A city generally benefits from a few flamboyants and in this way, my hometown of Lenoir, NC, was especially fortunate. A city of only about 17,000, Lenoir made a welcome home to all sorts of eccentrics. A typical example was Sadie, a revered Southern lady who’s eyesight began failing long before anyone could summon the courage to suggest she stop driving. But we all recognized her car and so drivers simply pulled to the shoulder as she drove straight down the middle, on top of the yellow line. But of these many fantastic souls, there was one in particular who loomed especially large — Willard.
Seeing Willard was something. Something to talk about and most certainly to be remembered. When he showed up, he could be just about anything — a Convict, General Patton, Wonder Woman — and anywhere — atop a billboard with his red Superman Cape flapping in the wind or at the local movie theater disguised, just as ET on the screen, in a hooded parka and gloves, this despite the sweltering heat of a Southern summer. Willard was, as I heard it described so often, “Diff’rent.”
Willard’s mother used to make his costumes for him. These were wonderful and included crafty renditions of Elvis, Tarzan, an Indian Chief and more. He paraded them around town in a slow stroll along Harper Avenue or through the aisles of the local drug store. And there was a time he was married and his wife, right by his side, joined in, dressed for example as Tonto to his Lone Ranger. But even when he wasn’t in costume, Willard was a welcome site. When he showed up at the local pool, kids would swarm around him and he’d join in games of shark because he was so like a kid, too. I no longer live in Lenoir, but in the years since, I have been especially proud to know that I came from a city that most assuredly found a welcome place in the community for all sorts, Willard being the most extreme example of our open arms.
A few months ago, I posted a question about Willard on my Facebook page. It seemed obvious, from my friend’s responses, I’m not the only one with a fond memory of him. People replied with tales of their own Willard-sightings, added links to songs written about him and from those who still lived in or near Lenoir, came a few disappointing updates. Willard is 65 years old now. His wife hasn’t been seen for some time. I’m sure his mother passed away years ago and I’ve been told it shows in his costumes. They are not nearly as crafty and charming as the ones I remember. These days, he dresses mostly in bad drag with ripped fishnet hose and ratty wigs.
Willard made the local’s Facebook walls again this week. A high school classmate posted an article that reported Willard had been hit by a car on April 25. According to the WBTV story. “It is unclear what type of costume, if any, [Willard] Blevins was wearing when this latest incident occurred, but the highway patrol says he was wearing a wig which fell off after he was hit.” It’s an odd detail to include in such a report, but it says everything about the man’s character. I’m sure it frightened the driver who was found not at fault. Willard apparently stepped in front of her station wagon. It is truly unfortunate. Especially since this is not the first time he’s been in such an accident. And unfortunately, this incident left him with serious head trauma and he “was taken to Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte where he was still listed in serious condition on Monday.”
I’m not certain what will happen to Willard. He no longer has any relatives to care for him. And let’s face it; in the late 1990s, he spent time in jail after being charged with indecent liberties with a minor. So he’s a man with a record now. That makes him much less endearing to the town.
I don’t have any photos of Willard, in his hey day or otherwise. I do have a photo my daughter insisted I take of her outside Central Park with some guy dressed as the Statue of Liberty that I took with my camera and still dropped the suggested $2.50 into his bucket for the privilege. Such street performers are in countless photo albums, not just mine, and they’re complete strangers. But I knew Willard. He has a much more vivid and dimensional place in my memory and I never paid him a dime. He never asked for money. He was not a street performer, just a small town crazy. All he seemed to want was our attention. I think there was a time we used to give him much more of it.
I sincerely hope Willard recovers. But if he does, what would he return home to? I’d hate to see Willard become a ward of the state, housed in an institution. Ideally, unrealistically perhaps, I’d like to think that once recovered, an aid might help him select a decent costume and assist him to safely stroll the sidewalks so he could receive a few welcome gawks but safely off the streets. And then maybe he could be Superman once again.
Silver Lining: I read a lot about autism, from books and blogs and opinion. It is an understatement to say that opinions vary. One of my personal litmus tests is to see if the belief, the recommendation, in question would pass the mustard from a perspective outside the spectrum. And so, I have to ask myself, do I really believe people need to understand and modify their expectations to allow for my son's odd behaviors? I set Willard up as an example to myself, of a clearly diagnosable child grown old. I of course have no insight as to what his diagnosis might be, but clearly he was odd. But, I believe, that he found "a welcome place in his community" made my community, in my eyes, a great place. But I believe things changed. And they changed, unfortunately, right when he lost the support of those who best understood him and worked hard to help him fit in. That community is a very different one today.
Could I imagine me, or my children, in his place? Yes. Who knows what direction my Little Boob Man might take if I am not there to suggest he control his impulses? If he continues to grab breasts ten years from now, he could very well be charged with "indecent liberties."
Ideally, I do think our communities have a moral obligation to support such innocent eccentrics, especially when their support systems die off. And not just to benefit the individual, but for the greater good. If offered continued support, perhaps such sad declines could be avoided. The hard part is how to recognize and act on it. And so I also posted this story on Salon.com and hope to spread a little awareness for tolerance outside of the blue glow of autism