My friend Steve Bornfeld lives in Las Vegas, writes for a newspaper and a magazine in that city, and on Monday celebrated his fifty-eighth birthday. We talked by phone on Sunday, catching up, comparing ailments, working hard not to get into an I-hurt-more than-you contest, which I concede Steve would win anyway. He survived a diagnosis of colon cancer three and a half years ago, and now fears he may have contracted late-onset hypochondria. In a recent story for the Review- Journal, Steve asks: “Had my newfound hypervigilance tipped over into hypochondria? Does everyone’s?” We agreed that an unnatural preoccupation with one’s health is both tiresome and, in certain moods, deeply attractive, like a long soak in a tub of warm self-pity.
Steve sent me another story, “A Tale of Two Dreamers,” nominally about the former owner of an auto repair shop in the Bronx who now sings standards on the Las Vegas Strip. The other dreamer is Steve’s late father, also from the Bronx, also a performer of sorts, who worked the farther fringes of entertainment: “Dapper, my dad was, in his sleek, black tuxedo as he wheeled his bulky stand-up bass fiddle through the narrow foyer of our first-floor apartment. Nearly every Saturday night.” The rest of the week, Jerry was a salesman. Steve once described him to me as a tummler, like the other Jerry, Lewis, but with dignity. I remember him as the kind of guy most comfortable swapping one-liners and song lyrics. He liked making people laugh and, even more, he liked people who made him laugh. Steve writes:
“He’d burst into song for any reason. Or no reason. Gershwin. Porter. Broadway. Sinatra. Dino. Bing Crosby (his idol). And in some of my favorite memories, accompanying himself on that damn, dorky accordion he loved to play in his bedroom with the door shut—voice booming throughout the thin-walled apartment anyway, letting go in a way that showed me what joy looked like.”
Steve leaves out two things. He also plays the accordion (yes, “Lady of Spain”). And, though he reports that Jerry was struck and killed by a car in 1994, at age seventy-nine, he doesn’t go into the circumstances. Jerry and Rita, Steve’s mother, were dining in a restaurant in New York City. It was a rainy night. They had finished eating and Jerry was walking across the street to retrieve the car so Rita wouldn’t get soaked. That’s when a driver knocked him down. One of life’s blameless flukes.
In February, Dr. Oliver Sacks published a brief essay announcing his imminent death from liver cancer. He borrows the piece’s title, “My Own Life,” from an essay Hume wrote in April 1776, four months before his death from abdominal cancer. I read Hume’s piece after Sacks cited it and was charmed by the first sentence: “It is difficult for a man to speak long of himself without vanity; therefore, I shall be short.” Steve has the last, short word on his father, as it should be. He wrote the epitaph on his stone: “Music in His Soul.”