Episode 17 of the Mavens Do It Better Podcast features Jack Greenhut, longtime Brooklyn resident, domino aficionado, ex-construction worker and man about town.
Jack and Heather caught up in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn at Bia Northern Vietnamese Restaurant and Bar.
Listen in as Heather talks with Jack about:
Living in New York City for most of his life and his cross-country trip in the 60’s
What it means to be a part of a community and neighborhood
Working construction, being homeless and how New York City has changed over the years
Heather Newman: So, hello everybody, we're here again with another episode of Mavens Do It Better and I'm sitting here in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in New York City at Bia this amazing restaurant where a good friend, bartends John. I call him Sexy John, but that's just me and I'm sitting here with a lovely friend that I play dominoes with sometimes when I'm in town and then I get to see. And do you want me to tell everybody here your name?
Jack Greenhut: Jack Greenhut.
Heather Newman: Jack Greenhut. You know, I don't think I actually ever knew your last name.
Jack Greenhut: I don't know yours.
Heather Newman: Well it's Newman. So fair enough.
Jack Greenhut: There you have it.
Heather Newman: That's great. So, Jack uh, how long have you lived here or where are you from?
Jack Greenhut: Well, I've been in New York all my life except a year in San Jose. On the block about a dozen years. Well I was homeless on the block for two years. I had a car, I wasn't in the street, I had a car. I met a bunch of lovely people, the owners and patrons and original residents of the neighborhood. Who Are loving and kind and generous and I keep coming back cause I want to see them.
Heather Newman: That's why I keep coming back here and the food's pretty good too, right?
Jack Greenhut: Yeah, it's pretty good here. But the owners here, I don't pay for food in this restaurant They gave me a, I don't abuse that.
Heather Newman: People take care of people, right?
Jack Greenhut: People still take care of you here. Yeah. Or
Sexy John: They beat you at dominoes.
Jack Greenhut: No, they don't, I don't like that.
Heather Newman: So, you've seen this. So, you've lived here for a while and you've seen lots of change, yeah?
Jack Greenhut: I never lived in Williamsburg. I had a loft in Dumbo for a long time. Then I was thrown out of that. It was $350 a month.
Heather Newman: How much again? Wait, say that again. You had a loft in Dumbo that you got kicked out of by the fire department and.
Jack Greenhut: Yeah. But before that, I came to Dumbo in 77' before the landlord new what he had. I knew what he had, I wrote the lease.
Heather Newman: Oh, my goodness.
Jack Greenhut: I had law school, one year. And then we submitted the lease to an attorney, and he tweaked it a little bit and the landlord signed it. Now, it was 10 years with an option to renew for 10 years.
Heather Newman: Are you kidding?
Jack Greenhut: And the beginning rent was $350 a month I think, for all the space that I had.
Heather Newman: That's amazing.
Jack Greenhut: Yeah, I fucked him good.
Heather Newman: Yeah, well it's an issue here, isn't it? Rent, rent control, right?
Jack Greenhut: Well rent control is something else. I mean, rent control and rent stabilization are both issues. Rent control happened after World War II, I think. And uh, it just prevented the landlords from gouging the newly returned veterans I think is why they did that. But there were some units that had been continuously occupied and their rent is as small as mine is now, you know. Rent stabilization prevents the landlord from going to market rate for people who have been in a place a certain amount of years. I think that's correct.
Heather Newman: So, you've been in New York City how long?
Jack Greenhut: I'm 70. I've been in the city 69 years. I'm ready to move.
Heather Newman: You ready to move?
Jack Greenhut: Yeah, because I'm older, infirm, and poor and that's difficult here, I think. Although I figured it out, I got my transportation, my doctors, my friends, my pharmacy sends me my drugs if I can't go, you know? But I'm tired of the fight. Seems to me there is a lot more fight, fight the cab driver, fight this, fight that, you know? I don't want to do that anymore.
Heather Newman: Something's kept you here though, for a long time.
Jack Greenhut: Well, I don't have the money to move. I don't know where I go. Friend of mine said he wanted to go to Arizona. I said, Tommy, you give me five minutes notice and I'm with you. But that's not gonna happen.
Heather Newman: Arizona's not a bad place.
Jack Greenhut: Except for its representation.
Heather Newman: Well, let's be fair.
