Ode to a Man Who Had No Idea How Big He Was

(to be read with the Carpenter’s “We’ve Only Just Begun” playing quietly in the background.)

On Tuesday February 28th, 2017 the world lost a true original. An by original, I mean someone who was and will be truly unmatched. A very sad day, and week, and years to follow. We lost a guy with an authentically beautiful wife and four smart kids. His family was really his truest benchmark. If I asked him to go do something extreme and expensive, he would laugh and say, “It’s not a good plan for Tanya or the kiddos, so no, it’s not a good plan for me.” I respected that a lot.

I remember pre-family, pre-responsible Jeff, too.

I remember that Jeff was neither elegant nor subtle. It was the furthest thing from his busy mind. He wasn’t a delicate social butterfly or always the safest bet to invite to your party. You wouldn’t invite Jeff over to meet your boss if you wanted to keep working for her. Not because he was mean, but because he wanted to see how socially adaptive you were. He wanted to give you the opportunity to shine or not.

He didn’t always think in terms of mitigating social risk or delicately preserving your social inhibitions. It wasn’t in him. Instead, he was fearless and alive and whatever the exact opposite of shy is. This guy could get any other person on the planet to rethink the vitality they put into their life. Just as many people loved him as sort-of disliked him — but no one was ever left unchanged by an encounter with him. Like an odd spell, he unwittingly, or in some cases, very wittingly, left an impact on nearly everyone with whom he interacted. No one I know who ever had a Jeff Schneidermann encounter ever said, “wait, who’s Jeff Schneidermann? It never happened. You just don’t see indelibility like that in people.

In college, I became accustomed to being referred to as, “jeff’s friend” by dozens of people I had personally met 7 times. Jeff’s impression-making was just that much more profound.

Jeff taught me that not having fun in every situation by pushing every limit was dereliction of experience. He wore his flaws proudly like badges, and way under-played his positive qualities. He was the star of every room he entered and could walk up to any person on earth and within a 10 minutes be invited into his or her inner circle. I saw it happen dozens of times.

It was common for strangers to stare at Jeff as if he was a Hollywood “plant” because he was both literally and figuratively larger than life and that freaked most people out — first with his enormous voice, then with his giant frame and always followed by the content of his colossal character. In fact, whenever Jeff walked into any establishment, he was always first. He walked with such a sense of duty and purpose. After crossing any threshold, he’d always yell something to everyone in the establishment like, “okay we’re here, sorry we’re late. Who’s running this place?” Everyone would stop what they’re doing, stare at him and wonder from which planet this guy arrived. He would occasionally walk up to the strongest person in any room and whisper, “it’s ok, no one is going to hurt you.” WHO DOES THAT?!? No fear, all fun. He loved to knock a room off kilter to see how people would react. And never with a mean spirit. More from a place of wanting to get more people to turn off their auto-pilot and live a little more of themselves.

I saw him effortlessly disarm bullies, encourage the feeble, embolden the shy and befriend 50 strangers all within a single commercial break in any dark dive bar on any city’s outer fringe. He didn’t mean to become the alpha dog in every room he entered, the truth is, he didn’t know how not to become that by default.

WIth his 300 pounds stacked on six and half feet of brazen courage, I saw him walk into the middle of a college campus brawl and manage to turn 15 adversaries back into best friends with 20 seconds of dialog. And then when he felt his uninvited work was done, he’d drive away singing along to the Carpenters’, “We’ve only just begun.”

Yes, Jeff loved the Carpenters. And not in an ironic way. He genuinely loved Karen Carpenter’s voice. I once rolled down the passenger side window of that horrible baby blue car he drove around and as we crossed the Cedar River bridge, I ejected that god-forsaken Carpenters cassette tape and tossed it into the river. Jeff didn’t flinch or react at all. He simply drove straight to Lindale Mall, parked the car, got out, walked into the Record Bar, bought the exact same Carpenter’s cassette tape and on the way to the car shot me that look like, “if you ever do that again, I’ll kill you.” Not with words, but with that giant profound forehead and squinting eyes.

Not a lot of people know this but Jeff taught our high school civics teacher the content of the class. He just knew more. He lead the school in a national debate club, was built like an NFL lineman at 17 but refused to play on the Marion High School football team because he didn’t favor the politics that bled into how the sport was coached. In fact it made him laugh and nothing aggravated school leadership more. Jeff understood the concept of “leverage” as a 16 year old while it took his classmates and most of the teachers a few more years to understand how he always seemed to be at an advantage in every situation.

Jeff wouldn’t stay in the chess club because no one could beat him and he became bored.

