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Kirk … Chow.

Ed Greenman died last week. He was my next-door neighbor Kirk’s father and a mainstay on Via Navarro — our block growing up in Greenbrae, California. We had a house on the other side of us, too, but the Greenmans will always fill my sole definition and mental image for “next-door neighbor.” An ex-Navy man with a shaved head long before the hipsters or movie stars who weren’t Yul Brynner started doing it, Ed cut an imposing figure on the block. He was over six feet tall and spoke with a kind of unplaceable drawl that suggested he was in no hurry to get the words out because he figured you weren’t going anywhere until he finished talking. One of my more enduring images of the man is that of him standing on the front deck to call Kirk for supper while we shot baskets in the McCormack’s driveway up the street. It’s a two-word impression that I still do to this day because of its power coupled with economy of language. “Kirk … chow.” This was all that was ever necessary .. Kirk’s name as a heads-up and the reason he was being alerted. It was never yelled nor spoken with particular urgency, but the voice carried and point was made. Never, in all of those hundreds of hoop-shooting sessions, was a second call for dinner required. “I gotta go” was Kirk’s immediate reaction, even if he was four letters into a game of HORSE. So powerful was it that I used it as my first-ever email address: kirkchow@msn.com. The significance was largely lost, however, and most folks just assumed I was Asian.

Ed had a flare for the creative. He built a porthole into the deck above their backyard swimming pool with a ladder leading up to it. This was but one of hundreds of examples of his unusual sense for design and decoration, but it stuck with me as a little kid. There was something supremely cool about using that ladder to access the upper level instead of the more ‘adult’ deck stairs and nobody ever told you it was too dangerous, either. Once, when my dad was clearing out the basement of his old family home on Leavenworth Street in the city, Ed noticed a box of dials in our garage. The basement was where my grandfather, a talented and self-taught engineer, started our family business .. and the dials belonged to various film processing machines and other equipment he’d built himself. The box was being thrown out and Ed asked if he could have its contents. The next week these same dials with their now-polished brass housings and newly-shined surfaces were mounted on the wall in the Greenman kitchen. This was a revelation to me as a kid, that something beautiful and interesting could be salvaged from old junk. Ed was also a master at making model ships with intricate masts and painting old, collectible lead soldiers. He had a glass cabinet displaying the latter in the living room, and he’d made that, too. His woodwork was precise with attention to detail and fine finishing. My father was a gifted woodworker but unlike Greenman he had no patience nor sense of economy with materials. Both were talented; but with my dad the point was the therapeutic process and forging ahead to completion of an entire room or substantial and functional piece of furniture. My father’s finished products never failed to impress, but he went through a mint in materials getting there. Greenman could use the scraps left behind to construct something from nothing, and the results often astounded.

Ed played the bagpipes, intrigued, in part no doubt, by my Scottish mother’s heritage. While it isn’t the most mainstream instrument, I’m sure there are a fair number, globally and outside of Scotland, who take it up. The difference with Ed was that, as with most things, he stuck with it. I recall my mother telling me about his wanting to play ‘Amazing Grace’ at his nephew’s funeral .. a young man who’d died tragically and prematurely in an automobile accident. “I botched a few notes in front of everyone,” he said afterward, “but went back on my own later and played it right for him.” This image of Mr. Greenman as a lone piper, out there at his nephew’s grave site and hitting all the notes on his second attempt, stuck with me.

The Greenmans moved south, some years back, to Fallbrook in San Diego County. Mrs. Greenman died in 2003 and Ed stayed in the house. I never visited, but have no doubt that it was decorated with many personal touches, like the home in Greenbrae. There is a sense of pity that one has for some older people, living on their own after a spouse dies .. but it was never the image I had of Ed Greenman. He kept the tradition of sending my folks a Christmas card every December with a brief update, and I enjoyed reading these in recent years, returning from New York. This was Ed .. solid, substantial. In alerting me to his dad’s death, Kirk explained that his plan had been to move in with his father at the start of the new year, to help him out and see if they could make an eventual move, together, to Oregon. He was still getting by on his own, however, and the description of his final day on this earth after eighty-seven some years, from what Kirk could put together, filled me more with envy than sadness. There were a few loads of laundry in the machine; evidence of his self-sufficiency and while not on par with his other more intricate skills, an ability that many men of my father’s generation never acquire. The exercise bike had been recently used; this wasn’t a man prone to flab or inactivity. And an unfinished container of yogurt was on the kitchen table. This was Ed Greenman at the end: doing laundry, exercising, having breakfast .. getting things done. He’d carried his habit to San Diego of putting an American flag up outside the house each morning. It wasn’t typical behavior in the liberal confines of Marin County, but fit him perfectly with neither irony nor heavy-handedness. It was this flag that a Fallbrook neighbor who’d been checking in on him of late noticed still displayed on the deck after nightfall .. something that Ed wouldn’t allow .. and was all the alert necessary to assure that he’d be found promptly. It was all very quick, dignified, and even considerate. ‘Graceful’ is another word that comes to mind. An exceptional run and fine exit. Somewhere a lone piper plays ‘Amazing Grace,’ flawlessly, note for note.

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3 Comments

  1. url url'>Kirk Greenman wrote:

    Thank you Rick. I will make sure everyone gets a copy at the funeral on Saturday 14.
    Kirk out..

    Tuesday, November 10, 2015 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  2. Heather wrote:

    Good.

    Wednesday, November 11, 2015 at 8:25 am | Permalink
  3. Tom Myers wrote:

    Well done Rick, nicely written

    Wednesday, November 11, 2015 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

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