Jack Greenhut: Although the warmth is good for me, it's good for my bones.
Heather Newman: Yeah, absolutely. When did you start playing dominos?
Jack Greenhut: About six years ago since this place opened, John the bartender taught me how to play dominos.
Heather Newman: Oh yeah? You're pretty fierce.
Jack Greenhut: Why not?
Heather Newman: I know, it's good. I think I might have won one round.
Jack Greenhut: You may have. I may have been off my game for half a minute. I keep coming back to this neighborhood. I don't see a lot of the people that I saw years ago. They left, changed jobs or whatever, but I still know all the owners. Yeah, I just texted one of the owners up the block. He's losing a doorman. I'd love to be the doorman there. So, we'll see.
Heather Newman: There's so many little bars and restaurants and stuff around here.
Jack Greenhut: On these two blocks there's four bars. All of them have very different qualities and characteristics, but you can drink at all four of them.
Heather Newman: The grand equivocator.
Jack Greenhut: which I don't do anymore. I don't drink because I'm afraid of falling.
Heather Newman: So, you said you went to law school?
Jack Greenhut: For a year. I couldn't stand it, but I did rather well because I'd studied Philosophy in college,
Heather Newman: Where'd you go to school?
Jack Greenhut: City College, Queens City College. And philosophy tries to broaden what it encompasses. Law tries to narrow the question, so if you've ever read a ladder, you'll see all kinds of warning stickers on the ladder. Don't step on the paint tray. Don't step on the top. Don't put your ladder in mud. All of those warnings are results of a lawsuit.
Heather Newman: You think every warning is probably the result of, like anywhere?
Jack Greenhut: Product liability. Yeah, sure. a woman got a million out of McDonald's because of the coffee. Come on lady, give me a break.
Heather Newman: Yeah, we're kinda litigious here in the United States.
Jack Greenhut: Very litigious. Yes indeed.
Heather Newman: Did you, you stopped after a year. Is it that you just didn't want to be a lawyer or?
Jack Greenhut: I didn't like it. I didn't like thinking that way. They teach you a certain way to think, it's not normal. I've had occasion to consult lawyers in the past and I value them because what the law does is keep people off one another's necks and that you have redress. I can appreciate that. It's just, a friend of mines a lawyer and I was sitting with a guy who's a longshoreman. I said, yeah. I pointed to the longshoreman and I said, "Michael, this guy works."
Heather Newman: What'd he say to that?
Jack Greenhut: Michael didn't say much. He's a sweetheart though. If I have a question, he'll try to answer it for me.
Heather Newman: So, you went to college and had a year of law school. Did you have other jobs?
Jack Greenhut: Oh yeah. For 25 years I did construction. I renovated lofts, tenements, and brownstones, in the city, Manhattan and Brooklyn. Oh, I loved it. I can't do it now, and I miss it a lot.
Heather Newman: Were you working the machinery, were you a foreman, how did that work out?
Jack Greenhut: Both.
Heather Newman: Both, you did it all.
Jack Greenhut: I was the foreman, I was the owner of the company. I would keep projects on the side for myself. So, if I wasn't doing managerial duties I could go work.
Heather Newman: Was it commercial stuff or residential? Like any big buildings that I know and see and gaze at?
Jack Greenhut: Mostly residential. Interior renovations, new walls, staircases stuff like that.
Heather Newman: What was your favorite thing?
Jack Greenhut: Electric work. Yeah, I liked it because it was, um, you had to kind of suss things out. Sometimes they had hidden junction boxes. So, you have to figure out, well why isn't this thing responding the way it is? And then you have to find the box. And it's pretty clean work too. Which I liked.
Heather Newman: My grandfather built my grandparents’ house.
Jack Greenhut: Oh Wow.
Heather Newman: He worked in a cement plant his entire life in Michigan.
Jack Greenhut: And he died of silicosis.
Heather Newman: Well he might have.
Jack Greenhut: Almost.
Heather Newman: But when they went to go redo the house, because he'd done all the wiring himself, they're like there's a blue wire, a green wire, and a yellow wire, we don't know what the hell is connected to what.
