March 7th, 1935 - August, 2008
Sheldon Biber was a poet, a comedian, a quintessential tilter at windmills, a serio-comic actor, an observer and story-teller, an intellectual clown, a dreamer, a free spirit, a procrastinator extraordinaire, and the ultimate rebel, questioning the absurdities of everyday life and bristling at anything that resembled authority.
Sheldon was my step-father's cousin and the first time I met him, he jokingly hand-cuffed me to the bedpost in his mother's house in Morristown, New Jersey; I was about nine years old and it made a lasting impression.
Years later, he would come down to Washington after his divorce to visit his young son and he always stayed with my family. He was one of the first people to read the stories and poems I had written back then and he encouraged me to write more.
While I was growing up, the choices Sheldon made in life intrigued me; he quit a high paying computer job to become a poet and comic entertainer because he said he wanted to follow his heart more than his wallet. His humor was different; puns and witty jokes that audiences often figured out about a week after they heard them. When I was about fifteen years old I started spending summers with him in his apartment outside New York; first in Union City, New Jersey and later in Hoboken before it had become gentrified--something Sheldon often railed against:
Here's a thought I'll give you gratis,
On how to get yourself some status:
Walk into some small cafe
New ones open everyday
Where the only thing that counts
Is eating food you can't pronounce
Sheldon was always titling against windmills. He took the injustices in this world personally and would rant at corrupt politicians, indifferent bureaucrats and false prophets. But he was always able to laugh at life's ironies. His laugh was loud and his heart was almost always in the right place.
One of my earliest memories was driving with him on the highway at night when we passed a family from a foreign country standing in the dark beside their car. He stopped and got out his flashlights and proceeded to usher them to a safe place and then spent the next two and a half hours waiving cars away from the danger area. I remember when the police finally arrived with a tow truck and asked Sheldon where his car was. He showed them but then explained it was not his car that had broken down. The policeman could not believe it. "I saw you standing here when I came through a couple hours ago," the Policeman said "and you don't even know these people?" he asked incredulously.
That was Sheldon.
He would do just about anything for anyone--except himself. For some reason he was stuck when it came to climbing out of his own holes and he wasn't so great at letting other people help him. He had some demons he could never fully wrestle down.
Sheldon used his humor and wit to celebrate the absurd--often with puns and word plays. With his bald head and the long beard he had in his younger years, people would approach him on the streets of New York thinking he was Babba Ram Das, the author of the spiritual book Be Here Now. "I'm not Ram Dass," Sheldon would tell them, "but I am here now."
Sometimes people would hear his last name and ask him if he was related to Martin Buber, the famed author of I and Thou. "No," Sheldon would say, "the difference between Biber and Buber is the difference between I and U.
He was not a perfect soul and he was never able to fully come to terms with his role in his own misfortunes. He had great intentions and a million great ideas but he had a hard time getting to any of them. "Chronic inertia" he called it. He would fill every room of his house with objects he would find on the street; often these were broken things that other people had thrown out and he would pick them up and take them home, hoping to repair them one day. Aware that these things had taken over his life, he nonetheless could not stop collecting them and bringing them home and it got to the point that you could not even walk through his house without piles of things falling on top of you from every direction. Eventually you could not even walk through his house at all.
I remember coming to help him clean his house but he didn't want to part with much. He had rooms full of broken computers, monitors and keyboards that he had bought at yard sales for parts or picked up on the street when neighbors threw them out--but none of them worked. One day, he was going to fix them. He had boxes of bicycle parts he was saving for bicycles that he did not own--because he knew that one day someone would throw out a broken bike and he would have the parts to repair it. After a day of cajoling, we took a few truckloads to the dump and took some smaller things to the curb for trash pick up. The next morning I saw that some of those items were back in his house.
That was Sheldon, too.
When I began my career writing songs for children, Sheldon was the one who encouraged me. He bought me the songbook I used to teach myself how to play guitar and he listened to my early songs and poems.
When I first learned how to play guitar, I carried it with me everywhere; once while walking past a DC restaurant, he suggested we go in and see if we could "sing" and perform for our supper. I played a few songs and he recited a few poems and then we were treated to a great meal. It was the first time I had ever performed in public--and it was at Sheldon's urging. He was also responsible for my first paying job that lead me to singing in the schools: a result of accompanying him on an audition and after he was finished, he insisted that I get up and tell the arts committee about myself.
In subsequent years, Sheldon read my books and made suggestions on how they could be better. He told me when I had to go back and work harder and he helped to edit many of my poems.
One of the last times I saw him, I came with a video camera, hoping to capture him on film. He had had a series of strokes and spoke haltingly about his life. He spoke of his own inability to bring a sense of order to his life and his inability to master the skills he needed to function in the ways society demanded.
He also talked about his own work--his poems and comedy pieces--and a career that never fully materialized.
I asked him what he felt were his major achievements and he spoke about some of the satirical poems he had written. He then said he felt a lot of satisfaction in knowing he had shepherded me and my career.
Around the time I began my career, Sheldon wrote a poem called My Friend Sam, the Anarchist. I think he was really writing his own autobiography. Here is part of it:
My friend Sam the anarchist
didn't start out that way;
started out believing
until he got a ticket for walking
the wrong way on a one-way street...
Appeared in court
wearing his "Judge not lest Ye be judged" T-shirt...
My friend Sam the anarchist
Didn't start out that way
Started out believing until he walked
Into a bank during a hold-up;
Grabbed as a hostage
when the alarm went off;
the building was surrounded.
The perpetrators escaped
but the hostages were captured by the police.
Given five years for consorting with known criminals;
Sent to jail where he ate five pounds
of candy and broke out.
My friend Sam the anarchist
vowed no laws could hold him
Triple parked on two lane highways
Spent long afternoons in Cadillac showrooms
Smuggled oranges into Florida
in his briefcase.
Busted for going through a revolving door
Dragged before the judge;
His T-shirt stripped off him.
Called a three time loser;
Had the book thrown at him;
It hit the prosecutor in the face.
Everyone came at him.
His own legal aide lawyer.
Headed for the wall,
Screamed, "F--k the law of gravity."
Jumped out the courtroom window
and went up.
Killed by a passing airplane
on his way to the stars.
Justice still wears her blindfold
to hide the tears.
I'd like to think that Sheldon made it to the stars. Or maybe even further. He was not a religious person but I think even Sheldon would agree that Heaven could use all the poets and comics it can get.
Barry Louis Polisar
click here to read addtional poems