Brain of Jay



Walk the Talk with Rich “Happy Man” Griese



        Every town has their known characters: local legends, has-beens, or hometown heroes developed from stories that were manipulated through the community’s game of Chinese whispers. While some talks may be true, completely false, or exaggerated to the extent of super-human abilities, stories are only stories. And if we dismiss a conversation with these characters solely because we are afraid to engage with them based on our perception, we never absorb the truth behind the rumors.

 I cruised, biked, ran, and walked the streets of my local surrounding towns my entire life and have seen an assemblage of familiar shoes, but I never got familiar with the walks of life they’d been through. From the wear and tear persona of a tight handful of them, I understood their shoes had some mileage. I could see that most of these legends had a strong story behind their stride; whether they’re mumbling to themselves, have become crack addicts, or are simply just running tabs at bars and paying forward with “back in my day” glory stories. Very seldom will you see any of these characters crack a smile—except for one man: Rich “Happy Man” Griese.

           Since 2011, I have consistently seen this man marching up and down Franklin Avenue inside a walker that clearly exposed his handicap, but for whatever reason, he strapped on a mile-long smile that stretched across his face, so I knew this man had some wisdom. Eventually, I engaged him with curiosity; I needed to meet this man. We became friends, and I later proposed that I spend a day with him and discuss life. He accepted. I was lucky enough to walk with him and have a sit-down to absorb his wisdom and get his perspective on what true happiness means to him. This is a man who walks to his own beat, strapped to a walker that glides him across the bumpy roads. He hovers with nine clouds spelling out the word H-A-P-P-I-N-E-S-S that keep him afloat from the negatively contaminated streets of North Jersey. If you live (or have lived) in the area of Belleville/Nutley, you now who this man is—and if you don’t, it’s time you best recognize!



        “BEEP! BEEEEEP!”

        As we began strolling Franklin Avenue in Nutley, locally known as “The Ave,” with Rich Griese, the walk was quite interesting, to say the least. To start, we were inching toward the crosswalk but then realized the traffic light was red; the “DON’T WALK” light was signaling urgently for us to stop in our tracks, so we did to obey local street rules. The opposing light, being green, gave drivers and walkers the right of way—obviously.


        Now, the driver beside us was waving her hand like a crossing guard letting two children cross the street while there was an assembly of nine-to-fivers behind her who couldn’t see us but were eager to press the gas pedal.

        “What the hell ya doing, lady? The light’s green!” The drivers were obviously getting upset and screaming cuss words out of their car windows like truckers that have been on the road for days.

        “You have the green light, lady. It’s okay; you go,” I said to the women stopping short, attempting to break traffic rules due to her change of heart when she noticed Rich in a walker.

         Now, with the verbal assault of road raging drivers edging to rapid fire, we decided to wave the lady along to relieve the stress of other drivers. Her gesture to give us the right of way was nice, but the fact is that it’s actually more dangerous for Rich to cross at a red light (or any pedestrian for that matter). Also, she pissed off about seventeen drivers while trying to be nice. But, hey, I guess she earned some gratitude points from us. Thanks, but no thanks!

                “She’s being nice but doesn’t realize how dangerous that is. I could get hit by a car at a green light, let alone a red light.” Rich is extra cautious and rarely seeks handouts.

                “I guess people don’t see that as dangerous, and they’re just really trying to be nice,” I added.

                “Well, that’s just the function of this walker. This walker journey, for me, has been very revelatory because—”


          The drivers hadn’t seemed to get over the traffic jam. We both giggled at the confusion and anger on the road, all built up from one person just trying to be nice and a clusterfuck of nimrods naive to the situation. (My quick realization: We [including myself] are so quick to slam the horn before we actually even look to see what’s happening. This situation—the first block of our walk—showed me how much in a rush we have all become, in a rush to get nowhere. How our culture has entered a never-ending rat-race inside of a maze with no cheese at the finish line.)

          Rich continued “—because, it’s amazing how nice people are when you have the niceness sensor, and the walker has become the niceness sensor. My walker causes people to act nicer, and hopefully they will carry that ‘niceness’ throughout the day.”

          Rich’s acceptance of his disability has turned his walker into a positive reinforcement. The fact that he utilizes his handicap as a tool to uplift other people’s emotions, so they can see the brighter day and change their mindset to being helpful, is amazing to me.

“When did it occur to you that your walker was actually magical?” I asked.

        “I went to Target and had to return something but didn’t realize my item was from Kmart. And the person at the counter knew and said, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re good. No problem, sir,’and he let me exchange the item.”

          That moment, he realized the power of his walker. It held a power to make people act in a nicer fashion. A simple change in thought could go a long way; why not make it a nice thought?

        “I mean, it wasn’t a one-day event,” Rich continued, “but since that moment and over time, I realized how amazing of a revelation this walker has become. For the most part, people see this world as a harsh, horrible place, but when people see me in this walker smiling, they realize it’s not. This walker is very helpful in that sense.”



        On the second block of our walk, I could already see how much nicer people could be. Also how strong-minded of a human being Rich has become. The way he perceived his walker to be revelatory for changing humanity, instead of a burden, truly inspired me and opened my eyes to a world I never knew existed. My walks in life had never been more fulfilling than when I had the luxury to walk a day in this man’s shoes. Here is a man who walks not on his own, but on his own two feet.

        Rich, like everyone else at some point in life, has had to face adversity. The level of adversity doesn’t matter; everyone in their own personal way has to face uncomfortable moments that could be life changing, and in the very beginning of that adversity, we are all as scared as shit. As superhuman as Rich may seem, he wasn’t born with a smile on his face.

          Rich explained to me that his disability is due to the fact that the synapse in his brain doesn’t send signals to his leg muscles, which causes him to not be able to move his legs properly, but his struggles go much further than that. “You know, when I came back to New Jersey is when I was diagnosed with a form of muscle dystrophy, and years later my father passed. And all I knew is I wanted to fix myself, and I can’t be concerned with, what am I going to do next in my life? My family thought otherwise; they didn’t agree with my outlook, so we haven’t talked since my father’s funeral,” he told me.

 “That had to be insanely rough to go through,” I responded.

        “Well, my family didn’t like how I saw my disability, as an actual blessing.” Rich stared at the sidewalk, and we continued to walk down Franklin Avenue to the clanking of his walker.

          During his long, lonely walk of soul searching, he had surpassed the demolition of mental breakdowns when his life didn’t offer him a cleanup crew. With his father passing away, the abandonment of his immediate family, and a disability where he could barely walk on his own, he had nowhere to rest his feet. His life had a lack of support just like his synapse. Shortcomings like this could put your average person six feet in the dirt crawling where the worms lie—but not Rich; he decided to crawl out.

So how did he get into this mess or in his words, this blessing?

Wall Street Monotony


        In 1984, Rich graduated from Rutgers University with a bachelor of arts in business administration. Fresh out of his four-year sentence from education solitary, he stumbled onto Wall Street and aimlessly got picked up by a specialist firm in the brokerage industry. Working with NYSE (New York Stock Exchange) companies transferring stock orders, wildly running from building to building like a decapitated chicken, the volatile highs and lows of Wall Street actually put Rich into a monotonous daze.

        “I was a nobody during these times. I felt like the least important person during the uproars of Wall Street. I just knew I didn’t want to be there anymore.”

        For every overly-excited stock broker, stock trader, and shareholder high-fiving each other from the opening to the closing bell of the exchange, Rich was high-fiving himself in the forehead for taking on a job that he had zero interest in.

        “I mean, I was making a lot of money,” he explained, “but because I was so busy during these times, I had no time to put it to good use! All they ever wanted to do was go to Atlantic City to party, gamble, and drink. I just wanted to go home and relax!” With the clockwork of Rich’s lifestyle ticking away at his dignity, he knew he needed a break.