Jack Greenhut: I've seen some of that. It's fun to suss it out though. People think because you work with your hands and your back, you're stupid. First of all, there are no stupid electricians. They're all dead. You count the fingers on a carpenter's hand, and you'll see just how careful he is. So, you gotta use your head. What I used to do, I'd have a problem, I'd think about it until I kept repeating myself. Then I had to do something and then I'd think about it again. So, I called this sort of dialectic between doing and thinking. That served me well.
Heather Newman: I didn't know you were in construction. I hadn't asked you, I guess, so why would I know?
Jack Greenhut: I hadn't asked you if you were married for 100 years.
Heather Newman: Not a hundred, but you know. Something keeps bringing me back to New York.
Jack Greenhut: Well, it's still, it's extraordinary. What I like about New York is chance. We've met by chance. Uh, I sit sometimes and meet people at the bar by bar. The bar, I gotta say this about the bar though, I really do. A bar is the most democratic institution in the United States. For the price of a Coca-Cola you can sit with anyone and talk all night. That to me is democracy. Not this sham that we have here. It's all self-selected. I got angry at a guy once in six years. Told him to shut his mouth. And that happened recently. I was ashamed of myself. Yeah, because "Hail fellow, well met". All comers welcome. But this guy was too much.
Heather Newman: No, I think your right. I feel like New York is very welcoming. People say New Yorkers are so.
Jack Greenhut: I think it's a very friendly, but it used to be, I don't know so much anymore cause I don't get around much, but it used to be a very friendly place.
Heather Newman: I've found it to be very friendly too. The energy here is different from anyplace else. And you lived in San Jose you said.
Jack Greenhut: San Jose In 1969. I was in Vista.
Heather Newman: That was the Summer of love.
Jack Greenhut: I also hitchhiked across the country. Took six weeks. I think in 68 I was in San Jose in 69 I hitchhiked across country.
Heather Newman: How was that?
Jack Greenhut: It was incredible. So, I snapped. I still tell stories about that trip.
Heather Newman: Did you go by yourself or did you have a pal?
Jack Greenhut: I had a pal. Richard Lucy, we called him Loose. I've actually tried to look him up, but I haven't paid for the detectives to do that. I don't have the money for that. I would like to talk to him.
Heather Newman: It's Richard Lucy, maybe we can look him up for you.
Jack Greenhut: Okay, L-U-C-Y. There's one in Indiana, maybe one in Utah. I got that far without having to pay.
Heather Newman: Okay, I’ll look him up for you.
Jack Greenhut: He's about my age. Maybe a year or two older. If he didn't shuffle off this mortal coil.
Heather Newman: How old were you when you did this?
Jack Greenhut: Twenty-one.
Heather Newman: You were twenty-one when you hitchhiked across the country? Wow. Where did you start from?
Jack Greenhut: George Washington Bridge.
Heather Newman: George Washington Bridge? Oh, my goodness. Who picked you up first? Do you remember?
Jack Greenhut: No, I don't. I remember going through Ohio. Lucy and I were hungry. So, he said, you know, find us a dinner or something? She goes it was down the road a piece. That was 45 minutes later. That was our first introduction to kind of rural stuff.
Heather Newman: Yeah. And being outside of New York for the first time, right?
Jack Greenhut: No, I was in Chicago for a half a minute. Just to try to visit someone and then I came back.
Heather Newman: So, did you go from Ohio? I'm from Illinois and the Midwest and I've driven out west, with my parents when I was a kid. Did you go through Denver and all of that? Did you go through Colorado?
Jack Greenhut: Yeah. We're in Denver, people took us in in Denver, took us in in Albuquerque. They took us in In Kansas City, Missouri. That's a great story. In Kansas City, Missouri we called up to the Society of Friends, the Quakers and said, look, the two of us are travelling and we don't have much money, we could use a place to stay. So, they said, why don't you call up Bert and Lynn Howard. I remember their address and everything. Right. So, we called them, and they said, yeah, come on over the address is 4712 Charlotte Avenue. This happened 50 years ago, I guess almost, yeah, Kansas City, Missouri. We got a lift from 14 people in a VW and two more didn't matter, and they dropped this right in front. Burt and Lynn were really giving people they had two children, Pagan who's three years old I know, and Theo who's a year and a half and Lucy started calling Pagan, Bad Pagan, and then BP and at the end of our two day stay his mother, Lynn, was calling her son BP. That's how cool these people were. They fed us and washed our clothes and took us to the family swimming hole. That's 1969. In 1980. I went to a New Year's Eve party. Now My friends grew up in Kansas City. His parents were at the New Year’s Eve party and knew Burt and Lynn and they were able to tell me where they were and what they were doing.
