Jeffrey Zukerman would have turned 50 years old today. Jeff was my best friend from the time that my family moved to Long Island in 1971 until we went away to college in 1981. “Zukie” or “Zuk” lived next door when we moved into Twelvepence Court, and after my parents divorced and we moved a couple of blocks away, I still spent a lot of time over there because that’s where my friends were.
We played a lot of sports there, playing street hockey in the circle at the bottom of the court and basketball in Zuk’s driveway. Jeff played sports with his tongue hanging out of his mouth long before Michael Jordan became known for doing the same. I kept expecting him to bite it off at some point because it just kept hanging there.
We slept over at each other’s houses, spent time in a fort built in the woods behind my house, did silly things and serious things, and generally did what kids in elementary, junior high, and high school usually did. We went to Sunday school, Hebrew school, and public school together, attended Bar Mitzvahs in our circle of friends, and just hung out. His ridiculously-simple-to-memorize phone number is still stuck in my head all these years later.
During that time, I was suffering with major trust issues, largely related to my parents’ divorce and the differing stories my brothers and I got from day to day and from parent to parent. Jeff was a much-needed friend that I could count on and trust when I was having difficulty trusting my own parents (even though I’m pretty sure that it was him that wrote “Refugee from Star Trek” over my photo in my high school yearbook when I wasn’t looking). He played a pretty large-sized role in keeping me sane through that time.
We sort of lost touch with each other as we went to college, as most people do, but we usually found time to check in with each other once or twice each year when we were back home from school. The summer between sophomore and junior years of college in 1983, I was working at a local day camp and Jeff was working at a sleep-away camp. As summer wound down, I was looking forward to trying to get together with Zuk during the short window of time after he got home and before we both headed back to our respective schools for the start of the fall semester.
I was rushing through dinner after the last night of camp on August 23 so that I could race out and meet the other counselors for a post-camp party when the phone rang. My stepfather answered the phone, said “Hello” and listened for a minute, then said “Jeffrey Zukerman…IS DEAD?” My jaw dropped open and the food fell out of my mouth onto my plate. I can still remember that moment clearly to this day, 30 years later. We hastily finished up dinner and headed over to the Zukermans’ house to be with his parents, Claire and Mike. I was in enough of a daze that I can’t remember whether his brother and sister, Steve and Amy, were home or not. It seemed that the whole neighborhood was there. His funeral is all kind of a blur in my memory.
As I heard the story, Jeff had been driving a couple of kids from the camp into town for some ice cream. His car, his father’s old Beemer, had stalled out in the middle of an intersection. Jeff had the kids get out and wait on the side of the road while he tried to get the car started. While he tried, a tractor-trailer came down the road in his direction. Jeff managed to get the car started and tried to gun it out of the intersection. Unfortunately, the truck had seen the car and had changed path to try to go around him. When Jeff hit the gas, he put the car directly into the path of the semi, which T-boned the car and plowed right through it. Jeff died in the ambulance. He was a month and a half shy of his 20th birthday.
Zuk was the first close friend of mine to pass away, and it changed my outlook on life a bit. Interestingly, it was one of the things that helped me to bond with the woman who would become my wife on the night that we met about seven months after Jeff’s death, as we talked about our lives and discovered that we had both had friends that had recently passed away.
It’s also kind of interesting that my best friend for the last 31 years reminds me a great deal of Jeff. I guess that there’s something about that personality type and demeanor that works with mine. I still miss Jeff, but in a way he’s still with me.
It’s odd timing that his 50th birthday falls less than a week after the first anniversary of a college friend’s death. We distributed some of Mark Irons’ ashes at the duck pond on the SUNY campus this past Saturday with a group of our college friends, Mark’s parents and his brother, then went to Sutter’s, our old college hangout, for lunch. Saturday was not only the first anniversary of Mark’s passing, but also the 21st anniversary of our loss of our son Benjamin.
There are many sad anniversaries in October, but there are also happy ones. My father-in-law, my son Josh, and my friend Mark Leventhal have birthdays on consecutive days. Later this month, Hope and I will celebrate 26 years of marriage. And there are many other birthdays and anniversaries in October in my family and my circle of friends. So while it’s sad to remember the loss of Jeff and think of what kind of life he would have had and wonder whether we would have stayed in touch over the years, there’s still a lot to be thankful for and to celebrate.
Today, I’ll celebrate the memory of one of the few friends from my childhood that I could count on to be there for me and who I could really trust at a time when there weren’t many people that I could trust in my life. I still miss you, Jeff. Happy birthday, wherever you are.