Only family can make you want to give them a hug with one hand while you’re throttling the life out of them with the other. And in that regard, a lot of my CCB companions aren’t just friends – they’re family.
Now that we have the awkward business of the, erm, business of the Colorado Center for the Blind’s affiliation with the NFB out of the way, let’s cap things off with stories. We’ll finish everything off with a quiet moment, a strange little story that maybe will help you define who I am. Or maybe it’ll muddy the waters even more. I don’t know. But before we get there, let’s talk about New York.
I guarantee you, if you mention literally any food on planet Earth, my friend Tommy Needham will tell you it’s invariably better in New York. No matter how good the gelato, slice of pizza, sandwich, or drink in your hands, Tommy’s got a restaurant or a guy who can do it up better. If his stories in Braille about the culinary El Dorado of his hometown were to be believed, all one has to do to attain infinite orgasmic bliss is to have a slice of mozarel from the deli down the street.
I love Tommy to death. I also wanted to thump Tommy’s noggin about a dozen times a day. Both of those things are true.
Tommy is probably the first person I really recognized on a day to day basis, simply because of his strong “New Yawk” accent. His love of all things wrestling didn’t hurt either, and to this day, I don’t think I’ve met a more hardcore old school fan of the sport. His gregariousness in classes drew me out of my turtle shell, and he helped make me feel a lot more comfortable around the students.
As time went on, Tommy became my rock for entertainment. In the earliest weeks there, before I moved in with a different roommate, I didn’t have anything around to entertain myself but a few paperbacks bought from some secondhand store or another. I don’t even think I had a lamp in those days, so when the lights went out, I was either out exploring Denver or I went to bed as early as possible. I was of a mindset that I was there to learn as quickly as possible so I could get out of there and land a job.
But eventually I moved in with another roommate, and suddenly I had access to a TV again. With that came Tommy’s assurances that I’d love the Sopranos if I sat down and watched them. As weird as it sounds, having something so simple as someone loaning me DVDs isn’t a common thing for me, even now, and the simple human kindness of the gesture was something I needed, whether I knew it or not. I know that’s an odd thing to single out, but it meant a lot to me, and even more so when i left in December, as Tommy proudly gave me the first season as a parting gift.
Tommy also invariably knew a guy who knew a guy, and one of my fondest memories was when he called up a guy he assured me was a cab driver, just an unlicensed one. We took a trip to the ass end of nowhere to go to a Wal-Mart, me wondering the whole time if we aren’t going to get shanked. This sounds frightening, but in a funny way, that’s very much the definition of my life in Denver. I have enough similarly themed “holy shit, why did I do that?” stories to fill up a dozen of these blogs.
Tommy was – and is – a passionate, very outspoken friend, and for his easy acceptance, I thank him for making me feel sort of human there.
Now we move on to Matt Palumbo, Interestingly enough, just by observing Matt on a day to day basis taught me quite a bit more about myself than I ever expected to learn. Matt is a happy, intelligent guy with an enthusiasm for things that baffled me (and if I’m honest, they still kind of do). He adored the crap out of kid-like cartoon things like My Little Pony, but he wasn’t at all weird about these things. In fact, his attitude might have been the most “normal” of the bunch at the CCB. He’s just, in general, a pleasant guy to get to know, and once you get him talking about all his interests, you realize just how remarkably intelligent and genuinely good he is.
I have a very hard time opening up to people about my hobbies. I assume everyone thinks I’m weird (I am) and that they don’t actually want to hear about my love of books, Shakespeare, and video games. It’s my instinct to try to become someone else no matter who I’m around, a self-defense mechanism of mask-wearing that’s become so ingrained that I’m not even sure there’s a single person out there who knows who I really am, apart maybe from my brother. It’s still not easy for me to be who I am around individuals. Women can smell my insecurity a mile away, and when you combine that with my other less-than-pleasant attributes, I might as well be holding a sign that says “Don’t bang this guy.”
