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What I Say About Frank Gruber

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Personal Column

By Frank Gruber

There's a Jewish proverb along the lines that if you assume the person next to you is the Messiah, you'll probably do the right thing.

There's another bit of Jewish lore about a rabbi who travels to Rome where he finds the Messiah, in rags, begging outside the gates. The rabbi chastises the Messiah: "With all this suffering in the world, what have you been waiting for? The Messiah answers back, "With all this suffering in the world, what have you been waiting for?"

That last line is all the topical commentary I'll do this week. What I want to write about is the idea common to both proverb and story that if you're looking for the Messiah, don't look in the likely places.

What this idea means to me is that to find the Messiah we must look, paradoxically, inside ourselves to find those complications that make us human: frailties and flaws and the good we do; our struggles with conflicting purposes.

This column is about a friend of mine, Matis Marcus, who died last month. No, there were no strange occurrences when Mat breathed his last. But of everyone I've met in my life, if I had to choose one who had the complicated humanity that to me is the most messianic, the one would be Mat.

I met Mat in my capacity as an entertainment lawyer. In 1990 his life became front-page news in Las Vegas and there was interest in turning his story into a movie. Mat found me to represent him. He was a client, but I can write about him because nearly everything I know about him that would be privileged is public knowledge.

Mat was a bookie. In the 1970's he ran illegal books in L.A. and in San Diego. It was a career that came naturally to Mat -- his uncle was a bookmaker back in New Jersey.

Mat came straight out of Damon Runyon: 300 or 350 pounds, a gravelly voice, always smoking, cracking wise. Think Nicely Nicely Johnson from "Guys and Dolls."

In the 1980's Mat switched sides. He went to work for the I.R.S., running a sting bookmaking operation in Las Vegas intended to catch tax cheats. When this operation came to a close, Mat established another "store" under the auspices of the Nevada Gaming Control Board. In 1990, someone tipped off a columnist for a Las Vegas newspaper, who thought it questionable that the Board should be allowing an "illegal book" to operate.

Although the three Gaming Board agents who ran the operation tried to shield Mat's identity, a mock raid and arrest they staged was exposed, and Mat fled Las Vegas. The Chairman of the Gaming Board, contradicting the agents, denied knowing of the operation, and a grand jury indicted Mat on two felony gambling counts. The columnist and others vilified Mat as a snitch.

Mat, who considered himself a government agent, not an informer, was out on a limb. He ultimately resolved his issues with the government by pleading guilty to reduced charges. He was sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to stay out of Nevada. He resolved his issues with anyone he might have gathered information against by making a deal with famed "mob attorney" (and now mayor of Las Vegas) Oscar Goodman to testify that he didn't have warrants when he did so.

Studios optioned Mat's story twice, and a script was written, but the movie was never produced. It was hard to know whether the story was drama or comedy. In recent years Mat and I, along with a director, worked on a script and, who knows, maybe it will be produced.

But all of this is peripheral when it comes to understanding, and appreciating Mat. What Mat was, more than anything else, was an alcoholic -- something that was not important to the public, but which he announced to a group of people nearly every day for 22 years.

In other words, Mat was in Alcoholics Anonymous.

I bring this up because in the "there but for the grace" department, those of us who have a reasonable grip on the world tend to minimize how difficult life is for those who don't. Mat's life, his identity, his purpose, for 22 years was to stay sober. Sobriety was the end; everything else was the means.

But sobriety also gave Mat a purpose. In A.A., the way to stay sober is to help others stay sober. As Mat moved around the country in the years after Las Vegas making a tenuous living setting up telemarketing rooms (a skill he learned from his bookmaking days), he became a sponsor to other alcoholics trying to stay sober.

Like all the rest of us unlikely messiahs, Mat was flawed, and not only because of the moral and legal ambiguity of his career choices. Before he entered A.A., Mat fathered two sons, twins, and then Mat and their mother divorced. Mat was a very absent father. One son, the less angry and more curious one, came to the memorial service Mat's friends held for him a couple weeks ago at Jerry's Deli in the Marina.

One of the alcoholics Mat sponsored attempted to explain to the son that perhaps Mat was unable to make amends to him directly, and that he could make amends to him and his brother only through others, like him, who became Mat's spiritual sons through A.A.

Mat came to know himself well, another important sign of humanity. He told me that he fell madly in love with the woman who became his third wife the first time he met her. She was incapacitated in a hotel in Las Vegas and had called A.A. for help. A.A. sent Mat. Mat was smitten; she was perfect for him, he told me, a "blonde, alcoholic, drug-addicted hooker."

Alcoholism was the only addiction Mat could handle. He couldn't stop eating and smoking, and at 350 pounds he had high blood pressure and he needed one of those sleep apnea breathing machines. In his last few years he lived in a $235 per week motel in Inglewood. He could make $7 an hour playing poker, and occasionally he had some telemarketing work. He went to A.A. everyday.

There was a thin line -- his sobriety -- between Mat and homelessness, but he was always dignified even when his socks had holes in them. His life had a purpose.

Last year Mat was diagnosed with cancer, for the second time. Six rounds of chemo didn't get rid of it. His doctor was planning a final assault when Mat's cardiovascular problems caught up with him.

The day before Mat died, his doctor was trying to get him into a hospice. He wanted to spare Mat pain and misery. A social worker met with Mat, two A.A. friends, and me, to explain to Mat what was going on. There were papers to sign.

Mat was weak, but aware. The final paper was a "do not resuscitate" (D.N.R.) order; the social worker explained that in practice what a D.N.R. meant was that if Mat lost consciousness at the hospice, they would do everything they could to revive him, but they would not call paramedics to take him to a hospital.

In theory, the choice was Mat's, but the essence of hospice care is the D.N.R. To enter a hospice is to admit something we spend our lives trying not to think about.

The form was in front of Mat -- a contract, and he turned to me, his lawyer, for advice. I told him that I, personally, would sign.

"Can we avoid this?" he said.

"Can we avoid this?"

Now there's a question. Mat's life was not an easy one. The hand he was dealt wasn't so good and he hadn't always played it well. His body was infested with tumors and he could hardly breathe. Yet Mat wanted not to be done yet with life. He had more to do.

How human; how messianic.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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