Who Lives? Who Dies? Who Tells Your Story?
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton
Three months have passed since Sam “Mr. T” Tolkoff— New York City teacher, basketball coach, collegiate and professional athlete, pugilist, street philosopher, mentor, and Borscht Belt hotel director—died at the age of 93. He’d adopted the nickname “Mr. T” decades before the actor sporting the Mohawk became famous. He also, perhaps incongruously for a Yiddish-speaker who’d once knocked his Naval officer for calling him a kike, was known as “The Priest in Sneakers.”
Having lived in Yonkers since the 1950s, he’d spent his final months in the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, according to The New York Daily News, Hebrew reported 32 confirmed and 37 possible coronavirus-related deaths. Tragically, or fittingly, he passed just 10 hours before his wife of 71 years, Eleanor, who had lived in a nearby apartment. They had two daughters and three grandchildren. His daughters tell me they don’t know for certain if one or both had the virus, but they are both undoubtedly COVID-19 casualties.
It took me weeks to delete his number from my phone, realizing I’ll never again hear him say, “You could be my horse if you never win a race,” “Feed ‘em fish” or “It’s gotta be love” in the booming voice that was deepened-by years of cigar smoking. I’ll never again see him snap a lightning-quick jab, make a dozen consecutive half-court shots from his knees, or command a room with a battlefield general’s presence. He will never again tell me what I most need to hear: that he loves me and that I possess enough talent, intelligence and generosity of spirit to do something of substance in this world.
Unlike Alexander Hamilton—who, not incidentally, survived the 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic—people won’t be writing or singing about Mr. T in 200 years. Yet I believe the life of this most social of beings—who would have hated sheltering in place—served as an example for how we can repair our frayed bonds and live in whatever kind of world awaits us when we return from isolation. He didn’t possess any answers to intractable problems like racism, police brutality or mass incarceration. I don’t know if I ever remember him making an overtly political statement. Yet his life demonstrated the difference human connection could make, drawing upon his pain and insecurities to inspire and elevate others. He comported himself like a Hasidic master: one whose theology of a deeply personal God was shaped not by Torah or synagogue but by the Depression-era Bronx: a city’s unforgiving streets and a spiritual sensibility somehow nourished like a plant growing from a sidewalk crack. He showed how to interact, face-to-face, with others, and the potential impact of such exchanges.
Who tells your story? There was a time when he was friendly with beat reporters at New York City’s major dailies. His friends included sports and entertainment figures like Jerry Lewis, Tito Puente, Willie Mays and the New York Yankees’ Bobby Murcer. I could keep going. He had sparred with Rocky Marciano, electrified crowds at the old Madison Square Garden with his long-range jump shot (no three-pointers in those days), toured Cuba with the Long Island University Blackbirds hoops squad where he competed against a young Fidel Castro and helped Arthur Ashe train with a jump rope before he went on to beat Jimmy Connors and clinch the 1975 Wimbledon men’s final. To paraphrase Arthur Miller with regards to someone who amounted to so much more than Willy Loman: more attention would have been paid.
Maybe the sheer numbers of dead, the pandemic’s unfathomable toll, has made it impossible for untold thousands to be noted in the public record. Maybe as someone who knew this close family friend my whole life, I suffer from grief’s ultimate subjectivity: the feeling that the world won’t ever be the same because one person no longer lives. For whatever reason, the media was virtually silent on Mr. T’s passing save for a few paragraphs in the April 4 edition of the New York Post that read “He may have outlived his fame, but for over 70 years Tolkoff cast a giant shadow.”
In the endless hours I spent with Mr. T as a teenager, working as a lifeguard under him at Maplewood Swim & Tennis Club in New York’s Westchester County, he would spin his tales and wisdom as if I were a disciple meant to record them. Yet I didn’t write them down. I have forgotten so much. In the absence of high-profile obituaries, I feel a responsibility to say something, to bear the impossible burden of telling his stories and ascribing meaning.
Before I continue with the derash— the interpretation of his life— let me establish the essential facts. Sam Tolkoff was born in New York in 1927 to parents who’d fled Bialystok, carrying with them memories of marauding Cossacks and pogroms. He grew up near the Bronx’s Crotona Park in a Russian- and Yiddish-speaking house with five siblings. His mother died when he was just 17.
He found his salvation in athletics, becoming a multisport standout at James Monroe High School, the same school his hero Hank Greenberg attended and where Mr. T later taught and coached. No game occupied his soul quite like basketball. He turned down a full scholarship from Duke University to remain in the center of the basketball universe and play for Coach Claire Bee at Brooklyn’s Long Island University. Night after night, he competed at the old Madison Square Garden’s, basketball biggest stage.
