“Ooooh, man, I can't wait to see Huey!” said my client Sean, busily brushing his hair. I work with Sean in a day program for people with developmental disabilities. In addition to some mental retardation, he has severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. He's a hand-washer and a germphobe, and he looks exactly like a grown-up version of Harold from Harold and the Purple Crayon. He literally has three hairs on his head, which he brushes obsessively in between visits to the beauty college. He goes there for a free cut when things start to get “shaggy.” Part of his disability is that he has to have three of everything — three water bottles for work, three hats, three nail clippers, three hairs (I guess). So of course he has a big-ass stack of Huey Lewis CDs and tapes, three of each one.
“Man,” he continued, “I'm gonna dance, dance, dance!” When Sean says he's gonna dance, he means he's gonna dance. I once saw him at a '50s party, dressed like Kenickie from Grease (sans hair, natch), kicking up dust for over two solid hours. He knows a lot about music, and I call him the “human jukebox” because he can name that tune in about three seconds when we have the radio on in the car. His hands-down favorite performer is Huey Lewis.
Sean has a framed picture of himself and Mr. Lewis locked in an embrace. At first I thought it was cool that he had met the singer and was lucky enough to snap a photo. Then, as I visited other clients' houses, a pattern started to emerge. Rose, Jennifer, Linnea, Donald (whose names, like everyone else's in this story, have been changed to protect their anonymity) — each had a picture of him- or herself posing with Huey Lewis or at a Huey concert. Was Huey Lewis the Pied Piper of the developmentally disabled, only with a harmonica instead of a fife? (How else to explain all those sales of Sports?)
Whatever the reason — the catchy tunes, the goofball charisma, or maybe those slapstick videos — developmentally disabled people see something significant and tender in Huey Lewis. He makes them happy.
The band recently celebrated its 25th anniversary by performing at this year's Marin County Fair on a cool summer night a few weeks back. This was Huey Lewis & the News' stomping ground, where they began two decades earlier, playing around San Rafael and Mill Valley. Suffice it to say, the show was something all of my clients were looking forward to.
I was actually only going to escort one person, my friend Bobbi, and meet the rest of our friends there. Sean and Linnea were going, of course. Linnea actually likes the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing better than any Huey record, but damn it, she loves “If This Is It” and wouldn't miss it for the world.
Linnea's a young woman with, we think, an as-yet-undiagnosed chromosomal abnormality, a syndrome that has saddled her with a smaller frame than she should have, awkwardly formed bones, and some sort of a delay in neuron transfer. Linnea takes a few beats to respond to you, or to laugh at a joke, or to do things like stock clothing at her work.
We have a lot in common. We both like to eat out at Mexican places with groups of friends and see scary movies. She has what I consider the best quality a person can have: the ability to laugh at herself. I once asked her what exactly her disability was. She responded, after a beat of course, with, “I'm retarded. Duh!”
I often call her “Le Schnoz,” because her nose takes up about a third of her face. But the most peculiar thing about Linnea is that she has a curious habit of talking to herself as if she were two people. Listening to her do this is a good window into her soul, really, and earlier in the day I witnessed just how excited she was to go to the concert that night.
Linnea (to herself): “Are you going to the concert tonight?” To which she replied, again to herself, “You got it, baby. You are on, girl. I'm not missing Huey Little.”
“Huey Little?” she replied back in her other voice. “Who the heck is Huey Little? You mean Huey Lewis!” Then she laughed at herself, and her other self had to laugh a bit, too.
I have gotten very used to these exchanges, which soothe Linnea and, in turn, have come to soothe me as well. When Linnea isn't talking to herself, she's just not herself.
“Huey LEWIS,” she repeated strongly to herself with a chuckle. “Get it right, girl.”
There are a lot of stereotypes about retarded people, and most of them are false. Yes, I'm going to refer to people with developmental disabilities as “retarded.” After all, what is wrong with the word “retarded”? It means slowed or delayed, and when someone is retarded, that's what's going on (or not going on) somewhere in his brain. Some of my clients are great at math and reading, but cannot tell you what they did the day before, or why a joke was funny. Others cannot speak, see, or say what they want, but they can tell when I'm sad. In each person, something that works in most people's brains is hindered, i.e., is “retarded.” If gays can take back “faggot,” and blacks can take back “nigger,” then surely developmentally disabled folks can take back “retarded.” And since they can't do it for themselves, I'm going to do it for them.
