Joe Checks Out
It was about three weeks ago that I was able to extract the last bit of Joeness from my now-departed old friend. I mentioned that I had spoken to my broker and Joe's brain, although by now beholden to a fragile equilibration between drugs and pain, issued the rejoinder "Stock or pawn?" Not his best. Not necessarily even his, but definitely ours, since we had done that routine many times over the past forty-plus years. It was a test and he passed it. He had been deteriorating noticeably over the previous couple of weeks. He had come unstuck in time sometime last summer, but initially only by a few hours or a day. When you're in hospital for months on end I guess a day here or there doesn't matter much. I was usually able to convince him that I knew when it was, but at the end it was getting harder. After his final set of medical evaluations in November he went home to Florida to await instructions. The doctor said he might be able to reduce his chemotherapy dose, but either he never spoke to the doctor, or what he said was too dire to be repeated to me. I, in my ignorance, continued to exhort Joe to try to get a bit of exercise and kept waiting for good—or any—news.
In vain. After that conversation our talk became futile. I'm not much good at comforting people, and Joe had no religion, so the usual platitudes would have been worse than empty. I've never had a friend die a prolonged death from cancer before, so I'm astonished that I did manage to do one thing right. I had planned to visit this past weekend - yesterday if you're reading this remembrance on the day published. But Joe had come unstuck by too long. During our last "conversation" Joe was roving through the decades, and exhibiting concerns that were put to rest when he left his last job in broadcasting in the '60s. I reassured him that news would be on the air on time, and then made my travel reservations so that I would be in the air on time, a week before I had originally planned. Joe died early that Monday morning, after I got to see him rather than before.
You Know Joe
You know more about Joe than you think you do. For one thing, he has appeared anonymously in this blog a number of times. It was Joe's life I might have saved had my worst fears about 9/11 been realized. It was Joe who pointed out a certain characteristic of yogurt. I think he would have enjoyed my deconstruction of the Hershey's Stick package. He was with me on my pilgrimage to the Land of the Theremin. He wasn't on the picket line with me when Howard Cosell passed by, but I'm sure he was on a different one—same union, same year. And it was he who had to wait for his digital camera when the box was empty. Oh yes: Mandy the horse, which belonged to Joe and his wife Lisa, was the only thing between this writer and our planet on the afternoon of the day he died.
Joe, to my increasing amazement, came to love animals. When we were roommates in college I don't think the concept of a pet ever came up. Later, when he lived in a giant and beautiful loft in New York City, he had a couple of Persian cats which could occasionally be observed but mostly made themselves scarce. When he moved out to my neighborhood in New Jersey, he and his girlfriend got a dog to go with her cat. (The dog still lives in my neighborhood, and I swear she remembers me, or at least barks as if she does.) When I went to visit Joe in Florida the inventory had increased: six dogs, six cats, 13 horses (soon to be 16), and two Nigerian dwarf goats which would make fine cartoon characters without the benefit of meddling cartoonists. They were a Christmas present from Lisa; Joe's eyes lit up whenever he described their activities. I finally got to see why.
His Life in Commerce
Our early careers were in radio. We both worked for the American Broadcasting Company for several years, and Joe also worked for CBS for a summer. I worked in local radio (WABC) and Joe over at the network, a half-mile away. We had entirely too much time to babble on the telephone during our night shifts, and had a lot to babble about. We would plan weekend trips to forage for HiFi gear which we could resell in the classified ads. He appreciated commerce as much as I did. Joe remained with ABC longer than I, but eventually left to become an Advertising Man. He was as facile and glib as one can (and needed to) be, owned a suit, and did well in that milieu. He did so well, in fact, that the other reason you know more about Joe than you think is this: He created the slogan "Roaches check in but they don't check out" for the Roach Motel. Although that is his claim to advertising fame, I think he was even more proud of his work with Arm and Hammer Baking Soda. He described the problem thus: People would buy it and put it in their refrigerators and just leave it there forever. In other words, they wouldn't buy any more. Simple! Joe's campaign suggested that after a certain period, they should pour it into the sink to "keep their drains smelling sweet." (This was long ago and baking soda is not an endangered species. Yes, he was cynical. So am I, and neither of us are entertaining any complaints about this.)
