(Originally published as a post in the blog "In and About the City," Wednesday, November 19th, 2014)
Here's looking at you kid . . .
by James Iska
I lost one of my oldest and dearest friends this week. His name is Jeremy Pollack, although you may know him by his nom de plume, Ben Solomon.
Jeremy and I met in high school through a common friend who is in fact, my oldest and dearest friend. The three of us were a part of what was called the Experimental Program or "XP" as everyone called it. Tucked away in a small corner of Oak Park-River Forest High School, XP was a school without walls, devoted to non-traditional teaching and learning where the students, not the teachers, guided their direction and curriculum. It was the seventies after all, and Jeremy, being extraordinarily self-motivated even as a very small child, thrived in that environment.
I've never known a more naturally gifted person. By the time I met Jeremy forty years ago, at the age of 15, he was already an accomplished dancer (having performed with the Joffrey Ballet), a painter, and cartoonist. He made films, wrote and performed music, acted, and even formed his own improv theater company. The guy could do anything he set his mind to. But his greatest passion was movies. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of films and film history and could at the drop of a hat,recite entire scenes from his favorite flicks. He especially loved film noir which explains his last great pursuit, writing hard-boiled detective stories.
Jeremy was the first of his friends to drive and he put that skill to good use every
Friday night when he would drive all of us downtown to the "Playboy All
Night Show," a weekly double-feature of classic films that were shown at
the old Playboy Theater on the near-north side of Chicago. We wouldn't get home
until four or five in the morning where I would find my mother half-asleep on
the couch making sure I got home OK.
The self-reliance he learned as a child served him well. Jeremy had uncompromising standards; fiercely independent, he could not care less about current trends, what was in vogue at the time, or even other folks' opinions when it came to shaping his own. In the eighties he published his own literary journal in broadsheet form called The Chicago Sheet. He published another called Strong Coffee. That title couldn't be more appropriate as Jeremy, especially when he was younger, would be up until all hours in pursuit of wherever his creative muse would lead him. After high school he held court at the local Denny's restaurant, sketching out ideas with friends, or alone with his notebook, always with a cup of coffee by his side.
My bladder and I simply couldn't keep up with him.
We never completely lost touch however and eventually he moved into the apartment below my wife and me. While we were beginning our family, downstairs, Jeremy's apartment testified to the fact that those were his in-between, bachelor years. Smelling of cigarette smoke and stale coffee grounds, his place was ground zero for a fertile and relentless talent. In his sizable dining room, instead of a table for dining, there was huge drafting table and computer station where he created and laid out the illustrations for his latest creation, another publication devoted this time to film reviews called CineGuide. His living room was dominated by a gigantic TV where he'd watch movies, not for relaxation but for serious study. In those days, Jeremy devoted every minute when he wasn't at his job, to his real work.
Indicative of that, at the baptism of our first child, instead of giving baby clothes or teddy bears, Jeremy presented us with his gift saying, "I figured you'll need this because you won't be getting much sleep." It was a cappuccino machine.
Eventually Jeremy settled down with the love of his life, Carolyn, and her family. Again we drifted apart ever so slightly but never lost touch. Like any really good friendship, we could pick up right where we left off, even if we left off years before. Despite being a workaholic, Jeremy always found time for his loved ones, friends included. He was the kindest soul imaginable. I didn't spend much time with him during those years, but from a very good source I know he was a devoted partner to Carolyn, a loving step-father to his new, instant family, and a real grandfather to Carolyn's granddaughter. But given the time constraints of his job and his family, he knew he'd have to give up something in order to pursue his muse.
So he quit his job.
That was Jeremy.
He called me exactly two weeks ago while I was in LA to give me the news about his diagnosis of stage four pancreatic cancer. Naturally it was the last thing on earth I expected to hear. Strange too that I was in Los Angeles of all places, a city known for make believe. In fact the rest of my visit there resembled a bad dream. On the other hand, perhaps it was appropriate as LA is the home of American cinema which he so loved, (well bits of it anyway), as well as the setting of the works of many of the classic hard-boiled detective stories that inspired his new work.
Funny story, back in his early twenties Jeremy, looking for a new life for himself, decided he'd relocate to Los Angeles. He drove out there, looked around for oh, about twenty minutes, then turned around and drove back to Chicago. Apparently LA was just too unreal for him. Jeremy you see was as real as it gets. There was nothing phony or artificial about him, he did not have a disingenuous bone in his body. If he cared about you, you knew it, if he didn't, well you just weren't around to know.
It was my great honor and privilege to have been able to spend some time with him during his final days. With the old twinkle in his eye we talked about getting together with all our old friends scattered about the country to watch North by Northwest and some other favorite movies. He and Carolyn even talked about a road trip to visit another dear friend who had just moved down to Florida.
Alas it wasn't meant to be; Jeremy died quickly, painfully, and in the end on Monday, peacefully.
Great as his loss, Jeremy will continue to live in the hearts of his broken-hearted friends and family. And he lives through his work.
You can find a copy of his latest book here at Amazon.com
Here is Jeremy, excuse me, Ben himself, speaking to Rick Kogan on his radio program that aired exactly one month ago today.
Here is his blog, last updated on October 9th of this year.
Here is a beautiful tribute written by Dave Hoekstra, inspired by our friend in Florida, Scott Momenthy
Especially, Jeremy lives through his little granddaughter Maya who will pass along the hard-boiled tails of Jeremy and the legacy he leaves behind, to her children and grandchildren.
Godspeed my friend. Catch you on the other side.