“Just What I Needed” – A Journey Of Mutual Discovery

thecars-justwhatineededimintouchwithyourworld(picturediI never imagined myself having a career, let alone a career in social work. I didn’t possess any real notion of where vocation would come during my early years. Writing had always been my primary drive. But I was also cognizant that a writer had to do something else before they were ready to answer the call. A writer, I recognized early on, was a person who needed to seek out meaningful subject. I spent most of my youth oblivious to what that meaningfulness would become.

Purpose can be a tricky concept. If one is not mindful, a world of meaning can sneak right past, evading detection. Throughout my junior and senior years at Oregon City High School, I served as a volunteer for our special education program. In the moment, this opportunity presented itself more as a bi-product of my desire to avoid another tedious semester building gun racks and birdhouses in Mr. Waddell’s shop class. I was sixteen, young for even that age, and harbored little youthful idealism. As I chaperoned my student through the halls, I interpreted our relationship as one of simple obligation.

College was a haze of formal literary education, ending in the minimum of four years. Although I loved my chosen course of study, I was restless to leave academia’s bristling confines. I did not know what I wanted to be, but I recognized that I did not want to become some formalized intellectual. I soon realized though that I was unable to identify what my next phase would be. Portland, Oregon was home, but temp work doing high tech market research surveys served little purpose other than ensuring the rent was paid on time. A particularly cold winter came and went and I eventually moved down I-5 to Corvallis where my girlfriend was a graduate student in wine making. After those initial months after my graduation, shacking up with her was the best plan that I could summon.

I failed an editorial examination with the Corvallis Gazette, misspelling Albuquerque, a word that I still test my ability to spell correctly today. After being turned away from the only job in the small agricultural town requiring, or even tolerating a degree in English, I decided that I would harvest cauliflower. This move represented desperation, but there were fleeting glimpses of romance in those few early mornings on the farm. John Steinbeck had been familiar with the fields at dawn and the smell of freshly tilled soil. But he also most assuredly knew how to speak Spanish, mastery I did not have. I was fluent in German, a tongue useless for understanding a foreman as he informed everyone in the crew that we would not receive payment until September. It was June. So, I never returned. I had reached a sort of bottom when I decided to draw on previous experience. It was a Friday afternoon when I answered the newspaper advertisement and by Monday morning, I accepted a part time job providing weekend recreational support for a developmentally disabled man. His name was Tully and he would come to define much more than my time in Corvallis.

*

Tully required companionship. He received supported living case management supports to assist with overcoming his disability. Getting out of a fourth floor, one-bedroom apartment was a feat that the thirty-something man with an impressive handlebar mustache simply could not accomplish. In the beginning, I would stand at the threshold, coaxing him to step outside for our event. Tully was prone to paranoia and fits of deep depression. On rare occasions, he wandered down to the Moose Lodge for a game of pool and refillable fountain drinks; beyond that fraternal organization though, his social network was dangerously limited. He had no friends, only an older brother who lived on the other side of the valley in Lebanon, and who communicated via postcards that  Tully was embarrassed to say he could not read. When I met Tully, he would sit on a folding chair, smoke a Marlboro cigarette and listen to the college students in the courtyard below his bedroom window for company.

We had both, in our unique ways, been washed out by life. Tully had a traumatic brain injury, leaving him tenuous and unsure how to manage his basic needs; I too was adrift, between two points without definitive port of call. We soon learn that life comes without a flowchart. No one is there to inform you that a sense of purpose is an aspect requiring constant vigilance. This fact is one a person gleans in their own time, often through a painful series of missteps.

As I observed Tully, I recognized that the brain injury had robbed him of his sense of humor and the ability to make connections. This would become my role. I would step into social situations where Tully felt that he was losing control and help provide the cushion necessary to leverage new relationships. During those first months, I grew to appreciate that Tully and I fit well together because we had more common traits than we had differences.

Over that summer we hit every barbecue, flea market, and hiking trailhead in and around the greater Corvallis area. I no longer wondered who read the newspaper metro listings for church rummage sales. We had become those people. Wherever there were hot dogs sizzling on a grill, Tully and I found them and we worked on integration. Corvallis in an insular place constructed around the university community. I was pleased though, at how, with some encouragement and practice, Tully worked his way into peer groups and even managed to rekindle some of his old school friendships. He rediscovered a local’s sense of pride and showed me some of his old haunts. Our summer culminated when Tully took a part time position washing dishes at the same Moose Lodge he sometimes visited. For the first time in his life, Tully had a job.

