When the writer David Rakoff died last week at age 47, I was struck by the fact that I never met him. Not that we travelled in the same social circles — as far as I can tell, my social circle is a closed loop. But having heard him on This American Life all these years, his gentle, precise, somewhat mournful voice in my head left a false memory of great intimacy. He also spoke and wrote regularly about the cancer that would eventually kill him — inviting you into his private struggle in a way that many actual friends and aquaintances are loath or unwilling to do.
I also “bonded” with Rakoff over a shared experience — at different times but under very similar circumstances, we both found ourselves volunteering in a kibbutz chicken coop, or lool. He describes the experience in his collection Fraud; I remember the shock of recognition when he first read an excerpt on TAL. It was as if someone had taken my own memories and made them their own: About being selected to round up the chickens from midnight until dawn. About the “snarling, saw-toothed, ammoniac, cheesy smell” of the immense corrugated coop. The instructions to “pick up four chickens in each hand…by grabbing hold of the birds by one leg.” (“If the leg snaps,” a kibbutznik tells him, as one undoubtedly told me, “it doesn’t matter, just to get four in each hand. B’seder?”)
Rakoff writes of the moment when he and the other volunteers “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 remember this moment precisely, even the phrase I formed in my head: “Until now, I have been a person who never reached down and grabbed a chicken by its leg. After this, I will be a person who did that very thing.”
I crossed that threshold; the point of Rakoff’s story is that he was unable to.
I envied him his ability and opportunity to spin that night in the coop into an essay heard on TAL. It was a talent for humor, heartache, and somehow life-affirming cynicism that made me one of his regular readers and listeners, and led me to forgive him when his prose occasionally turned precious or mannered. We were both members of the Brotherhood of the Lool – an exclusive fraternity.
May his memory be for a blessing.