He wore a suit and carried a briefcase around to class with nothing in it but a comb, some dirty ear plugs and a pack of Marlboro reds. He was smarter than the rest of us, humbler than the rest us, could run faster, jump higher, negotiate anything important to him or his cohort, and convince any teacher that their curriculum was flawed with detailed plans on how to enhance it. He was like an imposter meticulously designed by a movie director that actually belonged everywhere he found himself. He was an awkward anomaly that made everyone, regardless of all hierarchies, rethink the way they moved through life.

In high school, Jeff once drove to Minneapolis to the house of a cruel bully terrorizing my cousin to level an ultimatum of peace. At the end of that encounter, the bully and Jeff had become fast friends and the terrorizing immediately stopped. He put the fear of God into that poor kid, just by smiling at him.

Jeff had a terrific and sportsman-like spirit. He and I used to get each other fired from our jobs as a matter of contest. He got me fired from K-mart and Jacks and I got him fired from a parking ramp attendant job within an hour of getting the job. We did this because work got in the way of hanging out. No, it wasn’t responsible, but neither were all the things we had plans to do together. Nothing got in the way of us hanging out.

Jeff’s parents probably didn’t know this but Jeff and I used to break out of our respective homes at 2:00 am and go drink tea at Denny’s and talk about the Constitution and Chemistry and social norms and Art History and Geopolitics and Classical music and soil science and occasionally we’d bet a stranger $20 that one of us could drink a bottle of mustard or ketchup to help pay for our tea. Who would have thought, Jeff Schneidermann was leading a true-to-life Paris-style salon at Denny’s in Marion while everyone else was asleep. He was.

Jeff once legitimately won an Iowa City tavern in a pool match and gave it back to it’s owner only after he negotiated with the owner to be nicer to his employees. It was the longest and most surgically precise game I have ever witnessed. Turns out Jeff paid for much of his college by concentrating on billiard geometry.

Jeff is the only person I ever met who needed to sell insurance and who had such powerful dyslexia that he could never spell the word correctly. Jeff and I laughed about that so hard I literally had to change my pants. When we were done laughing Jeff said, “I really don’t care. There are so many better things to care about.” I love that about him. He was serious.

Because of Jeff, we attended weddings and funerals for people we didn’t know, taught police about the law, got locked into a psychiatric hospital to see what it was like (his father had the keys), mediated a domestic dispute in Harlem, NY when the cops didn’t show up, were detained by George W. Bush’s secret service for driving really fast into his motorcade, shut down two circuses for being cruel to animals, tipped a waitress 5,000% to get them to leave abusive jobs, gave random strangers money to help their children, attended political dinners by just wandering in. Jeff did most of these things with a clipboard. He knew that one of the secrets in life was that a clipboard was a free pass into anything and everything. He was never without a clipboard.

In Washington D.C., Jeff used to go the bank in the morning and buy several rolls of quarters, take the metro down to the mall and actively seek out the panhandlers willingly walking up to them with money in exchange for their story. It didn’t matter that is was supposed to work the other way around. That was just another way that Jeff ignored the typical way things orbit around each other. He saw it all another way.

Jeff once dragged me into a posh country club in some city I cannot recall. We were stopped at least 10 times by 10 different people before Jeff turned and yelled, “What the hell does the word “belong” even really mean when you think about it?” Instead of being forcibly ejected, his intellectual stinger got us free admission for the day, a huge lunch, some cigars and bourbon before we drove off. I’ll never forget staring at the side of his head in awe as he slowly drove away with that Jeff smile and instead of acknowledging how completely amazing it was what he had just pulled off, he instead asked if I was interested in a friendly bowling match. He did things like this — all the time.

Jeff’s philosophy was bold and simple, don’t assume any rules will work, and never assume any smart people are enacting or enforcing them — your memories will thank you later. He broke a lot of rules and in so doing, called into question, how life inside and out of bounds can be experienced. Consequently, no one ever got hurt — very bad, but everyone came out the other end with one of those lessons that they neither asked for nor knew they needed.

I traveled with Jeff on many road trips and every single one is burnished into my memory for what Jeff did, his bizarre choices, his intolerance of injustice and his soulful gratitude for social courage. He became an immediate citizen and friend of Memphis, Louisville, Little Rock, Kansas City, Washington D.C., Brooklyn, Harlem, Boston, Tallahassee, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Nashville, Omaha, St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Des Moines, Detroit and a hundred others. He bought food for a homeless woman and her daughters in Pensacola who stared wordless at him like a giant ghost. He stopped on the highway to change a flat tire to a newlywed couple who had no idea how to get themselves back on the road. He handed a carton of cigarettes and two twenty dollar bills to an eighty-year old WWII vet at a freeway interchange in Peoria who was holding a sign that read, “Food, money or smokes, for an out-of-luck WWII veteran.”