Joe eventually struck out on his own. His agency, MediaScan, did work for a number of pro-audio and broadcast manufacturers, including the one at which I strive. His work was occasionally brilliant but sometimes erratic. He seemed to lose interest in it after a while, and it eventually became a one-man consultancy with Joe paying fitful attention. At least one reason was clear: the 90s were a much better time to make money in the stock market than by writing advertising copy! I learned (at least) one important thing about advertising and about the stock market from Joe. Oddly it was the same thing: If you want good ads, you have to pay attention. I acquired valuable proofreading skills during those years, at least in terms of correcting other people's material! And if you want to make money in the stock market, you have to pay attention, too. Joe did a lot of that—paying attention and making money. They were very good years indeed for our lad. During those years we happened to be neighbors. His house, one I found for him by accident, was less than two miles from mine, mostly downhill. Saturdays, rain or shine, I would galumph over there and we would have a babble in his indoor pool. (They were good years for this lad, too.) Joe also dabbled in another media business. He started up a magazine with a partner and ended up selling it to a competitor. What was it about? Plastic!
But there was a glitch, a big one. The stock market de-bubbled, and Joe's house caught on fire. Nobody was hurt, and Joe and Lisa were initially cast into a gorgeous rental across the Hudson River from Manhattan, courtesy of the insurance company. This was where they found themselves when 9/11 transpired. Joe, although a native of NYC, had often accused me of not warning him about winter in New Jersey. Guilty! But how could he not have known? With no immediate place to live when their rental term was over, and with Lisa a native of the South, they decided to move away and ended up after some peregrinations in central Florida. I think the last few years in the house and farm in Florida were Joe's best. Joe, not one to verbally exhibit happiness, satisfaction, or other base emotions, admitted at one point that he was "content." He loved Lisa, loved his home, loved his animals, and life was good. He even had important plans for the future, but they were cut short when he fell ill just about a year ago. Here is where I could say a few words about "Joe's courageous battle with cancer" but that would be similar to the quip about the old CCCP, "four lies in four words." For one thing, it took months to determine that it was, in fact, cancer; for another, I don't feel like expounding on this subject. It's too fresh in my mind. Instead, why don't I say a few words about lunch?
For many years we had a ritual. I would go out for lunch every Wednesday with Joe and my (now) late partner Orville. We would talk business and, of course, eat. Business was easy:
Orville: What can we do to sell more?
One day Joe and I were arguing vociferously about some now-forgotten issue. Of course we tried to make the argument simultaneously persuasive and entertaining. Orville, head ping-ponging during this exchange, essayed: "I guess you don't want to go out to lunch." As one we turned to him with incredulity in our faces and uttered "Are you nuts?" in perfect synchronization. We would sometimes invite people to join us for lunch, including the occasional job candidate. I recently have been told that an important purpose of job interviews is to get candidates interested in the job rather than to drive them away. You would think that at least Orville and Joe would have known that even if I was unwitting. But no, we invited them to lunch anyway. There's a lot more I could say about our weekly adventure, but I don't want to put you off your feed or discourage you from reading the rest. It's getting near the end.
I trust that you don't consider this an especially morbid blog. I've mentioned a few deaths here, one at some length, and that one was also coincidentally of an ex-roommate. (Let me state with emphasis that I have had a significant number of roommates who remain extant and in robust health. I don't want to scare anyone.) And I do have one more death, someone I knew casually, coming up at the beginning of March. But Joe was and is special. For one thing, our roommatism was near the beginning of our lives and our careers. For another, we have kept in touch all these years. For yet another, we were the same age and had entirely too much in common. I'm used to much older people—parents, for example—dying. As much as I hate the System, that's the way it is. But, as I just mentioned, Joe was my age. In fact he was slightly younger; he was just two weeks short of his 60th birthday on the day of his death. That's too old to have died young, but much too young to die even so. I have shared more life segments with Joe than with any other person. He wasn't quite my oldest friend. We met over a ham magazine at a college orientation session when we were both high-school seniors, and I do still have a handful of friends from earlier in high school. But we spent more time together, had more adventures together, together never let our class work interfere with our education, and had more-or-less parallel careers with a number of tangential intersections. I had more resonances with Joe than anyone. (I can produce a number of witnesses who will deny that under oath. Nonetheless, they're wrong.)