        “So one weekend my co-workers wanted to go to Atlantic City—again—but a friend of mine (Mark) decided he wanted to change things up and go to Vermont to a bed and breakfast with this company called Back Roads Bicycle Association, with two of their leaders. The association was a company that focused on traveling and outdoor activities.” The time spent in Vermont gave Rich an eye-opening opportunity to get into something more exciting.

        “It was a moment I will never forget. My friend, Mark, who was a big-time lawyer from Brooklyn, was trying to hit on the leader (Julie) of this association. He whispered to me, ‘I’m gonna get Julie back to our room!’ So, you could see how arrogant my friend was. During their conversation, he said to her, ‘So, what’s next for you?’ Julie responded, ‘What do you mean, what’s next?’ I immediately just sat back and wanted to watch this conversation unfold.

        “‘You know, like you’re a ski instructor. This can’t be it; you can’t be making enough money to have a good living.’ Right then and there I knew Mark wasn’t taking her anywhere, let alone taking her to the room. Her face was oozing with disgust. So she asked him, ‘How much did you pay to stay here?’ and Mark responded, ‘About three thousand dollars.’ Julie said, ‘And you don’t think I get a cut out of that?’ Her smirk put the conversation into an awkward silence. I then decided to take the microphone into my own hands.”

“Haha, that’s just great.”

        “During the back and forth interactions, it made me realize two things: one, my friend wasn’t getting laid that night, and two, this girl knew something about life that I wanted to be a part of. I mean, she seemed to just get it, you know. Long story short, my friend left, and I ended up hooking up with this girl and staying an extra weekend.”

“Haha! Your friend must have felt stupid.”

The Crash of Black Monday



        Rich’s dragging return to Wall Street left skid marks on the crosswalks with his beat-up penny loafers. The smoke from the burning of his shoe soles was polluting his airways with depression. Every trade and profit gain for other shareholders put him more in the negative as he traded a percentage of his soul with each stock transaction. Rich didn’t want to be a bag holder any longer and only knew one way to sell his stock. That’s when he decided to leave Wall Street.

        “The first day back, within like ten minutes, I walked into my boss’s office and gave him my thirty days’ notice.” Naive to the market ups and downs, Rich somehow made the right decision because thirty days later one of the biggest stock market crashes in history occurred: Black Monday. The crash began in Hong Kong and spread west to Europe, hitting the United States after other markets had already declined by a significant margin. It seemed that his intuition was giving him an inside tip.

        During the thirty days’ notice, he decided to catch up with Julie and opened up his mind to absorb her free-spirited attitude. They discussed the beauty of experiencing different parts of the world and how uplifting it can be.

          “Julie suggested I should move to Lake Tahoe, California, to experience an entirely different culture. So I went, and I decided to pick up cross-country skiing, so I could teach people how to ski—without a clue on how to ski!”

        “Wait. So now you’re going to get a job as a ski instructor? You’re going to leave Wall Street to show people how to ski?” I was baffled.

        “I mean, I didn’t know how to ski, but it just sounded wonderful to do something different! I decided I was going to teach people how to ski. I could meet all different kinds of people and make their day brighter.” He hadn’t been this excited for years and was ready to hit some new highs and lows in the ski-sloped mountains of Lake Tahoe.

        “So I get there, and after the first few days, I already didn’t want to leave. I mean, when people go away for vacation, they never want to leave, but this was different: I wanted to make a living out there, away from the noise. I skied in the morning, went back to the car, ate lunch, went back out to ski, and slept in the car. I was totally isolated.”

        “That’s just fucking crazy. You slept in your car? Outside in the snow?”

        “Yup, but eventually I had to lodge somewhere. That’s when I met the instructors, and a few ski sessions later, I had a job! Haha!”

