Essayist, journalist, and actor David Rakoff, died Thursday surrounded by his family in New York City after a long battle with cancer. He was 47.
Rakoff described himself as a “New York writer” who happened to be a “Canadian writer”, a “mega Jewish writer”, a “gay writer” and an “East Asian studies major who has forgotten most of his Japanese” writer according to the book “On Foreign Soil.”
Rakoff was funny and smart about many things, including politics in America. “George W. Bush made me want to become an American,” he said in our radio interview in November, 2005.
When asked to explained he said: “He frankly scared the hell out of me. I’d lived in New York City for twenty-three years, and I always felt pretty safe, having just a green card. I am a native of Canada. But with Bush things seemed scary”—especially for residents who were not citizens.
So he decided to apply to become a citizen. How hard was it? “You can download the application. Even I know how to do that. If you’re industrious, you can finish it in a day or two. It took me longer because two things held me up.
“One of the questions was ‘Are you a male who lived in the US at any time between your eighteenth and twenty-sixth birthdays in any status except as a lawful non-immigrant?’ It took me four months to parse the grammar of that. Then I realized the answer is ‘no.’
“Then I got held up on the question of whether I would bear arms for the United States. I have a problem with bearing arms for anybody. Ultimately I checked ‘yes.’ There are some instances where it is not inconceivable. But they’re never going to call me. I’m 41, I have to take a thyroid pill every day.”
His book Don’t Get Too Comfortable had just been published, where he had written about becoming a citizen.
Then came the citizenship interview: “They asked me four questions—one was ‘Who takes over when the president dies?’ I got a little wise-ass-y and answered ‘Dick Cheney, God help us,’ and that got a little bit of a smile from her—we were in New York City.”
Finally there was the swearing in ceremony. “A few weeks later I had to schlep out to Hempstead, Long Island, to a huge auditorium where hundreds of people were sworn in. We said the Pledge of Allegiance, and we sang the national anthem. And I cried.”
Why? “It felt like a big intense thing, like a severing of where I had come from. It made me feel a little sad and a little ungrateful that I had chosen to do this. I felt a little lonely and a little cut off from my family.”
I said “You were surrounded by people who had come from all over the world, people who now were full of hope.” “Yes,” he replied, “and none of them were crying. They were fine. It was just the drama queen who was crying.”
Then came voting. I asked him, “How’s that going?” (This was 2005, Bush had been elected to a second term.) “Not so well!” he said. “Everyone I vote for never wins. Welcome to America.”
“But I enjoy voting,” he added. “I had been paying taxes and going on demos, but now I was really participating. I comfort myself with the notion that this too shall pass. It’s not always going to be like this.”
Rakoff won the Thurber prize — named for legendary humorist James Thurber — for “Half Empty” (2010), his third collection of essays. They veered from sarcastic to poignant and expounded on such topics as optimism, mortality and the bohemian myth of artists.
His other bestselling books are “Fraud” (2001) and “Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, the Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems” (2005).
One essay in “Fraud” was a memoir of his battle with Hodgkin’s disease. Ostensibly the story of his tracking down the sperm sample he banked in Toronto before undergoing chemotherapy 12 years earlier, it begins in typical Rakoff fashion: “I cannot escape the feeling that I was, at best, a cancer tourist, that my survival means I dabbled.”
He was born Nov. 27, 1964, in Montreal to psychiatrist Vivan Rakoff and his physician wife, Gina Shochat-Rakoff.
Rakoff, who attended Columbia University and lived in New York, cultivated hipness and ironic distance from his subjects, who usually lived outside the mainstream: American Buddhists who pay for lectures from Steven Seagal; Icelandic elf communicators; Loch Ness monster believers.
A longtime contributor to the public radio show “This American Life,” Rakoff also wrote essays that appeared in GQ, Slate, the New York Times and elsewhere.
As an actor, he had appeared in several stage plays by David and Amy Sedaris, and had occasional roles on television. Rakoff also appeared in and adapted the screenplay for the dark comedy “The New Tenants,” a 2009 short film that received an Academy Award.
“He was of course incredibly charming, witty and learned, a brilliant raconteur with the quickest mind imaginable, but most of all he was a generous soul,” Bill Thomas, his longtime Doubleday editor, said in a statement.
Rakoff’s final work — “Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die; Cherish, Perish” — is scheduled to be published next year.
In addition to his parents, Rakoff’s survivors include a brother, Simon, a comedian; and a sister, Ruth Rakoff, whose memoir “When My World Was Very Small” (2010) recounts her battle with cancer.
He will be missed.
‘His family has set up a Tumblr cataloging the plethora of gifts he gave them during the course of his brilliant life. Simply go to http://www.rorevans.tumblr.com