My health club is a living organic entity. Sure, the equipment and the building itself are inanimate, but the assemblage of characters within—so many people coming and going, day after day, working out, procrastinating and/or posing-- that’s the fascinating part.
I love to study human beings, because they’re slightly more interesting than the primates at the San Francisco Zoo. The gorillas are pretty predictable. They sleep half the time, and spend their limited waking hours eating, staring at you, scratching themselves and then staring some more. But on the other hand, they won’t cut you off on the road and then flip you off or steal your identity or marry your stepdaughter. So, it’s a trade-off.
This story starts about a year ago. There’s a guy who comes into the club who looks like he’s developmentally disabled and possibly legally blind. He wanders around mumbling and singing and stays to himself. He looks like he’s around 50 and he’s chubby, mostly unshaven with sideburns that are uneven and hair that’s out of control. His eyebrows are huge and I swear they move, like a pair of furry caterpillars. I started seeing him at the club every once in a while, and eventually I noticed that everyone ignored the guy. Like he didn’t exist, like a ghost.
People wouldn’t be rude, but they wouldn’t acknowledge him either. And in some instances, that’s even worse. For almost a full year, I’d see this guy in the club, primarily in the pool and in the hot tub, but no one ever spoke to him during that entire time.
Sure, he’s not normal. But what’s normal anyway? There’s a female Russian weightlifter at my club with a deep voice and a mustache. Is she (or he) normal? I mean, I met her and she’s very sweet. She drives for Muni and I doubt her passengers ever act up. But people ignore her too. Why, because she’s different and humans fear what they don’t know.
So, one day I was sitting next to this singing guy in the hot tub, and I was in a strange mood, so I leaned over and whispered in his ear. “The hot tub is nice today. It reminds me of my college years. One time I partied with three naked cheerleaders in a hot tub. It was a blast!”
He didn’t say anything, so I started exiting the hot tub.
“Yeah, it’s hot,” he said suddenly.
He spoke. So, I kept talking.
“Hey, how you doing?”
“Fine, who are you?”
“My name’s Ed.”
He turned his head sideways like a confused dog.
“If you can’t remember my name,” I was talking slowly now. “Think of Ed with the big head. I have a large head.”
“What’s your name, buddy?”
From his expression, I got the feeling Richard and I had completed our conversation. But he actually spoke, so I walked away pleased.
A few days later, I ran into Richard again. This time we talked a little longer. He was probably asking, “Why is this strange guy speaking to me again?”
Well, over the next few months I got to know Richard more and more. The conversations eventually became in-depth and I learned a lot about my newest friend.
Richard is 54 and he describes himself as “slow”. I didn’t inquire any further and I don’t care. He’s 70% blind, which means he can see movies but only on the big screen. His entire family is gone. His parents passed away while he was a child and his grandmother raised him. She passed away in 2004 and both of his brothers died last year. He survives on SSI and lives in a financially-assisted apartment in the Fillmore District of San Francisco.
Richard is hilarious. The other day he said, “I can’t figure it out. I work out every day and last year I gained two pounds.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that his “workout” consists of sitting in the hot tub and then sitting in the pool. His exercise involves traveling the 15 feet between the two bodies of water.
Our conversations have gradually grown in scope. First we just discussed the weather and the temperature of the hot tub. Now we wrestle with bigger issues, like global warming, the price of gas, macaroni and cheese vs. creamed spinach as a preferred side dish at Boston Market, life after death and guardian angels.
The latter subject came to light when Richard asked me if guardian angels actually exist.
“Well, I’ve never seen one, but I believe I have one,” I responded.
“How do you know?”
“Someone must be watching over me,” I said. “Because I should be dead long ago. I did my share of drugs in my younger days and I did a lot of stupid things, but I’m still here.”
“While you were in college with those cheerleaders?”
He’s got a great memory, I thought.
“But why can’t I see my guardian angel?” Richard asked.
“Because life is stressful enough without having someone or something watching you all the time,” I explained. “So they stay invisible.”
While I was talking to Richard on a daily basis, something changed. Other club members started overhearing our discussions and joined in. Pretty soon people stopped ignoring Richard. Within a few weeks, he was having similar conversations with other people in the club. His attitude changed almost overnight and suddenly he became very social and outgoing. I opened the floodgates and now he was the bon vivant of the club.
Later I found out that it wasn’t necessary for me to give him the “Ed with the Big Head” description in order for him to recognize me and remember me. Because even though he can barely see, Richard has learned how to voice print people. He can recite anyone’s name based solely on the sound of their voice.
“Hey Bill. Hi Judy. How are you Phil? Hot tub’s nice today, huh?” Richard was on a roll.
I never expected everyone’s reaction but I like it. He’s the club mascot now. Members are going out of their way to talk to him, because he’s got an infectious attitude and a smile that could warm the cockles of anyone with half a heart. And Richard has enough heart for everyone.
I feel happy for breaking the silence that existed around him. But, I also feel guilty for ignoring Richard for almost a year. Why do we do this? I see it all the time. Because we’re scared and confused by the unknown. I saw it happen to me when I had my mini-stroke. I’ve lost friends since then, because they’re frightened for me and I believe it makes people think about their mortality and it scares the guano out of them.
When we see someone in the herd and they’re not 100% for whatever reason, the average person will gravitate in the wrong direction, instead of embracing this individual and trying to find out whom they really are and if you can help them. Sometimes that means just talking to someone, so that they can at least feel somehow connected to the rest of the group.
The other day I saw Richard on Fillmore Street with another member of our club. I got up right on his left ear and said, “It’s meeee.”
“Ed, with the big head!”
There’s that smile again.
“Uh, Ed, I’d like to introduce you to Susan,” Richard is networking now. “She’s a friend of mine from the club.”
Our social butterfly is flying free!
“Hi Susan, my name is Ed.” And she smiled.
Wow I thought. So much great energy-- and generated by one guy who was formerly invisible to everyone. A human being who people avoided and treated like a pariah. But, now others have seen it and are tapping into Richard’s love. And it’s great!
So next time you walk by that same handicapped or homeless person you see every few days, maybe you should whisper in their ear and see how they respond. You might just find another gem like Richard—a formerly ignored individual with so much to offer to the rest of us in this so-called real world.