His team was ensnared in the infamous 1951 point-shaving scandal that destroyed two storied programs: LIU’s and City College. More than 30 players went to jail. Mr. T wasn’t one of them. He’d gone to bed many nights wondering why his teammates didn’t pass him the ball. He was too competitive, and too honest, to even consider giving anything but his best effort, regardless of the potential spoils. Despite all his street savviness, he was completely unprepared for duplicity and betrayal. Simply by association, his reputation suffered a stain. Playing in the nascent NBA or coaching in college seemed out of reach.
As he tells it, he’d had one or two professional fights around this time. His older brother Bobby had been a more promising fighter who’d taken a debilitating bullet to the stomach after refusing to throw a fight. Mr. T’s short stint in the Navy came to an abrupt end with the aforementioned knockout.
He found his true calling in teaching and coaching. In 35 years at Monroe, his voice, mentorship, and encouragement made an impact on thousands of kids (and many fellow teachers, including my mother, Jane Schwartzman.) Later, he spent two stints as an assistant men’s basketball coach for the Fordham Rams. His best-known protégés were Eddie Kranepool, who played 19 seasons for the New York Mets, and Bobby Willis, who took the University of Pennsylvania’s Quakers to the NCAA Final Four. Think of your school’s most beloved teacher, the one who changed students’ lives, and you have some sense of his impact.
For nearly three decades of summers directing activities at two of the Catskills’ most storied resorts: Browns and Flagler. There, he’d find summer work for legions of his students. He’d emcee the evening entertainment, introducing legendary comedians and singers and hobnobbing with celebrities. Later, in the early 1980s, I saw him use his vocal pyrotechnics to turn a game of bingo into a can’t-miss event.
Throughout his colorful life, he exhibited a defining characteristic that I’ve never seen in anyone else, at least not to the same degree. He put all his focus into every human interaction. It didn’t matter if someone were taking his breakfast order, selling him a pair of shoes, or interviewing him for a job; he’d give them all his attention. He saw every encounter as an opportunity to change someone’s life, or at least make someone day with a compliment, story, or sermon. He used these encounters to connect with those who’d been beaten down, who doubted themselves, who hadn’t heard a kind word in a day, a year or perhaps, their whole lives.
Before social distancing, so many of us took our daily encounters for granted. I know how often I would turn off my brain when checking out my groceries, robotically asking someone how they are doing, or worse, peering down at my smartphone. (These past few months have been different: every interaction with another human outside my household is something of a major event.) How many of us treat those moments as potentially the most important of the day? Such a mindful approach to human interaction takes incredible focus and commitment. It’s not an easy standard to live up to. Yet it is worth a try. Post-quarantine, the health of our society may depend upon us all trying a little harder.
And this proud Yiddish-speaking Jew could cross racial and ethnic barriers more fluidly and confidently than anyone I’ve ever met. He was a true student of linguistic rhythms; his dexterity with speech patterns enabled him to greet Latinos, Italians and African-Americans in naturally spoken prose. Today, it’s not exactly politically correct to walk into an Italian restaurant and say “Hey paesano” or offer to give a Mexican immigrant a cocotaso (best translated as noogie). It could get you accused of code-switching, cultural appropriation or worse. Certainly, whatever tangible policies are needed to create a more just society, if more people would make a daily commitment to connecting, as authentically as possible with those unlike ourselves, it could make a profound difference. And, whether or not one believes in a higher power, it’s admirable to act as if all people are treated in the divine image
Though we often spoke, until this past November I hadn’t seen Mr. T in person for about five years. When he moved into the Hebrew Home, I made a special trip to New York to see him; and felt quite good about myself for doing so. Wheelchair-bound, he spoke in a whisper and shivered frequently. He asked the same questions repeatedly. But he was still Mr. T; he still carried that spark.
Right after I walked into his room, I was followed by a Hispanic gentleman named Hugo who spoke English as a second language. He was warmly greeted by Mr. T’s long-time health aide, a Ghanaian immigrant. I assumed Hugo was a nursing home employee and paid him little mind as I enjoyed my long-awaited reunion with Mr. T. I showed him pictures of my daughters, now 9 and 6. I told him, so there’d be no doubt, that I loved him.
Then he asked who was sitting behind me.
Hugo was still there, waiting patiently. He didn’t work at the nursing home. He’d come to visit Mr. T, having long served him at a Yonkers diner. I’d been so focused on my own emotional needs I hadn’t even seen another person, had reduced him in my mind to someone who didn’t matter. “Oh, no problem, I’ll come back next week,” the man told me. Even a few months before his death, Mr. T was still teaching me about what it means to be human, showing me how much I still have to learn.
Who lives. Who dies. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics are eerily evocative of the medieval Una Tana Tokef prayer chanted on Rosh Hashanah. Who shall live and who shall die? During this time of COVID-19, the question confronts us all with startling immediacy. With this pandemic, death is once again a part of everyday life, particularly in “the greatest city in the world.” Yet, the High Holidays, Hamilton and my friend’s life share a powerful common thread. Ultimately, they point us to focus on what we can control, on how we live, on the ways we treat others. As Mr. T said, too many “take, take, take” when they should “give, give and forgive.”