On a cold winter day in Eugene, Oregon, Uncle Ray was found by a woman searching for her missing cat. His body was wrapped in a tattered carpet that lay rolled up in a garage at the corner of Lawrence and Broadway. Officer Slim Carter was called to the scene and it seemed to him that Ray had probably been dead for a few days. Slim was a local cop that had a history of run-ins with Ray, sometimes arresting him for disorderly conduct. I was shocked by Ray’s death, even though he seemed to live purely on alcohol, coffee, and cigarettes. For a dozen years I thought he was an ancient and possibly immortal hobo.

I first laid eyes on Uncle Ray at the end of the summer of ‘76, when I was a boy of twelve and just arrived in Eugene to stay. He struck me as a grizzled old drunk from a television western that stumbled out of the tube and staggered into the real world. The sort of vagrant one might find in the margins of a Bukowski novel. He was sitting at a curb on Alder Street in front of the Homefried Truckstop on campus, next to a shopping cart stuffed with clothing and other items of unspeakable origin. If you’d asked me to guess Ray’s age I’d say he was born sometime between the Taft presidency and the year they started putting prizes in Cracker Jack boxes. I figured he was just north of sixty, with an extra decade of hard living in his back pocket. Truth is, Ray was only fifty-six years old that day. Maybe he was aging in dog years.

Uncle Ray at the Kiva in Scarborough Faire (1971)

Raymond Greig was born on July 18, 1920 in Bottineau, North Dakota. The first year of the Prohibition Era. He was raised, by all accounts, as a typical Dakota farm boy. When he grew up, he married a girl named Meryl. They had a kid. When America entered the war in 1942, Ray enlisted in the Army and served in the South Pacific. Those are the facts, but beneath the layers of truth lay a tapestry of tall tales and half-truths, woven by Ray’s tobacco-stained fingers. One such tale is the claim he served under the command of Eleanor Roosevelt, who apparently led the charge at Okinawa and drove the men into battle, crying out, “Follow me to victory!”


At some point during his service, Ray received a Dear John letter from his wife. When he was discharged in ‘46 he returned to the states a lonely and bitter man.

After his stint in the army, Ray stashed away the medals that Eleanor Roosevelt had pinned to his chest and drifted through post-war America, riding the rails and living the life of an itinerant worker. The iron tracks eventually led him to the rugged terrain of Oregon, where he found himself settling in Vanport, a city of transient laborers north of Portland that was built to house workers at the Kaiser Shipyards during wartime.

It was in Vanport that Ray witnessed a merciless force of nature that swept through the city like a vengeful god, leaving destruction and despair in its wake. It was a flood that swept through the city on the afternoon of May 30, 1948. In its wake, fifteen people were lost to the unforgiving waters, and by nightfall, the city lay submerged, its streets silent and its buildings swallowed by the murky depths, casting 17,500 souls adrift in a sea of despair, leaving them destitute and homeless.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, Ray found himself grappling with the harsh reality of a world that could change in the blink of an eye, a world where even the strongest foundations could be washed away in an instant. I imagine Ray wandering the streets of Portland like a ghostly vagabond, haunted by his own past. He was only twenty-eight years old, his face aged beyond his years, and marked by war and a life filled with loss and tragedy that shattered his world and washed away his hopes.

Uncle Ray had two guardian angels in Eugene—Hershel Bloom and Poppi Cottam. Hershel, a hippie street poet who worked at White Bird Clinic during the day and cooked omelettes at Lenny’s Nosh Bar at night, was the angel Clarence to Ray’s down-and-out George Bailey. He made sure Ray was always squared away, escorting him to the clinic for medical care when he was sick. Hershel also made sure Ray got paid, by helping him sort out his social security and veteran benefits.

Poppi, the proprietor of the Greek Taverna next to Lenny’s, was Ray’s other guardian. She made sure he never went hungry, serving him chicken and hot chocolate from the back door of her restaurant. Most of the time. When Ray showed up drunk, Poppi gave him a cup of black coffee and sent him away, with orders to come back when he was sober. He’d often tidy up the courtyard as a quid pro quo gesture and Poppi invited him to her house one year for Thanksgiving dinner. She said he was a perfect gentleman, dressed in his Sunday best, and he played chess and discussed politics with her husband.

Depending on who you asked, Uncle Ray was a sage, a mad saint, and a royal pain-in-the-ass. He was a divisive figure in town, frequently getting kicked out of places for bad behavior. Some people called the cops on him when he rummaged through their garbage cans looking for bottles while others showed him kindness by buying him beers or meals or sitting with him at the curb to soak up his stories. He had a gravelly voice, a mischievous grin, and tittered like an old coot. A couple of decades of college kids living on campus would give him their empty beer bottles, and sometimes let him to sleep in their frat houses after he snuck in to get out of the rain.

When he drank socially, Ray often told rambling but coherent autobiographical stories that gradually morphed into incoherent bearded gibberish. Other times, he’d make dad jokes—like the one he said one day while standing across the street from Max’s Tavern. “I’d like to get up on that roof so I could have a drink on the house, hee hee hee!” He certainly couldn’t have a drink inside, because he was on the permanent ban list. Ray was also notoriously misogynistic. My friend Anne tells me she realized he was a woman-hater when she heard him say, “behind every man on the street is a woman who pushed him there.”

And yet, my friend Debbie loved him. She’d bum smokes off Ray and sit with him at the curb and they would drink together and get wasted while he took her on what she describes as “an odyssey of rancor, philosophy, and nonsense.” He reminded Debbie of her father, a tragic alcoholic who was a smart man that could be “as charming and glamourous as Dean Martin” one moment and “as mean and frightening as Buffalo Bill” the next. Debbie felt honored that Uncle Ray shared his curb with her.

Ray died wearing two pair of pants, two shirts, a sweater, and a jacket. In his pockets were two wallets, three pens, a corn cob pipe, a tire gauge, and a hole punch—talismans of a personal mythology known only to Ray himself. On the middle finger of his left hand was the silver ring he always wore and a harmonica was clutched in his right fist. Possibly the same harmonica he was playing at the Truckstop when I first saw him almost twelve years before he died.

The most likely explanation for the cause of Uncle Ray’s death was exposure. There was no evidence of foul play. February of 1988 began with a cold snap, with four days of weather that dropped to the low to mid-twenties. By the fifth and sixth days the temperature had risen five degrees, gradually increasing to the low to mid-thirties. By the 10th, that garage may have well been a walk-in freezer. Uncle Ray likely wrapped himself in the carpet to get warmer.

Five days later, some three dozen people gathered on the steps of Poppi’s Greek Taverna (shuttered since December) to raise a glass to Uncle Ray and share stories. I arrived with a bouquet of wilted flowers I fished out of the dumpster behind the floral shop across the street. Just like Ray used to do on the regular. I spoke about the time I was a kid and competed with him for refundable empty bottles, which I cashed in for comic books and movies instead of booze, and imagined his crusty old spirit cussing me out one last time before he faded away . . . a faint echo of music coming from his transistor radio.