         Finally being able to hear his own thoughts, the stillness and quiet times spent dashing in the snow made him grasp the luxury of having peace of mind. Speaking with others who had lived in the mountains for years opened up his mind to the realization that there is more out there to life.

        He skied for fifteen years, swooshing snow angels that kept him flying through the high mountains of Lake Tahoe. He met a multitude of people from all parts of the world and shared more smiles of fulfillment each time he instructed another person, looking to enhance their stay. He lived in a studio apartment with nothing but a bed, climate control, and a pair of skis. For Rich, this was the life he was searching for.

        So here’s a man from the hard streets of New Jersey, leaving his stock shares in the NYSE that equated to more than six figures, moving across the country and becoming a cross-country ski instructor. He left a place in life that most people dream of, but this wasn’t the dream that Rich was seeking. Rich had his eyes on the bigger picture of life, and that’s to live freely.

Back to the East Coast



        I felt like I’d walked miles in this man’s shoes, and we’d only walked eight blocks down Franklin Ave. After waving to almost every driver in town who honked at him, we got to the Nutley Diner, where every single employee greeted this man as if he was prophecy. The respect and happiness he brings into a room is more than blissful, as he put more smiles on people’s faces than the pope himself. I’m humbled by his essence.

        The hostess sat us down in a booth comfy enough for us to pick up our conversation where we left off. “Would you like some coffee? Water?”

        “Yeah, that sounds good. I’ll take both,” Rich happily responded.

         “Same for me,” I responded quickly, eager to hear the rest of his story.

        “So, where were we? Oh, yeah, I get back to New Jersey, and that’s when things really started to fall apart for me.” Snowballing his positive attitude through the slopes, his life took a tragic stumble when he came back to the East Coast. During his six-month visit was when he was suddenly diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. He went from walking on Wall Street, to ski instructing tourists in the mountains of Lake Tahoe, to sadly rolling in a wheelchair back on the bumpy roads of New Jersey.

        “First they had me on a cane, but because the cane couldn’t hold me up, I ended up breaking my foot. So, then they had put me in a wheelchair.”

        In 2006, his disease took over his life. He crumbled into a depression where his immediate family left him      crawling in the dirt, for the fact that they wanted nothing to do with his life, putting him at an all-time low. What was he going to do with himself? He was fifteen years away from crunching numbers and physically incapable of doing any outdoor activity. Rich had emotionally crashed inside and felt emptier than the crash of Black Monday.

        “I was barely able to make a cup of coffee on my own. I lost nearly all the strength in my legs and my feet and not being able to touch the ground for six months. There was almost nothing for me to look forward to—and then my father died . . .” I was speechless after he told me this tragic mishap. I could hear every fork and knife clank against all the customers’ plates as we stared into our empty table.

         “Here you go guys, two coffees and two waters. Are you ready to order?”

        “Uuhhhh, not yet. We haven’t even looked at the menu yet!” Rich replied.

        “Haha, yeah sorry about that; we got a little caught up,” I said. The waitress nodded her head and walked away to take care of other customers.

        “Anyway. So your next book is done! How’s that going?” Rich changed the subject; I’m guessing to lighten up our conversation a bit. But I’ll save you the boredom and skip the small talk.

        “Yeah I . . .”

Happy Chasing Happy on Amazon (click link or image to view)


Now back to our regular programming. . .

        He rambled faster than a man hyped up on caffeine, yet he had barely even touched his coffee. “The chaos inside my head was pacing back and forth like a caged tiger, repeating to myself, what’s my life gonna be like? I haven’t touched a computer in twenty years! I had worked so hard to get out of the mental work and get into physical work, and now my body is falling apart! How am I going to afford this, and afford that?”

         “Damn, you must have been going fucking nuts!”

         Luckily, the emptiness was filled with hope. “My only friend left in town (Joe Iorio) was a fireman in Nutley, so I reached out. He and his wife (Linda) literally just took me under their wing. They would bring me food to the hospital, and when I was released, they let me live with them.”

