Dan Gregas always lives in the moment.
The 65-year-old Hyattsville grandfather celebrates life whenever and wherever he is. I first met him a dozen years ago on a fishing boat in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. There he was, cavorting from stem to stern with a gizmo on his shiny smooth dome that was shaped like a fire hydrant. Attached was a little umbrella.
"It protects me from the sun," Gregas said with an impish grin, by that time frightening human and marine life.
"Then who's going to protect us from you?" teased one of the anglers. On that note, Gregas burst into a guttural laugh that sounded like a cranky old truck turning over on a wintry Montana morning.
Gregas, an employee of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, keeps a busy schedule. Since 1972, he has played tenor saxophone in the Washington Redskins band.
At home games, the television camera frequently goes to a tight shot of the musicians. The guy with the cherubic face is Gregas, blowing his heart out. I suspect that if the camera zoomed in close enough, he would pull his lips off the reed long enough to plant a wet kiss on the lens.
Like the high-priced athletes, Gregas said he has to prove himself worthy to be a member of the famous group. Each winter following the completion of another season, the band begins tuning up for the upcoming season. Everyone must audition. "You've got to learn three to five songs by memory, or you're out," he said. "And the drills change from year to year."
But Gregas's busy schedule doesn't stop him from reaching out and adding purpose and meaning to life.
For years, he has budgeted time to visit several nursing homes in Prince George's County, where, at no charge, he takes his musical skills and brings joy to the lives of many of the residents.
One recent Monday evening, after a long day at his downtown office, he rushed home to prepare for his performance. This gives him something like the adrenaline rush Darrell Green must get when he makes an interception and gallops in for the touchdown.
He loaded up the trunk of his Chevy Caprice with a CD player and a stack of CDs from his personal collection worth thousands of dollars. He then drove the short distance to Sacred Heart Home, an intermediate care facility on Queen's Chapel Road in Hyattsville. The facility, built in 1926, is operated by the Sister Servants of Mary Immaculate, a Roman Catholic order of nuns based in Poland.
He deposited his equipment on a dolly and took the elevator one floor down to the social hall. He said not a word -- a difficult task for such a gabby soul -- but went straight to his work. For the next 15 minutes, he put things in place, arranged the music and tested the microphone. Throughout what must be a tiring exercise, he wore a smile as long as FedEx Field.
"Music with Dan the Saxophone Man will begin in the social hall at 7," came the voice over the loudspeaker. It was 6:50; already, six women had skipped television and settled in for the live, one-man concert.
Elvira Dunay, 72, was in the front row, brimming with anticipation. "I've lived here [at Sacred Heart] for five years and I never miss him," she declared, within earshot of Gregas. "He is fabulous. He plays rock-and-roll, popular, a little bit of everything." On that note, Gregas stopped what he was doing, sidled over to his admirer, leaned over and kissed her. Dunay loved it.
By 7 p.m., a dozen more residents entered the room. Some were in wheelchairs or used walkers. A few even arrived in beds on wheels. The room remained quiet as the maestro double-checked his sound level. After adjusting the white bandanna wrapped around his head, it was showtime.
Blowing on the mouthpiece and moving his fingers over the keys produced a mournful wail before the attentive group. Gregas began bridging the generations musically. His repertoire included classics from the 1950s and '60s, such as "At the Hop" by Danny and the Juniors and Dean Martin's "Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime," all the way to "Even the Nights Are Better," a late '70s hit by Air Supply. Along the way, he was peppered with requests for Elvis standards such as "Return to Sender" and Louis Armstrong's "It's a Wonderful World."
But it's not all sax. Dan also sings, and does a decent job hitting the low notes and the high notes. The recorded music he brings along, he said, is instrumental accompaniment that contains no vocals or saxophones. This is his show, after all.
"Wasn't that nice?" he asked after the first set, wiping the sweat from his face. "Are you enjoying it? Say yes, make me feel good." It's not Ozfest or the thrill of watching a come-from-behind win by the Redskins, but he gets a solid round of applause. The performer received the positive vibe he asked for. It's a safe bet that soaring spirits caused blood pressure in the room to plummet to normal levels during the show.
Sister Vacha Kludziak, the facility's administrator, remarked that "music is the most appropriate and most therapeutic activity for most residents." Gregas, she added, "engages himself so fully as a person. It's not only an exhibition of his [musical] skills."
Typically, the crowd pesters Gregas to stay a few minutes beyond his alloted hour. He always agrees.
He likes to lace his performance with stories about his wife of 41 years, a cashier at the Safeway in Laurel. Or he might drop a comment about how much he's counting on new Redskins head coach Steve Spurrier to bring a winning tradition back to the nation's capital. And he spoke in glowing terms about his two grandchildren in Florida.
Resident Joan Linthicum, 55, is another huge fan. She said she's at every show Gregas puts on at Sacred Heart. "He's just terrific," she said. "He knows just where to put the notes. I like all of the old songs and some of the polkas." A decade ago, Linthicum was in a car accident that left her blind. When she's "down in the dumps," listening to Gregas helps bolster her mood.
Gregas ended his show by singing a ditty he wrote called "Your Smile." The crowd broke into applause.
"Thank you, thank you," he said, taking a moment to regain his balance after an hour and 15 minutes spent swaying to and fro. "I'll see you next time."
While carefully packing his equipment, Gregas said he has been playing music since he was 12 years old in his hardscrabble hometown of Shenandoah, Pa. Tommy Dorsey, the legendary bandleader, was also a native, he said. "He taught in our high school. The family lived two blocks away from me. His mother was Lithuanian, and his father was Irish. Tommy Dorsey's buried in the Irish cemetery."
When he had his own band, "The Velvets," Gregas said he played for legendary radio personality Arthur Godfrey at his Leesburg farm and at American Legion halls, country clubs and embassies. What makes music exciting, he said, is "the rhythm, beat and melody. It lifts you up. Not everybody likes every song I play."
Gregas donates his time, he explained, because it's his way of bringing a ray of light to people who may be suffering from Alzheimer's or from some form of dementia. For him, the ultimate compliment is when his audience wants more of him.
"When the fans don't want me to go and the head nun says she needs to lock the doors to the hall, it makes me feel so good."