Sunday, Oct 2, 2016 at the Sunday Friendship Breakfast
I met Robert Boger yesterday as he was having a cigarette outside the SFB. I had noticed him as he talked with some of the guys hanging outside the church. They seemed to like and accept him as one of them.I've noticed this community of homeless folk are not as judgmental as more affluent segments of society. Mr. Boger was obviously disabled. I approached him, uncertain that he would want to speak with me since I had a camera around my neck. But he did want to talk, as many homeless people do. I suspect most people don't take the time. He told me he is 55 years old. He joked sarcastically that they call him "Lefty" as he took a drag on a cigarette that he held between his one tiny thumb and index finger that peaked out from his left shoulder. I got the joke.
Robert is a Thalidomide survivor. He is also an inspiration.
He is one of the horrific and still negligently under-reported legacies of the Baby Boom era, the widespread use of thalidomide by pregnant women, which led to countless, yet still vastly undocumented, cases of children born in the United States and abroad with severe deformities, including the lack of limbs, hands, fingers and toes.
The drug, developed in the fifties by The Grunenthal Group in Germany and distributed out of Cincinnati, was touted as the “first safe sleeping pill” for pregnant women and, reportedly, approximately 2.5 million tablets were given to at least 20,000 patients in the U.S.. Yet, shockingly, the number of reported cases of affected infants — now adults — in the U.S. remains as low as 17. Robert is one of them.
These thalidomide survivors have called on the media for deeper coverage of the truth about thalidomide and its U.S. victims, along with a meaningful gesture of apology — and ideally compensation — from Grunenthal, the company responsible for developing and mass marketing the drug that has had such devastating effects on the lives of so many — reported or not.
Whether due to the widespread and variable side effects of the drug’s damages, the fact that negative data from the “clinical studies” were not reported, the drug companies’ cover-ups, the FDA’s lack of protective measures for individuals included in drug research at the time, physicians’ reticence to indict themselves, or parents’ unwillingness to claim any connection to the drug, the result was a silent conspiracy to ignore the needs of those severely injured by thalidomide in the United States.
Robert wanted to tell his story. It gradually became clear that this man is very much a survivor. Against all odds, he not only has survived, but thrived. Many people might have given up. He has not. As we talked, it became apparent to me that Robert is truly an inspiration.
He told me about his childhood. It was hard growing up; the kids called him "Claw." But he went to the prom, graduated from high school, pretty much had a normal life as possible with his disability, and never did drugs in his teens. He attended a couple years of college. He was married for ten years and divorced. He said he had a special car fitted with the steering wheel on the floor so he could drive with his feet. In his younger days he even pulled some sort of house trailer behind his car. I was amazed.
He mentioned he even did a little stand up comedy when he lived in Massachusetts. He said by the time he was an adult, he was pretty used to the stares. He has a twinkle in his eye. He reminded me of a leprechaun. I tried to imagine his standup jokes....
Robert fell into drugs after his divorce. He lost his house and car. I've heard this story before. Now he is homeless. He has been living in a group shelter in Warwick. He wants an apartment of his own. He says has his name on all the housing lists, He is number is 149. He mentioned that although he is disabled, he doesn't get to go to the head of the line.
Elwoood interrupted our conversation. "Hey, Camera Man, take my picture." (Elwood is a tall, often inebriated black man who always asks me to take his picture every time he sees me.) I was annoyed but I knew if I took a quick shot he'd leave us alone. Robert watched me and I could tell he wanted a picture although he didn't ask. I offered and he said he wouldn't mind . I made several full length shots with his tiny left hand peeking out of his shoulder, and then a close up portrait. I noticed Robert has a warm confident smile. I liked this guy.
I am actually uncomfortable with this kind of picture, but Robert clearly was not. I'm not into "trophy" shots of disabled people. I ask permission and always try to return with prints for my subjects. I would not have taken Robert's photograph if he wasn't all right with it. But he was. He is used to people staring at him. Or more likely, stealing a glance then looking away as I had done at first. It must be very hard. And very lonely.
He told me he has a dream. He said he hoped someday he could be a motivational speaker. Yes, I said, "I could see you doing this." I meant it. He is articulate and seems to have a good attitude.. I bet he could do it... Hell, he was inspiring me out here on Mathewson Street.
I often think of the homeless people I meet and their struggles as I edit pictures from the breakfast. It can't be easy out there. But the difficulties of most pale compared to Robert's challenges. The simple tasks we do every day like tie our shoes, brush our teeth, comb our hair, even go to the bathroom, all of these and a thousand more must be incredibly difficult for this man, by a factor of ten. The obstacles he faced from birth must have been unbelievable. Yet as we talked, I realized he hasn't given up, and is not looking for any sympathy. Far from it, this man is determined to live his life as fully as possible with the cards he has been dealt. He's smiling. Yes, I do believe he could be a motivations speaker. His indomitable spirt is truly an inspiration.
Kathy came out, ready to go home. I started to introduce them but they already knew each other. He said she had served him breakfast a couple of times. Before we drove off, I asked if I could share his story an photos on my website, maybe Facebook. I'd like other people to be inspired. He said, "No problem. And call me "Lefty."