Riding Shotgun

John A. Tarantino

"Never let Harvey ride shotgun. Never." These were the first words of wisdom-- the "if you know what's good for you" kind of speech-- that all new employees got their first day on the job. I listened to my boss' words intently, not knowing what the hell he was talking about, but doing my best to look interested and appreciative of his sage advice. The warning was obviously well-intentioned, but it was as meaningless to me as if my boss had given me instructions in Chinese on how to change a light bulb.

I didn't have a clue what he was talking about, nor did I know who Harvey was. But I also didn't want to look like as big a dunce as I felt, so, instead of asking my boss a simple, straightforward question such as: "What the hell are you talking about?" or "Who's Harvey, and what's riding shotgun?" I nodded and said: "Sure, thing, Mr. Wheaton. I've got it. No riding shotgun for Harvey. No, sir. Not ever."

Mr. Wheaton smiled, looked relieved and exhaled: "Good. I'm glad that's clear. Believe me, Jack, it's the best advice you will ever get while you work here this summer. Remember, if you ever let Harvey ride shotgun, you'll regret it. He'll jabber and blabber, piss and moan. He'll drive you -- and everyone else -- absolutely bonkers.

There's only one place Harvey rides and that's in the wayback. Got it? The wayback seat. Make sure he's strapped in, though. Everyone rides with a seat belt. Don't let him hang out the rear window. He'll end up splattered in the road, if you don't watch out, like some big run over whale. Any questions?"

Well, I thought to myself, when was the last time anyone saw a whale splattered on the highway? But I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut.

"No, sir. No questions."

Besides, I thought I was starting to get the message. The code was getting a little clearer, a little less cryptic, because as I looked out the window, I saw my chariot, the vehicle in which I would be transporting our clients. That's what we called the retarded men and women we drove around to the movies, the mall, ball games, restaurants, whatever. We called them "clients." And I was their wheel man, their driver, their "community relations counselor" as my job description stated. Well, I quickly learned that I would be doing the bulk of my community relations counseling behind the wheel of a dilapidated, beat-to-hell, nine-passenger Buick station wagon, the kind with the back seat, or as Mr. Wheaton called it, the "wayback seat" facing the rear so that the unfortunate occupant of that not-so-coveted throne would ride (and therefore view the world) backwards.

I also learned that Harvey was one of our clients: a 33 year old, 250 lb. ( give or take an ounce) retarded man. From what I learned during the next several minutes of vintage Wheaton instruction, which was part pep talk, part military briefing, I concluded that this big, fat, retarded guy was a royal pain in the ass. I also learned that he would be the first client I'd pick up on the route and the last one I'd drop off once the evening's festivities concluded. I was told that I had five clients to transport; and I was told to make sure that each always sat in his or her assigned seat in the Buick station wagon. Obviously, Harvey would sit in the wayback, "scouting up the rear," as my boss said. Monica and her brother, Eddie, a vaudevillian-type comedy team (Monica, the straight man or in this case, straight woman, and Eddie, the card), who also happened to be retarded twins in their late 20's, would sit behind me along with Richard, a 48 year old retarded man who delivered newspapers on a bicycle for a living. Richard was the most intelligent of our little group -- excluding me, of course. He'd been able to hold down a regular job for a considerable period of time--longer than I ever had at least. Richard was okay, I was told; and more important, he was good at giving directions, so if I got lost (which was likely), he'd be there to help. He knew the route really well. Richard the Navigator, I came to call him. He saved my butt on more than one night when I had no clue where we were supposed to be going.

Finally, little Bobby Knowles rode next to me in the front seat, riding shotgun. The place of honor. In addition to being retarded Bobby was a midget, or sure seemed like one, a little over four feet tall. He talked a mile a minute and was, in his own good natured way, a toady, the perfect "yes man"-- always full of compliments, "yes, sirs," "attaboys," and "right ons, righteous brother." Where he got that crap from, I will never know, but apparently, whatever Bobby said was pretty much copacetic because Bobby's parents were on the board of directors of the social service agency that now employed me. So I assumed they pulled a few strings and, lo and behold, Bobby got to ride shotgun. As usual, my assumption was wrong. Bobby got to ride shotgun for a much simpler reason: because he played the role of sidekick best. Besides, he was so short that without a booster seat, he wouldn't have been able to see anything if he sat in the back seat.

As we drove around in the beat-up old Buick, to kill time we listened to the radio, mostly top 40 tunes: The Eagles, Queen, Elton John, Billy Joel--good, classic stuff even today. Usually, I'd listen to the music and try to keep my mind off the inane, thoroughly repetitive dialogue I'd get night after night from Bobby, Monica, Eddie and Richard. Bobby's "yes, sir, no, sir" and "my righteous brother" stuff were starting to wear on me, even though he obviously admired and looked up to me. I had heard all of Monica's and Eddie's comedy routines to the point where I had better timing on their punch lines than either of them; and Richard was just incredibly boring -- good at directions -- but incredibly boring. All the guy ever did was give directions and talk about his paper route. Dull, dull, mega-dull.