*

The disability population forms its own community, comprised mostly of professionals and service recipients. Our work together was made somewhat tricky by the fact that Tully did not identify himself as a person with a developmental disability. The specific cognitive delay that Tully experienced came through a TBI, or a traumatic brain injury, stemming from a car accident when he was seventeen years old. Prior to the accident, Tully was a regular guy who liked classic rock records and pretty girls. He got filthy working on old cars after school and snuck cigarettes and beer onto the Corvallis High School 50-yard line late at night. Tully was into normal stuff until the violent head on collision robbed him of his ability to enjoy, or even remember those experiences. Because that delay was established before eighteen, the disability was characterized as developmental, making him eligible for on-going adult services.

Tully avoided people from his program. During that first summer, there was only the two of us. We never hooked onto their group outings to the casino or swimming pools although they were always offered. As Tully and I grew closer and developed a friendship, I came to appreciate that resistance as honest. He was aware of being different, always grasping for those bygone attributes that haunted him from behind an unreliable veil. Tully wanted connections; he was not, however, willing to risk direct affiliation to have them. He was a young man who had been thrust into a life changing disability, experiencing painfully fleeting memories of what was, a shadow that lingered over us like a dark cloud.

Summer’s close brought more than just seasonal changes. The program administering Tully’s support offered me a full-time advocacy position. My girlfriend and I had split up as well. Although I had worked five months for the program with Tully, I still considered my role to be part time, transitory employment. The something better that I had been holding out for never came though, and being newly in need of increased income, I accepted what would be my first case management position. According to my new job description, Tully and I would continue with our recreation routine. Only now, instead of working together in one-on-one situations, I was charged with bringing a larger group into the community. From two we became seven, a curious menagerie of disabled men on the prowl in pool halls and bowling alleys. Rather than quiet conversation, the new group required what felt like half of the night just to order dinner and the other half to get situated back in the white, Econoline van. It did not take long before our social time resembled something radically different than Tully and I had enjoyed before.

I believed Tully would understand my acceptance of a new position. I was wrong though. Within weeks, we drifted far enough apart that being together began to feel uneasy. I questioned whether our previous summer had indeed been as special as I recollected. One evening, as the group poured out of an all-you-can-eat Chinese food buffet, I asked for his feelings on the matter. For a tough guy, Tully blushed an awful lot. His voice cracked when he said he understood that I needed a full time job. Tully was close enough to know that I was recently alone. As the others rambled out of the jade colored lobby, Tully continued, saying that he would rather have some than none. His confession broke my heart and I drove the empty van around that night feeling as though I had betrayed a good friend.

The larger, more finicky group dynamic demanded more variety. Gone were simple rummage sales and hot dogs. Corvallis abruptly shrank, and soon I was looking ten miles up the road to Albany. Offering similar blue-collar charm without academic pretense, the sleepy mill town doubled the social opportunities at our disposal. Having a second bowling alley and a second dollar movie theater staved off those uneasy feelings of repetition that plague a social coordinator. However similar the towns, putting all seven men into the van for a short drive gave us a morale boost similar to an impromptu college road trip. We pushed through the following spring and into summer as a seven-piece. My relationship with Tully stabilized. Although I was not particularly happy with the results, I accepted that what had transpired as our last evolution. Another so-called truth I had come to a place of peace with was this: Tully and I had seen our finest day together.

I was wrong on both accounts.

*

We are all creatures of habit. When a magnificent seven are involved, it may be referred to as routine. Tuesdays at the Buzz Saw Bar & Grill in Albany was their Lady’s Night, drawing big crowds to dollar drinks and a decent, greasy spoon food menu. My guys adored going out for Lady’s Night, loud and visually stimulating, often spilling out onto the porch and the riverfront promenade, raging loudly into the morning. When checking out the van on Tuesdays, I used to write “El Dorado” in the logbook as our destination. Most of my officemates regarded the Buzz Saw sarcastically, but for my tangle of unassuming, single guys on their social night, there was no better hub for people watching in three counties.

The night sticks with me. The sequence of details, vivid and precise: it was hot, pushing one hundred; the van windows were open and still the interior reeked of poor hygiene and unwashed sweat pants. Tully sat in the front seat beside me. He had not occupied the spot referred to as “co-pilot” for quite some time, and although the privilege should have made him happy, he did not let on. Tully wore a healthy dose of the cheap, Dollar Store cologne that his brother sent him every year for Christmas. His plain, white t-shirt was skin tight, cigarette pack rolled into his sleeve somewhere underneath the black leather jacket he always wore with the collar turned up. Regardless of the oppressive summer heat, this was the uniform that Tully wore whenever we went out on the town. I thought of this as his outfit of hope.

Even as my attention had diffused among the six other clients that I was responsible for, my understanding of Tully had continued its evolution. The wardrobe of antique clothes, the tidbits of speech he used without irony, his walk — everything added up to a composite memory he could only recall through movies and music. Tully was stranded in a single, nonspecific moment that he had constructed out of trace recollections from before his accident. I could see that he was keenly aware of the succession of events leading out; those were quite clear. What troubled him though was moving forward emotionally from the instant that the other car slammed into his. The injury was a watershed in his development of feelings. He often seemed unable to form new emotions, while struggling to recall much of the old.

timthumbWe arrived at the Harrison Street bridge crossing. I idled while facing east at the red light. The anticipation in the van was palpable. Howard grasped the back sliding door handle, ready for his long awaited smoke; with a relieved gasp, David located the wallet he was prone to losing in his many pockets; otherwise, not a person uttered a sound. They could see the neon lights of the Buzz Saw on our right across the river. Everyone knew that in moments we would be there.

