Jae Woo Yoo (known to his American friends as "Jae") came to New York from Korea in 1980 to stay with his brother Jae Hyun, who was then a Ph.D. student at Columbia University. It soon became apparent to Jae, his family and everyone else that had ever met him that Jae was made for America and especially for the excitement that was life in New York. Although Jae never lost any love for his family or his native land, with his vivacious and artistic personality and his profound knowledge of American movies, music and media, Jae found so much happiness in the US that he decided to make New York his permanent home.
George met Jae in 1982 while they were both volunteering for an Asian men's organization, and they formed a strong bond that would last for the next 23 years. A talented visual artist with a boundless sense of humor and an extraordinary zest for living, Jae was immediately drawn to George because of his own humor, artistic talent and strong personality. Although nearly five years older than George, Jae placed him on a pedestal and found in him a role model for living as a strong Asian-American man. Together they bounded through New York life, sharing their respective joys, sorrows, triumphs, defeats, romances and heartaches. They were true soulmates in every sense of the word.
I first met Jae in January, 1998, shortly after George and I had begun dating. The moment we walked in the door to his apartment, Jae said "You play piano, right? Here, play this for me!" and handed me the sheet music to Madonna's "You'll See," a sad love ballad. I sat down to sightread the music, and Jae immediately plopped down next to me on the piano bench, belting out "YOU THINK THAT I CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT YOUR LOVE, YOU'LL SEE!!!!" - almost so loudly that I couldn't hear what I was playing. I looked across the room and saw George sitting with this big grin on his face.
About halfway through the song, Jae jumped up from the piano bench and said "George, you have to see this new Chinese movie that I just got!" and ran over to his VCR and started fumbling around with his tapes. Since we were obviously through with the Madonna song for the moment, I went over and sat next to George on the couch to watch the movie that Jae had started playing. He'd say "George, watch this scene, this is really great!" and then he talked all the way through the scene. "Oh, you have to see this Korean movie I have..." It became apparent within the space of about 10 minutes that he had a serious case of ADD. But he was so sweet & charming that it didn't bother me.
Jae & George
A kitchen designer by trade, Jae would sometimes hire random workers to help him deliver new kitchen cabinets to his customers. When I first moved to New York I wasn't working, so Jae enlisted my services as a driver to make deliveries. I spent about eight weeks working with Jae, and nearly lost my life several times in the process. I loved Jae, but he was a MAJOR spaz. I'd be driving along the interstate when all of a sudden he would SCREAM at the top of his lungs "OH MY GOD!!!!!!!!!" causing me to swerve or slam on the breaks. "What's the matter?" I would ask. His reply was usually something like "we missed the exit!"
I didn't fare much better during the physical delivery of the cabinets. I tried to help him carry cabinets into buildings, being careful not to scratch and mar doorways or damage the merchandise. I soon learned that carrying a heavy, bulky item with Jae was not a good idea. Several times I almost had my arm ripped off as Jae violently maneuvered us through tight doorways and elevators. Invariably Jae would start hoisting entire cabinets onto his back and running with them. One time he tried to run through a garage door with a low clearance. The top of the cabinet crashed into the doorway, knocking Jae over so that the heavy cabinet fell right on top of him. I was horrified, sure that he had broken several limbs or his neck. He laid on the ground for about 10 seconds, groaning in pain, after which he jumped back up to repeat the entire process.
The merchandise got broken often. "Jae, the cabinet is cracked!" I'd say, and he'd stop to look at it and say "oh, it's only the back side, it won't matter." Occasionally he would damage the cabinets so badly that he'd have to replace them, but I guess he figured he was at least breaking even considering the high volume of work he was able to deliver at (almost literally) break-neck speed.
Although Jae was frightening as a worker, I actually appreciated his rough antics the day he came to our house to deliver new cabinets when we remodeled our kitchen. When George's mother, who is often stubborn and difficult for no apparent reason, saw him hosting the cabinets up the steps, she came out to try to stop him. "No, no new cabinet!!!" she screamed. He literally shoved right past her the entire time, even when she physically tried to block him. When he was through, Jae said to me "God, I always think George is so mean talking about his mother, but now I understand. She's just so, so bitchy!"
Jae played as hard as he worked. He enjoyed a 20-year love affair with Fire Island, and often rented houses for the entire summer with various friends, including George & me. He barely slept whenever we spent time with him because he never wanted to miss any of the action. He also enjoyed the company of many, many friends during these summer adventures.
Jae loved living so much that he usually ignored any pain he was feeling. He was incredibly accident prone, and had a body full of scars to prove it. "I don't need tattoos, I have scars" he would often proclaim proudly. While we can never be sure why his liver cancer was not diagnosed until it was much too late to help him, we can only guess that his incredible tolerance for pain may be part of the reason.
A few weeks ago Jae went to the emergency room because he was having pain in his chest & abdomen. The doctors diagnosed him with pleurisy, an inflammation of the lung lining that can cause a lot of discomfort. They discharged him, sending him home with painkillers.
A week later, Jae called George and asked him to come over because his pain had returned with a vengeance. Knowing I was nearby, George called me on my cell phone and asked me to go help Jae immediately. By the time I got to his apartment, the paramedics that George had called had already arrived. I rode with Jae to Belleview hospital, holding his hand the entire way. Three hours later, the doctors told me that Jae had an enormous tumor on his liver that had ruptured, and that I needed to get his family there immediately.
Since Jae had given me a key to his apartment years before, I ran back to his apartment and rifled through his files until I found an address and phone number for his brother, Jae Hyun. With the assistance of one of Jae's Korean-American friends, we called Korea to notify the family, and Jae Hyun was with us in New York several days later.
Jae's very short battle with cancer came to an end yesterday morning at 6:15 am, with several of his best friends at his side.
We all miss you, dear Jae Woo Yoo, and will be forever grateful for the fun, laughter and love you shared with us over all these years. May we all take a lesson from you and live every minute of our lives as though it were our last. May God bless and keep Jae in His loving care for all eternity, and send comfort and peace to Jae's family and other loved ones as they mourn the passing of this truly remarkable person. He will be missed more than I can put into words.
Jae Woo Yoo September 20, 1954 - May 29, 2005