“The flat face, framed top and bottom by prominent eyebrows and a prominent jaw, was striking, yet there was something about it that was very open—something that suggested Ken was unflaggingly friendly and decent.”
Ken was born in 1952 with cyanotic heart disease—a condition in which the blood is inadequately oxygenated, giving the skin a bluish cast. Twice as a child he had open-heart surgery, and although one valve was never completely fixed, he eventually was able to engage in normal levels of physical activity.
The heart condition left its mark, however: a shortage of oxygen to the brain during birth and infancy was later regarded as the principal cause of Ken’s intellectual disability. This was exacerbated by the neglect he reportedly suffered in early childhood, with his parents doing little to help him develop his speech and language skills. At age five he was placed with a foster family, the Larsons, with whom he lived from then on.
As an adult, Ken had an IQ of fifty-nine. His scores on language tests were relatively low—his grade level in reading was only 1.5—but on some mechanical tests his scores were close to average. His practical skills made him valuable around the house. He cleaned his room and made his own breakfast, and he did his chores—feeding the chickens, mowing the lawn, helping with the laundry—without being told. He enjoyed swimming, so the local Y allowed him to earn his membership by washing their windows.
Besides swimming, Ken also liked fishing and bowling, roller skating and biking. With a pack on his back, he bicycled to and from work, a twelve-mile round trip, much of the year. He liked riding even when the morning temperature was in the twenties.
The Larsons were also Charles’s foster parents. Ken didn’t talk about what it was like living with Charles; he may have been embarrassed about having someone that violent in his family. At the Center they had nothing to do with each other; but then, Charles had nothing to do with any client. Ken was a more productive worker than Charles, his enunciation was better, his conversational skills were much more developed, and he had been with the Larsons fourteen years longer—all of which probably fueled Charles’s jealousy. In the Spanish/Florentine room, Ken would sometimes be working quietly when Charles suddenly leaped from his chair, stormed over to him, and threw a series of air punches at his back. Ken knew that if he kept working, Charles would eventually go away. Once, however, in the lunchroom, Charles kicked Ken in the shin for no apparent reason. Ken just shrugged it off. Afterwards, as he walked down to the basement, Ken said to Ellen, “Charles is crazy.”
Ken was of medium height and build and had a solid, sturdy look. Usually he wore a sport shirt and a clean pair of bib overalls. His face was broad and unusually flat, except for a strong, jutting jaw. His eyebrows were dark and were perfectly horizontal over his eyes, then angled down sharply to the outsides. The flat face, framed top and bottom by prominent eyebrows and a prominent jaw, was striking, yet there was something about it that was very open—something that suggested he was unflaggingly friendly and decent.
There seemed to be nothing but good in his heart: I never saw a trace of meanness in him; I never even saw him angry. He was amiable with clients and staff, and was well liked by both.
He had a happy-go-lucky air about him. He laughed often—a high-pitched laugh, much higher than his voice. He didn’t get involved in long conversations like Leon or Earl; he was more comfortable with brief exchanges, and he liked joking around. In the Spanish/Florentine room, if I asked a client how their glass was coming along, Ken would call out, “Terrible,” followed by his distinctive laugh. This response always got a chuckle from Leon and Becky and Neal, which in turn prompted Henry and Leroy to laugh.
Ken’s speech was sometimes hard to understand, and he was self-conscious about that. He seemed to become more reticent around clients like Leon and Roger, who spoke more forcefully and with better articulation. Yet he was always sociable, always on the lookout for a laugh, and he was one of the clients who could make an intentionally funny remark.
Conversations with Ken
For a while Ken worked in the glass assembly area. One day Ellen had to leave the area briefly, so I was keeping an eye on her crew. When Arlene, a bright, extroverted client, came downstairs a little later, she asked where Ellen was.
Ken: See’s hiding.
Me: She’ll be back pretty soon. She just went up to the shop for a few minutes.
Ken: See’s playing hide ’n’ seek.
Arlene: Very funny.
* * * * *
Frank was a client with echolalia—a disorder in which a person habitually repeats what another person has just said. A few minutes after the above conversation, Frank, also working in the glass assembly area, noticed Ellen’s absence for the first time.
Frank: Where’s Ellen Iverson?
Arlene: Ellen left the room for a little while.
Frank: “Ellen left the room for a little while”—who said that?
Ken: Frank ’peat like a tape ’acorder. [Laughs.]
* * * * *
Another day as I walked into Ellen’s work area.
Arlene: Hi, Glenn.
Me: Hi, Arlene.
Ken: Gwen Campbell’s Soup.
* * * * *
I was talking to Ellen a few minutes later when a weather report came on the radio: it was ten degrees and snowing.
Ken: Cold out. Be good day go to ’Waii, Ellen. [Laughs.]
* * * * *
One morning in March.
Ken: You ride you bike today, Gwen?
