Jackson Alberts and friends. Photo provided by Tochi Onyebuchi.
Jackson was the first guy I ever saw talk back to a law professor. Not respond. But talk back. Where we stammered, he bantered. Where we stumbled, he danced. That isn’t to say he was a good law student. It is more to say he enjoyed hearing himself talk. Already, that’s two things we had in common.
It was Thursday evening my time, afternoon his, when an email from the Dean of our law school was sent informing us of the passing of Jackson Alberts, CLS ’15. He had been nearing the end of an externship in D.C. with the Securities and Exchanges Commission. But I come not to bury Jackson; I come to praise him.
We talked about all the things you’re not supposed to talk about if you want to maintain a friendship: theology, politics, Palestine. We also talked drugs, literature, booze, gonzo journalism, mental illness, pornography, scandal, violence, gambling, and women. It was characteristic of our relationship that whenever there were other students around, I always cautioned him against talking too loudly and he always refused. I was constantly looking over my shoulder to see if anyone had caught offense, and he continued. Big and profane. Without restraint. When it was just us, I felt, for the first time since arriving at Columbia Law School, truly unguarded.
At times, he was gleefully offensive; charmingly so. But he wasn’t simply something that happened at people, at us. I believe part of the project he had embarked upon was to show us a different way of being. A way of being where terror was not the default, where the smoke dissipates and all that’s left is us and the mirror and what we have the courage to look at.
He was what law school promised but so rarely delivered: a challenge grounded in compassion.
He was perhaps the Augie March-est person I’ve ever known. And he went at things as he had taught himself, free-style, first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.
From him, I learned to appreciate irony—appropriate as it was he who had told me Saul Bellow was overrated and that I shouldn’t bother.
He was crude and honest, the two one and the same, and often our time together felt like time stolen. Like something illicit was being done even though it was simply us talking and dreaming and laughing. My fingers are shaking as I write this.
The summer after our first year, I went to the West Bank, and he went to Poland, I to work with Palestinian Arab prisoners and he to work with migrants. He came to visit me and my flatmate and mutual friend, Nawal, who was then working with a women’s rights organization in Ramallah. She’d had a cold and retired early one night, leaving me with Jackson and the many packs of Lucky Strikes he’d brought with him. His gifts were always timely.
Much of law school up until then had been accompanied by crippling psychological illness that I had, before my arrival at those august halls and well-endowed corridors of power, believed I’d dealt with ably, albeit stumblingly. Much of the battle had been fought alone with halting attempts at opening up, at articulating its contours to others, in writing, in speech, in prayer. But I nonetheless felt myself the lone knight doing his damnedest to face down the leviathan and keep it from smelling my fear.
It’s a cunning, baffling and powerful thing, this disease, its manifestations manifold. And the thing about it is that it is self-sustaining. Its birth can be attended by specific external happenings, a single sadness-inducing turn of events. But that’s rarely necessary. Often, it will spring unbidden from the shadows and latch onto any small confluence of occasions, or mold out of disparate concerns a monstrous chimera of a justification. Against the apprehension of others, I’d throw up exactly this generalness and obfuscation. But the exhausting chore of navigating that sliver of a passageway with disclosure towering over me on the one side and discretion on the other was never a problem with him. He broke through those Separation Walls a month into our friendship.
My time in the West Bank was meant to be one of spiritual and professional regeneration. Of vigor and writing and noble work. But with a shock of sorrowful recognition, I realized that one cannot outrun one’s haunts simply by crossing an ocean. The leviathan had reared its head. Arbitrary, capricious, erratic, its very arrival mimicking the symptoms it elicits.
He’d caught me while I was dueling my leviathan. And we talked that night, and I grew angry and wanted him to be angry. I wanted my zealotry for the cause of the Palestinians to get him to erupt. And he didn’t. Instead, he nursed me back to health without my even realizing it. When he left to continue his travels, he gave me a note he had scribbled, not to be read until after he’d departed. Earlier that year, he’d begun, once again, the task of getting all the way through Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow,” and maybe he had that tome in mind when he set out to remind me of how swiftly and tragically mortality can animate the human imagination.
It’s tempting to read prescience in that piece of paper, that entreaty to take better care of myself, as the struggle he witnessed is an everlasting battle, an eternal war. But he recognized my leviathan. It would be a dishonor to him to speculate out loud as to what attended his last moments, but I know we felt similarly about law school, about Columbia Law School, about our place in it. He critiqued it harshly and radically, critiqued us harshly and radically. More than anything, more than the ludicrous and digressive rants and the hookah smoking sessions and the x-rated screenplay ideas and the stories about that time in Thailand (or was it Singapore?), the thing that linked us was a fundamental understanding of the other, a knowledge that this place we were in, this suit factory, didn’t quite fit right. We were somehow misplaced and, at the same time, exactly where we needed to be.
The truth is I loved him. Many of us did. Many of us still do. Many of us will. As long as we live. And if he were to hear me say it, he’d snatch the Lucky Strike cigarette he’d let me bum off him right out of my hand.