

So desperate were we to assume the mantles of Parker, Benchley, and their ilk, that we weren't going to let some silly thing like a dearth of wit or the complete absence of a body of work on any of our parts deter us. With enough four dollar drinks sloshing through our veins, even the most dunder-headed schoolyard japery qualified as coruscating repartee. "What do you want," a riposte might begin, "a medal or a chest to pin it on? Oh, touche," we cried merrily as we clutched our martinis.

[LAUGHTER]

Paying the bill, we stumbled out into the street and back to our apartments, where we spent the rest of the night jealously reading the manuscripts of those who actually wrote and didn't just drink about it.

Act 8.

Ira Glass

This period in David's life pops up in other things that he wrote. For years, I've had this recording of him on my computer at work reading another essay on stage about his 20s. And now and then, we've actually considered it for this theme or that theme on the radio show. And it's one of those stories that never ended up on the air, I think, mostly because the beginning of the essay is about the Broadway musical Rent. You remember Rent?

[MUSIC - "SEASON OF LOVE" BY RENT CAST]

OK, so Rent closed years ago, right? And so it was hard to put on the air this piece, because it just seemed weird to pick a fight with a hit Broadway show that had closed and nobody was talking about anymore anyway. But it's this great piece of writing, and one of my favorite recordings of David.

A warning to our podcast and streaming audiences-- on the radio, we beep a few words and actually eliminate a sentence or two that here on the internet, we are not going to beep and that we are going to restore, so some of this might be the kind of thing you don't want your children to hear.

David Rakoff

There are 525,600 minutes in a year.

[LAUGHTER]

I learned that from watching Rent.

[LAUGHTER]

From watching Rent, I also learned that the best way to mark the passing of these 525,600 minutes would be to measure them out into something Jonathan Larson, the writer of the musical, called seasons of love. What does that even mean, seasons of love? In Rent, the characters live out their seasons of love in huge lofts. Some of them have AIDS, which is, coincidentally, also the name of the dreaded global pandemic that is still raging and has killed millions of people worldwide. In Rent, however, AIDS seems to be a disease that renders one cuter and cuter.

[LAUGHTER]

The characters are artists, creative types. They have tattered a million clothes. Some of them are homosexual, and the ones who aren't homosexual don't even seem to mind. They screen their calls, and when it is their parents, they roll their eyes. They hate their parents. They're never going back to Larchmont, no way. They will stay here, living in their 2,000 square feet of picturesque poverty, being sexually free and creative.

Here's some ways to broadcast creativity in a movie. Start plinking out a tune on a piano, scratch a few notes on some music paper, plink some more, suddenly crash both hands down on the keyboard then bring them quickly up to your head and grab the hair at your temples, screaming, "It won't work!" Or sit at a typewriter, reading the page you've just written, realize that it's shit, and tear it from the platen and toss it behind you. Cut to waste paper basket overflowing with crumpled paper.

Here's what they do in Rent to show that they are creative-- nothing! They do nothing!

[LAUGHTER]

They hang out. And hanging out can be marvelous, but hanging out does not make you an artist. A secondhand wardrobe does not make you an artist. Neither do a hair trigger temper, melancholic nature, propensity for tears, hating your parents, nor even HIV. I hate to say it. None of these can make you an artist. They can help. But just as being gay does not make one witty, you can suck a mile of cock-- it does not make you Oscar Wilde. Believe me, I know. I've tried.

[LAUGHTER]

The only thing that makes you an artist is making art, and that takes the opposite of hanging out. So when they sing the anthem of the show, that's a lie, really. Every song in the show is an anthem delivered with adolescent earnestness. It's like being trapped in the pages of a teenager's diary. So when they think the title anthem of the show, "We're Not Going to Pay This Year's Rent," followed by a kind of barked cheer of "rent, rent, rent, rent, rent, rent, rent," my only question is, well, why aren't you going to pay this year's rent?

It seems that they're not going to pay this year's rent, because rent is for losers and non-creative types. Rent is for suits. By contrast, they are the last bastion of artistic purity. They have not sold out. And yet their brilliance goes unacknowledged, so fuck you, yuppie scum.