Heather Newman: Sure, got an update.
Jack Greenhut: Yeah. Lynn was a doctor and Burt was a film editor and they had gone back to England. She was English.
Heather Newman: What was California like at that time?
Jack Greenhut: We got held up at gunpoint outside Berkeley.
Heather Newman: You did?
Jack Greenhut: Oh yeah. Okay. Everybody out. So, we're standing there on the side of the road with our hands up and this big old hand gun in front of our faces. Fortunately, somebody came by and we jumped like gazelles over a barbed wire fence and they took off.
Heather Newman: Why did you decide to do that? To go on that trip?
Jack Greenhut: Maybe it's because I lost my girlfriend. That's why I got out to San Jose. I got out to San Jose because we split up and I wanted to get as far away as I could.
Heather Newman: That's awfully far.
Jack Greenhut: Like the immigrants right, the Calistoga Wagon. They got to the ocean and said, "Oh, fuck it. That's it then. We're going to settle in California."
Heather Newman: What we won't do when we have a broken heart.
Jack Greenhut: Yeah, you get on the road. So, then I came back after a year and Lucy and I, I don't know why, I never asked myself that question. I was moving, I crossed the country about 18 times. Flew, hitched, and drove about five or six times. I used to love to drive man. That bubble at two in the morning.
Heather Newman: Nothing like it with the radio on.
Jack Greenhut: No drugs, just
Heather Newman: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just go.
Jack Greenhut: Yeah. Nice feeling.
Heather Newman: Well that's so cool. What’s your favorite thing about, I don't know, just life in general?
Jack Greenhut: Well, that's hard.
Heather Newman: Yeah, I know. Not an easy question.
Jack Greenhut: Well yeah because I'm not reading and I'm not writing. I haven't done that while which I am disappointed in myself. So, coming out here and making common cause with people. It's what I feel compelled to do because I'm not terribly good on my own. You know, I just ruminate and all that shit. So, I come out and people are stimulating or sometimes they are, but at least I'm part of the tribe.
Heather Newman: Yeah, we all want to feel like we belong, right?
Jack Greenhut: Yeah.
Heather Newman: Yeah. I think bars sometimes are the places where, you know it's like the tradition of the English pub, you know? All of that sort of thing, right?
Jack Greenhut: That's where I eat on Thursday afternoons. I eat with a friend of mine, this place is almost modeled after an English pub. Yeah, food is delicious. I know everybody. I don't know all of the patrons, I know some of the patrons. I know the bartender, the owner, the waiter. I like to go where I'm greeted, you know? "Hi Jack, how are you? You want a drink, you want to sit here?" You know that kind of thing, I like that.
Heather Newman: Did you ever see that, with Cheers, where Norm would come in the bar and they would all be like, did you ever see that?
Jack Greenhut: Yeah, I never liked that. I don't like canned laughter. I really don't.
Heather Newman: I went to a taping of a TV show and watched that, and I thought it was so weird.
Jack Greenhut: Applause.
Heather Newman: I know. I was like don't tell me to clap. I will not talk about the finger he just held up. I enjoy talking to you so much.
Jack Greenhut: I enjoyed this too.
Heather Newman: When I see you, you always have a sparkle in your eye.
Jack Greenhut: If I wasn't laughing, I'd be crying.
Heather Newman: Isn't that the truth?
Jack Greenhut: Life's hard.
Heather Newman: Yeah, it is, it is. There's a lot of, behind the smiling eyes, there's a lot of pain and sorrow and grief, you know?
Jack Greenhut: Yeah, but I came through the other side. That's the thing. So, I did come through the other side.
Heather Newman: You're doing well. Every time I see you, you've got the grin. Well everybody, I'm going to sign off with lovely Jack. Any last, hellos for the folks on the line?
Jack Greenhut: Well, just thank you Heather. Just keep on keeping on.
Heather Newman: Yeah, for sure. Thank you.
Jack Greenhut: My pleasure.
Heather Newman: Everybody, that was another Mavens Do It Better podcast here in Williamsburg. In Williamsburg, at Bia with the lovely Jack. Thanks everybody.