So back to the stereotypes about retarded people. When I tell people that I love my work with my retarded clients, they invariably conjure up a picture of a drooling monobrow with one arm curled into his chest and a shit-eating grin on his face. This is a stereotype of a retarded person. Here are some others: All retarded people are happy-go-lucky; all retarded people pull their shorts up as high as they can; all retarded people have bathroom accidents; all retarded people want to hug you. In reality, retarded people are just like you and me: They come in all shapes and sizes. They, too, put their pants on one leg at a time. It's just that sometimes they put theirs on backward. [page]
Here are some facts about retarded people. First, they are zero-bullshit. If you are a jerk, they will call you on it. If you have a booger hanging out, they'll damn sure let you know. That's all I've ever asked for from a friend.
Retarded people never make fun of someone else, never point and laugh at anybody. In fact, my clients generally see the good in everyone. All of these are generalizations, and of course there are exceptions to the rule, but mostly these are the reasons why I love my work.
There is, however, one stereotype about retarded people that is true, one broad brushstroke that one can make about them all: Good gosh a'mighty, retarded people love them some Huey Lewis. Part of the reason is that Huey is apparently a sweetheart who does a lot of volunteer work with people who have developmental disabilities. But another big part is the music.
My clients have a favorite record, and it's not Fore! or Picture This. Nope, everyone loves the soundtrack to Back to the Future, on which one finds the song “Back in Time.” It's a testament to the songwriting prowess of the News, who were asked to write a song for a movie in which the protagonist goes back in time. They put their heads together and came up with the perfect song, a song called “Back in Time.” You see, there's no pathos or back story to News songs. They are straightforward (“Stuck With You”), energetic (“The Power of Love”), and easy to relate to (“Hip to Be Square”). These truths are appreciated by a wide variety of music lovers, some of whom just happen to be mentally retarded.
The county fair takes place at the base of the Marin Civic Center, a Disney-ish building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Huey would be playing on an island in the middle of a lake.
Bobbi, my date for the evening, is one of my best friends in the program. She is all heart, with an easy laugh, Down syndrome, and a wicked crush on Huey. She first met the songster when she was just 7 years old. She was sure that Huey would remember her.
Bobbi and I arrived a full three hours before the show was set to start, certain we would find decent seating. Bobbi's about 5 feet tall with poor eyesight, and wouldn't be able to see shit if we were stuck in the back. Unfortunately, sitting on my shoulders would be out of the question, because she weighs 200 pounds. When we got there, all of the seats were taken up with retirees in visors and their various beach towels, jackets, and backpacks that they had used to save seats for their brood. I had a hard time not going up to them and saying, “No savesies!,” especially after circling the joint for 15 minutes with Bobbi to no avail.
The chivalry of people, or lack thereof, never ceases to amaze me. Bobbi cannot walk very well; she has a sort of circular gait like Billy Barty's. It's easy to see that she has to struggle to get around. Yet no one offered a chair for her to sit in, afraid that he would lose his valuable Huey-viewy. Either that or the two of us were invisible. I've found that it's easy to tune out people with disabilities, and most people do. We ended up standing on the lawn to the right of the stage.
Bobbi had brought her 25th-anniversary DVD that I had given her for her birthday, a couple of Huey tapes, and a Sharpie so the singer could sign them. I went to buy her a Coke and a Polish sausage before we settled in.
“No beans,” she reminded me, our inside joke. Whenever we go anywhere — hamburger joint, Chinese restaurant, Mexican place — she always tells the waiter to “hold the beans.” Apparently she had a bad reaction a while back, and has been vigilant about legumes in her diet ever since.
“Right,” I replied as usual, “extra beans, comin' up.”
