I had a couple things cued up to run this week, but both can wait. Maybe I’ll get to them in a few days.
Today I need to write about the passing of Howard G. Goldberg – the “G” (“for Gerson”) was important to him – which I heard about just yesterday.
Howard was the New York Times wine columnist for many years, and he was the man who “discovered” me, in a column from July 15, 1987. The precursor to the modern organization Wines Of Germany had staged a tasting of the 1986 vintage in NYC, to which I sent a lot of samples. Howard noticed that most of his favorite wines had my name on them, and he reached out to me.
I benefited from many such courtesies from Howard in the ensuing years – my goodness, decades – and after he retired from the Times I felt he drew me closer, freed from concern about showing favoritism. I’m sure I’m not unique. Nor is this a story of what Howard did for me.
I wasn’t his friend, but more than an acquaintance, something like a spirit-kin without a social relationship to which to anchor it. I think if I’d lived in New York we might have been more chummy, and I envy those among you who saw more of Howard than I did.
The last time I saw him was a few years ago at the ceremony for the Riesling Fellowship Award, for which I was the first American recipient. I’d nominated Rudi Wiest and David Schildknecht to share in the honor, and the evening was a collection of Riesling lovers, including Howard. We shared a table, and from this point the story widens to include my wife Karen Odessa Piper, with whom Howard was quite taken. Correctly so, of course. “KO” is magnetic, super intelligent, lovely, and irresistibly passionate about her concerns. I was touched and delighted at their mutual absorption. Howard was so happy!
“My God, what a sweet man,” KO said as we were going home later. And it’s here I wish to pause. Karen Odessa is an unerring judge of people – her appalling mistake getting involved with me notwithstanding – and I loved that she saw, immediately, this remarkably tender spell that Howard could cast, not from a desire to charm people but rather from the deep well of care in his temperament. I’m sure he could be gruff, but I never saw it. His wine judgment was more than apropos; he was moved by precisely those wines that could move us.
One time he mentioned to me that he had copies of all my catalogues, back to the very first one, and his plan was to donate them to the library at NYU. I mean, that was touching enough in itself, but it happens my father got his degree in journalism from NYU, and because of that, I told Howard, the gift was even more stirring to me. Later on I noticed that I had started to conflate the two men, in some sort of palimpsest in which they’d trade places. My dad died back in 1970, cruelly young, and it felt as though Howard was completing something that my father’s death had interrupted. What that was, I cannot know, but when I thought about Howard in the last years it was as a “father” paradigm, and his sweetness became a lodestar, a reminder of how a man might be, a grace that’s even deeper than kindness.
In any case, it’s the only explanation for how hard his passing is hitting me, considering that we were not, in fact, friends. There were many things to admire about Howard, and they will be properly cited in the obituaries to come, but Howard’s sweetness becomes woven into a kind of ecstatic spell in which I suddenly remember many moments of sweetness with men at various times. Howard would have liked these little stories.
New York can seem pitiless and gruff, but beneath it are underground streams of tenderness, or so it has sometimes seemed to me. One stifling August day, I was hurriedly walking down 5th Avenue, late for something or other, wearing a black suit beneath which I was sweaty and miserable, and ahead of me there were two master-of-the-universe types blocking the sidewalk. I was hot, late, frustrated and furious, and couldn’t wait for the next crosswalk so I could leave them in my dust. Well, we got to it, waiting for the light to change, and one of the Gordon Gekko guys took the arm of a man who was wearing the band for blindness, and I heard him say, in the sweetest imaginable tone of voice, “Can I help you across the street, fahthuh?”
It is who knows how many years later, and I still remember it. Just as I also recall a moment, and now we’re talking a zillion years ago, where I met Willy Abramsky (owner of the old Crossroads Liquor on 14th Street) to take him to lunch at Gotham Bar and Grill. As we were crossing 14th, Willy took my arm, simply and naturally, like of course he’d take my arm to cross the street. It was no big deal, just a simple sweet gesture, yet it lives among the indelible memories that help me ward off despair when I see peoples’ less beautiful sides. Where does this sweetness live, that so few of us can seem to access it?
For Howard G. Goldberg, it lived right there on the surface, and I am so grateful, and so sad, that he shared it with me in our years on this earth. Farewell, sweet father.