I learned a lot about words from Joe. He was especially keen on "weasel words" such as "virtually" that "suck the life out of the words next to them," as he put it. He several times suggested authoring guest entries here and even "promoting" my blog. But he was too ill, and I'm not at all certain anyone would benefit from its promotion, although the guest entries would have been very nice. I have an endless list of Joe stories, from the time he testified before a congressional committee to the time he decided he needed new Belgian blocks, to his experiments in avant-garde video, to his theories on being lost, to ... well, it's an endless list.
Even when he wasn't right, Joe was one of those people who was never wrong. He wouldn't admit it, of course, but I knew I had him on rare occasions. I'm more of a science person and he was more of a human being. Occasionally he would forget that and try to debate electronics or nuclear physics or some such. He knew enough to totally snow a lay person, but he never did learn to sing the element song and just didn't have room in his brain for details on isotopes or frequency synthesis. That was because his brain was filled with everything else. One of his exes remarked to me how "old" he was. He not only knew and remembered everything he learned, he went back before he was born and learned all that, too. He was a handy authority. Fortunately we now have the internet, so Joe isn't quite as essential in that respect.
Joe's relationship with me was occasionally strained. Although we were friends for many decades, there were periods—six months here, a couple of years there—when he didn't feel like talking to me. Notice the unidirectionality of the strain. I never felt that way about him, and I can even tell you why. One day in the 90's when I was being dense or stupid or just plain me, Joe delivered himself of the best insult I have ever received. "Richard," he said in an exasperated voice, "you have more depth than any other one-dimensional person I have ever met." I repeat that often, and occasionally reflect on it. As with any effective insult, it must have some truth, and also must amplify the truth to the discomfiture of the insultee. He had other characterizations; he knew "the Worst Person in the World"—a friend of mine as it turns out. He personally knew "the Oriental Menace," and, I'm sure, many more. In my case, I suppose if I actually did have more "depth" I would have been insulted, so it seems Joe has left me with a paradox instead.
One of the few coherent themes of our conversations in the months before he died was this: Joe was one of the "good guys." I know that sounds a bit odd; why bother mentioning it? But he did, and he wanted it known, and I'm happy to oblige. With due regard for privacy I won't mention the names of those whose career he advanced or whose house he helped pay for or whose car he donated or whom he helped through bouts of their own problems, both medical and psychological. I wasn't alone on my "good-bye" trip to see Joe, and there would have been even more if they had known or had better timing.
As I mentioned, Joe had no religion. He surely didn't expect to see any of his friends in that great Nathan's Famous in the sky. So "good guy" will have to do. Isn't that enough? Joseph Richard Shapiro, (1947-2007) is survived by his wife Lisa, his extended family Kris and her son Adrian, and his sister Helaine and her issue. Not to mention a large group of friends who are also about his age and who miss him as much as I do.
As of now there are no arrangements for a funeral or memorial. Joe has requested no donations to or for anything. Lisa suggested a donation to the Hospice of Lake and Sumter Counties in Joe's memory. I have a suggestion, too: Joe was an avid anti-smoker who, with as much irony as can be imagined, died from lung cancer. If you want to be a good guy, too, crush the next pack of cigarettes you see. If their owner is bigger than you are, find a way to do it while he's looking somewhere else.
At some point I and a few others will be going to Nathan's at the Paramus Park Mall to have a hot dog in Joe's memory. Email me if you knew him and want to join us. I promise the French fries will be crisp.