TRYON, N.C. - Don't let the slurred speech and the occasional drift of focus fool you. Reuben Greenberg is still as sharp as his famed tongue.

Charleston's former celebrity police chief had two or three strokes before his controversial departure in 2005.

'They got me retired,' he said recently from this sleepy little town at the North Carolina-South Carolina border. Tryon, population 1,760, is his home now.

'It's one of the safest towns in America,' he said.

Greenberg's more than 30-year career in law enforcement is finished.

He had been one of America's most sought-after police chiefs. Departments from around the globe looked to him for professional advice. He wrote a book on law enforcement, but now his consulting work is done.

You won't catch him on the streets here roller skating or bouncing on a horse's back. The old bones don't heal like they used to, he said.

A police scanner sits on his kitchen counter, but he doesn't listen to it anymore.

He hums to himself, sucks on strawberry candies or smacks a stick of cinnamon gum between his teeth, and spends much of his time sleeping next to a roaring fire with the Weather Channel's elevator music going in the background.

Except for a shabby brown teddy bear that sits in the sun on a couch in the corner of his bedroom and a nest of hornets outside the window, he is alone.

A note, 'Call Sarah every day,' is on the refrigerator door. His wife of 27 years is finishing her teaching career at Stall High School in North Charleston.

'She worries about me,' he said. 'She'll be up here in a few years.'

Greenberg, 64, is the oldest of six siblings. The couple has no children.

He lives 1,700 feet above sea level, in seclusion, near the top of a steep, winding road. From the giant living room window panels is a nature-painted view of the misty foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

One of the panels opens to a deck from which he can lounge in his hammock, watch the sunset and listen to a symphony of twittering birds and the harmony of his wind chimes.

'No no-see-ums and no skeeters,' he said.

Retirement has been good for Greenberg. He looks 10 years younger. He has a natural, relaxed and nearly constant smile, and his blood pressure is under control.

'I don't get angry anymore,' he said. 'I'm happy.'

Coming to Charleston

From the beginning, he was different. One, he was black. Two, he was Jewish.

In 1982, when he was working for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and he answered an ad in 'Police Chief' magazine for the top cop position in Charleston.

It was a difficult time for the Charleston Police Department. Chief John Conroy had committed suicide, and morale was low.

Black residents of the city were crying foul after several brutal incidents in which officers injured black teenagers, and there was racial tension between white and black police officers.

Greenberg says people probably thought that the arrival of a black chief meant the end for the Charleston Police Department, but he proved them wrong.

Officers received racial sensitivity training. Complaints of police brutality nearly ceased. He got tough on crime. He hired more police officers and increased their pay. He put more of them on horseback and on foot, especially in troubled areas such as the East Side. He targeted street-level drug dealers and their customers.

Crime dropped in big numbers, and Charleston became a model for law enforcement in America and in other parts of the world.

He was a hands-on chief who frequently was seen at crime scenes or directing traffic. He was known to come up on the two-way radio at all hours of the night.

He rode through the city on a horse or on roller skates. He dressed up as a leprechaun in an annual St. Patrick's Day parade.

His personality quickly emerged. He was quick-witted, straightforward, sassy and sometimes vulgar.

'They said I was going to piss people off, but I didn't care. To hell with that,' Greenberg said. 'I'm going to be scared to say something?'

Newspaper and television reporters from around the country interviewed him. He was in 'Newsweek' and on '60 Minutes,' and he appeared in a documentary about Jews and blacks in the South.

Most people in Tryon don't know the Greenberg who was chief.

Don Martello runs the Times Square hot dog stand, and he counts the former Charleston chief as a good friend. About twice a week, Greenberg stops by for a hot dog with mustard and chili, an old-fashioned bottle of ice-cold cream soda and a chat.

Martello didn't know the police chief who told it like he saw it and once told a reporter that he didn't give a rat's (expletive) what people thought of his policies.

'Everybody up here loves him,' Martello said. 'He's a gentleman. I wish I'd known him longer.'

Career-ender

On Aug. 7, 2005, a woman called 911 at 1:20 a.m. and reported an erratic driver in a police truck on S.C. Highway 61 in West Ashley. Greenberg heard the call on the police radio and realized it was him to whom the caller referred. He stopped in the middle of the road, turned on his blue lights, got out and approached her vehicle.