I know what it's like to feel angry and ignored. I lived in Brooklyn a long time ago about a block away from a prison. During the day, the neighborhood bustled with lawyers, judges, criminals, bail bondsman, private detectives. I lived on a block in a little two-story building that once been a couch house in the 19th century. And the basement had a red dirt floor. On the ground floor below me was an office that did-- what, exactly, resumes? I can't remember.

What I do remember is the man whose office it was. Raul was knee-bucklingly handsome. If my life had been different, like-- I don't know-- if I were a hot girl with a driver's license, I could have put on a tube top and gone outside to wash my car in slow motion or something. But, alas.

Once during the day-- it must've been the weekend, because I was at home-- I could hear Raul having sex in the office downstairs. I skittered around my apartment like a cockroach on a frying pan trying not to make any noise while desperately looking for a knot hole in the crappy floorboards. Eventually, I just lay down flat against the tile of the kitchen floor, listening.

Lying flat against the tile of my kitchen floor, listening to someone else have sex is essentially my 20s in a nutshell. I was robbed in that neighborhood twice. And there were days when it hardly seemed worth it to live in a horrible part of town just so that I could go daily to a stupid, soul-crushing, low-paying job, especially since, as deeply as I yearned to be creative, for years and years I was too scared to even try. So I did nothing. But here's something that I did do. I paid my fucking rent.

[LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

David Rakoff. Coming up, how to give the wedding toast at a wedding that you should not be at in the first place. More stories from David Rakoff in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act 9.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Our friend and colleague David Rakoff died last week. Today, we are hearing stories that he did on our program, plus a few other things.

[JUDGE HITTING GAVEL]

Judge

This court is in session.

Ira Glass

David's very first appearance on our program in 1996 was in a radio drama written in rhyming couplets by David Sedaris. It was about a courtroom where animals come to resolve conflicts. David Rakoff played a cat, a cat who was also the prosecuting attorney in the courtroom.

David Rakoff

Your Honor, destruction's no small misdemeanor. The accused here is vicious. We should quarantine here. Now, I plan to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Kathleen the Spaniel engaged in a bout of senseless destruction.

Ira Glass

Incidentally, Rakoff's very last appearance on our program three weeks ago was also a radio drama in rhymed couplets-- something that Rakoff wrote four years ago for the CBC radio show Wiretap. In this thing, he played Doctor Seuss in a correspondence with Gregor Samsa, a man who found himself turning into a cockroach. This weird premise, if you heard this, led to some surprisingly affecting moments.

David Rakoff

I'm astonished at times when I think of the past, of my thousands of rhymes, of how life is so vast. I'm left, then, to wonder how anyone gleans a purpose or sense of what anything means. It's not ours for the knowing. It's meaning abstruse. We'd both best be going. Your loving friend, Seuss.

Ira Glass

In fact, David's been doing lots of rhyming lately. A month before he died, he finished his last book, which is a story told entirely in rhymed couplets called Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die; Cherish, Perish, a Novel by David Rakoff. Since last May when David performed a dance for the live show that we did, he's been saying that he didn't expect to live past August. And his goal was to finish the book by then. And he said a number of times that he really, really wanted to record the audio book as well.

And so to get that done quickly enough, he came into the studio here at our show, and I recorded him. And there was one section that was just hard to listen to him read. He has one of his characters, Cliff, die of AIDS. And David was dying of cancer as he wrote this section. And in this section, he tries to capture some of what that experience is like.

David Rakoff

What a difference a day makes. Now times that by 20. Clifford was hollow, a horn of unplenty, tipping the scales at 115 at most. He was more bone than flesh now, and less man than ghost.

Ira Glass

OK, a word about this recording. David was obviously weak, and the disease had spread to his lungs, which affected his breathing. In this part of the story, Cliff is coming to grips with the certainty that he is on a countdown to his end.

David Rakoff

It was sadness that gripped him far more than the fear that, if facing the truth, he had maybe a year. When poetic phrases like "eyes, look your last" become true, all you want is to stay, to hold fast. A new, fierce attachment to all of this world now pierced him. It stabbed like a deity-hurled lightning bolt, lancing him, sent from above, left him giddy and tearful. It felt like young love.

He had thought of himself as uniquely proficient at seeing, but now that sense felt insufficient. He wanted to grab, to possess, to devour, to eat with his eyes. How he needed that power.