        “Wow. That was super nice of them to do that for you.”

         “Yeah, for sure. I wasn’t the best guest, but after a few weeks of me complaining, one day I woke up and said, ‘I CAN’T LIVE LIKE THIS ANYMORE.’ I knew I had to do something. So I picked a destination, and every day I would get up and walk to those destinations. I chose churches. I walked to every church in town, sat for a few minutes, got up, and walked to the next church. You know, it took me a while to walk because I was in a walker—obviously—but that pretty much took up most of my day. And I was happy with that.” During this time, Rich was only concerned with changing his emotions, trying his best to be optimistic about his situation. All he wanted was to be happy, and at this time, walking was happiness.

        “Damn, dude, that was great you finally found someone who supported you. I mean, especially after being in California all that time.”

        “Yeah, I mean, luckily there were good people left in my life. Because of them, it helped me realize that this disability was a gift.”

        Our conversation paused for a few seconds. The brief silence condensed some tears in my eyes, and the clogging in my throat wouldn’t let a smidgen of saliva pass by. His touching story had sucked me in so that I even forgot I was sitting at the diner.

“You guys want some more coffee? Oh, actually, want me to give you guys a new one?” The waitress realized that in the half hour we’d been there, our coffee cups had lost their steam and were colder than chilled grapefruit.

        We both giggled to break up the emotional waterfall that almost spewed from my tear ducts. “Yeah, we’ll take some new coffees.”

        “Okay, but are you guys ready to order?”

Walking Happy


        Through the turbulence inside Rich’s mind, it was troubling for him to land his plane on solid ground. But once he looked at his disability as an actual gift, his foundation was finally settled. He was able to plant new seeds in fresh soil and began cultivating a new life form—not only for him, but he was also willing to share the crops being grown with others in need.

        “After realizing that this was an actual gift, that my issue wasn’t even close to bad, is when things really turned around for me. I mean, my past life, working on Wall Street, living in California, really set me up for where I am now.”

        “How’s that? Did you put money away? How was your lifestyle in California?”

        “I have more than enough money through my disability to pay rent. When I was living in California, I was basically in solitary confinement. I wanted zero attachments. Currently, I own a mattress, a walker, and a flip phone; my electricity bill is nine dollars a month. I mean, how much luckier of a guy can I be? Oh, and I have a rocking chair.”

        “Wow . . .”

         “You know, everyone always wishes they could walk around the streets and just talk to people to help brighten their day, and I have the luxury of doing that. I mean, who doesn’t wanna sit and chat with an old lady? I mean, I had to do something, and at first it was out of embarrassment, and then I realized that THIS IS doing something. While everyone has to work, I can do the things that no one can afford to do.”

        “You probably have the best job in the world, man.” I sat there in awe listening to how his normal days played out, and once I thought I couldn’t be any more amazed . . .

        “I mean, anything I could do. I’m involved with the churches I walked to over the years, and I volunteer with all charity events. I just walk around and greet people, make a connection, and make them laugh. I mean, that’s all we really need in life—a good laugh. If you want to experience the true joy of human connection, you should come meet me there one Saturday. It will change your life.”

        “I sure will.”

        Walking a day in this man’s shoes changed my life. Living with minimal attachments and without the materialism our culture craves strengthened him to basically live with nothing. The path he had taken was, in retrospect, for his current stature—not only overcoming his disability but using it to an advantage to make the world a better place, one step at a time. Looking at all the luxuries I had in my pocket and Rich with basically with nothing but rolls of lint opened my eyes to the bigger picture here: his roll of lint was more valuable than anything I owned, worked for, or earned. This moment was humbling, to say the least. This man’s story had ripped a black scab off my chest and opened up my heart to a new flow of life: simplicity is happiness.

        “Guys! Are you ready to order?”


Happy Chasing Happy on Amazon

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