The Gift of Gil

Scores of Denverites have opened their lives to an autistic man named Gilbert Carpinelli with the hope of helping him out.

February 2008

What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment.—Viktor Frankl

"C'mon!" barks the voice. "Let me take that thing for a ride!"

The bicycle shop is bustling on this warm, late-spring afternoon. Customers wearing bright spandex and stiff-soled cycling shoes heel-toe around the store, waiting for help, ogling the shiny rigs, trying not to stare at the owner of the voice.

"Let me take that bike out!" the voice repeats, demanding to be heard.

The nearest clerk continues to help another customer, but the voice insists, issuing proclamations and demands with an unlikely combination of cannonball-bass and scratchy-falsetto, like shouts from a drill sergeant with a case of laryngitis. Within moments of the voice's first demand, an otherwise unremarkable day at that bike shop—with customers buying replacement tubes and mechanics fixing out-of-whack derailleurs—had become fraught. What had been a series of simple consumer transactions had suddenly become a more personal matter. You could engage the voice—but then what? Would you learn something about the person behind the voice? Would you learn something about yourself—something that could make you feel uncomfortable, even guilty? Or would the interaction take you down another path? Everyone, including me, seems to decide simultaneously that it's better not to go there. No one even looks in the direction of the voice for fear of making eye contact.

The voice grows excitable. "I wanna take that bike for a ride!" But the shop clerk remains unfazed as he responds in a genuinely friendly tone. "Gilbert," he says calmly. All eyes are watching now. "I can't let you take a bike out. Remember last time? You ran into a car, and we had to pay for the damage."

The customers' faces demonstrate a collective sigh of relief. Ah-ha, the look says. We get it. He's a regular. His name is Gilbert.

Gilbert looks across the room at what I can only assume is his bike. It's a slapped-together contraption that looks like a low-rider motorcycle, with a red and blue, flame-painted gas tank, a shiny tailpipe attached to the frame with hose clamps, a custom rearview mirror, chrome fenders, ape-hanger handlebars, and accoutrements that would make Pee Wee Herman look like a minimalist. By the looks of it, the bike must weigh 80 pounds.

And Gilbert, the owner of the bike—the owner of that voice!—he's a sight to behold, too. He turns slightly, affording me a generous view. It's OK to look now, and I do. It's impossible not to. He wears black motorcycle boots and a pair of oversized black chinos belted above his scrawny waist. Skinny as a spoke and just under six feet tall, he has a small, angular face, with sun wrinkles at the sides of his hazel eyes. He wears a blue bandana on his head, like a do-rag, and a denim jacket with an embroidered biker-gang-style insignia with angel wings. He looks about 40, but with the get-up it's hard to tell.

And he's smiling, giving off a buzz like a sugar-high child, exposing a wall of pink gums and a set of miniature Chiclets for teeth.

Now, as the customers and I watch with a greater sense of comfort, Gilbert makes one last request for a test ride, a grand, high-decibel effort to sample a shiny new cruiser. "C'mon, man!" he says. "I wanna take that thing outside and make it fly like an eagle!"

Gil came into the bike shop when I was working there for as long as any of us can remember. His bike is his life, so that made us a part of his life. We were always happy to see him. He came in pretty much every day after lunch, and he brightened things, y'know, put some sunshine in our day. We worked on his bike, or just let him use our tools. Sometimes he would nap in the basement. Until recently, he rode a different bike; it was the same style, but even bigger. He called it Thunder. He had Thunder for years, but someone gave him another bike, which he calls Thunder Junior. At some point we realized that Gil plays a bit of guitar. Someone hipped him to the fact that I have recording equipment, and Gil hounded me until I brought it in. I set it up in the basement of the shop, and told him to play guitar and sing for a couple of hours. He played all Christmas songs. You should hear him sing. His voice is angelic.—Jeremy D'Antonio, former bicycle mechanic, Turin Bicycles

There he is again, a month later, riding his bicycle westbound on 38th Avenue near Lowell. I'd been wondering about Gilbert, but I never figured I'd see him again. Even from behind, I can see that he's projecting that voice, talking to everyone, to no one, to himself. I drive past Gilbert and notice in the rearview mirror that he's smiling. He rides so slowly that his front wheel barely tracks straight. I drive a few blocks and pull over. I tell myself that it could be inconsiderate to disrupt him, but there's something about Gilbert that makes me defy my own advice. I get out of the car as he approaches.

"Excuse me," I say. "Are you Gilbert?" It's all I can muster.

"Yup!" He looks straight ahead and keeps riding.

"I, uh, uh..." It occurs to me that Gilbert won't be stopping to chat, so I walk alongside him. "I've seen you at the bike shop. I hear you ride a lot. I was hoping to ask you about all the bike riding you do."

"Gotta go to the game shop!"

"Game shop?" I'm speed-walking now.

"Game shop!"

"OK, when will you be at the bike shop?"

"Dunno. Goin' to the game shop!"

Now I'm trotting. "Where's that?"

"Goin' to the game shop!"

"Is it near here?"

"Goin' to the game shop!"

I've increased my pace to a slow jog. Drivers in passing cars are staring at me. My own vehicle is a block away—the engine is still running, the door is slightly ajar. Gilbert looks ahead, but I can see that he has me in his peripheral vision. His smile suggests that he's about to have a laugh at my expense. "OK," I say, "maybe I'll try to find you at the bike shop so we can—"

He interrupts, still fixated on the road, still pedaling and smiling. "You can try to keep up with me," he says, "but this bike's pretty darn fast!"

The other guys at the fire station and I gave Gilbert his own locker and an old uniform, and just about every day he comes in, gets in uniform, and has breakfast with us. I always tease him and say, "Gil, you missed roll call." He calls me Rick-tenant, which is a combination of my name and rank. He helps with housecleaning, like sweeping the floors and arranging the hoses—he calls them "fuzzy." Gil really makes an impression on people, with that high, Gomer Pyle voice and the biker outfit. Some people can be turned off by that. But if you take the time necessary to try to understand Gil, and to get close to him and see what's happening in Gil's world—to get what I call the Gil Experience—well, it's very worthwhile. He opens my eyes to how lucky I am, and how lucky Gil is to have a support system. He has friends all over the city—I mean everywhere. One morning some other firemen and I took Gil on the rig and went for breakfast burritos. We all walked in, wearing our uniforms, and everyone behind the counter started saying, "Hey Gil, how's it going?" kinda like he's Norm on Cheers. That's when I realized it wasn't just me who understood the Gil Experience.—Lieutenant Rick Nuanes, Denver Fire Department, Station 17