If Dumbledore and Hagrid somehow melded into a different, beautiful human, that different, beautiful human would be Greg. Shaggy, boisterous, solemn, brilliant, divinely thoughtful, passionate, truly loud. He might have been 6’5, 240 lbs., but he was a gentle giant. He somehow got out of Vietnam and into old age with a craggy face and a huge heart. His beard was varying shades of a black-and-white television, cut off right above his heart.
I can’t remember his last name anymore. but I spent 4 days a week with him, from 2:45-3:30pm, for 5 years. I worked the afternoon shift, and Greg was always there. He knew everybody—the other regulars, the busboys, the dishwashers, the cooks. The other servers didn’t care for him much. Mostly they ignored him when he talked. God bless him, he was a terrible tipper.
But I learned to love him. I was 20 years old when I met Greg; life was hard at the time, really hard, but he always anchored me. I couldn’t be anywhere else but in his world when he was around. When he smiled his great, shaggy face lit up like a Christmas tree. His smile made me feel so good that when I felt particularly down, I’d crack a joke just to see it.
He had a tendency to lower himself into his seat at the counter with special care, especially when he was listening to someone, or to something the rest of us could never tune into. Of course, all of this was all of the time he wasn’t talking. He had a voice like a drum, and a photographic memory. He remembered every single person he had ever met, every moment of his life. He talked about people he hadn’t seen in years and years like they were sitting next to him at the counter. There was the waitress he knew in South Carolina who was studying to be an astrophysicist, and told the best jokes. The man that worked at the post office in the town where he grew up, whose favorite ice cream was sherbet. Every nurse, doctor, therapist, janitor, and receptionist at the VA in Long Beach.
Eventually, his mental illness progressed to a point where his medication stopped working. I had to start asking him to lower his voice when he was in the middle of a story. He started to open up about Vietnam. He said that he’d always been “a little slow,” but there was an explosion during the war that changed his life forever. He suffered a massive head injury, and lost friends. He would recite their names, one right after the other, a film’s worth of emotions playing across his face. Other times he wouldn’t talk at all. He’d scrunch his bushy eyebrows, and become one of Leonardo’s grotesques right there in front of your eyes.
His brother, who lived in Arizona, started calling the restaurant to ask how he was doing. Whatever waitress was on would give him the rundown, and a promise to call if anything escalated. Greg started coming in less and less. Then, after a rare weekend off, I showed up on a Monday, and found out he’d been 86’d by management. He was too loud too often, and that was it.
I can’t remember the last time we spoke. I heard later that he’d moved into an assisted living place in Arizona. Then I got the news that he died. I still can’t remember his last name, but I know other things about Greg. I know he loved warm apple pie with a slice of American cheese on top. I know he loved to sit on the patio with coffee, a cigarette, and good conversation. I know that whatever assisted living home he left this earth in, he left knowing every person’s name and story in that place.
He was a bright star in my life for a lot of years, and wherever he is, I think he knows it too.