On Saturday I lost one of my dearest friends, Richard Grant also known to those close to him as Dick or Dickey. Others in my circle used to call him with no hint of jest, “the most interesting man in the world.” On this site I veer away from personal stories, for I find those may seem boringly self-indulgent when there is so much else going on in the world than stories of personal life to discuss. Especially a story that evokes a wide range of emotions that I can hardly attempt to convey or even understand right now, but this story is well worth this humble and inadequate try for I hope those that knew him in life, may get a smile out of these words.
Our friendship began in a most unlikely of ways, two people from wildly different ages and universes brought together by chance: because we shared a cubicle wall at the Arsenal, the New York City Parks headquarters in the summer of 2001. When I told anyone that I met Dick because “we shared a cubicle wall,” that entertained him to no end for what he considered a brilliant use of words- for the clever juxtaposition of words was always the greatest love shared by Dick and I over two decades of friendship. And his writing will always exceed mine for quality and clarity, but there is no shame in admitting this. He was that good at the craft.
Technically we worked for different departments and did not collaborate in work beyond my taking phone messages for him on occasion in those early days. He was close to triple my age and double my size, an African-American with Barbados heritage who had already experienced multiple lifetimes of interesting adventures, and I was a fresh-faced Indian-American college graduate at my first full-time job. The first time I saw the guy, he bemused me with his signature of typing away at his computer with headphones on, softly singing to himself some faraway opera tune, a subtle glint of pleasure in his eye, with that amazing voice of his that is unforgettable to any who have met him. The closest corollary I can make to that booming voice, one that has earned him money as a voice-over professional for several years, is that of James Earl Jones himself. Yes, there is direct lineage between Dick and Darth Vader in my mind.
But a Darth Vader for mostly Good, if Darth was the life of the party. More than anything Dick was like a Guru, or teacher to me outside the workplace in the workshop of life. Among many things he taught me were the history and relevance of the Jesuits (we both shared Jesuit college heritage, he at Fordham and I at Georgetown), the opera, classical music, the New York City of the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s that I could only imagine or read about, and how to gut and filet a freshly caught fish. Nobody but Dick and I have ever in my life, talked nonstop one-on-one all the way from 8pm until 8am at what was supposed to be a dinner engagement on the Upper West Side that never ended, with no external interruptions or electronic devices except the occasional break to sip some beer and our own voices.
Because of Dick’s own hand I ate foie gras and wild boar for the first and only times, the former grilled and then stuffed into a patty of ground venison, a flavor profile I will never forget despite my moral aversion to foie gras. That evening, I got it and got it out of my system. He taught me how to whip fresh heavy cream when the closest I had come till then was buying Cool Whip from the supermarket. And I learned from him how strong my own nascent cooking skills were when he tried some of my ceviche, and marveled at my “fearlessness” in the kitchen for making it the first time for a large group of guests, a specific compliment he alone was the only one to ever furnish. This raised my confidence level at a young age. This came from someone who was never afraid to criticize your cooking or anything else openly- with Dick you were promised the direct unvarnished, sometimes unpleasant truth at all times. Which made any praise all the better.
Our first social engagement back then, with 9/11 unfortunately in the backdrop, was to the Metropolitan Opera for a fantastic evening in the fall of 2001. I wasn’t into opera at all but was interested in learning more from a man who was a regular to opera since childhood- my openness to new experiences an aspect of our relationship which ever delighted Dick for trying new things was his prime passion in a nutshell. If I remember correctly- we attended dozens of operas together over the years, dressed in suits- that first one was Puccini’s Turandot. Not only did he insist in paying for my ticket as he thought of me as his guest; he also insisted in lending me his CD to listen to the whole opera for the week beforehand, and meeting me before the big night to drill me relentlessly and enthusiastically on the contents of the CD. Then finally at the Metropolitan he would bring me out to the gorgeous terrace during each intermission where we would enjoy a flute of champagne and he excitedly told me about what had just occurred in the previous act- and insisted that I try to understand when a singer hit a note akin to a “home run” in a sports analogy I would understand. Each opera trip over the years followed this formula. This was how Dick did things, and the attention to detail and sacred appreciation of fine art is something else I cannot hope to aspire to in my lifetime.
Another thing attracted us very different individuals to each other. Dick was no stranger to India, the land of my ancestors. In fact he had gone to India in the 1970s, dropping out of his lucrative career trajectory in America to do what he described as “find myself in the East like so many other Westerners at the time.” That meant spending months completely alone in the Himalaya mountains, meditating or whatever he was doing. This was one of the first things I learned about him and whenever I asked for details he was brutally honest in reducing it to a stupid endeavor and a waste of time. Similarly he frequently said that the entire 1960s counterculture and hippies were “only about f***ing and doing drugs” with no deeper meaning in his observation. Those of us who knew Dick are aware of his razor sharp opinions and honesty, what anyone else thought be damned! Dick asked me questions which I considered to be odd at the time, and later insightful. After a promotion I received, he asked me with a big smile, “so how do you feel about your new power- and how are you going to use it?” Nobody else ever asked me that. Sometimes I would tell him that I did not hate anyone or have any enemies, and that would give him a big belly laugh – and a look that seemed to say, “just wait, my boy.” Dick was also one of my close friends who probably rightly diagnosed me as passive-aggressive at a young age.
Dick had a depth and range of knowledge that few I have ever known have. We could talk about world travel, various languages, the Jesuits, European royalty, Maharajas, and even the eroticism of Hindu deities in the same sitting. We were capable of discussing, and also making, food from any part of the world as part of some legendary meals we made for each other. I learned about his highly interesting life as a child in Chicago and Paris, a college student, as a young man in Rome, his marriage and fatherhood and eventual Catholic annulment, his varied and at times high-powered career, his novel writing aspirations. In his youth he worked closely with Hillary Clinton to register minority voters in the Deep South when it was dangerous, which led to his decades-long admiration of her including unwavering support during the 2008 and 2016 elections. I gained much insight about history, philosophy, and sociology which one cannot learn from books or classes. He knew more about Georgetown’s history, and its rise to become a top international Jesuit university in the 20th century, even better than I did. I hope and trust, due to our long relationship, that he learned a few things from me as well.
We had our differences for sure. When we debated in person or over email, he was fiercely unsparing in his criticisms of my arguments, some of which I disagreed with, but overall those inspired me to come up with better and more logical arguments and “up my game” to match his. He helped me strengthen my weaknesses in writing and argument. This will always be the best part of our friendship to me.
Over the last three years we were geographically more far apart, as I left NYC for Wisconsin, and our contacts became less frequent. But our debates continued along, mostly over email. I regret not having been more in touch with him in 2020. Our last correspondence this summer was specifically about his health and mine during the dread COVID pandemic, and I was given no indication of serious trouble with his health. I came away with the impression that everything was fine. But that too is perfectly in character with Dick’s personality.
I am glad Dick no longer suffers. He has made my life and that of many of my contemporaries richer. And through Dick, I was fortunate to meet many great people that are closer to his age- the friendship that some of you shared over many more decades of life experience that I have yet to have, especially the proud “GOLDEN RAMS” of Fordham who graduated over 5 decades ago from college- will always be an inspiration to me about lifelong friendship. It was an honor for me to attend that 50th year Golden Jubilee at Fordham University. RIP, dear friend.
In my South Indian language Konkani, there is no word for goodbye. Only “mellya,” which means see you again. Mellya, Dick.
Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor