About a week ago or so, a local TV channel played that movie they made about the life and career of Andy Kaufman. The theme song for that movie was “The Man in the Moon” by R.E.M. Whenever I hear that song, I'm instantly transported back to Kenwood Avenue in West Peoria of fifty years ago, and the face that comes to mind is that of Jimmy Knotts, the sweet, shy, developmentally challenged boy that lived across the street from me back then.
Anyone who has read Harper Lee's American masterpiece “To Kill a Mockingbird,” or seen the wonderful movie based on it starring Gregory Peck as the small town lawyer Atticus Finch, is probably already familiar with the character Boo Radley, played by a young Robert Duvall in that film. Boo Radley is a shy, developmentally challenged man thought to be a dangerous maniac by the people of the neighborhood, but instead winds up saving the life of Atticus Finche's daughter Scout from the hands of a drunken redneck psychopath.
Our neighborhood in Peoria had it's own version of Boo Radley back then, his name was Jimmy Knotts. Jimmy's chronological age would have been about 19 or 20 back then, but as fate would have it, Jimmy would be consigned to be a seven or eight year old child until the end of his days. In days of old, before political correctness changed medical terminology forever, Jimmy was considered to be what was known then as a clinical moron.
Jimmy made the parents of the neighborhood a little nervous—he was after all, kind of big and awful strong and could be seen wandering aimlessly back and fourth in front of his house from time to time, and our folks would warn us kids to keep our distance from Jimmy, even though he was gentle as a kitten. Jimmy wouldn't hurt a fly. But Jimmy did however have a peculiar obsession, it was with the “Man in the Moon” that Jimmy was convinced lived in the house next door to ours. You see, there was a trick of the light in the front hallway of our next door neighbors house, that of the Steubers, that had Jimmy convinced that the Man in the Moon lived there.
Around ten or ten thirty at night when summer was high and the weather was warm and humid Jimmy would slip out of his house and wander over to the Steubers and press his face against the their front door to check out The Man in the Moon. Most people in the neighborhood thought it was funny, some people thought it was creepy, but everybody (including the police) knew what the deal was with Jimmy. It was kind of a ritual—the cops would come sliding by in their cruiser, and there would be old Jimmy with his face pressed up against the fan light window of the Steuber's front door. The cops would gently herd Jimmy back to his own house where his parents would shake their heads and take him back in and get him ready for bed while the cops would smile a sad little smile and head on back to their cruiser, as hundreds of fire flies danced on the warm summer air of a West Peoria night, and the real moon would come out from behind a bank of clouds and look down kindly upon us all.
Peoria of fifty years ago was a very different place than the world I've learned to grudgingly accept over the ensuing decades. It was a charmed place with a kind of timeless magic about it—so very much like Andy Taylor's Mayberry that my heart breaks open and bleeds a little whenever I see a syndicated re-run of “The Andy Griffith Show.” Kenwood Avenue was so much like that back then and I can't help but wonder how a sweet harmless creature like Jimmy would have made out in some of the meaner and less forgiving places that I've knocked around in since my childhood in Peoria. God knows, I've known some Minneapolis cops in my time that would have blown poor Jimmy away like lint if he made so much as one funny move (that is, if the damn local gang bangers hadn't gotten to him first).
I'm sad to say that I actually did lose a friend that way, and he wasn't developmentally challenged, but he was a manic depressive who chose to self medicate and eventually lost his job, his common-law wife and his apartment because of this and was murdered under a bridge with a butcher's knife by another homeless man after engaging him in an argument while deep in the throws of a manic episode. There was nothing left of him but a chalk outline on the pavement with a red stain in the middle of it. Aside from that it was as if he never existed at all.
About thirteen years ago, after quitting the cab company I worked for in disgust over the money and all of the stuff I had to put up with driving for the company. Afterwards I wound up buying a personal car and going to work as a driver for a medical transportation company. My job more or less was driving various patients around to their medical appointments, and two of my regulars were very severely developmentally challenged. Let's just refer to them as “Tom and Jerry.”
Tom's development was arrested at about the kindergarten level, while Jerry was so far gone he could barely speak. Both Tom and Jerry also suffered from some kind of rare disorder, something involving the inner ear, whereas any sudden movement or sharp, loud sound caused them extreme discomfort. Tom and Jerry had radically different ways of dealing with the disorder—Tom would cover his head and face if you coughed or sneezed in his vicinity and yell “Ow...ow...ow...”
Jerry's reaction to a sneeze or a cough would be to physically assault the offending party. I would have to pick them both up in the morning three times a week and drive them to their various programs, at the same time and in the same car—my car.
Tom had a tendency to sneeze and cough. And when Tom did sneeze or cough, Jerry would lunge over the back seat and attack Tom, slapping him in the back of the head and growling while Tom cried “Ow...ow...ow!”
Imagine, if you will, having Jason Voorhees in your back seat on the freeway at sixty miles an hour—wheeeee! What fun! And if you yell at Jerry to cut the shit, he'd sit back there and literally growl at you.
Well, I just couldn't have that and my boss agreed with me, this was a major league public safety issue which had to be dealt with. So, my boss and I went to the hardware store and bought a sheet of plexiglass, some brackets and other assorted fasteners and constructed a safety wall between the front seat and the back seat, similar to the kind in a police squad car, but perhaps not as well made as theirs, but at the time we thought it would do.
We thought we had the problem dicked. How wrong we were. One day, Tom had to stay home, so I was scheduled to pick up another patient, A very tightly wound bi-polar middle aged woman who sat in the front seat, with Jerry riding in the back seat behind the plexiglass. Before the ride began, I warned the lady about Jerry in the back seat and said it was in everybody's best interest to be as quiet as possible.
Jerry was in the back seat behind the plexiglass with snot running out of his nose and growling at the poor woman. She didn't look all that thrilled to have Jerry behind her like that, plexiglass or not. I didn't blame her. Well, before long, we were underway and things were going smoothly, when suddenly the lady sneezed, and Jerry went berserk and knocked the plexiglass right off it's mounting brackets trying to get at her, slapping her all upside the head while we were on the freeway at sixty miles an hour.
I pulled the car over at a bus stop, turned around and yelled: “Jerry, goddammit, knock that off or I’m coming back there to show you how it’s really done!”
Jerry sat there and growled at me, my bi-polar lady passenger was huddled under the glove compartment with her hands over her head, and later on that day, I resigned and went back to work as a cab driver.
Besides my time in Peoria with Jimmy Knotts living across the street, this was my only other experience with the developmentally challenged. I could have done nicely without it.
All that aside, some times I wonder what old Jimmy saw when he was looking through the Steubers front door window, while he was holding palaver with his Man in the Moon.
Whenever I hear the song, “Man in the Moon” by R.E.M., I'm suddenly smelling the warm summer air of Peoria of long ago, and I swear I can see fire flies, lots of them—and the moon breaking free of the clouds, riding high in the summer night sky and looking down on me...in Peoria...