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.
“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
Gilbert Carpinelli is looking at my shoes and smiling. “Fuzzy!” he says. I’m standing in the doorway of a cramped back office of a health clinic on Federal and 41st Avenue. Musty books and scattered bills cram the room, which holds the ripe but comforting smell of a public library. A small woman, in her mid-60s, with gray shoulder-length hair and bangs, sits at a desk, finishing a phone call. After hanging up, she swivels around in her chair and extends a hand. Her name is Kate Springs. After running into Gilbert on 38th Avenue, I’d thought about Gil all too regularly, though my interest remained inexplicable. I’d encountered plenty of eccentric and unique characters before and never bothered to track them down. Yet something had compelled me to leave my car idling and run alongside Gil while he rode his bike down a busy street, and something had moved me to return to the bike shop where I’d first seen him to find out how to locate Gil. The owner of the store had put me in touch with Kate, and explained that she and her husband, Dr. Bob Springs, look after Gilbert. On the phone, Kate told me she’d be delighted to talk about Gil. “It’s important that when people see someone like Gil, they see a real person,” she’d said for the first of many times.
Back in the office, Kate offers me a chair. “Fuzzy is a good thing,” she says. “When Gil likes something, it’s fuzzy. Fuzzy or softy. Right Gil?” We both look to Gilbert for an answer. A few seconds pass, as if he’s contemplating the question.
“Yup.” More silence. He looks directly at me, yet right through me. It’s impossible to tell if Gilbert is fixed on the conversation, or some front-of-his-mind preoccupation, or absolutely nothing, but I’m certain he’s not focusing on all three. For Gilbert, who is acutely autistic, that would be impossible.
Autism is a developmental brain disorder of unknown origins. “Aut” derives from the Greek “auto,” meaning self, and autism is, literally, a disorder of the self. It’s not the self-obsession we connect with vanity, or the selfishness we connect with greed, but an unwitting and withdrawn self-absorption, free of the motives that plague those of us who are not autistic. Acute autistics, like Gilbert, practice pattern-driven, often painstakingly repetitive behavior. Their obsessions are virtually unbreakable; an interruption in routine can cause great unrest. Autistics are often extremely quiet or excessively loud, hyper-engaged or completely aloof. They can be highly intelligent and wired with brilliant recall skills, especially concerning numbers and formulas and puzzles.
Gilbert’s disorder precludes him from carrying on a traditional dialogue, with its volley of questions and answers, arguments and counter-arguments, thoughtfully expressed logic and reason. He rarely says more than a sentence or two at a time. A letter from Bob Springs to the Denver Housing Authority on Gilbert’s behalf reads, in part: “He is unable to read and is incapable of mature decision-making. He needs someone to care for his daily needs, such as purchasing and preparing food, washing clothes, and maintaining living quarters. He is unable to cope with alteration in daily scheduling, placement of items in his surroundings, or almost any variation in plans. Gilbert speaks in an excited high-pitched monotone that can be mistaken for hostility.”
Sitting in the office with Gilbert and Kate, it only takes a moment to recognize the severity of Gil’s autism. “Gil was born in Denver. Right, Gil?” Kate speaks deliberately, as if directing her questions at a forever-five-year-old child, or an elderly man who’s hard of hearing.
“When was that, Gil?”
“Long time ago.”
“Do you remember when?”
“February 1966, right, Gil?”
