Updated: January 26, 2012 8:14AM
“What does appetizer mean?”
It’s the kind of question that a parent of young children might expect to hear. But when it was asked by Joe — a 30-something, unemployed sightless man — we were reminded that he did not get out much.
“Like a snack,” Ron explained. “A little something to munch on while we wait for our food order.”
Ron and I were teaching at College of DuPage. He was computer science and I was English, and we had gone to a restaurant with Joe the Friday before Christmas.
I’d met Ron back in the ’90s when he welcomed me on my first day. I found him congenial enough. Both connoisseurs of imported lagers, we were a match made in heaven, if not Germany.
I considered myself lucky to share an office with him until my phone went missing. It was the end of the term, when phone traffic was crazy with grade reports and advising. And I could hear it ringing ... somewhere.
But it wasn’t on my desk, and it took some panicked scrambling before I traced the sound to a file cabinet that belonged to Professor Ron Jerak. He found it hilarious, all my pleading that he unlock the drawer. I did not see the humor. But the “mark” for a practical joke seldom does.
Which is why I was beside myself when the instant lottery ticket he gave me a previous Christmas, a $1,000 winner, proved fake when I tried to cash it in.
“But look how excited and happy you were,” he said.
So the next year, when he offered to pick up the tab for a holiday celebration at a Kerry Pyper’s Pub in Willowbrook, I accepted with extreme caution. On our way there, he insisted on detouring through an unfamiliar neighborhood where an imposing figure of a man awaited our arrival in darkness on a front porch. I feared the worst.
“You know Joe, don’t you, Dave?”
How could I not? Joe is a big fellow, like an all-pro nose tackle, and he is legally blind.
His cane-rattling entrances into our office had been a daily occurrence once he enrolled in one of Ron’s computer courses. And though the class ended long ago, Joe continued showing up while seeking a job and needing to vent about problems at home.
But he also continued stopping by for the same reason so many others did — they all thought of Ron as their best friend. Students, teachers, campus police, deans in other academic departments all considered him someone they could talk to.
Over dinner, Ron asked Joe his secret for beating everyone at table hockey in the student lounge. Joe explained that he was faster than anyone else. And that opponents didn’t complain when he cheated.
We got a laugh out of that.
“You got it with you, Pal?” Ron asked Joe.
Joe whipped a harmonica out of his shirt pocket and blew loudly, like when a pianist slides his finger across the keyboard. Customers stared. A young woman wearing a Santa hat smiled.
Ron bounded to the stage. Uh oh, I thought.
He huddled briefly with the Larkin Brothers, an Irish folk band with several guitars, a banjo, a mandolin and an accordion. Band leader Mike Larkin then announced a “special treat” and asked Joe to come on up and grace everyone with a song.
People at the bar spun around on their stools and a hush descended over the tables as Ron guided Joe up the three steps to the front of the microphone.
Not one for small talk, Joe launched right in to “Oh, Susannah” on his harmonica, bobbing and jiggling to the beat, tapping his right foot. He had legitimate talent, and the audience clapped and whistled.
I could not interpret Joe’s reaction to the applause because I’d never seen such a look on his face. He played another tune to a standing ovation. And when he began a third, the band joined in, laying a background of strings that Joe would later say gave him goose bumps.
The Larkin Brothers urged him on, but three songs were the extent of Joe’s playlist, and Ron escorted him, beaming and sweating, back to our table. Fans streamed to the table, congratulating Joe, offering drinks and handshakes.
By the time we pulled in front of Joe’s house, it was very late and very cold but stars filled the sky.
“This ain’t my best Christmas, Ron,” Joe said, his voice trembling. “It’s the best day of my life.”
Sure, I thought. Wait till he gives you a lottery ticket.
Ron “Santa” Jerak is now a guidance counselor at College of DuPage. David McGrath is an emeritus professor of English at the college and author of the novel “Siege at Ojibwa.”