Greg from the newsstand

Studio City blogger Jon Crowley writes at Hollywood Thoughts about the neighborhood regular who has sold newspapers and magazines at Van Nuys and Ventura boulevards for several years. He knew the man only as Greg.

I never knew Greg’s last name, but I considered him a friend. He passed-away very unexpectedly last Sunday night after working his shift at the Sherman Oaks Newsstand (the corner of Van Nuys and Ventura boulevards). You’ve probably seen him a million times as you passed the intersection: he was in his late fifties… always wore a ballcap… and, of course, sported his trademark ZZ Top beard.I first met Greg about five years ago when I moved into the area. Looks can be deceiving; I took him to be a tough guy (probably because of his beard). I shoulda remembered what my Mom taught me as a kid about people: Don’t judge a book by its cover. That was Greg. From the start, I discovered he was a softy. He always had a joke to share, or an interesting observation. To be certain, he always had a smile or a hello for you.

Did I mention that Greg always had a small crowd gathered around him— no matter the time or the condition of the weather (we used to joke about the temperature on the big electronic sign across the street that was always off by about 10 degrees)? Getting a magazine was secondary to the fun chat you could share with the guy.

Link picked up from the blog Tabloid Baby, which wrote:

He’s the guy at the newsstand, the one who sells us our papers and magazines, the guy we check in with every morning or maybe every night around the time we know the next day’s papers are about to be tossed off the truck…Sometimes the guy won’t make change for our twenty. Once in awhile, he’s Slash, or Noel Harrison, or she’s Harry Ryttenberg’s mum. But most of the time, he’s Greg from the newsstand. He’s part of the neighborhood, the guy you share a few words with every night or so for maybe five years and never get to know his surname, but you know him and he knows you and your kid, and one day he’s not there any more because he’s dead.

Will Campbell also remembers Greg, recounting an encounter they had and writing on his blog:

The one time I had any contact with him other than transacting for a publication came in 1993 on my way to visit my mother one afternoon. Eastbound traffic was backed up a bit on Ventura because the southbound cross traffic at Van Nuys Boulevard traffic was blocking the intersection. On my motorcycle I was able to cut through the gridlock and when I turned the corner I found the source of the standstill was a stalled out Porsche 911 directly in front of the newsstand and inside it the frustrated driver was unable to get its engine to turn over. On several occasions during that period of my life I’d made like a good sammy and offered assistance to stranded motorists and this was just another opportunity to do so.Dismounting my bike I approached the driver and asked him if he’d like a push to try to popstart it or at least get it out of traffic. He did, so I got behind the car, signaled for the driver to put it in neutral and get off the brake and I leaned in hard to get it rolling. About 40 feet later the driver threw it into first gear, let out the clutch and the Porsche spluttered and coughed but somehow managed to stay lit. Gunning the engine for a few seconds I gave the driver a thumbs-up and he waved his thanks and high-tailed it out of there, thus restoring order to that corner of the world.

Walking back to my bike, I caught newsstand guy — Greg — out of the corner of my eye. He was sitting on his barstool next to the register with his ever-present cap and wiry beard, watching me. He had a bemused smile on his face and when I turned my head to look at him directly he commenced a polite ovation in recognition of my good deed. I gave him a little bow and salute before climbing back in the saddle and moving on.

All the blogosphere activity caught the attention of the Daily News, which assigned staffer Dana Bartholomew to find out more about Greg. The story ran Saturday:

He brought smiles to the faces of passing motorists. Heard the cares of customers. Handed out toys to children. And for decades was a fixture at the landmark Sherman Oaks Newsstand.Gregory Mark Burgess, the artist clerk whose smile had cheered passers-by at Van Nuys and Ventura boulevards since the early 1980s, died Monday of a heart attack. He was 59.

News of his death raced this week across the blogosphere. Drew calls of condolences from Jay Leno’s office. And shocked a Sherman Oaks community longing for the ZZ Top-like hot-rodder perched each evening with a copy of your favorite news mag or paper.

“He was the jewel of the neighborhood,” said Jon Crowley, 49, a TV producer, writer and director who lives near the 57-year-old stand. “He knew everybody. He cared for everybody. He belonged to everybody.

“He was the outdoor bartender … but instead of pouring a drink, he’d pour out words of wisdom.”

Burgess, a native of Columbus, Ohio, was raised in Covina and the inland town of Perris, where he developed a life-long love of hot rods, Harleys and high-heeled curves.

A hell-raiser, he raced drag bikes, wrenched on top-fuel dragsters – and spent at least one night in jail for joy-riding the fire chief’s car.

Here’s the rest of the story, which quotes Campbell too. No services are planned, but there is talk of holding a hot-rod show. Burgess apparently joked about getting a statue of himself at the newsstand. I don’t know about that, but guess what — there is already a statue to news vendors on the streets of Los Angeles.

A bronze newsboy stands at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Park View Avenue, alongside a statue of former Los Angeles Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis, whose mansion used to be across the street. The two statues, and a missing third figure of a Spanish-American War rifleman, were struck by Russian master sculptor Paul Troubetzkoy and unveiled Aug. 3, 1920. The following year, Buster Keaton hid from the cops among the statues in his classic silent comedy, Hard Luck.

Funny about the newsboy: the model was 11-year-old Andrew Azzoni, who didn’t even hawk the Times — he sold the Record, the Express and the Examiner. He got the job to pose (and $25) because the sculptor knew his father, the head waiter at an exclusive restaurant on 8th St. called Marcelle’s.