He tried to explain that he always drives that way - real slow - and that he wasn't drunk. She said that he banged his fist into the side of her vehicle. He says he did not.

A Charleston County sheriff's deputy later noted in a report that he saw knuckle prints on the car door but no damage. The woman did not press charges.

She didn't know that Greenberg had suffered as many as three strokes, that the condition twisted his tongue a little and might have made him sound intoxicated. She didn't know that his doctor had been asking him to retire for six months.

He has never talked about it before. Nobody asked, he said.

People had already started noticing his increasingly bizarre behavior. Some longtime acquaintances said he didn't recognize them.

Nine days after the incident on Highway 61, Greenberg retired. The city announced it was for medical reasons but gave no details, except that he had high blood pressure.

Later that fall, hundreds of people, including state politicians and law- enforcement officials, gathered at Gaillard Municipal Auditorium to honor his 23 years as chief. The city's municipal building on Lockwood Drive is named in his honor.

Greenberg still drives somewhat oddly.

On March 28, he took a Post and Courier reporter and a photographer on a five-hour tour of his new hometown and the surrounding area. He drives ... real ... slow. He watches the scenery and occasionally drifts slightly to the left or right. A traffic light turns green and he makes his way through the intersection at a snail's pace. Someone behind him honks, but he ignores them. A police officer passes by and gives the old chief a nod.

Good works

Every Friday about 10 a.m., Greenberg throws on his blue jeans and walks to the driveway, where it takes his body some lengthy adjustment to get inside his four-door sedan. There's a wide scrape on the left front bumper.

He takes off the steering wheel lock and heads down the winding road to town to deliver food as part of the local Meals on Wheels program.

He pulls up in front of 66-year-old Judy Dimsdale's home and honks the horn. The retired nurse who suffers from a blood disease meets him at the door.

Dimsdale was surprised to learn that the nice man who brings her meals is a former Charleston police chief, a famous law-enforcement figure. He doesn't tell many people, and he likes the relative obscurity, he said.

'One day,' he said, 'somebody is going to be delivering Meals on Wheels to me.'

He runs errands for the elderly, goes to Rotary meetings, teaches handicapped children how to ride horses and works security at the annual barbecue festival.

He makes it back to Charleston a few times a year, generally to vote and to file his taxes.

Greenberg said he is not interested in what his legacy will be as police chief.

'I don't care how I'm remembered,' he said. 'I had a nice life, and I did good things. In the book of life, I'll look pretty good.'

One thing he said he is proud of is that he made it a requirement that all new hires at the police department have a four-year college degree.

But that, like the rest of it, is all in the past, he said.

'Crime is going to go on, but that's not my problem anymore,' he said.

Greenberg loves his new, simple life as a retiree.

'There are no midnight calls. You don't have to work with the press and watch what you say,' he said. 'It's nice to be walking down the street and nobody knows you. It's like it was when I was in college - just Reuben.'

Reuben Morris Greenberg IV

Date and place of birth: June 24, 1943, in Houston

Family: Wife, Sarah Greenberg

Education: Bachelor of arts degree in social anthropology from San Francisco State University; master of public administration degree in police administration and a master of city planning degree in social policy planning and administrative planning, both from the University of California, Berkeley

Career

1982-2005: Charleston police chief

1981-1982: Deputy director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Division of Standards

1979-1981: Chief deputy of the Orange County Sheriff's Department in Orlando, Fla.

1978-1979: Chief of police for the Opa-Locka Police Department in Florida

1976-1978: Major of police and commander of the Auxiliary and Technical Services Bureau for the Savannah Police Department

1976-1978: Part-time assistant professor of criminal justice at Armstrong State College in Savannah

1975-1976: Research and planning director for the Corvallis Police Department in Oregon

1973-1975: Assistant professor of political science and public administration at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C.

1971-1973: Undersheriff for the city and county of San Francisco

1969-1973: Instructor and assistant professor of sociology and public administration at California State University in Hayward, Calif.

1967-1969: Human relations officer for the city of Berkeley, Calif.

Reach Nadine Parks at 937-5573 or nparks@postandcourier.com.