I have a confession, although it’s not exactly earth-shattering. I procrastinate in writing these columns. Even after all these years, there’s nothing more daunting to me than a blank page, or a blank computer screen to be more accurate. Put it this way, for every hour of writing, there’s at least three I spend procrastinating.
But this week’s procrastination is different. Last week I learned from the family of Joe Geletko, a reader of my columns and a friend, that Joe, who graduated from St. Monica’s in 1952 and was a mail carrier in Santa Monica for 31 years, had passed away.
Without ever complaining, Joe had successfully battled cancer for years. Last week he could battle no more. And yet, typical of Joe, in his final days he comforted his children by reminding them, “I’ve really had a wonderful life.” And he meant it.
Joe was such a genuine person, an embodiment of an American dream that I fear is vanishing before our eyes. I was concerned with the family’s privacy, but Joe’s children agreed that he would have loved a final column. The ham in him was just one of his many charming traits.
I remember the day I met Joe, Oct. 15, 2005. It was an unusually hot beginning of fall, an Indian summer day. The beach, however, was almost entirely empty as I read a book in the afternoon.
In the distance I saw a white-haired man, older but unusually fit, pushing a bicycle across the sand as he listened to his radio and carried a big trash bag. He would go through each trash can and fish out the recyclables before moving to the next.
When Joe got to the can near me I could hear the USC/Notre Dame football game coming from his radio. I asked Joe the score and was delighted that SC was losing. (As I told Joe, “My two favorite college teams are UCLA and anyone playing USC.”)
I told Joe I would gladly watch his bike while he went to the remaining cans. But unfortunately for me (and Joe, who was also a die-hard Bruin fan) by the time he returned defending national champion USC had won the game. (In 2010 the Trojans would be sanctioned by the NCAA and forced to forfeit the game.)
Ever curious, Joe asked what I did for a living. When I said I was a writer, he told me proudly that he was “in the movie business.” I was reminded of the joke, “In Hollywood, what’s the difference between a writer and a waiter? An ‘r.’” The point being that I didn’t believe Joe was in the movies no more than I thought Tom Cruise was going to be collecting recyclables. But I was wrong. (About Joe, not Tom.)
Since his retirement from the post office, Joe took great joy in his “second career,” appearing in commercials and as an extra or stand-in for movies. He loved talking about it and it was fun listening to him.
Joe also talked about Kathy, whom he dearly loved for what would be 52 years of marriage. He was the proud father of five adult children, Joan, Joe, Judy, Janet and Jane, all went to St. Monica’s, as did Joe, and three went on to UCLA. Joe was also a proud homeowner and he and Kathy accomplished all that on a mail carrier’s salary.
Joe surfed almost daily well into his 70s. He and I played tennis and went on walks along the boardwalk to talk about the issues of the day. Joe was so positive about life I got the sense he appreciated every single day.
Over the years I wrote two columns about Joe. “No ordinary Joe” and “Life begins at 70.” But, then again, he was supportive of everything I wrote. Almost embarrassing me, he would cut out my columns and mail them to his friend Jim, a fellow mail carrier in Santa Monica, who retired to Arizona.
When Joe was diagnosed with cancer and then had brain surgery, I swear it seemed like he was back surfing within weeks. Even when Kathy died in May of 2011, Joe could only focus on the great times. At her funeral there wasn’t a dry eye when Joe delivered her eulogy.
And now Joe is gone. I suppose this is my eulogy. And I hope Jim in Arizona gets to see his “final column.” I have a hunch Joe would have secretly (or not so secretly) enjoyed all the compliments. The truth is, given the person he was and the wonderful life he led, he richly deserved them.
Joseph James Geletko (1934-2013) R.I.P.
Jack can be reached at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth or via E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.