Rooftop, My Favorite Soap Opera Character

jerry berry

The Trickster
Of all the archetypes that Carl Jung wrote about, and later Joseph Campbell outlined in his masterpiece of myth, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I most identified with the trickster. This might be why April Fool’s Day is my favorite holiday. It’s also my dear friend, Jerry McGill’s birthday.

Fittingly, Jerry has all the tools of a contemporary trickster. He is an accomplished writer, film maker, actor, dancer, comedian, singer, and teacher. And he does these exceedingly well. He’s also a snake charmer, a womanizer, and most tragically a Knicks fan. He truly is a renaissance man of the arts, the modern day trickster. Lost in the shuffle of his kaleidoscopic identity is the fact that he’s quadriplegic. After a few minutes with him though, it’s the one part of him that becomes quickly irrelevant.

I first met Jerry in our local YMCA. Like all great friendships it began with neither of us having a favorable impression of each other. With his brash New York demeanor, I thought he was kind of a cocky jock. He thought I was aloof and arrogant. It turned out that he actually is a cocky jock. And as for myself, I really wasn’t the paragon of humility. So we never talked in the gym. Then one evening, after one of my dance performances, I saw that he and his girlfriend had attended. I didn’t realize he was a lover of the arts and an artist himself. As fellow performers, we quickly bonded.

A Fellow Dancer
I later learned that before he was shot in the back during a random drive-by shooting, he himself was a promising dancer. Out of hundreds of inner-city kids, he was one of 3 who successfully auditioned to apprentice with the Eliot Feld Ballet, a big-time contemporary dance company.

Being in a wheelchair didn’t stop him from dancing, however. Eugene, Oregon, where we lived, was and is the center of a dance organization called DanceAbility, a project inviting dancers with and without disabilities to dance together. Jerry called up the director, Alito Alessi, and said, “Hey, I’m Black and I’m in a wheelchair. You got any scholarships for someone like me?” Alito laughed and invited him to the workshops. Like every other organization and project he’s been a part of, he became an integral leading member of DanceAbility.

Shouting from the Rooftop
Jerry’s main art though has been acting and filmmaking. We still tease him about his stint on The Guiding Light, an American television soap opera, in which he played a character named Rooftop. After realizing he could actually act, thus making the other actors look bad, the writers eventually killed off his character. Most recently he was cast as a homeless camp landlord in Conversations with God. While the movie was widely panned, his performance was repeatedly singled out as one of the few bright spots in the movie.

Throughout the years, he’s produced some of his own short films. If I remember correctly, That Summer of Purple is a charming romance about a cynical New Yorker who goes to a small town in the Northwest and gets involved with a single mother and her kid. His latest project, Gwendolyn, is about a transvestite cabaret singer, with Jerry as the sequined lead.

The Teacher
These days, after years of teaching theater workshops for inner-city kids, working at a homeless shelter for teens, and as a counselor for Mobility International, he’s getting his Masters in Education so he can teach in public schools. “I’ve always loved working with young people. It’s kind of in my blood. We seem to get along well.”

Jerry’s connection with kids led us to collaborate on a children’s theater troupe, performing music and slapstick. Once, when performing to hyperactive hippie children, the kids were so excited that they rushed the stage and mobbed us. Good times.

The Scrabble Nemesis
After years of being friends, it had never occurred to me to ask him how he ended up in his wheelchair. We worked out together, went to bars, smoked cigars, caroused around town, sang karaoke, and had one very contentious Scrabble game during which we almost came to blows. Seriously. We laugh about this now, but after a moment of laughing we would both be still a little pissed off about it, and would go back to arguing over the words in contention.

Through it all, the only time Jerry’s wheelchair was an issue was when me and one of our other friends argued over who got to sit with him courtside in the wheelchair section, during basketball games, and in the sweet, spacious wheelchair booth during football games.

jerry and wind

It wasn’t until a book came out that I thought about what Jerry had gone through in his life. One of his childhood friends, Dalton Conley, wrote a memoir titled, Honky, about his experience as a White kid growing up in a Black neighborhood. Jerry, as Dalton’s best friend, figures prominently in the book, as a bright-eyed, sparkling, charismatic personality, exuding promise. Conley traces their friendship until Jerry got shot, after which Jerry was hospitalized, and Conley’s parents ended their experiment in living in the projects.

After reading this book, an excellent sociological autobiography by the way, I understood something about his stubbornness, which must have helped him to get through all the trauma, the surgeries, the radical adjustments in lifestyle. At the same time I recognized the talented trickster, the kid with the sparkly eyes, which must have been even more important to just stay in love with life, to create art out of experience.

When we’re out and about, people he doesn’t know often come up to him and tell him what an inspiration he is. I don’t know if this annoys him, but he’s always gracious with well-meaning strangers. Maybe he is inspirational. But it’s not because he’s in a wheelchair. It’s because he’s fulfilling his promise as an artist, taking the role and the lines that were given to him and stealing the show.

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26 thoughts on “Rooftop, My Favorite Soap Opera Character”

  1. Damn it, Wind! Now you’ve made me cry. This is really quite special and you accomplished a feat in making me sound more impressive than I actually am. I am honored by this but no, I will not sleep with you. And yes, vino is a genuine Scrabble word. I was wrong and must live with this shame for the rest of my life. This was the best birthday gift yet.

  2. Wind, that was a beautiful eulogy. You know, Jerry’s not dead? Right…
    Damn man. Can I have one of those before I die too? Can you mention my love for “Cats” the musical? I love Broadway.

  3. thanks for helping me fall deeper in love with a man that i was content to simply lust from afar….
    you made me eat the chocolate i was supposed to be saving for my kids!
    beautifully written.

