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Grames' death offers reminder to accept flaws of characters

Michael Carey

The man on the telephone interrupted himself with hesitant light laughter as he launched into a story without giving his name or offering a greeting. "Remember when I told you -- heh heh -- about that time my car broke down near Tok -- heh heh -- and I couldn't remember who was with me -- heh heh? Now I remember!"

The phone rang at six in the morning. The Ford broke down in 1959. "I told you I would remember who that guy was," said Johnny Grames.

John George James Grames, who lived a stream of consciousness life, died in Bellingham, Wash., last week. He was 75.

For most of half a century, John Grames was a well-known figure in Anchorage. He wasn't a member of the local elite. He didn't have a profession. He didn't make a name for himself in politics although he was the Green Party nominee for Congress in 1996.

He wasn't a poet or a musician who earned public attention through his writing or his performances. He didn't have a job.

John Grames was a community character who inherited enough money from his mother -- she made her money in real estate -- to pursue his lifetime vocation: Being John Grames. Believe me, it was an all-consuming endeavor for a guy who called himself in the 1996 state election pamphlet "a suppressed entrepreneur." He is undoubtedly the only candidate for public office in Alaska history whose election pamphlet statement lists his "special interests" as the Tao and novelist Henry Miller.

By community character, I mean someone who calls attention to himself through public statements, letters to the editor, personal crusades, and antics on display to the entire world. If you were John's friend -- and I was-- you had to put up with a lot. I invited him to lunch. When I arrived, he already had eaten, and the bill was sitting next to my plate. Asked to explain, he said "I got hungry."

His friends remained his friends because he was so warm, so good-humored and so resilient in the face of adversity, much of it self-created. He also could be a marvelous storyteller despite punctuating his stories with "heh heh" and forcing his audience to figure out which town and what decade he was talking about.

John stories included tales of his basketball prowess at Anchorage High School and stateside colleges during the 1950s, and his experience with the grifters and gamblers prominent in Anchorage night life during the 1960s, Bigfoot George, Mexican Ray, and Freddie the Fix for starters.

John's Damon Runyon tales frequently involved money-making schemes of no legality. "What you have to understand about these people is they were never going to do real work," John said. "That wasn't in their line. Unless maybe you call arson work."

Nobody is the same person for a lifetime, and that certainly was true of John. Those who knew him only as a community character didn't know that as a younger man he was tall, handsome and athletic, successfully wooed women of great beauty, was a doting father to five sons, gave his time generously to liberal causes, and for part of his life lived conventionally (or as conventionally as John could) on H Street with his wife, his children and his vibraphone. He loved jazz. Thelonious Monk was a hero.

Then he and his wife divorced. The terms of the divorce reduced him to penury and drove him into almost perpetual conflict with the court system until he moved to Bellingham. He came into conflict with the criminal justice system too -- after he kicked his wife's lawyer in the butt in the state court house. We probably have John to thank for the security system at the court house.

John insisted on acting as his own lawyer during these tribulations. He saw himself a man of great principle; his friends saw Don Quixote waving a law book. He never publicly criticized his wife -- only the courts.

His experience with the judiciary leached into everything in his life. Watching basketball for instance -- hard as that is to believe. You couldn't use the word "court" or the term "judgment call" without inspiring John to rant about the judge in his divorce.

The divorce was a wound that never healed. I said to John, "Terrible things happen to people all the time. Why not let go, why not move on in life?"

He roared "I am a Greek! I must have justice!" John's legal struggles had qualities of a Greek tragedy -- and lasted almost as long as the Trojan War.

But he was a proud Greek. He gave his five sons Greek names. If there is a Greek ideal of fatherhood, he must have aspired to it, especially in the case of his youngest child, Leikos whom I frequently saw him with. His affection for the boy made everyone who knew them smile.

As for the older boys -- Dinos, Panos, Kristos, and Johannes -- he couldn't mention them without boasting. They were not only successful musicians; they were the best at everything. That's what he said, but I suppose he only was trying to tell the world he loved them.

The boys may have wearied of being introduced to strangers as prodigies, but then John did the same to many of his friends including me -- meet Michael Carey, the famous newspaperman.

Life doesn't come in neat packages. If you have any sense, you eventually take people the way they show up.

I was glad when John showed up. I knew that while life endlessly frustrated him, he was deeply grateful for the gifts God -- a Greek God -- bestowed on him.

Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at