On Murray Avenue, in the business district of Squirrel Hill, a man moves briskly, as a fedora rests above his head and strings flail from his sides.
He passes the window of 61C Cafe. Inside, seated near a corner table, Richard Greenberg watches the man stride down the sidewalk and step out of sight. Greenberg rests his glass of ice water on the table and says, “If the guy can walk around in a kippa and tzitzit, I can walk around in a kilt.”
And he does, but more on that later.
• • •
Greenberg, 62, was born in Pittsburgh, and had his bar mitzva at Shaare Torah Congregation in Squirrel Hill. He graduated from Pittsburgh Allderdice High School and went to Youngstown State University. After graduation, he ventured south to sell sunglasses and women’s hair accessories for Ben-Hur, Inc.
While covering his sales territory — Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama — his boss encouraged Greenberg to change his name. “[He] thought that Rick Green would be a better name for a salesman working in the South.”
The identity shift would be a first.
Greenberg, marketing himself as Rick Green, excelled in sales, and rose through the ranks at Ben-Hur.
But there was a void. “The life of a salesman is a world of rejection,” Greenberg said.
Seeking motivation, he read “The Power of Positive Thinking,” by Norman Vincent Peale, and began listening to the minister’s cassettes. He wanted to meet Peale, but he had no connection to the man.
While in Georgia, Greenberg detoured to Plains, the hometown of Jimmy Carter, and met the then-president’s mother, Lillian. He wanted to meet the president, too, but again had no connection.
After becoming vice president of Ben-Hur, Greenberg moved to Manhattan. While there, he traveled to Peale’s church on Fifth Avenue at 29th Street, entered the office, and began speaking with the secretary. Greenberg discovered that she too was from Pittsburgh. He told her that he wanted to meet Peale; she agreed to bring both men together. During their introduction, Greenberg noticed photographs of Peale with presidents and celebrities.
“I realized that Norman Vincent Peale was my center of influence to Jimmy Carter,” said Greenberg. A few months later, that hunch proved correct. Greenberg received a phone call from Carter’s staff asking if he could be in Washington on Monday to meet the president. Greenberg said he would be there. Immediately, he went outside his Manhattan building, called over a friend who drove a Cadillac limousine, and arranged a trip to Washington.
After they arrived at the Northwest Gate of the White House, Greenberg was escorted to an office to wait. Finally, he was ushered in to his long-awaited meeting.
“I walked down this long hallway; there’s beautiful paintings on both sides, and at the end of the hallway I make a right and he’s [Carter] in the Oval Office,” Greenberg recalled. “He comes out of his office, and says, ‘Rick Green, come on in my office.’”
Though the encounter lasted just two minutes, it was immortalized in a photograph, which hangs above the counter in the 61C.
• • •
Back in Pittsburgh, eight years ago, Greenberg saw a man exiting Radio Shack on Forbes Avenue wearing a kilt.
Never a fan of pants, Greenberg told the man he liked his style and asked about the kilt. He got the name of a website for Scottish attire, contacted it and spoke with a man named Uncle Leo.
Within two weeks, Greenberg ordered four kilts.
After they arrived, Greenberg ventured out in his new attire. Receptions were mixed.
Onlookers pointed, jested and photographed. Some even applauded the rotund man in the kilt. Greenberg accepted the reactions, until it became too much.
While walking on Murray Avenue one day, he was assaulted and humiliated. He went home and put the kilts away.
• • •
As is Greenberg’s routine, he goes to bed early. He rises at 4:30 a.m., listens to music, showers, selects hose and flashes, steams his kilt, and gets dressed. He heads to Yeshiva to put on tefillin and Beth Shalom to make a minyan.
While his weekday activities vary, his Saturdays are set. Greenberg’s Shabbat morning begins with a trip to 61C, then down to Shaare Torah, over to Poale Zedeck, up to Beth Shalom, across to The Bagel Factory, and finally to Yeshiva.
“I sometimes feel like I’m a racecar driver,” he said.
Because of his persona and dress, Greenberg has become a minicelebrity in Squirrel Hill. At 61C, they call him “The Mayor.” At Artist & Craftsman Supply, he gets free parking. On the streets, people still point, jest, photograph, and applaud the rotund man in the kilt.
An onlooker recently asked him, “Are you a Scottsman?” Greenberg replied, “No, I am a Landsman.”
Still, he recognizes the evanescence of mystique. “Tomorrow I could wake up and take the kilt off and it’s all over,” Greenberg said.
Three months have passed since Greenberg brought the kilts back. Eight years ago, when he first put one on, Greenberg says he was looking for a reaction, “and the kilt was nothing but trouble.” Now, he said, “the only reason I am in a kilt is I feel real comfortable.”
Still the salesman, Greenberg is marketing something new. While the front of his T-shirt reads, “Real Men Wear Kilts,” the back displays Jewish icons and the address of his website.
He dreams of marketing kilts with Jewish stars; he has already ordered them for a local rabbi, and is happily accepting new customers.
For Greenberg, the kilts are not a Scottish thing, but a “Jewish thing.”
He comfortably prays, happily lays tefillin, and pridefully makes a minyan.
“If someone wants to come and criticize me, go ahead,” he said. “My life is so fulfilled.”
(Adam Reinherz, who writes about life in Jewish Pittsburgh, can be reached at email@example.com.)