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A Very Special Concert 

The enduring bond between Huey Lewis and the developmentally disabled

Wednesday, Aug 3 2005
"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.

About The Author

Katy St. Clair


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