I once met a guy with only one arm. But I had no idea. I thought he had both arms.
The guy with the missing arm and I sat together daily at a cafe one summer in 1987. I was in college and his older brother had introduced us at a party. By this time I had decided on getting an art degree after four years of studying everything and changing degrees several times.
Jerome always wore a flannel shirt over the t-shirt underneath. He was soft-spoken with blue eyes and a shy smile that drew me in. I wanted to be his friend from the moment I met him. Sitting there over coffee it felt like we spoke for hours about everything. Jerome had a presence. He grounded the space we were in.
Sometimes we sat in silence. Jerome liked to sketch and doodle in his journal. I loved to read and was in the middle of Henry Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch. We found natural pauses to talk about life. Yes, maybe that’s what I liked about him. We both sensed that the world was full of adventure.
Jerome was only there for the summer, visiting his brother. We both sensed this season of friendship would end. Knowing this we hung out together nearly every day for the next eight weeks.
I had a summer job a few blocks away from the cafe. It was not full-time and after work I would find a table outdoors, either joining Jerome or waiting for him to arrive.
I had other friends and some of them were around for the summer. None of them knew Jerome. Many of us knew his brother though.
Arriving at the cafe one day I saw Jerome already sitting there sketching. Three of my friends waved me over to their table before I could join him. One of them asked me if I knew why Jerome only had one arm.
“Huh?” I asked in disbelief.
“He has no left arm,” one of them answered as if to prove a point.
“He’s missing an arm? Really?” I replied as if my friends were lying or pulling a gag.
Looks of surprise on three faces. One looked at me as if I was blind and said, “He only has one arm dude!”
My look of puzzlement continued.
“You mean you don’t know? How could you not know?” another friend asked.
“Well, I will go ask him,” I answer and head over to Jerome’s table.
Sitting down, our eyes meet. “I have a question,” I say.
“Ok,” is all Jerome says.
I am looking now at the long sleeve flannel shirt and the left arm is clearly missing. I cannot believe my eyes. “What is going on?” I silently wonder.
Taking a breath I lead with, “Until a moment ago when some friends pointed it out I never knew you were missing your left arm. They want to know what happened.”
His head nods and he leans back in the white plastic chair.
“It was really stupid. I had decided to hop on a moving train. When I reached out to grab a handle the force was so strong it ripped my arm right out of its socket.”
We sat there eye to eye for a few seconds.
We all do stupid things in our life.
A flash image of me at six years old showing off to Toni, the girl across the street.
I am braced in a reverse tabletop on two low brick walls in her yard. I told her I could remove my hands and put them back before my head hits the wall. A gleam in her eyes egged me on. I failed. I walk calmly home and into the kitchen where my parents are entertaining guests. “I have a problem,” I said. They all look puzzled. I reached my hand up to my hair and turned the palm to them. It is covered in blood. An emergency room trip and six stitches later I was fine.
No stitches could fix Jerome.
“I’m sorry man,” I say
He shrugs and says, “It happened.”
Jerome had such composure and grace. That is what I remember from that summer. Sometimes we struggle to get hold of so much in our lives. You may think or worry about your impact on this world. I carry his story 35 years later.
Note: A big shout-out to Cam Houser who first heard me tell a part of this story in his wonderful Minimum Viable Video course. Today he asked me if I had told this story in writing. Here you go.