Even on the outdoor patio of Ybor City's Cuban Club, the smoke hung like fog. It was a cigar festival, after all, and hundreds were puffing on stogies. Among the few not partaking were Dick Greco — the former four-time mayor of Tampa — and me. He was there supporting his wife, whose medical practice was a sponsor. I wrote for Cigar City Magazine, another sponsor. Neither of us are smokers. So Greco and I huddled under a tent filled with fans, caring more about breathing fresh air than cooling off.
Then, she entered the patio.
Greco and I rushed into the open so we could better gaze upon her. Blonde hair, piercing blue eyes, a yellow sundress that perfectly accentuated her hourglass figure. I get chills thinking about that moment.
As I remember it, the sea of men parted as she walked through, their mouths agape. To this day, I cannot decide if the appropriate music would have been angels singing or Oh Yeah by Yello.
Greco had long joked that he would find me a wife, so with a nudge of his elbow, he said to me, "There you go. There is your future wife. Go get her."
So I did.
Later that day — around 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 2, 2010 — I proposed to Amy DeReu.
Today, she is Amy Guzzo. We have four kids and a loving, hectic, exhausting, beautiful life together.
I owe it to Greco's words. But not the ones he uttered that day.
• • •
Sitting on the top shelf of my bedroom closet is a dusty binder filled with 192 single-spaced pages about Greco's life. His memoir, written by me.
Why hasn't it been published yet? You'd have to ask Greco. Do I care that it hasn't been published yet? No matter what, writing it changed my life.
For more than a year, we met every Saturday morning at his house. He always had a bowl of granola and fruit waiting for me, along with hours of stories. (And whenever his health-conscious wife was gone, we'd go out for bacon — Shhh.) My friends called it my "Saturdays with Greco," a reference to the book Tuesdays with Morrie. In a way, they were spot-on with the comparison.
We never had one-way conversations. He'd always start our interview sessions by asking about me. My answers acted as a segue into his life.
Once, he wanted to know why I was single. I said I didn't want to date just any woman. If I did, I may miss out on the right woman.
But I did wonder if I would ever meet the right one, to which he responded that I'd instantly know when I did and then launched into the tale of how he met Linda McClintock, his third and current wife.
It was at a Christmas party in 1994. They parked their cars at the same time. As they shared an elevator to the party, Greco asked if it was her dad or husband who had bought her such a nice car.
"I'm a doctor," she said, annoyed. "I take care of myself just fine." She then asked, "And what do you do for a living?"
"I'm Dick Greco. I'm thinking of running for public office," he said, assuming she'd recognize his name from the recent news stories that wondered if the man who had served as mayor of Tampa from 1967 to 1974 would make another go of it.
"Oh, what office, dog catcher?" she replied with a crooked smile and walked off the elevator.
Greco chased after her. There was a spark in their short conversation, he said, and he wouldn't let her get away. They talked all night.
And the next day, when he was on a previously planned date with another woman, he slipped away to find a pay phone to call his future wife.
When you meet the right one, he told me, do not hesitate. Go after her.
• • •
I met Amy in 2010.
I was a ripped-jeans-and-wrinkled-shirt-wearing, long-goat-beard-growing, flip-flops-and-tie-dye-beanie-loving, going-out-seven-days-a-week 34-year-old. Amy was a 30-year-old single mother of two who had lost both parents as a child and put herself through college.
Look up "responsibility" in the dictionary and you'll find a photo of her with the definition. If you had looked up "irresponsibility," you wouldn't have found a picture of me, because I would've forgotten to mail one to the publisher.
We were so different that her best friend was my roommate's longtime girlfriend, yet it never had crossed anyone's mind to introduce us, let alone set us up.
Then Amy joined the co-ed softball team I was on with a group of friends.
She was stunningly beautiful but did not seem my type at all. I had never been attracted to the blond bombshell type. She thought I was a weirdo. (Actually, she still does. But she also thinks the Beverly Hills, 90210 reboot was quality television. So her opinions are usually wrong.)
Anyway, after each game, the team would hit the nearby bar. For the first two weeks, Amy and I didn't say a word to one another.
