I have been so deliriously busy with post ON THE LOT fallout and pre Deaf Entertainers documentary preparation that I miss my flight to Philadelphia. I miss my flight by 12 hours because I misread my flight as 9PM instead of 9AM. Luckily I get on the 10:30 PM on standby. One of my main subjects of the documentary and friend Robert DeMayo has been sleeping at the airport in Philadelphia waiting for me because he is currently homeless. He played the comedic lead during our yearlong tour together in the National Theatre of the Deaf’s production of “An Italian Straw Hat.” Robert is one of the funniest, most talented actors I have ever seen and one of the countries top translators of English to ASL. He will be teaching at Juilliard next week, training Broadway interpreters how to better translate theatre into sign language. The irony of his situation brought me here with a borrowed camera. Robert recently played the character of a homeless man in a movie before there was a communication meltdown with his former landlord in his real life when his building was sold. Money is not the issue: his paperwork somehow states that he was evicted, and the lack of a good referral has been preventing him from getting a new apartment.
Robert texts me back after learning of my delay and asks me to steal an airplane pillow for him. I choke back emotion upon reading this. On board we sit on the tarmac for 20 minutes. The pilot explains that we have a technical difficulty but we are receiving top care to fix it since we are a lifesaving flight. I wondered how they knew I was headed out to film Robert to try to help him. The pilot explains that we are carrying an organ on board for a transplant back in Philadelphia and time is of the essence. I choke back more emotion.
I land and Robert looks tired but good. Somehow he is wearing clean clothes and looks no worse for the wear than my fellow red-eyed passengers. To my surprise, he has borrowed a car for my arrival – part of the Philly Car Share program where you can rent a car by the hour.
Our first stop is storage – one of Robert’s daily rituals. He goes to change clothes and grab necessities. He is getting a larger storage locker today and I alternate between filming him move all of his belongings down vacant aisles and helping. It is a dirty, sweaty job and Robert’s hip is bothering him since he had a hip replacement a few years ago. But somehow he manages to joke around, leaping from corners to startle me and racing the storage cart. We hurry to his next stop where he prepares for his weekly workshop. Robert teaches an AIDS awareness workshop once a week to deaf men for the CCPS in the back room of a local gay bar. Robert’s personality is such as to have fun even in the direst of situations.
We race back to drop the car off so that he isn’t charged an extra hour for being late. Robert turns this manic drive back into a video game. My past experience with deaf drivers is that no matter how they drive they are 100 times safer than hearing drivers because of their bionic vision and reflexes. We are 15 minutes late and Robert crosses his fingers that he isn’t penalized.
Local filmmaker Chad Jenkins arrives to help me film the evening. I hesitantly ask the men in the workshop if they mind being filmed for the documentary, fully expecting for them to say no. They surprise me and are not only open to being filmed but enthusiastic that I share their experiences with others. So a lively back room game of “Taboo” is played out in sign language. My cameraman could barely contain himself along with participants’ hearty laughter as they acted out various vocabulary words. After the games they went through the list of words discussing safe sex and current medical information.
The workshop ended and we moved into the Karaoke section of the bar. Robert once again became the star of the evening as he got up to sing 3 songs –following along in perfect rhythm to the monitor’s bouncing ball. I have an odd fondness for Robert’s singing. During the last song he puts the microphone away, grabs three of his deaf friends to be his backup dancers and energetically signs the song while his buddies followed the pounding rhythm. For a moment there was nothing but Robert and the swirling disco lights. No hard park benches, no cops hitting his legs while gesturing for him to move on and no legal battles with landlords. Just Robert being Robert. When I ask him what he will do tomorrow, he licks his finger and sticks it into the air – a simple sign for “whatever the wind blows my way.”