GREENWICH -- In 1979, David Greenberger took a job in Boston, Mass., as the activities director in a 45-bed nursing home called The Duplex.
That year, in his native state of Pennsylvania, a major nuclear accident shook the facility on Three Mile Island, the cost of gas was 86 cents per gallon and Sony introduced its new portable stereo cassette player called the Walkman.
As activities director at the all-male nursing home, Greenberger interviewed residents and documented their responses for an in-house newsletter.
“I liked them as friends. We had bits of conversation, some dialogue,” he recalled. “I was interested in that, but I wasn’t sure where it was going.”
Greenberger had earned a degree in fine arts and had no interest in the documentary skills of a historian. Instead, he focused on the residents and their thoughts in their present state.
“What’s the best thing that ever happened to you?” he asked. “Did you ever have a broken heart? What is sleep?”
Greenberger gathered the responses and published them in a small, homemade magazine he called Duplex Planet.
He continued the practice long after he relocated to Greenwich in 1989 and he would eventually publish 187 issues of Duplex Planet over 30 years.
Greenberger estimated he interviewed 500 to 600 people during that time, his work published in an anthology and in illustrated form as a comic book. He also appeared on national radio programs and on television to talk about the people who became intertwined in his own life.
The New York Times described the work as modern-day versions of Chaucer.
Greenberger’s description is simpler.
“It’s about the common human experience of aging,” he said.
Among the most memorable interviews were his meetings with Johnny Colton, a boxer in the 1930s who went by the name Johnny Bang; and Henry Turner, who carved wooden figurines, many of which line the shelves of Greenberger’s living room.
“He would say things like, ‘Meet me at the Salvation Army for breakfast, Wednesday at 7 a.m.’” Greenberger recalled.
Perhaps his most popular collaboration was with Ernest Noyes Brookings, a Duplex home resident who was in his 80s when Greenberger convinced him to write poetry.
“Duplex Planet small monthly, has poems quotes and data/ Is read by local citizens and occupants of nursing homes,” wrote Brookings, who died in 1987. “All happy the group mutually sings/ One of the cars has no hubcaps.”
Brookings’ words translated well to recordings and, long after his death, would be used as lyrics for a musical soundtrack performed by bands like XTC and many others. The actual mouse trap used during the recording of a piece titled “Trapmouse” hangs in a glass frame on Greenberger’s wall.
Flanked by history, Greenberger is ready for the next phase of his career, showcasing his artwork and traveling across the country to lecture on art, the spoken word and that common human experience of aging.
“I’m open to collaborative possibilities,” he said.
Recent travels have combined monologues culled from interviews with elderly residents and a soundtrack performed by musicians hailing from the same region as the residents.
“Music can convey something different. With the music, something that was sad before can become triumphant,” Greenberger said.
Four recordings from his journeys have recently been released: “Never Give Up Study,” “Tell Me That Before,” ‘How I Became Uncertain” and “OH, PA.”
For more information, visit http://www.duplex