Sunday I got word that my old friend Mike Greene had had a serious heart attack and was in an induced coma, and this afternoon he was taken off life support and died, hopefully without ever being aware he was in a hospital. I met Mike at my first proofreading job, where I quickly learned he knew everything about proofreading and editing (not to mention all sorts of subjects like sociology and numismatics; he was in fact tremendously erudite, though he hid it behind a screen of good-old-boy joviality) and soon found out he was a musician as well — or rather that he was primarily a musician, who like almost all musicians needed a day job. He was from Abilene, Texas, and grew up in the shadow of his much older brother A.C. Greene, of whose writing he was immensely proud; he himself was a born writer and wrote who knows how many millions of words, but he could never accept being edited, so almost nothing ever got published. He was also a born musician who fell in love with “the devil’s music” (as his religious mother called it) as a boy; he learned to play the piano with the same anarchic fire as Jerry Lee Lewis (another untamed Texan), and during the era of segregation used to play with Black bands in joints where they stuck him behind a potted plant so his whiteness wouldn’t be so apparent. (Or so he said. He was also a born storyteller, and like all born storytellers he never let factual details get in the way of a good story.) When we met I was in awe of him and tried to find out about his background, but he was standoffish until he finally invited me to hear his blues band play, and when I was enthusiastic about their music he started opening up. How I wish I could go back to the Village of thirty years ago and hear his pounding chords and sweeping runs up and down the keyboard, accompanied by his yowling, impassioned vocals on songs like “Junco Partner” and “Nine Below Zero,” with the wonderful Jesse Cohen on guitar and the late Bob Guida on bass.
He was fully himself and fully open when he played and sang, but he could be reticent and contrary in conversation, and he tended to react to any difficult or emotional situation with a joke. But when my mother died unexpectedly in 1992 (she’d had a bad heart all her life, and it felled her during a visit to my brother) he clapped me on the back and said “Well, you’re a motherless child now,” and it was just what I needed; it’s one of the few things I retain from a period my memory has largely wiped clean. And after my father died, almost a decade ago now, he was the closest thing to a father figure I had. He enjoyed reading Languagehat (and occasionally commented, always signing off “Ur fiend, thegrowlingwolf”), and I think it was an inspiration for his own very different blog, The Daily Growler, where he would rail against the politicos and moneymen he felt were ruining the country and the world — and then add “I’m evilly thrilled about all this. I love Chaos and entropy.” But he also occasionally reminisced about his life, and those were the posts I loved. I particularly direct your attention to his 2007 series One Spring Morning Off Spring Street, which I linked to in this LH post. I wish he’d continued it, but I think he felt he was revealing a little too much.
I could go on and on, but I don’t want to get maudlin. I never knew anybody like him, and I don’t expect I ever will again. In the course of reading Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD I recently came across the epitaph (from the Roman Catacombs) of “a comic pantomime artist, Vitalis,” which begins:
O death, what shall I do with you …
You know nothing of merriment.
You do not appreciate jokes.
I immediately thought of Mike, of how much he would enjoy it, and wanted to send it to him. But then it was too late.
I’ll let him have the last word. Here’s the last thing he wrote me, on Saturday afternoon:
I’m having a ball being free to do as I please within the limits of my means — just finished a 120,000-word novel and am now 20,000+ words into a new novel — of course, in my usual abnormal way of reasoning, I’m writing them to finish them not to sell them. In fact, I wouldn’t know how the hell to get a book published in this glutted world. Today is Monica’s 59th — and my niece’s husband John’s 62 — and I just celebrated Cherry’s 69th with her and friends at O’Reilly’s Pub (me footing the bill, of course) (I love that phrase “of course”) — “time, eater of all things lovely” — and tempus fugit and God-damn, where the hell did it go? Yahoo, as Swift said.
Addendum. When Mike’s blog started, I sent a link to Mark Woods of wood s lot (one of my favorite blogs for many years now) because I thought its politics and general style would appeal to him, and sure enough Mark added the Growler to his blogroll and would occasionally quote it in his daily roundup of images and texts, something of which Mike was very proud (and which of course sent him readers he wouldn’t otherwise have had). Just now when I went to wood s lot for the latest update, I found that today’s post (after the inevitable first image) led with a nice tribute to Mike, linking to this post and Mike’s last one and quoting some good bits from it. I wish Mike could have seen it. Thanks, Mark!
Update (May 2015). A nice NY Times piece on Mike by his doctor, Danielle Ofri, who actually went to his memorial service:
As physicians, we get only a tiny window into our patients’ lives. Even when we make an extra effort, it is still hardly a glimpse. It was only as I sat at this pub, steeped in his life, friends and stories, that I got any sense of how richly textured his life was.