Greg Tate, the prolific critic and culture chronicler, died Tuesday December 7. He happened to be a neighbor of mine. For close to 30 years we lived next door to each other in the Sugar Hill section of New York’s Washington Heights. We shared what neighbors share: a street/mecca where greats like Ellington and Strayhorn, Terry McMillan and Cassandra Wilson once roamed; a thin wall, through which I heard his countless band practices, while he no doubt listened to my folk-classical-musical theater menu; countless greetings as we ran into each other in the pursuit of groceries and carry-out; a shared view of Highbridge Park that overlooked the old Polo Grounds, and once, an unwanted sofa I convinced him to take because I couldn’t face dragging it down five flights of stairs.
That was the extent of our friendship. When we met I was a professional actor, something I never shared with him because I felt I wasn’t on his level. My admiration for him probably got in the way since I’d read him along with Robert Christgau, Thulani Davis, Michael Musto and the genius named Michael Feingold, back when The Village Voice was my can’t-miss destination every Wednesday. They taught me so much about the city and made me pay attention. They opened my eyes to the culture in my midst; even if I couldn’t listen to, read or watch everything they scrupulously dissected, dissed or championed, I felt in the know. Their words confirmed my choice of Manhattan as my home. They turned up my awareness; they kept me sharp. I never told Greg any of this, afraid I’d trip over myself. I regret that now, and that it took an obit for me to learn that we were both from Ohio.
He was ever present. One day he’d be done at our front stoop; another, at the steps of our local library. Always on the phone or on his laptop (I imagined the stoop of the library as his office of sorts—I hear the wi-fi there is stellar). He was always a bit laconic but lately he seemed older than his 64 years. In our building I’d pass him on the stairs. We’d always joked about the non-existent elevator but it was only lately that through the funny I could see his real difficulty making the climb.
It was the Sunday before his death that I saw him last. He stopped on one of the landings in our walkup (we’re on the top floor). He’d stopped to rest, winded by his grocery haul. Without missing a beat I grabbed one of his bags. That Cheshire grin of his thanked me, but it was no big deal. For sheer worth, what he gave me weighed so much more. To you, my neighbor, with gratitude. RIP.