Phoenix resident Greta Rogers, in a public meeting Dec. 12, 2018, lit into council members over a proposal to spend $150M to help renovate the Suns’ arena.
Phoenix City Council
The aging queen puffed her inhaler, took a deep breath and stepped into her chambers.
“All rise,” a Phoenix city employee named Mike Jankowski said when he spotted her through the double doors. He stood in playful reverence, making sure everybody knew who had just arrived: “Greta’s here.”
Half the room turned to look, and in shuffled 89-year-old Greta Rogers, Phoenix’s most famous critic and the newly crowned Queen of NBA Twitter. She carried a silver cane and two decades of righteous outrage. Once inside, she leaned her 110-pound frame onto the cane and paused to catch her breath, scanning the commotion from behind a pair of sunglasses.
“Hi, all,” she said.
The room stirred, as if everybody had been awaiting her arrival. A woman in a pencil skirt brought her the agenda for that day’s City Council meeting. Two cops broke their conversation to welcome her back. Somebody carried over Greta’s usual hard-backed chair, and Jankowski came to usher her toward the back row.
“Do you need a card, Greta?” he asked as she sat down. Behind her waited a stack of comment cards, for citizens who wanted to speak before the council. Each card gave the speaker two minutes with the microphone. “Want me to bring you one?” he asked.
“I’m going to need a bunch of them,” she said. “I need a lot of time.”
He shook his head and slid off five cards.
“It’s all about you, Greta,” he said.
It seemed like she was the only one who didn’t notice. Three months earlier, Greta became a local celebrity after her diatribe against the city’s proposal to renovate the Phoenix Suns’ downtown arena went viral. Hundreds of thousands of people watched her spit scorn at the City Council and Suns owner Robert Sarver, whose legacy in Phoenix will forever include Greta’s most famous line: “He’s so tight, he squeaks when he walks.”
All at once, the woman who didn’t want attention gained a legion of fans. Phoenix Woman Dunks On Suns Owner Robert Sarver At City Council Meeting, read a Deadspin headline. She hit CNN and the Washington Post, and an ESPN video about her drew 350,000 viewers. Success-starved Suns fans pointed out that the team won four straight games after her rant. ESPN host Rachel Nichols declared her the new Queen of NBA Twitter. At the next council meeting, somebody asked her for a selfie. She played a bit part in Daniel Valenzuela’s losing campaign for mayor.
‘They can’t get rid of me’
Greta seemed to come from nowhere. But she’d been there all along.
“I’m just glad the rest of America caught up to what we’ve been lucky enough to have in Phoenix for a long time,” said Rep. Greg Stanton, the former Phoenix mayor who started his political career by representing Greta’s district on the City Council. “And that is the Greta Show.”
By the time anybody outside the wood-paneled council chambers noticed, the Greta Show was in its third decade. A council spokesman guessed she’d taken the microphone more than a thousand times. Week after week she drove downtown and flexed her right to be heard, delivering speeches that dripped with research and contained no coat of sugar. She invented new insults and railed against what she called against “the exhibition of sublime ignorance by the City of Phoenix.”
Her job title depended on her mood. Most of the time, she called herself a “practicing citizen,” a well-informed believer in the fundamentals of democracy. But on the right day, she could drop a Greta-ism on herself.
“I’ve been like a flea,” she said. A smirk drew itself across her face. “They can’t get rid of me. A flea on the dog’s back.”
Now, in her 90th year, the queen was slowing down. The 17-mile drive from Ahwatukee seemed longer than it used to, and her daughters didn’t want her to drive, anyway. She noticed short-term memories going fuzzy. The asthma that first forced her to Phoenix, 45 years ago, still left her carrying an inhaler.
“I’ll probably hang it up within the next year,” she said.
But she wasn’t finished yet. There was so much left to say.
“We have Greta Rogers,” then-Mayor Thelda Williams announced from the dais. The Tuesday-afternoon policy session, the first in the city’s annual budgeting process, was 30 minutes old. The Greta Show was about to begin.
The room’s attention turned toward the last row. A man sitting next to Greta jumped from his seat and scurried away, so he didn’t get caught in whatever was coming next. A digital clock behind the council’s head was set to 6 minutes. Greta smoothed her handwritten notes and held a microphone close to her lips.
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“Thank you mayor and council. My name is Greta Rogers,” she said, in case anybody didn’t already know. She told the council they needed to buy new fire trucks, because an old firefighter friend told her the fleet was falling apart. That wasn’t entirely accurate, but Greta was already rolling, with a strong voice that didn’t match the frame it came from. She glared at the council, then checked her notes, then looked back up. “We are the city,” she crowed. “The city is not inanimate.”
There was a ding. Her six minutes were up.
