James and the Persistence Pillow
By Kipp Friedman
My friend James is perhaps the most persistent person I know, and I mean that in a good way.
Just in case one forgets how persistent he can be, James keeps a persistence pillow on a brown leather couch in his Lower East Side Manhattan apartment—otherwise known as “The Bat Cave”—where he spends time in the city away from his family home in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens.
James is a Wall Street lawyer and compliance officer focusing on finance industry regulatory issues, which seems fitting for someone who is at heart persistent. He found the pillow about 10 years ago when he worked for a big investment bank, while setting up an office on an empty floor following the shuttering of another business unit. Sifting through the detritus left by the previous occupants who seemed to be displaced suddenly, he spotted a throw pillow abandoned in one of the nicer windowed offices and took possession.
And now the persistence pillow has a new home. Embroidered across one side, it reads:
NOTHING IN THE WORLD CAN TAKE THE PLACE OF PERSISTENCE
TALENT WILL NOT: NOTHING IS MORE COMMON THAN
UNSUCCESSFUL MEN WITH TALENT
GENIUS WILL NOT: UNREWARDED GENIUS IS
ALMOST A PROVERB
EDUCATION WILL NOT: THE WORLD IS FULL OF
PERSISTENCE AND DETERMINATION ALONE
The statement’s author remained anonymous until James took the time to Google it and learned that it was a direct quote attributed to President Calvin Coolidge—once again applying the power of persistence.
Just as James discovered the persistence pillow and unraveled the mystery of its author, he also rediscovered me after we went our separate ways in life over 32 years ago.
I first met James in June 1978 while on a six-week summer trip to Israel. James and I were the two oldest boys among our group of Jewish teens, mostly from the Greater New York area—17 girls and 10 boys, ranging in age from 15 to 17. Most of us were complete strangers who, for various reasons, had chosen to spend a summer in Israel. I felt a strong urge to visit after the dramatic Israeli hostage rescue in Entebbe, Uganda in 1976.
Even then there was a bit of a scoutmaster in James who always had the serious look of a school principal, almost as if he were the group’s sole parental figure (which was a good thing because we had very little adult supervision). While we weren’t exactly friends, James and I were always cordial, but we quickly lost touch after that summer.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t brought along a camera. In fact, I wasn’t even aware that any photographs had been taken during the trip. So it was with shock and excitement that I received, out of the blue five years ago, an email from James along with an attachment of several remarkable images. Was I on the summer of 1978 Israel teen trip, he asked? James had tracked me and a few others down through the power of the internet and social media. As a 49-year-old, I was giddy seeing myself and my long-lost friends once again as we appeared as 16- and 17-year olds.
One particular photo stood out. There we were, nine of us boys sitting casually on a mound of rocks with tough-guy expressions, mugging for the camera under the harsh yellow glare of the Negev desert sun. We wore loose-fitting olive drab Israeli army uniforms, some of us in sunglasses, each clutching an old rifle as if we had just taken a break from an African hunting safari. I’m the only one who is not looking at the camera, but instead seem to be lost in thought, with my rifle pointing upward resting against my shoulder. The picture was taken during a week spent at a remote Israeli army youth training base where we learned tactical and reconnaissance maneuvers such as hand-to-hand combat, how to ambush someone, and how to disguise your location (I remember an over-exuberant instructor relished in showing us 10 different ways to kill someone with your bare hands). James is pictured standing above and slightly behind us like a shepherd guarding his flock.
The photos brought back a flood of memories of life on the army base, including avoiding scorpions in the latrine, the lousy army-issued chocolate spread served over stale rye bread in the mess hall, and how I instantly fell in love with an instructor with raven-black hair, olive skin and silvery eyes who was rumored to be engaged to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s son. Soon, James sent other photos of our summer of ’78 trip, eliciting even more long-forgotten memories.
Through persistence and some readily available internet resources, James has managed to track down more than half of the 27 of us, and I’m confident that he will find the rest. He has used emails, phone calls and snail mail, done exhaustive Google searches, turned to Facebook, YouTube and the LinkedIn professional networking site, and even, in one case, combed through a City of New York public property records database just to find us.
What a remarkable bunch we turned out to be as adults (myself excluded). Martin went on to become head of entire research teams for the CIA, directing stations covering Central Asia and now South Asia; Teri has been a producer and head writer for various New York City TV stations, including the local Fox affiliate–she currently is a writer for the weekend edition at ABC’s Good Morning America; Michael is a CPA and senior executive at a large New York City real estate development firm—one tall building his firm built along the Brooklyn waterfront is clearly visible from the rooftop of James’s Bat Cave apartment; Tamar runs a successful physical therapy practice in SoHo that caters to a star-studded clientele; Ellen worked for years at Greater Boston Legal Services providing legal assistance for those facing evictions and currently teaches law at Boston College; Randall manages multi-million-dollar family real estate holdings in Manhattan and is married to a Wall Street foreign currency trading director for most of Latin America; Jeannie owns and operates a successful real estate brokerage firm in Connecticut. The list goes on. And to think, I would have known none of this if not for James’s persistence.
Since that first email I received from James, we have held four reunions in the New York area, each attracting new participants from our summer of ’78 trip, with more reunions in the works.
But, more importantly, James has become one of my best friends.
In his spare time (it’s hard to imagine he has any), James serves as a scoutmaster for a local boy scout troop, leading teens on adventurous treks along mountain passes and valleys throughout the East Coast and occasionally out West.