Then, on Week 3, she overheard me telling a friend that I was excited to turn 35 in a few months because it meant I could finally run for president.
"No, it means you're creepy," she yelled across the table, laughing. "I find any man older than 35 who has never at least been engaged to be creepy."
Without missing a beat, I replied, "Good thing I'd never date you anyway."
She scooted her chair to my side of the table. We talked for two hours without acknowledging anyone else in the room. I'd never clicked with anyone so well.
When I went home that night, I remembered what Greco had told me. I chased her — hard. I called. Emailed. Texted. Facebooked. I did everything but connect our homes with soup-can phones and stand outside her bedroom window with a boom box blaring In Your Eyes.
We kissed for the first time a few weeks after that bar conversation, and she pulled away to acknowledge the chemistry we both felt. "Oh boy," she said, "we're in trouble, aren't we?"
I bought an engagement ring two months later.
Still, I was scared. I couldn't help but think, "What if I am wrong? What if she is not the one?"
• • •
Everything you'd ever want to know about the man who has his own statue is in that binder in my closet: Greco's days as a young boy running around Ybor City, his real connection to Tampa's mafia that is not as exciting as the rumors, all he accomplished as mayor and, yes, his days as one of Tampa's most sought-after bachelors who rarely met a beautiful woman he didn't date.
But what I remember most is why he proposed to his wife, Linda.
Even the ever-confident Greco had doubts.
Being married to a politician is tough, he'd tell me. Late nights, constant requests for help, always some sort of event to attend. It can quickly create a divide between a couple.
Their relationship blossomed during the mayoral election, so their dates typically involved events where he needed to shake hands, kiss babies and court votes. A pack of supporters would often sweep him away from Linda for extended periods to debate issues and campaign strategies.
And whenever he would then search for Linda, worried she'd be angry at him for leaving her, he'd find her happily engaged in conversation with people she'd just met.
It's rare to find anyone with such strong social independence and the ability to talk to anyone about anything, Greco told me.
That's how he knew she was the right one.
• • •
I'd told Greco about Amy for months before they met at that cigar festival. I'd mentioned she was beautiful, but I guess he had thought my description was overblown. So when she walked through that crowd of smokers and laid a kiss on me, even the verbose Greco was at a loss for words.
The three of us made small talk, and then I was whisked away for more than an hour of conversations with readers about story ideas. When I realized how much time had passed, I rushed around the Cuban Club in search of Amy, practicing my apology for being so ignorant.
I found her in one of the stairwells, in a conversation about marketing strategies with two attorneys, a politician and a doctor. I apologized for leaving her, but she brushed off the infraction. "I'm fine," she said. "I can take care of myself."
I remembered Greco's tale.
I proposed hours later. We'd been dating less than six months.
She said yes, and just under the wire — 18 days later, I would turn 35.
• • •
We found out Amy was pregnant in early December 2010, fittingly on the first day Greco officially hit the campaign trail to try to become mayor for the fifth time.
We agreed to tell only our immediate families. But I also told Greco.
He postponed his next meeting to talk with me for another 15 minutes about fatherhood.
• • •
The night then-City Councilman Greco and his first wife, Dana, agreed he would run for mayor in 1967, his oldest son, Dick Jr., cried.
"Daddy, I know you're going to win and I'm never going to see you again," Greco remembered his son telling him.
This passage from his unpublished memoirs sticks with me.
"He reminded me of all the times I had to cancel a fishing trip with him because I had something to deal with as a councilman. They had a problem in their neighborhood they wanted me to look at. Or maybe a meeting went long. When I was on council, there was always something keeping me out of the house. I promised him it wouldn't happen anymore."
• • •
When Greco conceded the 2011 mayoral election at Higgins Hall, I wept.
He had become more than a subject of a book. He was my friend, a close one.
As I stood in line with all of Greco's supporters, I went over and over what I would say. I planned to congratulate him on running a hard and honest election. Instead, when it was my turn, tears streamed down my cheeks and I managed to choke out, "I love you, sir. You're a good man."
To this day, I have no idea if he heard what I said.
But he smiled, clasped my hand between his two, and said, "Why are you still here? Don't you have a beautiful wife waiting for you?"
Contact Paul Guzzo at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3320. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.