As I walked to the sausage hut, my attention was immediately drawn to a middle-aged woman in the front row who was crying hysterically. She was clutching a CD, wearing mismatched, age-inappropriate clothes, and rocking back and forth. “They won't let me go up to the stage!” she yelled. “I won't see Huey!” She was telling this to anyone who would listen as if the people around her had known her all her life. She was retarded. Among the several hundred or so gathered for the concert, roughly 10 percent seemed to have some sort of developmental disability. Huey really is a phenomenon; it's not just with my clients.
A bunch of people from a group home had set up camp on the opposite side of the stage, laying out blankets and picnic food. Bobbi recognized some of her friends and waved. “Huuuuueyyyy!” they all yelled back. It was just like people who yell “Bruuuce!” at a Springsteen concert, only more retarded. In fact, Huey Lewis is a retarded version of Bruce Springsteen. Think about it. All of his songs are three-chord chug-a-lugs about working-class schlubs trying to make it through this crazy thing we call life. “Workin' for a Livin',” “Walking on a Thin Line,” and “I Want a New Drug” are all slightly less soulful embodiments of the Springsteen ethos. (Communists will note that Huey himself is actually not middle class, but grew up privileged in Marin. He attended private schools and even went to college at Cornell.) [page]
After waiting for a few hours, we finally heard what I knew was coming, the thump-thump, thump-thump that signals the intro to “Heart of Rock & Roll.” (It's still beating, you see.) “Heart” was the perfect first song for a band celebrating its silver anniversary. Immediately everyone rushed in front of us and packed the front of the stage. Bobbi couldn't see anything, so I had to tell her that Huey looked great. Jesus, he did. He looked and sounded exactly the same. A group of developmentally disabled guys to our right were pumping their fists in the air and clapping out of time. Prim and proper Marin gentry in their folding chairs were tapping their feet. And, inexplicably, teenage girls with bare midriffs and too much makeup were elbowing their way up front. Once again, no one seemed to pay attention to the short woman with Down syndrome who was trying desperately to see, but then again, the crowd mentality at concerts always turns all Darwin anyway, with the fittest pushing forward to the front while the weaker stay behind.
The island that the News were performing on had long since been sealed off and was packed to the gills with revelers. The band burned through all of its hits, like “Heart and Soul,” “Do You Believe in Love,” and an a cappella version of “It's Alright.” Let's face it, whatever it is that makes a song “catchy,” Huey Lewis & the News have it. Even I have to admit a certain affinity for the driving keyboards on “Workin' for a Livin'.”
“I tell you, that guy can really play the harmonica,” said Sean the next day. We never caught up with any of our friends; there were just too many people. I trusted that they were having just as good a time as the people who surrounded us.
Bobbi was ecstatic at the show, especially when I found a place for her to stand on a chair behind the stage where she could see everything up close. This angered a middle-aged woman with frosted lip gloss. “If you put her up there, no one will be able to see around her,” she sneered, referring to Bobbi's ample roundness, doing so as if Bobbi weren't even there to hear it.
“I'll be sure and take that into consideration,” I shot back at her with a look that would have melted the polar ice caps.
I helped Bobbi up onto the chair and put my arm around her. We sang along to “Doing It All for My Baby.” The bitch-cake lady with the lip gloss had stomped off. Before long, a woman with an American Idol baseball hat and a speech impediment joined in on the song we were singing, followed closely by her male friend with something like Asperger syndrome.
Then it happened. Huey noticed us. He acknowledged our presence by strolling toward us and singing into Bobbi's camera lens.
“Huey!” she cried. “It's me!” He seemed to smile in recognition, then did a backward shuffle step to the center of the stage again.
That's when it hit me. My clients all have one thing in common: They want people to “see” them. Huey Lewis sees them. Huey Lewis has gone out of his way to spend time with them. Huey would have given Bobbi a chair if she needed one at a show, or he would have put her on his shoulders so she could see. I just knew it.
Before long Bobbi's knees were really starting to ache from all the standing, so we left during the encore. She never did get her DVD signed, but she didn't seem to care. There would be other opportunities.
“Oh, Huey,” sighed Bobbi on the way home, “my Huey.”