And I only went on a fraction of the trips with Jeff. His reach was long.

He once held a two hour long conversation with a gentleman on a bridge in Davenport who was at the end of his rope contemplating that final jump; Jeff, of course, convincing him to get back into his car and go back home.

He spent many hours over two days talking to an Iowa City schizophrenic who was staying with me about the intellectual positives of medicinal adherence and why staying the course and trusting his doctors wasn’t a death sentence but a safety net that was his livable reality. He could shift from funny to dead serious in a microsecond and he took life (his own and all others around him, seriously.) Most wouldn’t know just by looking at him, the amount of unordained “sainthood” Jeff always had swirling around inside of him. He sure didn’t.

The stories are quite literally endless with Jeff. Some of them aren’t so altruistic but all of them painted a clear picture of a man who marched to a different drummer or in Jeff’s case, skipped to a soft Carpenter’s riff. He rarely told these stories, he made them. I was always a few steps behind him painting this pointillistic word picture with a thousand little seemingly unrelated brush strokes which individually were interesting in and of themselves but in sum tell the story of a really big personality.

Jeff talked about surgery to surgeons, politics to politicians, law to lawyers, architecture to architects, whiskey to distillers, trees to arborists, carburetors to mechanics, geometry to engineers and with every conversation, left the other party wondering how the hell he knew the stuff he knew. He just did. For the things he didn’t know, he’d stop and let his curiosity out in such a beautiful way. He genuinely felt like he needed to know everything and I never saw him refuse the opportunity to stop and learn something completely new.

I never had the courage Jeff had to boldly walk into any situation or join any conversation but I did have the greatest seat to the greatest theater ever just by being his friend and agreeing to go where his crazy mind took us. And I only regret about a dozen of them.

In 1990, Jeff saved my life. Nobody knows that and we never again mentioned it. I never really got to say thank you to him for that. We moved beyond. But there is a very large hole that will go unfilled.

About 3 years ago, Jeff and I were at a quiet tavern in Cedar Rapids catching up and he was talking about marriage and kids and his job and and other routine challenges. He asked me what I wanted in my eulogy. I jokingly asked him if he knew something I didn’t. I told him that I would like to have someone who didn’t know me make shit up about how I was related to PT Barnum and that I was actually a wandering Hungarian rodeo clown mastering the English language — a litany of strange tales that made everyone who knew me and loved me think they were in the wrong funeral. We laughed and riffed on that for a few minutes and then I asked him what he wanted in his eulogy. He said, “Stories. All the unvarnished truth and crazy things I’ve been able to do. I have had an amazing run.”

He sure did.

I am truly heartbroken that I outlived Jeff and that he is gone. And so are hundreds of others who were were slammed by his tidal wave of kindness and beautiful absurdity. I am just as sad for all those who knew Jeff for the loss they feel as I am for all the others who hadn’t yet run into him. Can you even imagine?

If you didn’t know Jeff that well, know this; there are people on this earth whose calling isn’t normal or expected or planned or easy. They come from somewhere else. I don’t mean in it in that way, we all know Jeff came from Maria, I mean look at that powerful bone structure!

I mean, their origins are from a higher place. I kind of believe that about Jeff. And as crazy as it sounds, a few thousand years ago, Jeff would have been giving Socrates a wedgie or arm-wrestling Jesus for apples. You know that’s true. And the son-of-a bitch would have had a clipboard!

People like Jeff are put here to help us all see a more fruitful, fulfilling and gratifying way to maneuver through our lives with more purpose, intent and most certainly, more of a sense of humor.

If you met Jeff on purpose, or like most, purely by happenstance, he would have put this spell on you without you knowing it. To know Jeff was to automagically feel more confident in yourself and see life more kaleidoscopically interesting — to have more fun and to kill your inhibitions. He never knew he had this affect on people, which is what made him such a beautiful force of nature.

In honor of Jeff, forgo the thoughts and prayers. Seriously, what does that even mean? No. Instead, go be the self that you have always been afraid to be. Start an awkward conversation with a complete stranger. Walk into a meeting you weren’t invited to. Show up to a job you don’t have. Fire yourself and go drive to New Orleans. Rethink your limits and your boredom and stop letting social risk be your governor. That’s what Jeff always did and would always want you to do as well.

In fact, he would have insisted.

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