Just like a child whose big gun is a stick, Cliff was now harmless. He'd gotten too sick to take any action beyond rudimentary routines as a trunk to the most elementary-- which pill to take now, and where is your sweater, did the Imodium make you feel better? Study your [BLEEP] to make sure you'd not bled. Make sure the Kleenex is next to the bed. Make sure, be prepared, plan out every endeavor, like a scout on the stupidest camping trip ever.

The facts were now harder, reality colder, his parasol no match for this falling boulder-- and so the concern with trivial issues, slippers nearby, and approximate tissues. He thought of those two things in life that don't vary-- well, though only glancingly, more was too scary. Inevitable, why even bother to test it? He'd paid all his taxes, so that left-- you guessed it.

Act 10.

Ira Glass

I have to say, I worry a little bit that the mix of stories that we've chosen for today's program gives a misimpression. It makes David seem like more of a loner than he really was. Yes, he was partly a loner. But he was partly just the opposite, with dozens of friends and people who loved him. And that last story was just way too sad to end our program with today.

So one more story now. This last one is a favorite. It was first on the radio show in 2009. An expanded version appears in his new book. Here's the 2009 version.

David Rakoff

Nathan, at one of the outlying tables, his feet tangled up in the disc jockey's cables, surveyed the room unseen as a ghost, while he mulled over what he might say for his toast. Though the couple had asked him for this benediction seemed at odds with them parking him here by the kitchen. That he'd shown up at all was still a surprise, and not just to him. It was there in the eyes of the guests who had seen a mirage and drew near and then covered their shock with a, "Nathan, you're here."

And then, silence. They'd nothing to say beyond that. A few of the braver souls lingered to chat. They all knew it was neither a secret nor mystery that he and the couple had quite an odd history. Their bonds were a tangle of friendship and sex-- Josh, his best pal once, and Patty, his ex.

For a while, he could barely go out in the city without being a punchline or object of pity. "Poor Nathan" had virtually become his new name. And so he showed up just to show he was game, though his invite was late-- a forgotten addendum. For Nate, there could be no more clear referendum that he need but endure through this evening, and then he would likely not see Josh and Patty again.

Josh's sister was speaking-- a princess in peach. Nathan dug in his pocket to study his speech. He'd poured over Bartlett's for couplets to filch. He stayed up until 3:00, still came up with zilch, except for instructions he'd underscored twice-- just two words in length, and those words were "be nice."

"Too often," he thought, "our emotions betray us, and reason departs once we're up on the dais." He'd witnessed uncomfortable moments where others had lost their way quickly, where sisters and brothers had gotten too prickly and peppered their babbling with stories of benders or lesbian dabbling or spot-on impressions of mothers-in-law, which, true, Nathan thought, always garnered guffaws. But the price seemed too high with the laughs seldom cloaking hostility masquerading as joking.

No, he'd swallow his rage and he'd bank all his fire. He knew that in his case the bar was that higher. Folks were just waiting for him to erupt. They'd be hungry for blood even though they had supped. They'd want tears or some other unsightly reaction, and Nathan would not give them that satisfaction. Though Patty, a harlot, and Josh was a lout, at least Nathan knew what he'd not talk about.

"I won't wish them divorce, that they wither and sicken, or tonight that they choke on their salmon or chicken. I won't mention that time when the cottage lost power in that storm on the cape and they left for an hour, and they thought it was just the cleverest ruse to pretend it took that long to switch out the fuse. Or that time Josh advised me with so much insistence that I should grant Patty a little more distance-- that the worst I could do was to hamper and crowd her, that if Patty felt stifled, she'd just take a powder, that a plant needs its space just as much as its water. And I shouldn't give Patty that ring that I'd bought her, which, in retrospect, only elicits a gosh, I hardly deserved a friend like you, Josh. No, I won't spill those beans or make myself foolish to satisfy appetites venal and ghoulish. I will not be the blot on this hellish affair." And with that, Nathan pushed out and rose from his chair. And just by the tapping of knife against crystal, all eyes turned his way like he'd fired off a pistol.