“Thank you,” Williams said.
Greta didn’t stop. Either she didn’t hear the mayor, or she didn’t care. She turned to her third page of notes and kept going. “This is an emergency,” she said. “You have got to address it intelligently.”
“Thank you,” Williams tried again.
“You have an obligation to do that, to and for all of us,” Greta said. “And nothing less than that.”
“Thank you very much,” Williams said.
This time, Greta looked up.
“I’m not finished,” she said, and she kept on talking.
Three decades of the Greta Show
She just wants you to think. Yes, you. All of you. Look up from your phones and use your brains. It’s easy. Just watch her: Pushing 90, and she’s always reading, always analyzing, always sniffing for nonsense. She can sense when other people don’t know what they’re talking about, and when she does, there’s no room for niceties.
The Greta Show can start at any moment.
“This is total, irresponsible neglect,” she said after breakfast on a recent Tuesday. “And this is typical City of Phoenix.”
She sat in the living room of her Ahwatukee apartment, where she lives alone. Her tiny frame perched on the couch. Her bobbed hair was immaculate: A weekly shampoo and blow dry was one of the few regular activities she kept on her schedule. A landline phone rang in the kitchen. Greta let it go.
She covered her eyes with both hands, demonstrating what she saw as the city’s default position. “Everything’s fine,” she cooed, rising into the singsong voice she used when she thought other people were being ridiculous. She was tired of the city ignoring another massive problem. All she wanted was for somebody to take responsibility, and maybe plan a few years in advance.
“It’s BS, in caps,” she said, returning to her regular rasp. “Billboard-high.”
She slapped a hand against her corduroy-covered thigh. Little bits of dust poofed into the air.
“It drives me crazy.”
She was talking about potholes.
It tumbled out of her. One critique spilled into the next. She pulled out old standbys and invented new ones on the fly. Nothing was sacred. Nobody escaped her scrutiny. Before noon, she’d already drained a pot of coffee and rattled off at least two dozen things that drew her ire. First it was potholes. Then she moved on to Donald Trump, her daughter’s insistence that she carry a cell phone, the torturous chairs at the city council and, as always, Councilman Sal DiCiccio.
“He should’ve been a shoestring salesman,” Greta said, using an insult that probably made more sense when she was young. She sees him as the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with politics, comfortably elected and quicker to speak than to learn. That makes him the most frequent target of her rants, the inspiration for her snappiest new barbs and an easy scapegoat for her frustrations with the city.
DiCiccio called her “fantastic.”
“I love her. I think she’s fantastic. I know she’s been real critical of me,” DiCiccio said in an interview. “She is the boss. She’s part of my boss.”
Greta joined the city at his invitation, back in the winter of 1996. He spotted her at a meeting of the Ahwatukee Foothills Village Planning Committee, making a mental note as she excoriated a woman who complained about a javelina that kept eating her petunias. DiCiccio took her phone number, and a few months later, asked her to join the city’s Commission on Housing and Neighborhoods.
She declined. Other than real-estate license and a few school board meetings in Ohio, she had no relevant qualifications. But DiCiccio persisted. Eventually she offered him a deal: She’d try it for three months. By then, if she didn’t feel like she was making a difference, she’d quit.
She’s been pestering the city — and DiCiccio— ever since.
Civic engagement became Greta’s full-time job. She scoured budget proposals and read every line of city contracts that felt fishy. City leaders learned to answer her calls and sit through her meeting-stopping speeches, though they didn’t always listen.
“If someone’s constantly criticizing you, sooner or later, you tune out certain things,” DiCiccio said. “But at the end of the day, there are nuggets in there.”
Greta proved a citizen could spark change, but her influence was hard to measure. While on the commission, she helped the city win a federal grant to renovate a South Phoenix public housing project. DiCiccio credited her with helping to bring a senior center to Ahwatukee.
Her causes were nonpartisan and wide-ranging. Nothing escaped Greta’s eye.
“She cares about the city, she cares about the people of this city,” said Valenzuela, the former City Councilman. He met Greta shortly after he joined the council and talked frequently, discussing the future and his place in it. Greta was among the first people to suggest he run for mayor. He calls her a friend. “When you have someone who is that dialed in, who knows the issues as well as Greta does, and knows the history, she’s articulate and she’s passionate, you have to notice that.”
It was how she’d been raised. Greta grew up in Hudson, Ohio, where education was among her most prized possessions. Even now she lists her alma maters with pride. She tells everybody that she started at Laurel School, one of the best private high schools in the Midwest, then hit a trifecta of elite women’s colleges: Scripps in California, Carleton in Minnesota and Simmons, in Boston. She studied because she didn’t want to become a secretary, fetching coats and coffee for an office full of men. She wanted to do something with meaning.
