The first update on my Facebook page Friday morning read: "This American Life" contributor David Rakoff, dead of cancer, age 47." An attached link showed David, my first book editor, on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart explaining why he had turned in his book on pessimism and melancholia late; he had developed the new tumor that would eventually take his life. As if by reflex, I turned my office chair around to pickup "David's Box," the hand-painted, glue-gunned wooden box that he'd made especially for me almost twenty years ago. Call it a talisman or just a lucky charm, "David's Box" - two decades later and too many bi-coastal moves to count - always remained within arm's reach.
Before David was my editor, we had been set up on a blind date by a mutual friend for two compelling reasons that spelled "M-A-T-C-H." 1. We were neurotic, each with a therapist parent (although David was much more neurotic than me). 2. We had survived nasty bouts of cancer in our twenties (although David's was much worse than mine). As you can imagine with such an aligned set of interests, the date was a disaster, made no better by the requisite smooch at the end when we made out awkwardly like two pre-pubescent girls. Thank God it was over fast with no lasting damage.
Still, I have to confess: My blind date with David was the best of my life. We became pals and co-conspirators in the cancer club. At the time he was an editorial minion with a cube to call home. I like to say he was "david rakoff" before he became "DAVID RAKOFF." He knew my obsessions (which matched some of his), including my possession of a first edition of Emily Post's Etiquette and dozens of other such manuals, offering me a book contract for my first volume of gay manners. He edited me with a fine pencil and listened to me with the attention of Dr. Freud. In the acknowledgement to him, I noted his "constant belief in me ... and whose friendship and good nature are without equal."
He gave me the "David Box" shortly after he decided to leave publishing to see what he could make of his true talents -- despite his depressive nature and undying pessimism (which became his trademark shtick). The jewel box symbolized his departure, no, rather, the transformation of "david" to "DAVID" who went on to become the celebrated author of Fraud, Half Empty,and Don't Get Too Comfortable (not to mention the heir apparent to David Sedaris).
In the prize-winning Half Empty, his last published full-length work, David wrote:
"[H]anging out does not make one an artist. A secondhand wardrobe hand clothes doesn't make one an artist. Neither do a hair-trigger temper, melancholic nature, propensity for tears, hating your parents, or HIV. I hate to say it - none of these make one an artist. They can help but just as being gay doesn't make one witty ... the only thing that makes one an artist is making art. And that requires that precise opposite of hanging out, a deep lonely and unglamorous task of tolerating oneself long enough to push something out."
As I mentioned at the outset, his box has never left my sight in two decades. It's not as though David and I stayed close friends, but this beautiful and yet raw creation constantly reminded me of my muse and mentor - and the great leaps he had taken in his professional life and the courage in his private one.
Friday morning when I slid the top of the box off I was greeted by the visage of a young, handsome cadet (neither David nor me) affixed to the interior bottom set against a gold and platinum paper patina. For the first time, I noticed the slip of a fortune cookie lying in the box. How could I have missed it all these years? Or had David magically left cookies-with-fortunes for all his friends as he passed away last night?
No matter. I picked it up and read, "The star of riches is shining upon you." Of course, it was there all along, carefully chosen by David to implore me to believe in myself and take some risks of my own. I doubt I would have understood it at the time. But this morning as I read the yellowing paper, I understood that my sweet friend who warned on his last book jacket - "No Inspirational Life Lessons Will Be Found In These Pages" - had done just that. Thank you, David.
A different version of this article originally appeared on Advocate.com.
Steven Petrow is the author of Steven Petrow's Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners and can be found online at gaymanners.com. Got a question? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact him on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo of David Rakoff via Getty Images
Photos of "David's Box" courtesy of Steven Petrow