I was once in a bad motorcycle wreck, and I was hospitalized for two weeks. Gil came by every morning, and he’d sit there with his hand on me. When my husband, Larry, and I renewed our vows, we had a huge ceremony on Ruby Hill. It was one of the biggest biker weddings in Denver history, and Gil was our ring-bearer. He comes to the Keg Lounge on 38th some Saturday nights and puts his face on the pool-table velvet and says “fuzzy.” All the biker clubs know him and look out for him, especially the Bandidos. I did the embroidery on Gil’s jacket; it has angel wings and the words “God’s Child.” That’s what Gil is—a child of God. My company is called Free Eagles Embroidery, and Gil thinks Free Eagles is the name of an actual biker club. He’ll say, “You’re Momma Eagle, Larry’s Daddy Eagle, and I’m Baby Eagle.” Once, a bunch of us bikers had him ride with us for a few blocks; we went real slowly alongside him, and Gil was just so excited. He kept yelling, “Alright! I’m riding with the Free Eagles!”—Debby Carrillo, Free Eagles Embroidery, Denver
Vincent Carpinelli and Betty June Callahan met in a Pueblo, Colorado, psychiatric ward in the early 1960s, when mental illness was taboo and psychiatry wasn’t part of the national conversation. Betty was in her mid-30s; Vincent was in his early 20s. After the couple was released from the hospital, they got married; Gilbert Wayne Carpinelli was born on February 8, 1966, in Denver.
The three lived next door to Vincent’s sister, Rose, and her own family on Osage Street, in north Denver. Around the time Gilbert started walking and talking, everyone could see he was different. He obsessed over things. His meltdowns were longer and louder than normal. He repeated himself, or he didn’t talk at all. He stared right through people.
Vincent and Betty took Gilbert to doctors and learned that he was autistic. The Carpinellis handled their son’s strange condition the way most people dealt with developmental disorders in the late 1960s: They didn’t. They just had a skinny little son who was how he was. As Gilbert got older, he refused to bathe. He slept in his clothes. He wore long underwear every day, year-round. Yet, Gil loved going next door to visit his Aunt Rose and Uncle John. He felt comfortable there. He’d take a bath without argument. He’d undress before bed and slip into a pair of John’s fuzzy pajamas.
Despite their parental shortcomings, Vincent and Betty loved Gilbert, and did their best to help him grow. One day Vincent brought Gilly a guitar, which he strummed and strummed while listening to Mexican music on the radio. He couldn’t get enough of those old ranchero songs. He loved their layered guitars and accordions and warm Mexican baritones. The music comforted Gil and made him a music lover for life.
Next came a bicycle, which was a far greater challenge than a guitar. Looking ahead, pedaling, steering, listening to Vincent bark instructions—it was all too much for Gil, an onslaught of orders that disrupted the finely calibrated machinations in his head. There was no space in Gil’s brain for riding a bicycle.
Gilbert attended the special-ed departments of his public grade school and middle school before graduating from West High, learning all the while how rotten kids can be. That voice, they’d say. Gilbert Carpinelli is loud and looking for trouble. Of course, Gil was in search of no such thing. But every now and then something had to be done. What was he supposed to do—not fight back?
And then, sometime in his late teens, Gilbert got back on his bicycle. Perhaps it was a means for mobility and freedom that would deliver him into adulthood. Or perhaps it was simply another interest, a fuzzy object worthy of Gilbert’s love and attention for reasons that only he could answer in his head. Regardless, neither Gilbert nor Betty nor Vincent could have known the significance that riding a bike would have on Gil’s life. No one could have forseen how the simple two-wheeled machine would deliver him from one world to another and bring him into contact with so many disparate Denver residents—including me. As his Aunt Rose recalls: “Once he started riding, there was no getting between Gilbert and that bike.”
One year when Gilbert was very young, Gil and Vincent and Betty moved to Spokane, Washington. Betty knew a bit about farming, so they raised chickens. They were soft and fuzzy, and Gilly loved those baby chickens. He’d pick them up and pet them. He’d hold them to his lips and kiss them. He’d blow on their feathers. He’d say, “Soft chickens. Fuzzy!” I’m pretty sure that’s why he calls everything fuzzy.—Rose Carpinelli, Gilbert’s aunt, Arvada
A Sunday in north Denver, 1985. Gilbert, 21, was riding his bike near the intersection of Federal Boulevard and 37th Avenue in front of North Presbyterian church. A hymn emanated from the pipe organ and drifted outside on the breeze. Gil came upon the airy vibrations, dismounted his bicycle, and walked into the church, mid-worship. Following his ears, he proceeded straight up the center aisle toward the altar. The place was half full, and everyone inside could see Gil, but the service continued as if this had been rehearsed. It was a typical Gilbert moment: A crowd of strangers sized him up and decided to see how the scene would play out. Gil approached the altar, then walked over to the source of the music and pressed a cheek against the side of the organ, smiled big, and began petting the instrument. “Softy,” he said. “Fuzzy-fuzzy-fuzzy-fuzzy!”
