January 30, 2009

Who in the world is Delmar?

There was a time not so long ago when Delmar seemed to show up everywhere. If there was a party, in walked Delmar, invited or not.

There was a time not so long ago when Delmar seemed to show up everywhere.

If there was a party, in walked Delmar, invited or not. He made such an impression in Charlotte in the 1980s that hot pink “HONK if you know DELMAR!” bumper stickers popped up, like Delmar, all over town. It became fashionable to say you knew him, even if you didn't.

But how many of us really know Delmar Williams?

We remember him as the party crasher, who looks uncannily like musician Lyle Lovett (if only, he jokes, Julia Roberts had seen him first) and sounds so much like former Observer managing editor Mark Ethridge, he played an April Fool's joke by telephoning reporters and ordering them into Ethridge's office.

When you meet him, and there's a good chance you will one day if you haven't already, you may wonder about his odd mannerisms. He has the bushy hair and disheveled appearance of an absent-minded scientist. Even the way he walks is a bit off-center, back hunched, torso thrust forward, with short hurried steps.

He will come at you bursting with questions, a stranger wanting to know who you are, where you're from and what you do. Chances are he'll know someone you know and he'll describe how they met and maybe tell you about some of the many other people he knows all around the world, and he'll talk too fast and wave his arms like a conductor, which is a fitting analogy because he once played oboe for several orchestras and has heard most of the world's major orchestras perform, and he might tell you about that, too, and he'll go on and on and on like this sentence.

Then as suddenly as he appeared, he'll be gone. Leaving you to wonder: What is it with this guy?

Delmar, now 54, is one of Charlotte's most unforgettable eccentrics. He knows he's different. He's known for as long as he can remember, and he's wondered what makes him so unusual. People have poked fun at him behind his back all his life and it hurts because, like the rest of us, Delmar just wants to fit in. He struggled for years to understand himself. And now, after a lifetime of soul-searching and long hours of neurological and psychological tests, he thinks he has it figured out.

Honk! Honk!

Delmar feels passionate, some would say obsessive, about three things in life: meeting people, traveling and listening to classical music.

None of these passions come easy to him. Few things in life have come easy to Delmar.

He didn't make many friends as a child. He grew up near Huntersville, in a rural part of Mecklenburg County, but that's not why. He didn't make friends because most kids don't like anyone who is different.

Delmar was different, in many different ways.

He was born with club feet. Surgery to correct them when he was around 2 left him unable to bend his ankles, which explains his peculiar, shuffling way of moving around.

Kids taunted him when he was young, and it made him so angry he sometimes retaliated by hitting or shoving. His parents, he said, didn't know how to deal with their unusual son, and he rebelled against his overly strict father.

Delmar's childhood, as you might imagine, was not particularly happy.

He struggles with everyday tasks most of us take for granted. He often can't remember where the bowls belong in the kitchen, even after living in the same house for five years.

He doesn't pick up on social cues – a raised eyebrow, a glance at a watch – the way most of us do. So if you're ready to end a conversation, Delmar may keep talking, unaware of your discomfort.

Yet, if you know Delmar, you may not know all that. He seldom complains, rarely shares much about his personal life. He asked that this story be postponed until after he retired on Dec. 31, because he worried what his co-workers at the post office might think.

“Some people don't accept me for the way I am,” Delmar said. “I see things in a different light than other people, but most of my life I didn't understand why.”

North Meck and Chapel Hill

Delmar's preoccupation with people began at North Mecklenburg High, and blossomed at UNC Chapel Hill in the 1970s, a decade dominated by drugs, disco – and Delmar.

He could be annoying, barging into dorm rooms uninvited, the way he later crashed parties in Charlotte. He had no respect for other people's space. He foraged for food in students' refrigerators. He messed with their minds when they were tripping on psychedelic drugs.

Yet Delmar had an uncanny ability to bring people together. He made a habit of meeting people. You might say Delmar collects people the way others collect baseball cards.

If he found out about a party on campus, he would tell everyone he knew and as many as 200 people might show up. This in the age before the Internet and text messages. He ran for governor of Hinton James dormitory as a last-minute write-in and won because so many students knew him. He ran for Homecoming Queen his senior year, which upset university administrators who suspected he was trying to make a political statement of some sort. Delmar had no ulterior motive. He did it on a dare.

And, with shaggy hair and all, he won. Because who at Chapel Hill in 1975 didn't know Delmar?

‘The Delmar Questions'

If Delmar doesn't know you, he probably knows someone who does.

He explains it best:

“A few years ago, I was walking down a street in China and a guy was walking toward me who was obviously not Chinese. I don't know what it is about me, I'm not afraid to initiate contact with anybody. I have some sides of me which are very inhibited, but also I have some uninhibited sides. I can pick out people I'm going to be able to relate to.

“The guy in China, I knew I was going to know people he knew. He was artsy-looking, musical-looking. When I walked by him, I had a feeling.”

If you were in the same situation, you might walk on past, rather than approach a stranger in a small town in China near the Tibetan border, 7,000 miles from home, just because he happened to look like an artsy American. Not Delmar. Delmar walked right up to the man and burst out with his usual round of questions.

“I usually ask somebody what their name is, where they're from and what they do. I do it as a way to figure out, Is there some way I can relate to this person? I can either move in real fast or else I crash and burn.”