Harvey was another story. Sure, he'd ask, beg, cajole and even occasionally threaten me every time I picked him up: Harvey always wanted to ride shotgun; and every time, consistent with my boss' very clear and very plain instructions, I'd tell him no.

"You know the rules, Harvey, my man. It's the wayback seat or nothing. So what's it going to be? You coming or not?"

Of course, Harvey would always come. These community relations experiences were the highlight of our clients' lives. Pretty sad when you really think about it, but for them going to the movies, out to dinner, shopping, or to a ball game was a small slice of humanity in an otherwise very dehumanizing existence.

So Harvey would stomp his feet, turn red, hold his breath and yell out: "Hell, hell, hell!" Then he would exile himself to the wayback seat and we'd be off to pick up the rest of the crew. Usually, Harvey would mumble to himself back there; but at other times he would carry on quite the conversation with whomever he was talking -- we never learned the identity of his invisible friend, or was it an invisible nemesis? Who knows? I could never figure out the point of these conversations, but they usually (to the extent I could hear, or had the slightest interest in listening) dealt with sports. Harvey would run down the day's scores with incredible accuracy. He displayed an encyclopedic knowledge of box scores, baseball statistics and the like. He wasn't an idiot savant, nothing like that. He was simply a retarded guy who was a crazed sports fan and had nothing better to do with his life than memorize the morning's box scores.

Then one day it happened. We were driving along on the way to the mall, as I remember, and a Four Seasons' song, Big Girls Don't Cry, came on. I loved that tune, so I turned up the volume loud enough that even Harvey could hear it in the wayback seat. He heard it all right. The most ear-piercing, brain-aching, bone-chilling sound came from the wayback seat as Harvey swayed back and forth, with his head bobbing up and down to the music, belting out the words to the song in a grotesquely high and brutally off-key voice. Everyone covered their ears in a vain attempt to shield themselves from the torture inflicted by this tone-deaf falsetto. I, of course, had to drive so all I could do was grit my teeth and yell at him to stop. It seems that hearing the melodious voices of the Four Seasons, and particularly, the wonderful falsetto of Frankie Valle, sent Harvey off, triggering some buried-down-deep desire to sing. Once it started, it was almost impossible to stop. Harvey knew the words to every song after that one; and he managed to butcher song after song (many that I really loved, but still can't listen to today) in his screeching, irritating, off-key falsetto. I changed stations, but no matter what kind of music was on -- country western, easy listening, golden-oldies -- Harvey would manage to sing along. Not hum along, sing along. I still don't know how he did it, but Harvey could even sing along with classical music. I never even knew there were words to some of those high-brow tunes. I never liked classical music much, but after hearing Harvey put words to these melodies, I literally couldn't stomach the masters: Mozart, Bach, Beethoven. I'm much better now--no more pangs of nausea when I hear a symphony. But, for safety's sake, I still avoid the stuff when and if I can. Strange, I know; but on reflection, I figure it's no great loss. At least I still have classic rock.

Finally, I got the brilliant idea of just turning the radio off -- and miraculously, Harvey stopped. No more singing. No more calamitous cacophony. No more fear-generating falsetto. But Bobby began to cry. Then when he started crying, Monica, Eddie and even Richard joined in as a tearful chorus, because they knew what was coming: the singing really hadn't stopped, it was just about to change. Harvey started singing Negro spirituals, a capella and beautifully. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Harvey had a wonderful voice, deep and resonant and mellifluous. I was moved, deeply touched by his singing. But for the life of me, I couldn't figure out why everyone else was crying. The tears were spreading like an unchecked virus in the beat-up Buick station wagon.

I tried to calm things down. "Hey, guys. What's up? Why the tears? Isn't Harvey's singing great?"

"No. No, it isn't," said Monica, between sobs. "It's awful. Bad, bad, bad. Harvey only sings like that 'cause you made him. You shut off the radio. Turn the radio back on so he can sing with it. Turn it on now!"

It was the first command that I had ever been given by a client.

"Yeah, Jack. Turn it on," echoed Eddie.

Even Richard chimed in: "Better do it, Jack," he cautioned.

"Yes, sir. Radio's coming back on. Yes, sir, Jack's righteous. He'll do it," peppered little motor mouth Bobby.

I was stunned and confused: "I don't understand. Harvey sings beautifully without the radio on, and his voice is terrible when he sings along. Let's face it, guys, and pardon my French, but Harvey really sucks when he sings with the radio. But this Negro spiritual stuff is beautiful."

"We don't care. We don't care. Turn it on now, Jack, or you'll pay." The

threatening words came from Monica's mouth, but the evil looks came from everyone.

"Harvey only sings like that because he feels like a big, old slave, with no freedom. Harvey says he's in chains and it hurts. That's what he told us. Yes, it is. He told us all right. Let him go, Jack. Please. Please let him go," begged Bobby.

