Portrait of a Life Well Lived

Sarkis Tashjian Evanston Illinois

Occasionally, I find myself wanting to share people from my life. It’s what I call my Portrait of a Life Well Lived series. Anyone who has taken a class with me or even glanced at my book ‘Quick, Where’s My Cape?’ will know we are ALL constantly benefiting from those who have done things right. This is a eulogy I wrote for a man who taught me more than most.

So, the big man has left the building.

Big, you ask? Yes, Sarkis. Inshallah, Sarkis. Habibi, Sarkis. Sarkis, my friend was (and always will be) a man of enormous stature. I met Sarkis when I was sixteen. Friends who had been up all night spoke with reverence of the morning meal they’d found in a little corner of Evanston, and the man there who did wonders with eggs and sausage at 5 am. Soon afterwards, I made my own pilgrimage up to this truck-stop cafe. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Like most north shore kids, I suspect, I was unprepared for the great burst of hospitality that greeted me when I crossed that threshold. “Come. Sit. Eat some food, you look hungry. Don’t worry, we feed you here. We feed everybody.” And so he did. For the next several years, all through high school and most of college, I returned to that diner countless times and feasted on so much more than eggs and sausage.

To understand the magic of Sarkis, you have to know what a fish-out-of-water he was in our town. The north shore is place not known for hospitality. In that day, it featured an almost oppressive level of social conservatism. It was a rich, old-money enclave of everything stoic and stultifying. A place where presidents and heads of state would overnight or hold hefty fundraisers. A place where blacks were servants and Mexicans were dishwashers – so the fact that this penniless Armenian immigrant chose this place to set up shop remains, for me, one of God’s great cosmic pranks.

Nothing about this man fit in.

Not one thing. Sarkis was loud. We didn’t do loud. Sarkis was passionate. We didn’t do passion. Sarkis laughed and hugged and grabbed your ass. Sarkis cleared a place for you, no matter the mob. There wasn’t one day I felt any less than a favored son returning to his father’s table. And in a town like Wilmette (my end of the enclave) that kind of welcome was worth everything to me. It was worth everything to a lot of people.

Occasionally after work, Sarkis would take me along for a steam bath. He was a kid from Jerusalem after all, and relished his steam. But more than that, I think he relished the men he found there. This exclusive, fancy club, full of doctors and lawyers and titans of industry – and here was this little Armenian irritant – steaming in a loincloth, blithely ignoring the ‘no shaving’ signs and setting off debate on how he’d bought a membership?

You see the only radical news about Sarkis Tashjian is that he never bought into social hierarchy. He loved telling those men that he flipped eggs for a living. He loved watching them process that information. He loved that he was the happiest guy on the block and that they couldn’t understand how?

“Come eat an omelette,” he’d say, by way of invitation. By way of explanation. And sure enough, some of them did. They too, it seemed, longed for something they didn’t even know was missing.

The secret behind Sarkis’ success was never his cooking. It wasn’t his omelettes. It wasn’t his greasy sandwiches. It was his enormous heart. And the door he opened for others to experience theirs. There are few gifts I treasure more in life than the capacity this man opened for me to love… strangers. To make acceptance, respect, and human decency my default positions in life. Have I lived up to this promise? Not a chance. I’ve shit on people. I fail all the time. But that beacon of decency is always there. Always calling me back to a better self. Because it works. Because life is supposed to work this way. The Sarkis way: the heart walks first.

What is a Life Well Lived?

So, how does one measure a man’s life? By bank accounts? By sets of numbers? I think we all know that’s not it. I think a man’s real worth is measured by the deeds he has done, the bonds he has built, and by the men and women whose lives he has made better for having crossed his path.

And so I say again, a very big man has left the building this week. But he did not leave without bestowing gifts: the great gift of Sarkis love. Ever-renewing and infinitely exchangeable. Use it, wherever you go. He would want you to.

Ric Gibbs