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.
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.
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.