But watching – or rather listening – to Matt there at the CCB, I realized it doesn’t matter if other people are interested or not. If’s about my attitude towards things, about standing firm being the person I am. His attitude, his non-abrasiveness, his easy-going nature… these are remarkable things.
Matt also inspired me to start traveling a bit within the realm of what was possible in the greater Denver area. I don’t know if he invited me or I invited myself, but we took up travels to malls, random out of the way places, and in one memorable moment, a bookstore way the hell out in the middle of nowhere because it had games stuff there and both of us were basically ready to go anywhere “just because.” With him, I learned my favorite pastime in Denver, one I wish I could manage here, and that’s just to get out and see things.
Those were good times. Some of the very best of them. When Matt graduated from the CCB, I was losing my best friend. It hurt, but it was a good hurt. Matt’s the sort of friend who comes into your life like a damned tornado and I’m honest-to-God a better man for having known him.
If I’m being completely truthful here, and that’s the point of this thing, I have one more Matt story to tell you, and it’s not a pleasant one. Not because of anything he did, but because I’m a temperamental son of a bitch and this story deserves to be out there for any future person who think’s I’m a cool dude. Because I’m not. Oh man, I’m not.
Matt and I frequently hit up malls all across Denver, because both of us are basically dyed-in-the-wool mallrats and pbbbffffft, like we need reasons. We made plans to hit up one mall, I forget which one, because it had this day-glo mini-golf course in it, the sort of thing meant for acid-droppers and college kids. It looked like a blast and we were pretty enthusiastic about it.
This young woman – we’ll call her “Susan” – loved adventures too. Loved being right in the middle of things, loved experiencing everything she could. Looking back, I can’t blame her one bit and I even applaud her for it. At that time, though, I was irritated. “Susan” was completely blind and she’d never gone mini-golfing. But she wanted to go and we agreed to take her.
I went from irritated to ugly in about an hour. She chopped at the ball, whacked around the course with cheerful abandon, and kept trying to understand as best she could what we – or really Matt, by that point, because I’d had enough – was trying to teach her. Then, at one point, through no fault of “Susan’s,” she accidentally pushed me into a sharp edged object on the golf course, a neon mushroom or something. Though the cut on the back of my leg was minor and we’d paid damn good money to go there, I got pissed and declared it to be the end of our little foray that day. I don’t think I could have handled it like more of a spoiled dickhead and it left her in tears. I didn’t care. I was angry my day was spoiled, I was angry I couldn’t teach her. Most shamefully of all, I was angry because she was blind.
Do you understand that? The sheer assholishness of that statement? Because that’s me, ladies and gentlemen. That’s me to a motherfucking T. Once you scrape away all the joviality and the pleasant exterior, what you’re left with is a snobbish, angry dick who wants his perfect little world all to himself except when I can control it.
I don’t think I’ve talked about that story with anyone but Matt. So there it is. Me. Hi.
When Matt graduated, whether I knew it or not, i was about to meet another new best friend there at the CCB. Shortly after, couldn’t have been a week or two at most, I was asked by one of the teachers there to show a new arrival the ropes. She had sight, sort of like me, so they wanted to get her acquainted with someone going through the same things. It was a nice gesture, I thought, but who the hell was I to be showing someone around?
Well… enter Rebecca Burke.
To this day, I don’t know what drove her to get as close to me as she did, but it’s a feat no woman’s managed to stomach so well before or since. Rebecca is a joy. She’s deeply religious, has the cutest damn southern drawl I’ve ever heard (get her to say situation and try not to fall a little bit in love with her, I dare you), and she’s a meteor of attitude and warmth and passion.
To tell you how weird my friendship was with Rebecca, let’s start with the end of it – when she found out I was leaving the CCB, she didn’t speak to me except monosyllabically for… two weeks? Something like that. Two. Weeks. And while we weren’t exactly crammed together like sardines, there wasn’t a lot of places I could go within the school where she wasn’t.
Time hop back to that first day. I didn’t physically see Rebecca until that evening. Our first day was spent mostly talking, and in a funny way, that maybe was the clincher. I think if I were to meet any woman with her class and grace – and let’s face it, downright beauty – and I wasn’t blinded by sleepshades, I’d have been a bumbling wreck. Surprisingly, I wasn’t, though I did like her immensely right off the bat. It was clear she was a bit nervous about the school, but she was a lot more even-keeled about it than I was my first day, and approached everything and everybody with an easy-going southern charm.
I invited her to dinner that night downtown at the Hard Rock. I don’t remember if I’d seen her face by that point or not, but I was very glad she said yes. Tommy, good old Tommy, threw himself in there too, and the three of us had a fun time downtown (though I’ll admit, the Hard Rock was a terrible choice for me financially – I think I had ten bucks to my name and wound up having their mac and cheese. Hah!).
Rebecca and I didn’t have a relationship, not the way you think we did, but… yeah, we kinda did. I don’t mean physically, but in a very real sense, I consider her to be one of my great loves. We started to spend a lot more time together, not because she really needed the help – she was pretty much nailing it from the get-go – but because… frankly, I don’t know why on her end, but on mine, she was good. Aggravating at times – oh my God, she can be stubborn as a mule, and grumpy – but like my friend of a very different nature in Matt, Rebecca was – is – a fundamentally beautiful person, not just on the outside, but inside too.
She started traveling with me on my little journeys. Those were good times. I showed her some of my favorite malls, different hangouts, that sort of thing. She cooked for me more than once, including an amazing Thanksgiving dinner and a farewell lasagna sendoff that’s gonna bring me to tears if I think about it too much.
When I mentioned having to be separated from a friend during Braille a blog or two ago, it was from Rebecca. We goofed off a bit and class, and I still get little goosebumps when I think about her dotting my shoulders with her Braille pen – B-A-T, for a little Halloween inside joke.
Our friend, Bertha, once found out I was only twenty-four or so, and blurted that she thought I was closer to seventy or eighty. Combine that with another inside joke that Rebecca, when fully decked out in her big coat, looked like a starfish, the group of our friends, spearheaded by Rebecca, started calling me “Grampy Star.” To this day, it’s the only nickname of mine, apart from my grandmother’s “Stinky Butt” (yes, she really calls me that, and in public) and my immediate family’s “Cambo”, that I like.
Rebecca could scare me, too. Her passing out on one of our ventures is still something I have nightmares about, and there was a time near the end of my stay at the CCB when I genuinely thought our friendship was going to be left with her bitter at me leaving. That would have been a cruel cut, by me or by her, I’m not sure. But she was dating someone, a banker, and I thought, as I always tend to do, that there could be some measure of relief for me in knowing that she’d be with someone… secure. I was twenty three or twenty four, I had no major job prospects, I was earning maybe three hundred bucks a month from SSI. She fell in with a banker. How am I going to say, “Hey. Take a chance on me?” That’d be selfish and kind of cruel.
I’ll leave off Rebecca’s section in this with one last story of her and the group we traveled with. This is THE Rebecca story, apart maybe from the gift she gave me when I left (a notebook filled with pictures and mementos of our time together).
I don’t remember the name of the mall – Colorado Mills or Cherry Creek spring to mind – but Rebecca and I made plans to do some Christmas shopping over the Thanksgiving weekend. I was still feeling a bit of guilt over the trip with “Susan” months before and when some of our fully-blind friends wanted to tag along for the shopping, I agreed. Well, mostly because Rebecca would probably be taking on the lion’s share of leading them around because they really liked her. But also, you know, because I was trying to be a better person and crap.