[CLEARS THROAT]

"Joshua, Patricia, dear family and friends, a few words if you will, before everything ends. You've promised to honor, to love, and obey. We've quaffed our champagne and been cleansed by sorbet, all in endorsement of your, hers, and hisdom. So now let me add my two cents' worth of wisdom. I was racking my brain sitting here at this table, until I remembered this suitable fable that gets at a truth, though it may well distort us. So here with the tale of the scorpion and tortoise.

The scorpion was hamstrung, his tail all a quiver. Just how would he manage to get cross the river? 'The water's so deep,' he observed with a sigh which pricked at the ears of the tortoise nearby. 'Well, why don't you swim?' asked the slow-moving fellow. 'Unless you're afraid. I mean, what are you, yellow?'

'It isn't a matter of fear or of whim,' said the scorpion, 'but that I don't know how to swim.' 'Oh, forgive me. I didn't mean to be glib when I said that. I figured you were an amphibian.' 'No offense taken,' the scorpion replied, 'but how about you help me to reach the far side? You swim like a dream, and you have what I lack. What say take me across on your back?'

'I'm really not sure that's the best thing to do,' said the tortoise, 'now that I see that it's you. You have a less than ideal reputation preceding. There's talk of your victims all poisoned and bleeding. You're the scorpion, and-- how can I say this-- but, well, I just don't feel safe with you riding my shell.' The scorpion replied, 'What would killing you prove? We'd both drown, so tell me-- how would that behoove me to basically die at my very own hand when all I desire is to be on dry land?'

The tortoise considered the scorpion's defense. When he gave it some thought, it made perfect sense. The niggling voice in his mind he ignored, and he swam to the bank and called out, 'Climb aboard.' But just a few moments from when they set sail, the scorpion lashed out with his venomous tail. The tortoise, too late, understood that he'd blundered when he felt his flesh stabbed and his carapace sundered.

As he fought for his life, he said, 'Tell me why you have done this, for now we will surely both die.' 'I don't know!' cried the scorpion. 'You never should trust a creature like me, because poison and I must. I'd claim some remorse or at least some compunction, but I just can't help it. My form is my function. You thought I'd behave like my cousin the crab, but unlike him, it is but my nature to stab.'

The tortoise expired with one final quiver, and then both of them sank, swallowed up by the river. The tortoise was wrong to ignore all his doubts, because in the end, friends, our natures will out."

Nathan paused, cleared his throat, took a sip of his drink. He needed these extra few seconds to think. The room had gone frosty. The tension was growing. Folks wondered precisely where Nathan was going. The prospects of skirting fiasco seemed dim. But what he said next surprised even him.

"So what can we learn from their watery ends? Is there some lesson on how to be friends? I think what it means is that central to living a life that is good is a life that's forgiving. We're creatures of contact. Regardless of whether we kiss or we wound, still we must come together.

Though it may spell destruction, we still ask for more, since it beats staying dry but so lonely on shore. So we make ourselves open, while knowing full well it's essentially saying, please, come pierce my shell."

Silence doesn't paint the depth of quiet in that room. There was no clinking stemware toasting to the bride or groom. You could have heard a petal if it landed on the floor. And in that stillness, Nathan turned and walked right out the door.

Ira Glass

David Rakoff. When David decided to put that poem into his new book, he went back and he added a crucial fact-- a very, very, very important fact that he learned only after we broadcast the poem. So in the book, Nathan gives the toast, and then he runs into a guy on the way out who informs him of the fact that David learned later-- this is from the book-- the guy says, "That toast, if you give it again-- but you won't-- remember, Nate, turtles swim. Tortoises don't."

[MUSIC - "WHAT'LL I DO" BY NAT KING COLE]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by me and Brian Reed and Emily Condon and our senior producer, Julie Snyder, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhour, Sarah Koenig, Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Seth Lind is our operations director. Production help from [? Tarek ?] [? Fouda. ?]

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

David Rakoff's books and audio books, Fraud, Don't Get Too Comfortable, and Half Empty are available online where it is that they sell such things. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. When David Rakoff filled in as host, one of the things that he had to do was read the credits like this one.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

That was kind of an add lib, that last part. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he gave this pep talk to the staff at our summer staff retreat-- not his most effective effort.

David Rakoff

"Who will see their dreams fall away into the abyss and eventually succumb to the crushing sadness and meaninglessness of it all? We will."

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "WHAT'LL I DO" BY NAT KING COLE]

Announcer

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