Jason Polan (1982–2020)

Jason Polan, New York, 2013. Photo: Lele Saveri.

IT WASN’T SO UNUSUAL to run into Jason Polan in New York, as he loved to wander the streets and was always out and about, looking for people and things to draw. And in the last few years, he lived down the street from me. “Hi, how you feeling?” he would ask. Still, it was always one of the happiest things that could happen. A minute with Jason could turn a low day into a good one—he made life felt lighter, brighter somehow.

I don’t remember the first time we met, but it must have been at some book fair, or book release, definitely at some book-related thing. What I remember well was the first time I spent a whole day with him. It was 2013, and I was running a Newsstand of zines in the Lorimer subway stop, and Jason asked if he could work there for a day. I was honored he wanted to do it. We spent five hours underground, no phone service, chatting about books, photography, comics, music, New York. We talked about celebrities, about whom I seemed to know nothing, and about anonymous passers-by. Jason was obsessed with both. The whole day he didn’t stop drawing, on his pad, on dollar bills, on other people’s zines, on candy bars, on bananas, on a street cone outside the store. One of his zines was for sale in a vending machine we had upfront—you put in a dollar, and a random zine would come. He’d come often, sometimes a few times a week, to try and get all the other zines. Unfortunately, he kept getting his own. I felt bad, but every time I offered to switch it for another one, he was happy to keep his own and give it to a friend.

I was so excited when he invited me to go to MoMA with him one day for a stroll. Walking around with him felt so good. For once, I didn’t feel bad about wanting to stop every minute to document something fun, because he would do it twice as much. What Jason and I had in common was an obsession for the details that make the mundane a little more interesting, a little more fun. But I’m just an amateur; Jason was a professional.

Jason Polan, Lele, 2019.

Everyone knows how great Jason was at documenting the world with his drawings, how funny his photographs were. But he was also extremely gifted with words. He might be talking, then derail and start describing a small accident that had made him feel awful, or amazing, like someone being rude at a bookstore, or someone giving him a free plum at a farmer’s market. He had an incredible way of noticing people’s intentions, their feelings in the world. When something was unjust or unfair, he was really hurt by it. And when someone was nice, it would make his day. Preparing to write this piece, I went back and looked at some of Jason’s posts on social media. “We met this woman on the street a couple hours ago and I think she might be my favorite New Yorker,” he once wrote. “She asked if we needed help with anything, and we said no, and she said, ‘You just looked like you maybe had a question.’” Or, “Here’s one that I will probably delete when the negative comments start to bother me more than the good it feels to get the dumb story written down.” Or, “I am not sure I told this story terribly cleanly, sorry if I said something off. I find things like this happen to us often. How do we keep up? There is just so much going on around us all the time.” 

Although he was extremely talented and the world recognized it, he was so humble that if you asked how work was, he would feel sheepish telling you what he was up to. At the same time, he was determined and specific, and wouldn’t accept whatever people wanted to do with his art. He was thrilled to be doing what he was doing for a living, never took it for granted. He thought people were so nice for giving him a job. If I pointed out that I had seen something of his, like a shirt he had made for a big brand, or a New York Times cartoon or Marvel comic book cover, he would say, “I know, isn’t it crazy they let me in?”

Jason’s sense of empathy was further heightened during his last few months, as the illness and the treatment impacted his brain chemistry. Whenever we were hanging out, sitting at a cafe or in the street or at the Strand, he had to stop for a second and cry if he saw something too sweet, or too sad, like a mother caring for a child, or someone begging in the street. I thought that was so incredibly Jason, being damned to care too much.

One of the last times we hung out was at Lafayette Grand Café in the Village. I had gotten him one of their special cakes with a gold leaf. “That’s real gold!” he would say. A few days later he texted me, “Was just thinking about our last hang and how I made you buy me something with real gold, WHO DO I THINK I AM?! Next one is on me.” I just wish I could buy you so many more gold-leafed cakes now, Jason.

Lele Saveri is a community organizer, photographer, and cofounder of 8-Ball Community.