Early last week someone I knew died. This man, Les, was someone I had known for the past few years only, but he had made an impression on me as someone a bit larger than life. Very gregarious, quick wit, a person many of us would call a quintessential New Yorker, especially a quintessential Jewish New Yorker. We knew a few people in common, including a woman he truly disliked (she had been my neighbor when I was a child). Les had worked for the New York City Department of Education and we had commiserated about the pros and cons of working for this huge educational system. He attended one of my book talks, at the beautiful and historic Eldridge Street Synagogue, on the Lower East Side (but now mostly considered to be Chinatown).

He died suddenly, right before the big snowstorm that hit the Greater New York region and Northeastern United States last week. I was unable to attend the funeral due to work, but I read tributes to Les on Facebook. He certainly had touched the lives of many people.

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I spoke to a few people about Les and they only vaguely recalled meeting him at my book talk and I was a bit surprised. You don't always know who will make an impression on a person, or how you make an impression. Will it be positive or negative? Will it be notable or subdued?


I thought again about Les's passing after the passing of two American musicians this past week. James Cotton died; a noted singer and harmonica player, he was a respected blues musician. I'd heard his music for years, but when I mentioned his death to friends, hardly any knew about him. I wondered why more had not known of him; was he that obscure? Are blues musicians so little known these days?

And then Chuck Berry died, and just about everyone I knew had heard of him. My own teenage daughters knew about him, including several of his big hit songs such as "Johnny B. Goode," "Roll Over Beethoven," "Rock and Roll Music" and others. I heard of his passing and felt a pang; yes, he was quite old (90 1/2) but he was someone who had been around for so long and part of my cultural makeup. Not just mine, but nearly everyone else's cultural, musical life at some point.

Overall the tributes for Chuck Berry have been glowing, and his music was exceptionally important for rock and roll and for Western culture from the 1950s onward. But he also had his brushes with crime, including tax evasion, the Mann Act (he was accused of transporting an underage girl across state lines, although this has long been a contested story in his life) and a few other less than savory issues. But Mr Berry, with his signature hollow-body guitar, rough but reedy voice, thin mustache, and infamous duck-walk (which he could perform on stage even in his 70s) had made a big impression on much of the world.

People make an impression on you in various ways. When they pass, it is worthwhile to think about how they influenced you; to think about how you will remember them. And then think about how you yourself might be remembered when you pass.

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