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The Meaning of Life

Must we learn the lesson only once it’s much too late?

January 09, 2009

New Yorkers rarely like their neighbors. Heck, most of us don’t even know ‘em.

Ensconced as we are in small apartments in large apartment buildings, we only hear our neighbors when they’re being too loud too late at night, only see them when we groggily bump into each other when picking up the morning paper at our doorsteps, only know a handful of things about the men and women who live right next door, sometimes not even their names.

But everyone in the building in which I live, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, knew Keith Charles.

If you’ve been watching television or frequenting Broadway in the past four or five decades, you, too, probably knew Keith. He had the kind of unobtrusively handsome face that got him cast on one soap opera after the other, usually as a doctor, a cad, or a crisp combination of both. He had the sort of voice that put listeners at ease, just deep enough to inspire confidence and just playful enough to suggest mischief. He had the quality of grace that allowed him to gingerly hold his own against the great Lauren Bacall in Applause, the Broadway stage adaptation of the classic film All About Eve. He was never a star, but he was a damn fine actor, and for 50 years he made every production he ever took part in a little bit more interesting.

To us, however, Keith’s greatest role was neighbor. He took pleasure in cultivating the puny flowerpots outside of our building, spending hours raking and tilling and planting. When an elderly tenant would approach, Keith would drop his hoe and lend a hand with grocery bags or a walker. When a small child would come running by, Keith would invent some impromptu game designed to amuse. He was often performing, making funny faces and launching into impersonations, but he was always sincere in his affection and concern for all of us in the building.

In July, Keith passed away after a long illness and we, his neighbors and friends, were left with a brownstone that now seemed eerily quiet without his voice and oddly empty without his smile.

I thought about Keith this week, reading the parasha that tells us of Jacob’s death. Mustering his last thrusts of strength, the patriarch sits on the bed and summons his children to his side. What a scene that must’ve been: the ancient Jacob, 147 years old, convening his clan, the fathers of Israel’s 12 tribes, for a final farewell. And yet, as he begins to speak, Jacob acts in an unexpected way: selflessly.

As this column has already explored at some length, Jacob was never one to put the wellbeing of others ahead of his own; for a fair idea of the man’s general attitude towards his fellow men, just ask his brother, Esau.

Nor is our patriarch known for being timid: whereas his grandfather, Abraham, talked to God, Jacob expanded the boundaries of the relationship between man and deity and spent a jaunty evening physically wrestling with one of God’s angels.

And yet, as he draws his last breaths, nothing remains of Jacob the feisty, Jacob the self-centered, Jacob the strident. Instead, he speaks solely about his children and their future, expounding to each son on his strength and to some on their sins. He expires having told his boys how proud he was of them, how bright their futures, how much each one mattered as a man in full.

But there was more to this deathbed farewell: in his last lecture, Jacob created a community. From Shimon, he told one son, would come schoolteachers. From Judah, he confided in another, leaders and kings. Sailors from Zebulun and farmers from Asher and judges from Dan. As the brothers listened, a single thought must have presented itself to each one: they needed one another, could only thrive if the judges and the farmers and the kings came together, each doing his part to create a nation and a people.

Shortly after reading this week’s parasha, I attended a memorial service for Keith held by his wife of 44 years, the composer Nancy Ford. Dozens of neighbors huddled together in Nancy and Keith’s apartment. Lou, our long-time mailman, came from Brooklyn on his day off. And everybody had a story to tell about Keith. My favorite was a short anecdote, told by Nancy herself: Keith, she revealed, kept a short list on his desk, writing down the name of each neighbor and a few details that would help him carry the conversation and put people at ease. He would write down names of neighbors’ relatives or friends, mark recurring topics of conversation, note if one of us was particularly fond of a certain restaurant or had a distinctive hobby. And when he met us, he could easily ask after our aged aunt he’d only seen once, years ago, or about our favorite Italian joint up the block, or about that movie we were so taken with a while back. And we would be delighted, because we knew he genuinely cared, that he loved us for our quirks and idiosyncrasies, that he took the trouble to know each one of us as his or her own person.

In his life, then, Keith Charles embodied the very same lesson Jacob only learned on his deathbed, which is that a group of people, even if they are brothers or live right across the hall from each other, stand a much better chance of coming together and forming a community if someone, some benevolent patriarch, someone confident enough to wrestle with angels or with Lauren Bacall, takes the trouble to get to know them, to be kind, and to care.