February 21, 2012

A Life Unfinished

This weekend I lost a friend to cancer.

This doesn't make me unique in any way.  This cruel, relentless disease has cut a path through every ones lives and works with no bias or agenda as it picks people off at an alarming rate.

But this was a life unfinished.  A man snatched from his wife and his new born child.  Snatched from his friends.  Snatched from his career.   Snatched from... life.  A life unfinished.

In my nearly forty years on the planet, I've met a lot of people and fostered a lot of friendships.   I have dear friends I've been tight with since I was six years old.  I have friends I made in high school, others in University, friends I've made at various jobs and stages of my career.

It was through work that I first met Jason.  At the time, I was miserably unhappy working in sports television; second guessing my choice to start a new career in television production.   Through a mutual friend I heard about a job opportunity on a new show at the Comedy Network.  I was woefully unqualified with a reel of material that you could watch in less time then it would take to read this post.  That being said, an interview was arranged and Jason was the person assembling the production team for this new project.  After some small talk, we began to talk about pop culture, sports and eventually stand up comedy.    We talked about Lenny Bruce, Mitch Hedberg, Chris Rock and an odd 80's era comic named Emo Phillips.    Very early on in our conversation, I was struck by some of our similarities.   We both shared a vast knowledge for the useless: verbatim re-tellings of a joke from a 1978 George Carlin bit; we both delighted in savage verbal take-downs of some pop cultures sacred cows and we both agreed the sports network I was working for was truly awful.   I walked into that meeting wanting the job simply because I wanted to get out of where I was, but I walked out of that meeting really wanting to work with Jason Gwozdz.

I got the job and ultimately got to know Jay a lot better.   He was bitingly funny in a very dry way.  He wasn't the guy in the front of the room trying to crack everybody up.  He was the guy in the back of the room eviscerating that guy with a really smart, perfect comment followed by a look that said "You know what I mean?  What's with this asshole?"  Professionally, he quickly became a mentor.  At that point in his career he had already forgotten more then I knew about the business and he was willing to help.  Later on, when I got offered a gig directing a commercial, Jay was the guy I called to figure out what kind of rate I should be asking for what kind of expectations I should have for a gig like that.  His wisdom and insights were always shared without hesitation.  

Jay's blend of intelligence and wit, of course, made him a fun person to talk to on pretty much any subject.  He never shied away from sharing an opinion, be it positive or negative, and you could always count on it being well thought out and well articulated.   The best stuff, though, was always when he went off on something that he hated or drove him crazy.  You could send Jay an email and all it contained was a poster for the straight-to-video sequel to the Patrick Swayze bruiser 'Road House' and receive, in return, a bitingly funny, carefully worded take down not just off this stupid movie, but of the state of cinema the general shittiness of sequels and some high praise for an obscure - but undeniably amazing - scene in the original flick.  Sometimes the emailed response would fly back within a few minutes.  Sometimes it would take a day or two.  It was always worth the wait. 

It's awfully easy when you lose someone, especially when they check out so far ahead of schedule to rage against the dying of the light.   It's easy to be angry, to be sad, to be frustrated.  After hearing that he passed away on Sunday, I was flooded with some memories of Jay at his best and before long, much to my surprise, I was smiling and laughing and sharing the story of my first visit to watch the Super Bowl at Jay's place.

When the invite came in, I was going to politely decline because I really have no interest in NFL football and particularly in watching the Super Bowl.  I was quickly persuaded by a buddy who was attending when he explained to me that during this party they "do their own half-time show."  This, of course, was intriguing - and really a great example of what made Jason so awesome - and my friend explained that he would be unveiling his "NBA All-Ugly Team;" detailed a game where  each party goer would be required to guess what was being eaten during the Super Bowl by a friend who wasn't at the party (and apparently eats disgusting things) and even highlighted an audio-visual component where some of the on-air lowlites of Sportsnet would be screened for our enjoyment.  Then, almost as an after thought he added "...and of course, Gwozdz will be doing his chilli."   I have to admit, I had long-since been won over by the notion that they would be doing their "own" Half-Time Show that I dismissed the last comment as either irrelevant or perhaps just a joke.   

A couple of weeks later, I arrived at Jay's old apartment for the Super Bowl, and sure enough, sitting on the stove was a massive pot with a tell-tale bubbling sound emanating from deep inside.    The chilli, it appeared, was quite real.  If you're born, say, before 1980, you grew up in a world with some age-old gender roles in place that made me question the ability of this (then) bachelor to whip up a killer batch of chilli.  So I was, at best, cautiously guarded about this chilli and already figuring out my best plan of action to limit the size of the bowl I would receive.  I was having some difficulty picturing Jason slaving away to make a chilli for the motley crew of dudes assembled in his living room and when the in-house half-time show ended, Jay jumped off the couch and announced it was "chilli time." 

He lifted the lid off the massive pot and the gurgling sound was quickly replaced by the aroma of something decidedly tasty.  Still, I wasn't sure and opted for a "small bowl" and murmured something about "not being too hungry."   This, truly, was the last time I doubted Jay Gwozdz.   The chilli wasn't just good when measured against my tempered expectations, nor was it just good "for a bachelor."   It was flat-out fantastic.   Then, amazingly, he began to share his process.   The chilli was a four-day marathon effort.   And that was just to cook it.   There were multiple shopping stops for him to acquire all of the varied ingredients; multiple meats were involved, hot peppers, chilli peppers that were delicately sliced and lowered into the pot so as not to overwhelm the flavors, then the entire concoction was cooked then slowly simmered for days on his stove.  You may question the process, but I assure you, you wouldn't question the results.

The chilli was so damn good, that I attended the following year for the Half-Time Show (which now included a video hilighting the Worst Scenes in Sports Movie History *and* an previously unseen interview with former eTalk host David Giamarco where Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx mock his 80's feathered hair mercilessly) but really I was there not only so I could have the chilli again, but that year, I was instructed to bring tupperware and bring some home for the wife.

Jay took a chance on me and opened doors for me in my career that I may not have been able to kick down for a few more years.  I will always remember what he did for me, and I will always appreciate his advice, his intelligence, his wit, his friendship, and, of course, his chilli.

Rest in Peace, Jay.