Friday, January 29, 2016


I've known my friend Deven since I first went online around 1990, dialing in via modem to an electronic forum called Compuserve before the dawn of the Web. We both helped administer their Beer/Wine forum, and we were all thrilled to have him. Deven was a well-regarded drinks expert - having written about spirits for glossy national magazines and worked as a manager at the North Star Pub, one of the early bastions of artisanal quaffables. Deven had many other lives, too, stretching back to his early childhood. As a child prodigy, he'd managed to befriend a high-level African politician via a particularly precocious fan mail he'd sent (this was one of the few non-corrupt officials on the continent at this time, which greatly impressed young Deven). He was flown over there. What an adventure. There were other remarkable stories. Deven was a character.

When I started Chowhound, Deven was an early regular, and he helped edit our weekly ChowNews publication. He also quietly helped moderate the message boards. We ate together sometimes, and I found him brilliant but complicated, perennially shadowed by a dark cloud and settled into a permanent posture of hapless shrug. He knew everything about everything, and was an extraordinarily idealistic and responsible fellow. Around age 50, he went back to school and became a special education teacher, putting absolutely everything he had into the job. Deven was a guy who actually did stuff. He was the not-so-little engine that could.

But it seems that the day finally arrived when he no longer could. I missed that turn, having lost touch with him (as with most else in my life) during the frenetic end game of Chowhound. He and I exchanged a few emails, but it was hard to find a time to get together. I was unaware at the time that this was because Deven had begun disintegrating.

I'll spare you the horrific details, but it got so bad last year that his estranged wife sent around an email to everyone who'd ever known Deven, pleading with us to send affidavits to support his defense in his latest criminal case. After recovering from my shock, I sent the following letter to the judge (I'll omit the part where I introduced myself):

Dear Judge Cote,

I have always considered Deven to be among the most responsible, ethical, diligent, thoughtful people I’ve ever met. Having been informed of his recent predicament, I’m, naturally, shocked.

That said, there’s been a pattern of struggle. I’ve seen Deven struggle against his own shyness (nearly crippling), and his daunting inconsistencies. As a writer, he suffered from frequent writer’s block, and his very high intelligence conjured up so many options in any given circumstance that indecisiveness was a frequent torment. While I understand Deven was a prodigy as a child, his adult life hasn’t always fulfilled that lofty potential, so while he’s been successful in most things he’s attempted (and he’s attempted a lot of things!), I believe he regretted that he hadn’t achieved more….and the shortfall left him perpetually dismayed. On top of all this, Deven is a sensitive soul, so the slings and arrows of misfortune which daunt us all seem extra daunting for him. Deven hasn't experienced much in the way of “ease” in his life. Again, there’s been a pattern of struggle.

But in all his struggles, Deven, in my long observation, has always, ALWAYS, strained toward the light. To be his best self. To get done what needed to get done, to do right by family, friends, co-workers, employees, and employers; to get results that make situations better and smarter and more kind-hearted…..regardless of struggles and disappointments. This has been true, without exception, over the 30 years I’ve known him.

Deven once managed a very prominent restaurant in SouthStreet Seaport, which was known as a paragon of enlightened management (restaurant personnel normally turn over furiously, but his workers stayed with him for years). I watched him work there a few times, and he always achieved that elusive balance of clearly asserting authority without being tyrannical. It was an extraordinarily "tight shop", but his workers plainly respected and admired him. That's incredibly rare in Manhattan.

He later became a restaurant critic, penning personal, clever profiles of local venues which his newspaper’s readers still recall with affection. He worked as an editor for my company, Chowhound, where he was a rock of honorable dependability. Never missed a deadline, never required attention, incessantly polite and upbeat; his coworkers and I admired him tremendously. When the company was floundering, he volunteered to help moderate the community discussion unpaid - a role requiring a delicate touch, emotional intelligence, and wise decision-making. Deven nailed it every time.

I know how hard Deven's worked at teaching, and in his career at the Board of Education. He tackles every obligation full-heartedly, as if his life depended on it, even though it’s never been easy, having had to fight indecision, inconsistency, shyness, anxiety, and self-disappointment every step of the way.

Deven CARES. Deven cares a LOT. But I’ve never seen him indulge despair and give up. I’ve never seen him desensitize to the human beings in his midst and willingly allow himself to let them down. Nothing ever came easily to Deven (not even his copious natural intelligence, which flows in maddening fits and starts), but he never stopped striving.

I don’t know the details of his current predicament. But I know that if Deven stopped trying, and went the wrong way, or behaved insensitively toward other people, or lost his level-headedness, it could only have been due to a clinical/organic issue***. I feel certain that, in his mind, Deven was still making the wisest, kindest, and most responsible decisions possible at every juncture. Some of those decisions appear to have been mortifyingly, catastrophically bad ones. But I know Deven, and I can assure you that, at least within the tortured logic available to him, he never for a moment blithely indulged an impulse to do the wrong thing. That’s simply not his character.

Very sincerely yours,

Jim Leff

*** - As an aside, I hope Deven can get the psychiatric help he clearly needs. There are plenty of congenital kooks out there, and you surely see plenty of them in your court. If you have not distinguished Deven from that crowd, I'd ask you to think of the most level-headed, responsible, intellectually rigorous person you know. That’s Deven. He's not some randomly dopey guy making dopey decisions. Something’s gone very, very wrong in the years since I last saw him. Anything you can do to help would be appreciated.
Earlier this week, Deven was brutally murdered in a NYC homeless shelter. Please don't google the newspaper reports. They are both right and wrong. They paint him as a drifter and a petty criminal, terms which accurately describe some things he did, yet which absolutely fail to express truth.

I know better. I know this was not Deven. Think of the most level-headed, responsible, intellectually rigorous person you know. That’s Deven.

I was going to keep Deven's identity ambiguous, but decided it was more important to share with you his wonderful blog, and this interview where he shows his characteristic passion for education. The interview was prompted by this terrific editorial, which I understand went a bit viral in educational circles.

Added in April 2017: Finally, closure.

1 comment:

jakeyd said...

Sorry to hear this Jim, I remember Deven fondly when he was at the seaport

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