The Oransky Journal

Interesting stuff that doesn't fit on Embargo Watch or Retraction Watch

RIP, Bill Sharfman

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Bill Sharfman, circa 2017

I haven’t had a diet Coke in three years, and Bill Sharfman gets a large part of the credit.

I had chugged the stuff — or its predecessor, Tab — since my parents had put it on the dinner table in 1982. There is even a picture of me, in a special issue of US News and World Report from 1996, striding down the halls of Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital before 6 a.m. as a medical student on my surgical rotation with a 20-ounce bottle in my hand. 

Sometime in the mid-2010s, however, I became convinced by studies suggesting that artificial sweeteners were doing me more harm than good. So like leading cardiologist Harlan Krumholz, I quit. My wife Cate was delighted, and set to work finding all sorts of ways to make iced coffee: My other problem was that I had never developed a taste for hot drinks. 

But all of those methods seemed too complicated for someone used to unscrewing a cap and pouring. How would I wake up my brain every morning? 

Just a few days after I went cold turkey, I happened to be staying at Bill’s apartment on the Upper West Side. Cate and I had given up our apartment in Hell’s Kitchen a few months earlier, moving — unsuccessfully, it would turn out, until the pandemic — to our house in Northampton, MA. I needed a place to stay in New York once a week so I could teach at NYU, and Bill and I had plans to go to a Yankee game. (We bailed on that; it was threatening rain and we had both reached a point where the trip to the Stadium felt like a lot of work and effort that could be better spent at the bar of a restaurant.)

I told Bill about my new (lack of) habit, and said I was trying to figure out how to get the caffeine I knew I needed. “You need a caffeine delivery system,” he said, as if it were an engineering problem. “A what? Oh, yeah, that’s it,” I nodded. He told me that he had the same problem, and that he drank iced coffee made from Cafe Bustelo, arguably the best instant coffee around. The following morning, he showed me how he made it.

I’ve been drinking Cafe Bustelo every morning since then. Now, even more than ever, when I do, I will think of Bill, who died in early August.

Bill and I met sometime in 2000, through a group of writers organized by Michele Wucker. When we could all manage to get organized, we’d meet at a bar, often on the Upper West Side. Bill and I became friends, probably in no small part because we could both be cranky, and because we were both more on the science and medicine (me) and engineering (him) spectrum of writers.

Bill was three decades older than me, so we were at different stages in our lives. I was just starting my journalism career, having trained as a doctor, while Bill was well into his consultant phase. We’d meet for burgers and beers at places like McHale’s, of blessed memory. Bill could almost always remember what had been in a particular place, even if the establishment was long since gone. He knew things about New York, about advertising, and about dozens of other subjects, and was not, as anyone who ever had a conversation with him will agree, ever shy about letting you know.

It was a conversation we were having sometime in early 2004 about John McPhee’s The Founding Fish, a book about the place of shad in history, which I had recently read, that ended with our hatching a plan for how I would propose to my then-girlfriend (and now wife) Cate. Discussions with Bill often led in unexpected directions, and this was no exception. 

Bill’s Shad Fest tiles

Lambertville, New Jersey, Bill explained, held a Shad Fest every year, timed to the run that the fish made up the Delaware River. Some 20,000 people showed up, and why not be among them, since I had enjoyed McPhee’s book? When I looked at the calendar, I realized that the date — April 24 — was the two-year anniversary of my and Cate’s first date, and that I thought that would be a good day to propose. I had a somewhat ulterior motive: Cate’s former landlord and dear friend was throwing her a “farewell to Hoboken” party that night now that she had moved into my Hell’s Kitchen apartment.

Somehow, dear reader, that confluence of factors led to the three of us driving from Manhattan to Lambertville on the morning of the 24th. My proposal was still a surprise, or at least I’m reasonably sure it was, as we walked around town. Bill and I had decided that he would find an excuse to wander off once we arrived at a florist I had called ahead to order a dozen roses. He said he had to make a call, which gave me time to have Cate pick up the flowers, and for me to get down on bended knee at the most secluded spot I could find in a tiny village beset by 20,000 shad eaters. We later met Bill for a toast, then drove to Hoboken for more toasts.

