Most of us living in Synanon were drug addicts and alcoholics during the early sixties. We lived in the Old Armory, 1351 Ocean Front, Santa Monica,. But not everyone had an addictive history. Throughout my time in Synanon, there were people whose families had not wanted to institutionalize them, but they were people who needed extra care.
The energy in Synanon was anything but what one would picture as “rehabilitative therapy.” It was the kind of energy you might find on a college campus. Most of us were relatively young — in our twenties or thirties. It was an energetic atmosphere, sometimes even boisterous, full of life. Musicians not on their jobs would be rehearsing, and unexpected antics popped up regularly. I remember Ted Dibble standing on the second-floor balcony doing comic bits for people on the beach. Ted grew up with George Carlin, and some of the thing things I saw Carlin do years later, were those Ted would come up with in his adhoc performances.
A guy named Dick Greenway moved into the old Armory with us in 1964. He was neither a drug addict nor an alcoholic. Dick was in his mid-forties and had suffered a serious brain injury in college. Someone thought it had been an accident involving a beach umbrella that had pierced his skull, effectively giving him a lobotomy. That is pure speculation and story. Dick had apparently been a brilliant student. He’d been living for years with his elderly aunt, who was one of our sponsors, donating money on a regular basis to Synanon. Our donors were the people who kept Synanon afloat, particularly in those early days, before there were any Synanon Industries. His aunt, a creative thinker, and looking for a place for him to live when she was no longer among us, came up with the idea of his living in Synanon. She could not bear the thought of him in an institution. So in he moved, plopped in the midst of a diverse group of people in a lively environment. It’s one of the things that made Synanon really special: it was a community. So in he moved, plopped in the midst of a diverse group of people in a lively environment.
Dick was five foot ten or eleven inches tall, had grayish hair, and dressed neatly in slacks and a shirt with buttons and often a sports coat. He spoke very little but seemed perpetually smiling. He was cheerful. I don’t recall him initiating many conversations, but he would respond when spoken to, often softly with “I don’t know. don’t know, ” always with a smile. He was under everyone’s wing and enjoyed genuine affection among Synanon residents. Once I asked Dick what he liked best, and he said “I like music.” He seemed always to be smiling. He roamed around, with a slight tilt, seeming to observe and to listen, and would alight somewhere for a while before moving on. A post from Bob Whiteside on the Synanon website describes an afternoon when Bob, a jazz bass player, had gone to the little room behind the stage in the basement, to practice playing on Charlie Haden’s bass violin there. Dick had followed him and stood listening as Bob played, and then Dick said in his same soft voice, “Hello Bob.”
Dick made a unique contribution to our little society. He was a musical genius and a talented classical pianist. One of his favorite landing places in his daily travels was to our old piano, where he would take his seat and produce concerts, of Beethoven, Chopin, Vivaldi, Bach, filling the air with music exquisitely played. He didn’t often finish the piece. It would start, and then stop, while he sat and looked at the piano. Sometimes he would repeat the same music over and over again, sometimes he would play music from another composer. The music would go on until he got up to continue his rounds of the house.I remember that one male resident had always been assigned to Dick’s personal care, which he needed — to make sure he had clean clothes, help him with dressing, shaving, etc., and shared a room within. That was an assignment that was transferred periodically. I don’t remember who it was at 1351 Ocean Front, in the Old Armory. But the Synanon Website lists Eddie Tavarez and David Webb as two of those guys.
Dick lived to be 77 years old. He died on October 2, 2010. I don’t know where he moved when Synanon closed, but anyone who lived around him retains warm memories of this gentle man who lived with us. I know I do.