Dr. Bob Springs witnessed Gil’s odd performance from the pews that Sunday. Bob had moved to Denver in 1969, and through his work at the West Side Neighborhood Health Center he had contact with the Institute of Cultural Affairs, a social services group that leaned heavily on the philosophy of Viktor Frankl, the Austrian-Jewish Auschwitz survivor and psychiatrist. Frankl was a big proponent of Eastern-style self-empowerment, of improving one’s own life—and by extension the lives of others—through positive thinking and attitude change. In his seminal work, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl writes, “The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.” Six years after Bob moved to Denver, Kate Collins was transferred from the Institute of Cultural Affairs’ Cleveland office to the Denver location. Like Bob, she was a veteran civil rights activist and champion of the poor and underserved. Kate and Bob were both divorced with kids; two for him, four for her. Before long they were married with three kids of their own. Kate went to church in Park Hill; Bob went to North Presbyterian.
Gilbert returned to North Presbyterian the Sunday after his inaugural visit, and every Sunday after that. He befriended the pastor, and much of the congregation got to know Gil and his loud yet magnetic charm. Bob Springs liked Gil. One of his stepsons, Sean, was the same age. Sometimes Bob would tell Kate about Gilbert—about his unexpected performance at the altar, about how he always said “fuzzy” as way of showing affection. Bob and Kate laughed the way people do about things that are sad and sweet and make your stomach feel hollow and heavy.
About 10 or 12 years ago, Gilbert came into the Foreign Legion Hall at 42nd Avenue and Pecos Street and got up on stage with the band. He started singing Christmas carols, and we just got such a kick out of him. He’s a good dancer, and I love dancing with him. He pets my hair and says “fuzzy,” which was strange at first, but that’s just Gil. He doesn’t mean anything by it. Singing with the band is a regular thing for him. They’ll say, “Gilbert to the bandstand,” and he’ll get on stage and play the maracas and sing. Mexican music is his favorite. He always sings that song “Hey Baby, Que Paso?” and everyone in the room just loves it. And they love Gil. He calls me and my husband Mom and Dad. He has so many moms and dads.—Gladys Montoya, member, American Legion, Post 204, Denver
Kate Springs’ son Sean was the same age as Gilbert. The firstborn, Sean was handsome and intelligent and thoughtful. After high school, Sean studied writing and history in Washington, D.C., but left college before he’d completed his first year and enlisted in the Navy. After his stint in the armed services, Sean returned to D.C., where he did mental health evaluations for the homeless. Eventually he moved to Los Angeles in the early ’90s to try writing professionally. He waited tables at a fancy restaurant at night, and a few days a week he looked after an autistic man. Whether by nature or by nurture, Sean was just like Kate; he improved himself and the world around him by looking after others in need. He eventually wound up in New York City, where he spent his early and mid-30s as a struggling playwright, and fought intermittent battles with depression. Kate and Bob knew that Sean had sought therapy, and had taken medication for his depression, but the Springs didn’t realize how bad things truly were. Kate was on a road trip to Wyoming in August 2002 when she got the call on her cell phone. It was one of her daughters. Sean is gone, she said. He’s gone. Sean was 36 when he took his own life.
At the time of Sean’s death, Gilbert was still a mere acquaintance to the Springs. He’d been making his daily rounds through Denver, culminating each week with an appearance at North Presbyterian. His mother, Betty, had died a few years earlier, and Gil and Vincent moved to Section 8 housing in Five Points. The arrangement wasn’t right for a guy like Gil. There were drugs and booze around the house, paid for with Gilbert’s disability checks. By February 2003, Vincent had brought in a roommate to offset costs. One night, things got out of control. Only the three men who lived there know the precise details, but this much is certain: There was an argument between Gil and the roommate over some money—Gil’s money. The roommate came unhinged and assaulted Gil, like the children who’d pushed him around back in school. Vincent stood by and did nothing to protect his son. Gilbert ran out of the house, hopped on his bike, and rode across town. The next morning, North Presbyterian pastor Heidi McGinness opened her door and found Gilbert, then 37 years old, huddled on the porch, shivering in the February cold.