Bill had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t attend our wedding later that year, but he generously sent us a case of Eyrie Pinot Gris. That was a classic Bill gift: It involved alcohol, and a fascinating backstory about the origins of the vineyard.

Bill always knew the backstory. That’s why I hired him to write a few pieces for The Scientist when I worked there. Who else would know that the boxfish was the inspiration for a Mercedes concept car? Or about the real significance of the paintings of John White from the 16th century?

Peter Freundlich, Cate Vojdik, and Bill Sharfman, Chesterfield Big Rigs, 2010

A decade ago, Bill visited us at our house in Northampton, Mass. Along with another friend who was visiting, we decided to visit an exhibition of Big Rigs in a neighboring town. It was a marvelous weekend, two longtime New Yorkers drinking and regaling us with stories long into the night.

Bill and I continued meeting for dinner once every other month or so. Sometimes that involved a Yankees game, or a book reading, or some other event. Figuring out where to eat was often a challenge, and often involved a dozen emails or more. Bill loved French food; I wasn’t as much of a fan. I would go through phases involving low-carb diets, limiting our choices. Then I became a vegetarian.

It was sometime before that, though, that Bill ended up confined to his apartment following surgery for a broken ankle. I’d bring dinner every other week or so, to keep him company. Deciding where to eat wasn’t an issue, but deciding what to eat still was. Luckily, a few standbys — La Caridad 78, Artie’s — were still open around the corner from Bill’s apartment.

But Artie’s had closed by the second time Bill smashed an ankle — the other one, this time. He tripped on a rug at his apartment the night of his 75th birthday party. An attorney friend of his and I ended up riding with him in an Uber to the hospital, which made Bill — in serious pain by this point — laugh and say that patients should always bring a doctor and a lawyer to the emergency room.

The injury, and the resulting surgery, left Bill stuck in his apartment for weeks. I was staying just five blocks away this time, so I could bring dinner easily. But that didn’t make it any easier to figure out what to bring. It is much, much more difficult to buy good pastrami on the Upper West Side than one would think, unless you plan your day around it. Trust me. Then again, the challenges of pastrami were just another reason for Bill to be cranky. 

Bill emailed me on February 4. “I suppose we ought to talk soon at your convenience, can I ask you to call me or try me whenever your convenience is, you’re all over the place at all times, me less so, or tell me when.” He had asked my unofficial medical opinion about various ailments over the years, so I figured it might be something health-related.

He didn’t bury the lede. “I’ve got stage four pancreatic cancer.” 

Cate and Bill and I had dinner on the 6th, at Fred’s, on Amsterdam. We talked a little about his diagnosis and nascent treatment plans, but mostly about the state of the world, and about the book of interviews that he was still hoping to publish. Over the years, he and I had discussed the manuscript, and who might write a foreword, and who might publish it. We walked back to our apartment — just a few blocks from Bill’s — laughing.

That was the last time we would see Bill. We left the Upper West Side on March 13 for Northampton, and with the exception of a day trip to pick up some things a week later, we haven’t been back. I spoke to Bill several times, and he was clearly declining, which after a while made it difficult for him to carry on conversations for any length of time.

I didn’t learn that Bill had died until a few weeks after it happened. My brother, who had spoken to him about the book at one point because of their shared interest in cars, saw a mutual friend’s post on Facebook. I found myself wishing, not for the first nor last time, that the pandemic had not separated all of us. I would have welcomed exasperating discussions of where to bring in dinner from, had it been safe to visit. 

I already miss Bill. I’ll think of him every time I spoon out my instant coffee, but likely every evening when I exit the 1 train at 79th St. People end up in your life for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes they stay, and without your noticing, become tightly woven into the fabric of where you are, and why. For my adult New York life, Bill was — and will remain — one of those people.

RIP, William Sharfman.

Written by Ivan Oransky

August 28, 2020 at 8:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. So beautiful.

    Cheryl clark

    August 28, 2020 at 8:24 am

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