  4. dang! we got a whole lotta jerry lovin’ going on here!

    ms. maine, jerry’s definitely worth eating chocolate for.

    gil, i got one coming up for you. i didn’t write about jerry being one of the only 3 black men who like heavy metal, and i certainly won’t be writing about your love of musicals, with your image problem and all.

    yo rooftop (why haven’t we used this as a nickname years ago), you’re a lot more impressive than these words can paint. what people don’t know is what a huge pain in the ass you can be. ha! you’ve got a big heart to give me ‘vino’ after all these years. hey, i’ll give up ‘Gaia’. it’s a proper noun anyway. ahh. i feel like a big wall has crumbled between us. i’m gonna get me some chocolate to celebrate.

  5. I still think that Gwendolyn is a great nickname for Jerry, but I think Rooftop beats it out! I can’t believe such a connosieur of wine wouldn’t accept “vino” as a word! Jerry, if you read this, send me an email, I kind of lost your address since the move!

  6. I would like to start out by saying there is something seriously wrong with Giblet. Babydoll, you also left out the international beauty of our friendship. We have had tea in tokyo, chinese food in london, buffet in Vegas (Is Vegas in America?) We could write a book about this friendship…and let’s not forget Seattle….

  7. I have silently loved your blog for a while now because of its aesthetic and gorgeous photographs. But this post has compelled me to finally break down and comment. What a great story!

  8. thanks, blissfromtheabyss! just checked out your blog and enjoyed the soulful writing.

    rooftop, dude our friendship is so global! how could i forget seattle. vegas is definitely not part of the u.s. i think it was annexed by the State of Hedonia a few years back.

  9. Wind, that was so beautiful(especially that part about the Knicks!). You are a great friend! And Happy Belated, Jerry! You are impressive!

    Aww, those ol’ Eugene days! I miss seeing all three of you together. Last time was here in Portland and Gil was having issues with drinking sake out of a box and Wind dropped me on my back on the salsa floor. Oh, the memories!

    Jerry, if I’m ever on a soap opera, I’ve decided my name will be “Mezzanine”! Catchy, eh?

    Email me, people!(wind has my address)

  10. FELIZ CUMPLEANOS JERRRRRRRY! What a treat to read such a sweet (and infomative!) tribute to a guy who has been a friend to our family for like 15 years now, yet I’ve NEVER seen the old Guiding Light tapes…..hmmmm, jer- you better get us a copy. What I do have stuck in my head today however is, “Ask me where I’m going”, from “nice guys finish first”, the sweetest play ever written by Jerry for him and Cordell (the sweetest shyest little guy in the whole project). The title of the play only begins to suggest the impact Jerry has had on people, particularly young people, with his positive attitude about life. I am so excited for this next year of your life Jer- I couldn’t think of a better person to become a teacher! You are such a great guy Jer, glad to see you celebrated here (thanks Wind, it was a pleasure to read this). It’s like the teaser for the much awaited memoir…….

  11. isaac, that’s cool. so jerry’s a celebrity in academia as well? the dude is all over the place.

    dianna, we had such good times in p-town. i still cringe and laugh when i think of how i dropped you in the ballroom. yikes! and how about when you recruited me to be an afro-cuban god? i’ll make sure the boys get your contact info.

  12. Somehow, the only time I’ve seen Ogun wear big clunky shoes (or shoes, period!)was in your re-creation. But you were FIERCE!

  13. hey, i needed shoes to survive dancing while marching with a parade! pounding the hot pavement with bare feet? i don’t think even ogun could have bore that…

    but it was an honor to represent the fierce one.

  14. jerry my dear,
    you are even more gorgeous than the day we met…
    do black people ever age?! i guess not.
    who am i?
    once upon a time, in another life, a young girl got on a bus and saw the most beautiful man she had ever laid eyes on. he must have felt her incessant staring because he kept trying to turn around, against several restraints, to look back at her. i suspect he quite liked what it was he was trying to look at. suspicions compounded as he got off the bus, for as the bus passed him by, he looked directly into her window with his hand over his heart and made a fluttering motion.
    beat. beat. beat.
    not long after, they met in town. they exchanged words and glances, and then the question. how old are you? he asks her… 16 she says smiling. how old are you? she asks him… too old for you he says laughing. alas, what could be sweeter than forbidden love?
    a true gentleman.
    but, boy do i miss those yummy hugs. and so it’s time to answer your own questions… are U married? what flavor of ice cream do U like? and have U ever met michael jordan? 😉
    my love… you were in my heart before i even knew i had one. you belong there and it is there you shall stay eternally. happy birthday…..

  15. Um, ok, puauhane. If you intent was to generate a sense of mystery and wonder you succeeded TENFOLD! I am racking my brain for visuals, images. I imagine it had to be a lifetime ago. Please, spare me and reveal yourself…

  16. aloha my dear,
    you may or may not remember me by name, but if we ever saw each other again, i am one of those people you would recognize (i hope!), say oh my god its been forever and give each other a hug. i would like to describe myself to you… email me… [i’ll forward this to jerry.-wind]… until then, a couple hints to tide you over… i have long black hair and wore a lot of velvet and black back then… this was at least 12 years ago…. this may have even been pre-wind days…if there even is such a thing…
    it was such a pleasant suprise to randomly find this blog, see something so beautiful written about one of the sweetest spirits i have ever come across, and see that you are doing well and what you do best… inspiring others…
    thank you wind…

  17. Its all true, Jerry IS all kinds of wonderful.
    Hey!
    Jerry!
    aka Rooftop!
    (youll never hear the last of this name) whats this self depreciating Oscar acceptance speak all about?
    You know you read this and muttered… about time Wind, about time… whilst nursing a 10 year old scarbble vex and a bottle of shiraz…

    great blog wind…

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