North Presbyterian’s parishioners agreed to put Gilbert on a housing rotation, each family taking him in for a few weeks at a time. He landed at the Springs’ house around April of 2003. “We just knew it wasn’t fair for Gilbert to be passed around like that,” says Kate. “He needed stability. He needed security and a family and a support system. In the past, I’ve always given my time to bigger causes, like fighting poverty, or the civil rights movement. But there’s something about this individual, Gilbert, that calls forth the kindness in people. He has a kind of magnetism,” she said.
In fall of 2003, the Springs bought a Sunnyside bungalow for Gilbert, where he now lives with a caretaker, who’s also a member of North Presbyterian. “Without this kind of arrangement,” Bob Springs wrote to Denver Housing Authority, “Gilbert would need to be placed in an institutional setting which would be less safe for him. I strongly recommend that you facilitate this arrangement.”
Vincent was evicted after the incident in Five Points. For his part, he let the Springs know that his son would be better off under their care. No one has heard from him since. He’s unlisted, and his name doesn’t show up in the database for the Denver coroner’s office. The Springs, and Aunt Rose, want Vincent to know that Gilbert is doing well.
Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality.—Viktor Frankl
You’ve never seen a face light up until you’ve seen Gilbert Carpinelli when Kate Springs walks into North Presbyterian. His lips part, exposing that huge pink smile. Gil hugs Kate; Kate hugs him back. When Kate turns to talk to a fellow churchgoer, Gil blows on her hair. “Fuzzy!” he says. Later, Kate and I are alone and I remark how much Gil clearly loves her. She smiles and says, “Well, I love him, too, Mike.”
We’re standing in the lobby before the worship. Today is Father’s Day, and every year since Gilbert left Five Points, he and Bob have spent this holiday together, riding bikes. Gilbert fiddles with his bike, Thunder Junior, and then looks at me and says, “We’re going for a big bike ride today, Michael. It’s gonna be a great day.” This is the most he’ll ever say to me at once, but it’s more than enough.
After the service we eat hamburgers—Gil calls them “meat sandwiches”—at the Springs’, and then Bob and Gil and I load up Bob’s old Toyota Camry and head to the bike path at 55th and Lowell. “Fuzzy-fuzzy-fuzzy-fuzzy!” Gil says, as we strap on helmets and sip from water bottles. Today we’re riding clear to Westminster. Gil takes off before I finish tying my shoes. Bob and I catch up and pass him. Then Gil steps on it and says, “I’m gonna put the hammer down, Dad!” before riding away at approximately four miles per hour with a smile as wide as his handlebars. “I can fly like an eagle! Fuzzy-fuzzy-fuzzy!”
Bob catches up to Gilbert and shouts back, “I’m gonna put the hammer down on you, Gilly.” And Gil just beams. This continues for about two hours and a dozen miles or more. The three of us play a casual game of bicycle leapfrog, riding triple-file for a few hundred yards, passing, dropping back, alternating positions. Later, at the bottom of a steep incline, Gilbert puts his feet on the ground, stands on tiptoe over the frame of Thunder Junior, and walks the 80-pound hog to the top; Gil never gets off and pushes. “I love to go for a bike ride with my dad on Father’s Day,” he says. “This a great Sunday, Michael.”
“It sure is, Gil,” I say.
After cresting the hill, Gilbert’s back on Thunder Junior, pedaling like mad, trying to leave Bob and me in the dust. “Fuzzy-fuzzy-fuzzy-fuzzy,” he says. Bob catches up and rides alongside Gil for a moment. Then he moves in close and shouts at the top of his lungs, “Fly like an eagle, Gilly. Fly like an eagle!”
Mike Kessler is an editor-at-large for 5280. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.