MAR 18 1985 – FEB 9 2022
Tribute to Daniel
Benjy Sarlin, High School Friend
Daniel Levine was the coolest person I ever met. I don’t know how else to say it. When I think of a cool person, the image that comes to mind and will always come to mind for the rest of my life is Daniel Levine.
When we were in Freshman year, Daniel was dating a girl named Jessica whose family abruptly pulled her out of school and moved her to Louisiana. That wasn’t enough to keep Daniel away, though. He snuck onto an Amtrak and rode the rails like a boxcar hobo all the way to New Orleans. Who does that? It’s still the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard. He ended up trying it again just for kicks over break, until eventually he was busted by a ticket collector somewhere deep in Virginia. But he came back with an armload of stories about the fellow stowaways he’d met, from a grizzled old lady to a 7-foot college basketball player. We all were reading Kerouac then, but only Daniel got it in his head to actually do it. Legend.
He was a magnetic personality and he pulled me and so many others into his orbit with his charisma, his intelligence, his talent, his generous spirit, and his passion. We should be grateful Daniel wasn’t evil, because I would have joined any cult he started. I don’t remember how we first met at school, just that all of a sudden we were hanging out all the time, or more accurately I was following him around like a puppy along with his friends Eliya, Abian, and Daniel Rosenthal.
I spent more time with Daniel in those years than any person outside my family, who also adored him. We’d hang out in each other’s apartments for hours and noodle around on guitar and play mp3s and watch bad movies. Claudia and David kept a wonderful home, with a grand piano and hulking basses and a little auburn poodle zipping around. I remember we holed up with our friend Nick and my brother Jon in his room once while the grown-ups held a chamber music concert outside. Nick was mortified when he learned they could hear him soloing over it with an unplugged electric guitar.
We played basketball at night in the park, usually multiple times a week. We were both terrible and it was the most fun I’ve ever had. We talked about music, about politics, about girls, about the Knicks. We always were trying to make each other laugh.
Every so often, I’d join him on a trip to Smalls or the Village Vanguard to see one of his favorite acts and leave bewildered by whatever I’d heard while he and Nick, who was also a jazz virtuoso, excitedly recapped every chord change on the walk home. They could get worked up just talking about an interval, it was great.
But more often on weekends we just wandered around all night, exploring every corner of the city that didn’t require an ID card, which wasn’t many places. But that was okay, because every night felt like an adventure with Daniel around. I remember one time we climbed out onto the rusted abandoned piers in Riverside Park. Another time, we watched the early sunrise from the rocks by the lake in Central Park. One time our Freshman year, we wandered around the mall at the World Trade Center, when every store was closed and we were the only people inside. We took a train to Jones Beach once and Daniel tried to sleep overnight in the sand, only to hitchhike home after being assailed by biting insects.
Being around Daniel always felt like such a privilege. He loved music more than most people love anything in the world and it was intoxicating to experience it through his eyes and ears. Despite his elite musical upbringing and incredible natural talent, he was the furthest thing from a music snob at an age when every teenager is a music snob. Music was just music to him, whether it was Dave Brubeck or Dave Matthews or Ray Charles or Rage Against The Machine. He didn’t discriminate. He could find something valuable in any genre and I heard some of my favorite songs for the first time in his room.
I personally couldn’t play much more than a blues scale and some power chords on guitar when we first met, but he never condescended to me and he always noticed when I made improvements and encouraged me, which meant a lot because I was always practicing furiously to keep up with him. Even then, there were the seeds of a great teacher. I remember I told him once that my younger brother was learning guitar with a software program and he scrunched his face up like someone had cracked a rotten egg. “The great oral tradition, man!”
We ragged on each other a lot in our friend group in the normal way teenage boys do. What was more unusual for a teenager, though, was when Daniel called me up out of the blue and went “Hey man, I’m just calling to apologize. I’ve been a dick to you lately and it’s not cool.” I honestly didn’t even know what he was referring to.
But it was totally in character, there was a sweetness to Daniel and an introspectiveness and a humaneness.
Also he liked words that ended with “ness” a lot. In fact, sometimes he just used “ness” as its own word as part of this Daniel-specific way of speaking that was part California surfer, part New York rapper, part old-timey jazz man. Here is one line of a freestyle rap I remember Daniel doing: “When it comes to school, I’m not down with that ness!” It somehow stuck in my head for 20 years.
We drifted apart after graduation, but never fully out of touch. We connected over politics as I built a reporting career and he was drawn into the Occupy movement with many of our old friends. I loved reading Facebook updates on his students and seeing clips of his latest gigs. I last visited him in person shortly after he moved to Philadelphia. He sent me some beautiful emails after my father died last year.
When the pandemic was especially bad and I was feeling isolated, I’d sometimes daydream about how when this was all over I’d celebrate by taking a train to Philadelphia for a weekend and reconnecting.
I was mostly busy starting a family the last few years, but even when Daniel and I weren’t talking, I still thought about him all the time. Knowing someone that unique and that special was out there -- that anyone like him was out there -- made me so happy. I already miss him so much.
Poem by Annette Shantur
Sitting on the living room floor after
croissants before noodle soup.
Light filtering in through branches
through glass through leaves through
air, through sound, standards, a phone
call through the kitchen down
the hall in the bedroom.
Reading an interview about Mark who
played with Mark who's playing
in the living room, sounds that don't
come out of a bass unless you're
Red-black jam and ham and filtered
tea and coddled eggs and, and, and.
She took the coffee before I was done
and he took it from her before she poured
and drank it himself. Reprieved. Received.
[I] between the walls in the village in the
city, in the music. Between the mother and
son and the man, the musicians the cooks
the readers the city leaders the ripple
After, before, through, and and.
Is it real
Meditation by Claudia Barritt
I don’t know what I feel—it’s not real
I still see my son—Alive
I see him twenty years from now,
I see him with his children in his arms and I see him with Annette—
their bodies locked in an embrace.
I feel him
I hear him cry
I hold him close and he stops crying and I know
I am his mother
I close my eyes and see my baby
from boy to man
I don’t see the end—