I don’t know when we woke up to leave, but let’s assume it might’ve been twenty hours before the butt crack of dawn. Our crew assembled on a bitterly cold day in Denver (Montana friends, if you haven’t been there, Denver is basically a populated version of Montana, complete with its “I want to kill you now” winters), and we hopped on our bus, Rebecca already giving me askew smiles and glances when the younger kids wanted to know where all we’d be going and doing.
The two words I’m about to tell you are going to sound disingenuous, made-up, a blatant bald-faced lie. But absolutely nothing in this blog has been fictionalized or made up in any way to entertain, and this isn’t either.
Guys, if that makes your testicles want to jump right on back up into your crotch, you’re not alone. Mother of God, sixteen hours of shopping sounds like hell to me even right now and I’ve endured it. And keep in mind, this is with entirely blind friends, though these were much more experienced and easy to deal with in comparison to the earlier story. Also… well, because Rebecca really did wind up helping them out way more than I did.
It was a huge mall, from what I remember, and of course Thanksgiving weekend made it even busier. We hit a huge number of shops, though not as many as you might think because of frequent stops to explain things and verbalize what was available. The staff was invariably great and patient, or really great at acting. I don’t remember stopping for a full-blown meal, but I do remember trying cinnamon-dusted freshly-roasted nuts and I still can’t get them out of my mind over a decade and change later.
That trip was, on paper, my version of pure hell, and yet it’s in memory one of my all-time favorite memories of the CCB as a whole. Rebecca had the patience of a saint, the kids we traveled with were experienced travelers and kept up well, and by the end of it, all of us, saddled down with bags and bags of purchases, had one hell of a memory.
My friends from the CCB taught me what I needed to know about my future. Oh, sure, I learned Braille and how to use a computer without a monitor and how to make a surprisingly okay shelf completely blind. But one of the things I needed to know most was that my world wasn’t going to end if I went blind. That I could still do meaningful things, that I could still have a remarkable life. And as funny as it sounds, even now, those six months I lived more than I ever have with any degree of sight. Every day left me exhausted, happy, angry, confused, joyous. Every weekend, I tried to find something to actually do. I was amazing and terrible and so damned electric.
I have one last story I wanted to tell you. I was going to title this particular blog “end of the Line,” but that sounds much more depressing than I wanted to leave things off on, especially since this is a good story, and one I’ve not told many people.
The first weekend I spent at the CCB, I knew I either had to shit or get off the pot. I was fooling myself, I thought. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be alone in an apartment with a crazy roommate who thought six inches was outside my personal bubble. i didn’t want to be walking into traffic. I didn’t want to be burning my hand on a BBQ grill. I wanted to be home. I wanted to be working. I wanted to be miserable.
At that point, I still had nothing but my suitcase full of clothes. I needed essentials, even if I was going home soon. I was gonna go stir crazy if I didn’t get a book or something to entertain myself, and I was tired of living on bread and lunch meat sandwiches.
I knew the basics of bus travel in theory. All I had to do was go two stops to the south, and I’d be at a Kroger, or I could jump the light rail, head up two or three stops, and walk half a mile to a Wal-Mart. Easy (well, it was at the time).
For whatever reason, with no one in the world knowing where I was going or what I was doing, I decided to keep going. Just to go somewhere, do something. I had no idea why at the time. I stuck it out near the front, my cane held tightly between my knees, taking in what I could of the suburbs. I had no idea if I was in a good part of town, a bad one, or even the foggiest where this bus was going.
I rode that bus to the end of the line. The driver, a little irritated, told me that was it, that I needed to get off now. I asked him the way back to my cross street, and he showed me the little map brochures they had. I plucked out a few, sat on a bench outside, and read through them, trying to understand the routes and times I’d need to get back to that grocery store.
I should have been nervous, and I was, I guess. But here’s the thing. You ask me why I write, why I love trying to go to new places to eat, to read new writers, to explore so much music. The answer, without any real definition, is that kid – and let’s face it, even if I was approaching my mid-twenties, I was a kid – riding that bus to the end of the line, not because he was depressed, not because he was stupid.
But so I could see.