Me: No, not today. I get kind of lazy when it’s below freezing. Did you ride?
Me: Must have been a cold trip.
Ken: No, ’s hot. Had my long unde’wear on.
Me: Wasn’t there some ice on the road?
Ken: Yeah. Got to be careful. I slip and fell last time.
Me: Well, it’s good that you’re getting some exercise.
Ken: Yeah, stay in s’ape. Getting fat. [Pats his stomach and laughs.]
* * * * *
Ken: Made fries last night.
Me: You did?
Me: That sounds good. I like fries, myself.
We had the same conversation again a few weeks later. I became curious about why he was telling me this, so the next time he mentioned it, I asked him whether he bought the French fries frozen or cut them himself.
He looked embarrassed, realizing I had misunderstood all along. “No, fries. Fries, for fissin’.”
It took a few seconds for this to register. “Oh, flies? Flies for fishing?”
“Oh, okay, now I got it. So you make your own flies?”
“Wow, that’s really something.”
Later that afternoon he told me he had learned to make them in a class he’d taken with his dad. The next day he brought some to the Center and showed them to me.
* * * * *
Ken, sitting in the lunchroom: I’d like a apron.
Me: You want an apron?
Ken: Yeah, I’d like to have one of those aprons. [His hand swoops through the air.]
Me: Oh, an airplane. You’d like to have an airplane?
Me: Well, they cost a lot of money.
Ken: Yeah. I’d like to go in one. Like to drive one. ’At’d be fun.
* * * * *
One fall morning.
Ken: Booiful day, huh Gwen?
Me: Yeah, it is.
Leon: It’s supposed to get up to eighty-two today—yeah, eighty-two, it’s supposed to. Eighty-two degrees—that’s warm, isn’t it?
In the fall of 1981, Ken was an indispensable part of the Spanish/Florentine crew. Without him, many of the Christmas orders for these specialty glasses could not have been filled. I relied more on him than on any other client I ever had.
Applying the Craft Steel was difficult for everybody—for the clients, for me, for the other supervisors who tried it. The hardest part involved squirting the steel onto the Spanish and Florentine glasses in a series of decorative loops—a task that required two somewhat conflicting qualities: considerable hand strength plus a light, artistic touch. You really had to squeeze to get the steel out of the tube, while simultaneously applying it to the glass in a graceful but precise pattern. I tried every client in the room at this task, but only three showed any aptitude at all: Charles and Otto, who found the steel uncooperative, and Ken, the one client who was actually adept with it. We sold four hundred Spanish and Florentine glasses that year, and Ken did more than eighty percent of the steel work on them.
Ken was one of a handful of clients that supervisors would fight to have on their crews. At various times he was a top producer in the shop, in the glass assembly area, and in the Sewing Department, and he always put in a full day’s work. When we moved the Glass Department from the basement to the main floor, only two clients were still going strong at the end of the day: Roger, the loquacious client leader, and Ken, soft-spoken but dependable.
In late 1980 Ken broke his leg at a roller-skating rink. For months he wore a cast that extended from his foot to his thigh. Prior to that he had been working in the shop, but since he now needed a sit-down job, he was transferred to the Glass Department. Except for when he was walking on crutches between the basement and the main floor, he’d spend all day sitting in a chair, or rather two chairs: the second one kept his leg elevated. He’d put one pillow between his leg and the chair and another one behind his back. He must have been uncomfortable, and must have missed the physical activity that was so much a part of his life—not only his biking and swimming and roller skating, but also all the odd jobs he did at the Center and at home—but to look at him you wouldn’t have known it. I never heard him complain. He was always smiling, always friendly. On bright, clear mornings he’d say to me, “Booiful day, huh Gwen?”—a line that remains for me the truest expression of his temperament, a line that characterizes Ken as surely as “Make him hap-py” characterizes Neal.
Ken always made the best of things. He had an innate cheerfulness, a naturally positive outlook, that allowed him to adapt to whatever adversities came his way. But having this intrinsic flexibility, along with an easygoing personality, meant that he did not have the nagging restlessness, the temperamental dissatisfaction, that is the driving force for making your life something other than what it is now. In the soil of discontent lie the seeds of ambition, but there was little discontent in Ken’s heart.
Ken was one client who might have a regular job some day, although a past attempt had proved disappointing. At age twenty-six he worked for a while as a custodial helper, but his employer felt that Ken wasn’t able to work independently and eventually let him go. When I knew Ken, he was approaching thirty years old. I didn’t see any sign that he was dissatisfied with his life or dreamed of something different. He was a good worker, but I never heard anything that made me think he wanted to make more money, or have a regular job, or leave the family home and live more independently. The determination to have what you don’t have now, to do what you aren’t doing now, to be something more—this restless disgruntlement that gives the impetus to ambition, that makes a person what we call driven—did not seem to be in Ken’s nature. If, wherever you are, you see the bright side of things, why go anywhere else?