I remember lifting my foot off the brake as the radio song switched. We were thrust into a familiar tune in the unexpectedly blissful way that only a classic rock radio station can. Heads began to bob. Richard, always filled with beat, laid his arm across the seat back and grinned. Tully turned his head on cue with the first drumbeat of The Cars, “Just What I Needed” and sighed as the van accelerated. We crested the bridge and he turned all the way toward me. I remember that his soft, limpid eyes batted as Benjamin Orr sang the first line but still, he did not offer a word.

“What’s up, Kimzy?” I asked.

“Don’t know,” he finally replied. “I was just thinking of this song.”

*

the_cars_just_what_i_neededThe Cars are arguably the most successful American new wave band to emerge out of the artistic Diaspora from excessive stadium rock during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The band, although appreciated by contemporary artists as paragons of that form, were not interested in genre definition. They were a band in the classic sense of forming under the thesis, if we make records, we get famous and then we get a chance to live the rock and roll lifestyle. Those were decidedly simpler times.

The demo tape of “Just What I Needed” was famously spread to the public via influential DJ Maxanne Sartori at WBCN in Boston. Although Sartori is footnote in The Cars history, she was crucial to a process that should be viewed now with some nostalgia. This was one of the last times that rock radio blew an act from precisely nowhere, directly into popular consciousness. Heavy rotation meant everything to a band like The Cars in 1978 and through Sartori’s repeated spins, “Just What I Needed” became an overnight sensation and the station’s most requested song ever. The band was on their meteoric rise to stage lights and leer jets.

Almost twenty years later I worked college radio, hosting a show that took place sometime between last call and first light. To power through that slot, I came to a greater appreciation of garage rock energy, something manic, more tooth grinding than the prosaically quiet music that had been my taste. No one traverses the witching hours on a steady diet of trance.

Like most people of my generation, two years old at the time of their first hit single’s conception, I regarded The Cars as products of mid-80’s MTV, nothing dangerous, yet cool enough to crank up with the window open. It was in that radio booth though, in my own time, that I came to recognize the song as something more than commercial pop. Benjamin Orr is deadpan and sinister, singing ambivalently about “someone to bleed” the kind of lyrical hook that drew up the dander on the rock-junkie-cum-English-major programming my slot.

The song became, in those formative radio DJ years (and still remains now) one of my favorites in the entire rock and roll catalog. I had deconstructed the track countless times before this particular van ride. Aside from its catchy hook, iconic introduction, and primitively satisfying keyboards, “Just What I Needed” is about something more complex than just drive and bawdiness. The song plays on themes of discovery and the commanding realization of sexual prowess. The character delivering the lines has achieved critical control over his romantic powers and is coming onto the subject via an intoxicating combination of urgency and nihilism. He cares, but he also confesses that he does not mind.

So, of course, I reached down and turned the radio up to draw further response out of Tully, first a little louder and then a lot.

*

“What about this song?” I asked.

Tully moved to speak but again paused. An absolute stillness filled the van. With loud music drowning out the back seats there were, for the first time in so many months, only two of us on this journey. A sly smile broke as we listened to my favorite line, the one in which Orr sings, it’s not the ribbons in your hair.

“I remember back in high school,” Tully replied. “I wrote down the lyrics to this song in a note and slipped it into the locker of a girl that I liked.”

His gaze drifted. I followed his eyes down river, further down than the horizon. I imagined he was looking clear back to that high school hall, all the way to that specific locker tinged with scents of rust and that cheap cologne. The song had allowed Tully to punch through a once impregnable fog and there followed the clearest, purest state of truth I had ever heard, or would ever hear.

“In this song,” he continued. “The words remind me of what it was like to be cool.”

I parked the van. The others got out and walked inside, leaving Tully and I alone. The song was not over. Once it was, he stepped out onto the sidewalk. I remember him leaning against a parking meter. He was there, comfortably tempting another rock cliché, cigarette on his lip, running a comb through his dark hair. When he was done, he smiled, straightening his collar.

“You coming?” he asked.

I nodded and watched him vanish before succumbing to a wild burst of laughter filled with light and relief. We had come full circle, Tully and I.

As I stepped out of the van, I wanted to remember the moment’s every facet: a steel bridge, the low ebb of a river at mid-summer, how a warm breeze tingles the bare flesh.

Most of all, I wanted to capture that first divine feeling of real purpose.