On Friday, when the news that Adam Yauch passed away hit, it hit hard. For many of us, the Beastie Boys were part of the soundtrack of our adolescence -- ever present, playing in the background at parties, in videos and on the radio as we went about our daily lives. Their music is entwined in our histories, and so the loss of one of the people who made it feels very personal.
A friend told me that you could hear the Beastie Boys blasting out of apartment and car windows throughout the streets of Brooklyn this weekend. It is a beautiful image, one that I've been holding on to as I sit here with heavy heart, sifting through words unspoken, trying to pull out the right ones to say.
Adam was a friend of mine. Or I should say he was a friend of many, and I was lucky enough to be one once, back when he was a snowboarder and spending a lot of time in our world.
The articles so far have been skipping over that part. I imagine that, from the outside, the time he spent chasing snow in the mountains seems like a strange transition period between eras when he was breaking ground in hip-hop and when he was pushing to raise awareness of the Tibetan people's struggle for freedom, and probably doesn't seem that significant. And maybe it isn't.
But people like Adam live 100 lives in the span of time it takes most of us to live just one. When they go, they leave behind a lot of stories. You can't just tell the big ones. You have to tell them all, even the little stories that don't seem to mean much of anything, because details are the breadcrumb trails we follow when we're trying to find our way back to the people we've lost.
The Adam I knew, during the time that I knew him, was a snowboarder -- a real one. He chose Salt Lake City as a winter base because if he was in the country and saw a storm headed that direction, it was easy to fly to. The places he rented were bare bones, meant only for sleeping and showering and storing the busted-up Subaru he used to get to the mountain. That car was so kicked-in. He had to pop the hood, fiddle with wires and beat on the engine with a wrench to get it to start. It was awesome.
There was no flash to his program. All he cared about was that he was on the hill when the lifts opened on a deep snow day. This part of him might be only a grain of sand in an ocean of more interesting and wonderful things that made him who he was, but I still feel like it should be noted. Because, for a moment in time, he was one of us. It was not an act, and we loved him for it.
I, like many snowboarders in the early to mid-'90s, met Adam while waiting for the tram at Snowbird. I'd been riding with some mutual friends, and because we were standing next to each other in line, he introduced himself. At the time, the only thing I loved as ferociously as snowboarding was the album "Paul's Boutique." (It was not a record, it was a religion, and I lived in the church.) But because he gave me only his first name, I pretended not to know who he was, just so I could find the courage to talk to him. I don't think I fooled him.
Halfway up the mountain he realized he didn't have his gloves. He did that a lot, I came to understand. Spacing his gloves was like his special talent. It never occurred to me to try to hang back and keep him company, though, as he rode down to find them with his hands tucked inside his jacket. It didn't occur to anyone else to wait, either. In fact, most of the guys laughed pointedly as they took off without him while he just grinned and shrugged.
In retrospect, I think that was one of the things he loved about snowboarding -- it was a great equalizer. And he understood the rules, because he followed them as well. There are no friends on a powder day. Even rock-star friends. He was a true shred.
I will never know why Adam decided to be my friend. I was barely 19 when we first met. Besides being too young to be very interesting, I was tragically shy, terminally uncool and socially awkward to the point of pain. My few attempts to interact with his friends were unmitigated disasters. I panicked in group settings, turning mute as I tried my best to melt into the wall. He could have been so embarrassed by me, if he had chosen to see it that way.
Instead, he just thought it was funny. When he had the opportunity to, he made time for me to hang out with just him so I wouldn't be so uncomfortable. He never judged me, never tried to fix me. His acceptance was a gift that I will spend my whole life trying to deserve.
Looking back, I think I was just lucky that I met him during a pause, when he was standing outside of his world looking in, trying to understand how all the pieces fit together. He was just beginning to explore Buddhism then. Maybe he figured he'd start practicing mindful compassion with the people around him, and I just happened to be there, standing on the edge of an emotional cliff in serious need of an unsolicited display of genuine kindness. I was not the only person he helped this way. Not even close.
Adam helped me find the courage to make a leap of faith, to leave behind everything I knew and start over, guided by nothing more than a passion for something as silly as riding down a hill sideways on a laminated piece of wood. It wasn't a "rah rah" thing. He just had a kind of comical inability to understand why you wouldn't follow your dreams if you knew what they were. I mean, look -- all he wanted to do was make music, and he did that and it all worked out for him just fine.
The fact that his was an exceptional case, and thus not a very good example, was never an acceptable argument. He could always counter it with the words, "Yeah, well I guess if you don't try, you'll never find out."
So I did, and because of him I found it easier to move out into the world. I knew that if someone like Adam could see clearly the myriad of ways in which I didn't fit in and like me anyway, there would be others who could do the same.
When I began working for magazines, and started finding myself in rooms filled with people who thought they were the most important things in them, I often thought of him. Adam was famous enough to be arrogant and forgiven for it. Instead, he made the choice to be gracious. He looked people in the eye. He took the time. He smiled. He set the standard, and it set me free.
I never worried if Johnny Rad or Flippy McFlipperson was going to think I was cool enough to talk to, because I knew what true greatness was. It has nothing to do with talent and everything to do with heart and with taking the time to be nice and fully engaged in the moment, even when you don't have to be.
As years went on I got deeper into snowboarding while he moved further away from it, and over time we found we had less to talk about. Eventually, we fell out of touch. It wasn't something I worried about. I always just assumed that our paths would cross again someday and that I would have the chance to thank him for showing me what a truly good person looked like, so I would always know how to spot another one, along the way...
Rest in peace, my friend. You will be sorely missed.