When the funeral home asked me what Josh did for a living — “How should we describe him?” — I was at a loss.
Since our first work together selling lemonade on the corner of 84th and Broadway my brother has had so many job descriptions.
Even then, he was the big brother doing the hard work I was too shy to do.
We sold lemonade out of this giant pewter pitcher our mom let us use. One afternoon a confused and pushy elderly lady saw our giant sign reading “10 Cents” with the word “lemonade” too small or too yellow for her to read. Well, whatever the reason, she thought we had started a business selling giant pewter pitchers, one at a time, for 10 cents apiece.
I was petrified. I was a shy kid, a pushover. If it had been up to me, I would have wrapped it and delivered it to her house.
It fell to Josh to explain to her that our most important piece of capital equipment wasn’t for sale.
And that was Josh. He was always tougher than me, fearless even.
He was my big brother — even if I was taller.
That was a fact I pointed out a lot when we were younger. He didn’t like it. But he got even. As some of you may know, when we were little kids we were in the Metropolitan Opera together. We were “supernumeraries” – a fancy word for talentless “extras.”
Anyway, as I was wont to do, I told the director of a new opera we were in, “He’s older, but I’m taller.” The director responded, perhaps because of my brattyness, that “in that case,” Josh should get to ride in the fake hot air balloon that soared above the stage.
I really wanted to ride that balloon.
Other than lemonade impresario, operatic supernumerary, and fake hot air balloonist, Josh had other jobs. He worked at the Carnegie Deli. He helped run political campaigns. He drove a New York City cab for several years. He worked at the Fulton Fish market, waking long before dawn and coming home from work in the early afternoon with shoes so stinky with fish goo our cat, Max, would attack his shoe laces like they were a buffet. Josh’s knuckles would get bloodied every time he tried to untie his shoes.
He worked for years at NBC news “behind enemy lines” as at least some here might say. He worked at a news syndicate. He spent some time at his beloved New York Post. Or, simply, “The Post.”
And, if you don’t believe me when I say he was fearless, he ran a tow truck service on the CrossBronx Expressway. At night.
Mad Max wouldn’t do that. David Petraeus wouldn’t do that without 40,000 additional troops.
And if you’re still not convinced of his abject fearlessness, he recently ran for the New York City Council from the Upper West Side of Manhattan — as a Republican.
For much of the last decade, Josh was a New York City tour guide.
The tour company loved him. For starters, he could actually speak fluent English and was from New York, which is apparently more rare in New York City tour guides than you might think.
But he was also so funny. And smart. And generous. And he knew everything about New York. One of our father’s favorite movies was Gunga Din, and Josh was the Gunga Din of New York (I hope he can forgive me that his eternal resting place will be in New Jersey). It wasn’t just that as a fish delivery guy, he’d gone through the grimmest kitchens of some of the finest restaurants of New York. Or that as a cabby, he patrolled back streets and heard taxi cab confessions. Or that as a tow truck guy he’d witnessed the Hobbesian state of nature of New York’s thruways.
(Maybe if he waited just a few more years, the producers who brought us “Ice Road Truckers” or the “Deadliest Catch” might have discovered him)
He was simply a sponge for information. He knew weird things. Funny things about this. Odd things about that. Fascinating stuff about the other thing.
He was a fearless conversationalist, and by that I mean he was unafraid to discuss any topic about anything with anyone.
Put him in a room with the Pope and in five minutes Josh would begin a sentence “Here’s something you may not know about Catholicism.”
And there’s a pretty good chance, he’d be right.
Put him in a room with a ditch digger, and he’d listen quietly for hours, fascinated, as the man explained why ditch-digging was so much more interesting than you might think.
In this, as in so many things, he took after my father, whom he — we — loved so very much (and my Dad is smiling right now because I used “whom” correctly. Unless I didn’t, in which case he’s still smiling because he’s talking to Josh right now).
My Dad was a “peculiar duck,” to use one of Dad’s favorite phrases.
And Josh was his peculiar duckling.
One of Josh and Dad’s favorite pastimes was to sit on the couch, with the volume on the TV all the way down as they talked and talked. A particular joy was brainstorming what sort of hats Norman, our Basset Hound, would look best in.
After nigh upon Talmudic debate of the question, they concluded that a Pickelhaube, the spiked helmet worn by the imperial soldiers of Kaiser Wilhelm, would be best.
And, really, who are we to argue with that?
Of course, Josh worshipped our father, which probably explains why one of my earliest memories is of helping Josh make a giant portable poster of the sort carried by political protesters, it read “Bring Back the Czar!”
And, then there’s Mom. Nobody who knew Josh and who knows my Mom (even by reputation), can doubt how much of her was in him. He got his fearlessness and irreverence from her, and his stubbornness too. He loved her and she him. I shudder to think of her loss for fear of being pulled down by it.
Yes, my Mom and Josh fought. And Dad and Josh fought, a lot. And Josh and I locked horns more times than I can count. Everyone who loved Josh fought with Josh, because we all saw so much in him, more than he ever saw in himself.
Josh’s last job was working for my mom. He created a web forum called “The Connection” — a name that is more apt than I realized because in the last 48 hours I’ve been inundated with email from people who knew him only electronically. They’ve told me how they lost a friend, a confidant, a conversationalist. He made a connection with so many people, because that was his gift.
Of course, the most important connection in his life was with Chantal, his wife and best friend. In the 20 years they’ve been married, I never heard him say an unkind word about her, even as a good-natured joke. In the swirling storms that buffeted his life, when he was plagued with self-doubt and beset with legions of demons, his one anchor, his one True North was Chantal. He never wavered from his devotion to her.
In our marriage vows we swear to stay together in sickness and in health, through good times and bad. And no two people I have ever met have ever stayed truer to an oath.
I cannot pretend that Josh was without more than his fair share of faults. He was the first to admit that he let himself down by letting others down from time to time. I think it is important to be honest about this because honesty about his shortcomings is what allows us to see his strengths so clearly.
And Josh’s worst fault was his failure to appreciate how truly wonderful he was when he was at his best.
On 9/11 when most of us were glued to our TVs awaiting the next development, Josh had already put on his boots and walked down to Ground Zero to help out any way he could. It simply hadn’t occurred to him that he should do otherwise. He spent days, without sleep, clearing rubble and, eventually, driving barely filled body bags from the site.
When Josh was at his best, he was simply the best person I knew. The Joys of Yiddish says that a mensch is “someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character. The key to being ‘a real mensch’ is nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, [and] decorous.”
That’s the brother I will always strive to remember and it is the uncle I pray my daughter remembers, because he loved Lucy as if she were his own. Perhaps that’s because she shares the same fearlessness or perhaps simply because he was, always, obsessed with family, much like our cousin Lynne and uncle Ralph, to whom I am so grateful for their help during the worst week of my life.
I won’t lie. I’m furious with my big brother for leaving before his best days could be realized and before we could re-forge the closeness of our childhood. I’ve cried so much this last week, I feel like I’ve drained a hole in my soul. But now I’m afraid to stop for fear I’ll forget how I loved him so terribly much.