Oh, did I forget to mention he is the father of five boys, ranging in age from 23 to 8? Not surprisingly, three are Eagle Scouts and a fourth is well on his way to achieving scouting’s highest rank. His oldest made aliya to Israel two years ago and now serves in an elite combat unit of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). His next two oldest are twins, 21, one of whom also made aliya and recently enlisted in the IDF’s Paratroopers while the other attends an honors program at Hunter College in Manhattan on full scholarship. His 15-year old son, a high school sophomore who is also a talented aspiring illustrator/cartoonist, still lives at home in Queens. His youngest son, 8, has Down syndrome and faces developmental challenges as well as some medical conditions requiring steady attention. In addition to his wife and younger children, James lives with his mother-in-law in a home which he describes as a “shalom bayit”—Hebrew for “peaceful house.”
James always seems to be on the move. When I recently spoke to him, he was preparing to fly off once again for another trip to Israel; he’s probably been to Israel three or four times in the past three years alone. To say James leads a busy life would be an understatement. One time I called and he was preparing for a two-week backpacking trip with his three oldest boys along the mountain ridges of Cimarron, New Mexico. Another time, he casually mentioned that he had just returned from two work-related trips to Hong Kong and Tokyo. Last summer I caught up with him as he was preparing to take his youngest son to the renowned Boston Children’s Hospital for a much-needed heart operation. During that particular trip he somehow managed to squeeze in a brief visit with one of the summer of ’78 participants whom he had tracked down through the internet.
It should come as no surprise that someone as persistent as James is also a long-distance runner. At about five-feet seven and a fit 140 pounds, he has competed in nearly a half-dozen marathons over the past several years, which is pretty good for a 53-year-old. It’s not unusual for him to go on early morning or late afternoon 10-mile runs along the East River, crossing the nearby Williamsburg Bridge into Brooklyn. Sometimes his route takes him all the way up north to Harlem and back. James runs year-round despite inclement weather; He says that the running is invigorating and helps him clear his head of his day-to-day responsibilities so he can ponder life’s many blessings.
Raised in a mainstream Jewish household on Long Island, James’s parents separated before he was 10. Although he was raised in challenging circumstances, he was an ace student who couldn’t wait to go out and explore the world at the first opportunity. He worked part time through high school at a local supermarket to save up money for our Israel trip, and I can’t help but believe that the trip had a profound effect on him prior to leaving for college. Apart from our Israel trip, his wanderlust and spirit of adventure would take him on a cross-country road trip at age 18, backpacking across Europe at age 20, and exploring parts of South Africa, Namibia and Egypt by his mid-twenties.
During college, James returned to Israel for a semester to study at Tel Aviv University. After graduating NYU Law and passing the New York bar exam in the mid-‘80s he become more interested in Jewish studies and slowly gravitated toward Orthodox Judaism. He then went to study in a Jerusalem yeshiva. He says his life is pretty much the same as it has always been except now he has integrated traditional Jewish observance into his daily life.
James belongs to the Bialystoker Synagogue, an old established congregation housed in a beautiful historic landmark building just off Grand Street and around the corner from his Lower East Side apartment. He has dedicated part of his living room wall as a kind of religious sanctuary where he can study or pray. A wall of bookcases behind a prayer stand is lined with family photographs, souvenirs, religious objects and numerous liturgical books in Hebrew and English. James also has several other bookshelves throughout the apartment stocked with a fine collection of works of fiction, nonfiction and even comic books. His walls are decorated with an eclectic assortment of cultural ephemera ranging from old Beatles and other rock album covers to the New York City Marathon, movie, and vintage aviation travel posters. He keeps an impressive fully stocked liquor cabinet as well as a refrigerator filled typically with an assortment of craft beers so he can fulfill the mitzvah of chachnasses orchim (hospitality to guests). In a nod to Superman’s famous North Pole refuge, his wife and sons call the apartment “Dad’s Fortress of Solitude.”
It may very well be his fortress of solitude, but James keeps several beds in his bedroom including a set of bunk beds for whenever his sons or friends may come to visit and stay over. A couple of guitars – one electric and one acoustic – hang from walls in the bedroom in case one of his guitar-playing boys stops over.
Once, while visiting for the weekend, James gave me an early morning tour of the nearby Bialystoker Synagogue, proudly showing off the beautiful stained glass windows behind the Torah ark and then, by way of contrast, showed me the yahrtzeit (memorial) plaque of the legendary mobster (and former Lower East Sider) Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, famously gunned down in California in the late 1940s.
Later that morning, I went shopping for poppy seed strudel at Moishe’s Kosher Bakery along Grand Street. The store’s manager, Yankel, a stern-looking bearded man dressed in a black velvet kippah and tzitzits—the telltale signs of Hasidic Jewish men–eyed me suspiciously, but I sensed that he recognized me as a distant, albeit lost member of the tribe.
The next day – a Friday – I returned to Moishe’s along with James who was starting preparations for Shabbat. James sidestepped several Hasidic patrons in line and scampered behind the serving counter as only James can to snatch and pack up several loaves of challah that had been set aside for him.
The manager’s eyes lit up when he saw me with James.
“You are friends with James?” asked Yankel. After I identified myself as James’s visiting out-of-town friend he treated me with a heightened level of respect, coming over to shake my hand. His fresh-faced teenage son behind the cash register also took my hand. Yankel referred to James as a “tzaddik”—which is usually translated from Hebrew to mean an exceptionally righteous person.
James may indeed be a tzaddik, but he’s also exceptionally persistent, and for that I am grateful.
Kipp Friedman is the author of the childhood memoir, Barracuda in the Attic (Fantagraphics)