His tears and those of Eddie, Richard and Monica were real. I didn't understand them -- but they were real.

I was getting frustrated by the whole experience and, for the first and only time, I let my frustration show as Harvey sat in the wayback seat oblivious to what was going on, singing beautiful spirituals, one after the other.

"What the hell! If you guys are going to be assholes about it, then fine. I'll put the radio back on. But you're going to get what you deserve." I then turned the radio back on. Appropriately, Elton John's The Bitch is Back came on and so did Harvey's off-key falsetto voice. The crying stopped, but the "if looks could kill" glances remained.

"Now, what's wrong?" I asked.

"You said a cuss word. You said a swear. You're in big trouble now, Jack. Really big trouble. Not righteous what you did. No way. No sir," Bobby stammered on and on.

"Hey, ease up, Bobby. I didn't mean it. I'm sorry. Let's just forget about it. Okay?"

"No, sir. No way. Not righteous to forget about it. No way, man."

I decided it was best to just drop it. And when I dropped everyone home that evening, Monica, Eddie, Richard and Bobby, they all acted as if nothing strange or untoward had happened.

I had learned not to challenge these people -- instruct them, yes, challenge them, no. So I said nothing further and simply let it be.

But when I was alone with Harvey, I asked him what was going on and, in particular, I asked how he had learned to sing so beautifully. He was silent. He either didn't hear or was purposefully ignoring me.

" Hey, Harvey," I asked, "can you hear me back there?"

"Yup," he answered.

"Well, I want to know. Where'd you learn to sing like that?"

"I'll only tell if you let me ride shotgun. Then I'll tell you."

I had been warned repeatedly about not allowing Harvey to ride shotgun. In fact, I had been warned so many times that I assumed getting caught would be grounds for dismissal. So I chickened out.

"Sorry, Harvey. You know the rules. No riding shotgun."

We rode the rest of the way in silence.

The next day I was fired for swearing at the clients. Little Bobby Knowles, my right on, righteous pal, turned me in to his parents, telling them how I had used the cuss words, "suck" and "asshole." I admitted saying these words when I was confronted by Mr. Wheaton; and I apologized to him just as I had done to the clients. But it was to no avail. So long summer job. No matter, I didn't hold a grudge against any of them. Anyway, the job did suck and summer was just about over. I got over it. And over time and after many years, I not only forgot about being fired, but I also forgot about Monica, Eddie, Richard, my little sidekick Bobby, and even Harvey.

Then the other day, while I was in the supermarket, hunting as usual in the cracker and cookie aisle for something very special to calm and silence my ever- grumbling stomach, I spotted Harvey. Sure, it had been almost 20 years since I had last laid eyes on him, and, yes, he was older and his hair was graying, but it was Harvey. He was with two other disabled-looking men of about the same age, I'd say early 50's, and a counselor, a friendly-looking, idealistic twenty-something year old kid, not unlike me years ago. They were out shopping for food, learning "basic survival skills" or something like that. I figured that Harvey and the others probably lived in a group home.

I decided to watch as they went aisle to aisle, gathering up their supplies, feasting on words of instruction and encouragement from their counselor. I kept my distance though: I didn't expect that Harvey would recognize me, but I also didn't know what I'd do if by some chance he did. I figured it was a real long shot, with me having gained 30 pounds of pure flab and having lost 50 percent of my hair since Harvey and I last met. But I'm a pretty conservative guy and I decided to stay at a safe distance, out of sight, just in case.

Harvey and his comrades went through the checkout counter and wheeled their cart up to a big, new red Minivan, today's upscale version of the Buick with the wayback seat. Harvey helped his two friends load the grocery bags in the back and then they all filed in. Harvey's two buddies got in the back seat and he eased himself into the passenger seat, riding shotgun.

It was a warm July night and they began to drive away with the windows open, smiling and laughing. Harvey looked happy, contented and truly free of any worry. I was happy for him as well. But I was also saddened by the thought that I had never let Harvey ride shotgun. And, for the first time I realized that although Harvey may have been "slow," I was the one who had been disabled by ignorance. I never saw, or treated, Harvey as a real, unique, valuable person. I just accepted what my old boss, Mr. Wheaton had to say, adopting his opinion of Harvey; and, therefore to me, Harvey wasn't human, but only a big, fat retarded "client" and a royal pain in the ass. I never listened to Harvey, or tried to see the world from his perspective. I never gave the guy a chance.

As they pulled out of the parking lot, I heard Harvey begin to sing a Negro spiritual. The words may have been mournful, but carried on the wings of his angelic voice they sounded uplifting and inspirational. And that's how I felt -- inspired by his voice, his special gift -- as I watched the back of Harvey's head bob up and down, his body swaying side to side, keeping time to the music, perfectly accompanied by the flash of tail-lights as the Minivan braked just before it exited the parking lot and eased onto the roadway for its trip home.