It was 25 years ago tonight when that terrible telephone call came, the one that changed my life. It was the call letting me know that my best friend, Gilbert Russak, music director for The Lamplighters, had had a heart attack following very minor surgery and was not expected to live. Within a couple of hours of the original phone call came the call that said he had died.
I had been a fan of his when he was performing and we became friends after the publication of the first Lamplighter history. We were friends from about 1981 until his death in 1986.
We made it through that first terrible year after his death and on the first anniversary, the five of us who had handled his funeral arrangements decided to go out to dinner. That dinner evolved the following year into a dinner for a group of about 15 people, those whom Gilbert had considered friends, sometimes as many as 20. We enjoyed each other so much that we continued to meet every year on or around the date of Gilbert's death.
At first we always had the "G.R.U.B." (the "Gala Reinterment of Uncle Buddy") in a restaurant that he liked. He usually ate dinner out at a round of favorite eateries. But gradually those restaurants began to close and so we expanded our territory.
Will always handles the arrangements and makes suggestions for the place and the others of us weigh in on the convenience of the date. We always include a toast, which is the greeting that he usually gave people that he liked, looking at them over his glasses. "Oh. Its You."
When I look back and realize that we have now been doing this for twenty-four years it amazes me. It is longer than any of us knew him. He would be amazed himself. Over the past 24 years two of the members of the group have died.
This year we ate at a new restaurant to us, Delancey Street, where we had tried to have dinner a few years back, but came on a night when it was closed. The restaurant sits just a couple of blocks from the base of the Bay Bridge, along the embarcadero.
The restaurant is unique in that it is a big part of the Delancey Street Foundation, the country's leading residential self-help organization for former substance abusers, ex-convicts, homeless and others who have hit bottom. Started in 1971 with 4 people in a San Francisco apartment, Delancey Street has served many thousands of residents, in 5 locations throughout the United States. Residents at Delancey Street range from teenagers to senior citizens, and include men and women and all races and ethnicities. The average resident has been a hard-core drug and alcohol abuser, has been in prison, is unskilled, functionally illiterate, and has a personal history of violence and generations of poverty.
The restaurant, staffed by residents of the project, looks upscale, the food is great, and the price is considerably lower than you would find at a comparable restaurant elsewhere in the city. In the past we have had such problem with dinner cost spiraling out of control and controversy over who didn't put in enough money, that Jill was in shock when she got her bill tonight and didn't think it could possibly be that cheap.
The biggest change in our group over the past 25 years is that...well...we're all 25 years older. We now all subscribe to AARP and much of the conversation this evening centered on the "organ recitals" of the aging--which organs are giving us problems. Someone has neuropathy and now walks with a cane, someone had liver problems, there was a bum shoulder. A couple compared notes on the wonders of Percocet and other medications. We drank a toast to somebody's prostate and discussed whether you are ever too old for Pap smears. And eventually someone would shake his or her head and moan that they couldn't believe we had turned into old people who sat around discussing their aches and pains. But then we'd laugh and continue doing it.
We all complained that it was 9 p.m. and we were all ready to go to bed, and then we remembered the early years of this gathering when we would stay out late, then go to Jill's for dessert, talk well into the early morning hours and then Walt and I would drive home again. Can't do that any more. We talked about the beauty of naps.
It's hard to believe that Gilbert would have been 80 if he had been there.
This is always one of my favorite events of the year. I used to see these people all the time, but sometimes I go for a year without seeing some of them, so big changes are always a surprise (as with the one who now walks with a cane). But I'm so glad we started this tradition. We decided tonight that our next big change will be when the first person in the group moves into an assisted living facility and we decide to have the dinner there.
Tomorrow is Cousins Day, so the next entry will be posted late.