That meaning was shifting when Greta entered the city’s orbit. Her daughters were all middle-aged women. She hadn’t been married since 1977, after her husband, Dick, lost his job and shot himself. She was nearing the end of her real-estate practice. Retirement loomed.
The city was in transition, too. Downtown was booming. In 2002, the city discussed dropping a football stadium into the heart of downtown. There were studies and debates and front-page news stories. Greta read them all, and noticed one key oversight: There wouldn’t be anywhere to park.
Somebody had to say it. So Greta drove downtown, checked into her first City Council meeting and waited her turn.
“What about parking?” she asked when her turn came, staring straight at then-Mayor Skip Rimsza. When no good answer came, Greta dropped the line that launched a thousand more: “I’ll tell you what you’re trying to do with this stadium,” she told them. “You’re trying to put Shaq’s foot in a size 10 shoe. And he wears a size 22.”
The council, she recalled, just stared back. But she swears she saw Rimsza turn to another council member and ask, “Who is that woman?”
Becoming the ‘Queen of NBA Twitter’
When the world learned who she was, almost two decades later, Greta had no way to know. How would she? By her own admission, she doesn’t watch the internet. Greta doesn’t own a computer or one of those “four-by-six electronic cards that you people carry around.” She’s reasonably certain she’s heard of Twitter, but good luck finding her on Facebook. Her only digital vice is the TV in her apartment, the flat screen stacked atop a box-set Zenith she bought during the Nixon administration, but it’s only for the news.
So she had never seen the video that made her a star.
“I don’t recall ever seeing it,” she said. “I don’t think I have.”
But she remembers all of it. Fame came last December, as the city negotiated a deal to renovate Talking Stick Resort Arena. Details leaked. Greta read them in the paper. She thought the $150 million giveaway was “Chicago-style politics,” one more example of the city giving away taxpayer’s money without asking what they thought.
Sharing thoughts was Greta’s specialty. So on Dec. 12, she drove herself downtown and walked into the chambers. The room was full. Greta’s usual seat was taken. She sat on the opposite side of the room and filled out a comment card, ready to release her rage. This time, she didn’t have any notes. She knew exactly what to say.
“We are not in the business of paying taxes to support private enterprise,” she said. “And especially not an entertainment enterprise. They can support themselves, or fail on their own lack of diligence.
“Don’t do this to us again.”
By now, she knew the rough outline of what happened next. The video hit Twitter, and within hours her speech was being watched around the world. A woman who wasn’t on the internet had found a way to own it, if only for a little bit.
But she didn’t know. She didn’t catch herself on the nightly news, and it wasn’t in any of the weekend papers. All she knew was that the little phone in her kitchen kept ringing, and that meant somebody was giving out her phone number, because hers wasn’t listed anymore. It hadn’t been for years.
Not since Dick died.
‘I’ll probably hang it up within the next year’
Last month, as Greta waited for another Tuesday-afternoon meeting, thoughts of the end crept into her head.
“I’m the last of the Mohicans,” she muttered.
All her real-estate friends are dead. A man she called a “close, intimate friend,” whose photo she still kept in her billfold, died a few years back. Two years ago, her daughter Georgia went to sleep and never woke up.
Greta is old enough to understand that life has to end. It doesn’t scare her. She already has a plan, dictated in specific terms to her daughters. There will be no service of any kind. None. No funeral, no wake, no mourning. All she wants is for her ashes to be carried back to Hudson and sprinkled behind their old house.
“I don’t want any part of me left in the vacuum of this state,” she said.
She’d been in the desert half her life, and still professed to regret it. Only her children and her asthma had kept her here.
The meeting started, and Greta played her part. She waited her turn and took the microphone. She complimented the city’s budget director on a job well done. The proposal had everything she wanted: More money for public safety, a boost in the parks budget, and enough money to repair a few roads. Then she held up that week’s Time Magazine, with a cover featuring a bright orange peach with a screaming mouth. It was a caricature of Donald Trump, but Greta thought it looked like Sal DiCiccio.
“I suggest you look at it,” she said, staring straight at her councilman.
He didn’t look up. As Greta spoke, DiCiccio scrolled through his phone. Later, he said he didn’t hear her.
When she finished, Greta handed over the microphone and sat back down. At the front of the room, council members exchanged nervous glances. Williams did her best to smile. Nobody said anything. The meeting moved on.
Greta packed her purse and headed out the door. There was nothing more she could do. She stepped outside and turned up Third Avenue, toward her car and a night to herself. Her city swirled around her. She stopped at a crosswalk and watched the cars pass by. Then she reached into her pocket, took a puff of her inhaler and kept moving.
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