That time, Delmar moved in fast. “He played in the Grand Rapids Symphony, and I know about three people who played in the symphony.”

The next time Delmar meets someone from Grand Rapids, Mich., you can bet he will ask if that person knows Larry Herzberg, the man he met in China.

Delmar, you may have figured out, has brilliant recall of names. Phone numbers, too.

“People tell me I know everyone, but I don't,” he said. “It just always seems like I can make a connection with people. It's amazing how small the world is.”

Delmar's World.

200 parties a year

That explains, in part, why Delmar showed up in the 1970s and '80s at so many parties.

He estimates, conservatively, he went to at least 200 parties each year from 1972 to 1985. Some years closer to 300, almost a party a day, most informal get-togethers, not invitation-only galas. He might be invited to one party and someone there would tell him about another, and he would move on, never hesitating if he didn't know the host or many of the guests. Being Delmar, he would meet them.

Nixon was president when Delmar began partying and Reagan when he slowed. In between, Ford and Carter, inflation, the Iran hostages, the end of war in Vietnam, the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Delmar mastered the art of partying in Chapel Hill, where he would collect $1 a student for a keg party. He perfected it in the 1980s when Charlotte was still small enough that the annual Tacky Party was a big deal, attracting 1,800 drunken revelers in polyester and polka dots. When you've been to 2,600 parties, more or less, they begin to run together. But the Tacky Parties, where “HONK if you know DELMAR!” bumper stickers sold for $1, stand as Delmar's favorites.

He crashed parties to be with people, and to meet that one special person. One night it happened. He ended up at a church-related party off Sardis Road in southeast Charlotte around 10:30 one night in 1986. As he walked in, a murmur spread through the crowd:

Delmar's here!

That night, someone approached him instead of the other way around.

Her name was Claudia Bloom, her marriage had ended and she thought Delmar might introduce her to new friends. She figured he must be a politician or rich or someone special the way everybody was talking. She made her way through the crowd, and there stood a skinny guy wearing an old T-shirt, ugly pants and overdue for a haircut.

Claudia introduced herself. Delmar launched in with “The Delmar Questions.”

When he found out she was from near Pittsburgh, Delmar had at his disposal, as he puts it, the names of a lot of people from Pittsburgh. He rattled off name after name, and bingo!, he made a connection with Claudia: Her father's surgeon was the father of someone Delmar knew from college.

Early on in their relationship, Claudia invited Delmar to dinner at her house and, from outside on the patio, he serenaded her with his oboe.

They spent 10 years together.

The wedding crasher

Betsy Bilger met Delmar in Chapel Hill, voted for him for homecoming queen, and ran into him again at parties in Charlotte. But they weren't close friends and she didn't invite him to her wedding in July 2000 at Christ Episcopal Church.

“As I'm walking down the aisle, I thought, ‘That looks like Delmar.'”

He crashed her wedding. Delmar crashed her wedding. He showed up early and helped set up tables for the reception. “He wanted to come because he knew there would be a lot of people he knew,” she said. “It was like the big party.”

Delmar knew Raymond Grubb would be there, and Peter Minor, and Holly George, and he wanted to be there, too.

Betsy took it as a compliment.

Musician to mail handler

Delmar seems a bit embarrassed now about his reputation. It's a caricature, he said, not at all a reflection of who he really is.

If he could have been anything, he would have been a professional oboe player. Music, he said, touches a part of his soul where nothing else can reach.

His enchantment with classical music began as a child when he listened to the Boston Symphony on public TV at his grandmother's house. He took up the oboe at Alexander Junior High in Huntersville, studied it in college and performed in the early 1980s with professional orchestras in Asheville, Greenville, S.C., and Hickory. But Delmar discovered playing music was not as enjoyable as listening to music.

He never felt comfortable on stage. And he couldn't do one thing most oboists do: make a proper reed, two pieces of cane bound together and attached to a metal tube that acts as a mouthpiece and gives each oboist a distinctive sound. Delmar tried to follow the directions, but his mind wouldn't cooperate.

So in 1985 the musician took a job as a mail handler with the U.S. Postal Service. Reluctantly.

For 23 years, he has fed his passion for music by listening to orchestras perform. He might drive to a concert in Lincolnton or Asheville, and drive home the same night. He has heard most of the major American orchestras and most of the great orchestras in Europe in their own concert halls.

Being Delmar, he has introduced himself to musicians around the world, in Bucharest, La Paz, Auckland, Tokyo, Moscow.

Being Delmar, he found a way to connect many of those musicians to each other. He searches the Internet every morning for oboe-related news and posts what he finds on the Web site of the International Double Reed Society. He has become known as an authority on the world of oboe players.

“He's a champion in connecting double-reed players throughout the world,” said Yoshi Ishikawa, editor of the online publication. “I remember he was somewhere (Montenegro) and he ran into someone who lives in my town of Boulder, Colo., who knew me and he wrote me about it…”

Before Google, there was Delmar.

Seven weeks for travel

The job at the post office enabled Delmar to feed his third passion: traveling.

He got hired to move mail through the General Mail Facility near I-85. He didn't get much satisfaction from moving mail. Even after more than 20 years in the same building, he could not always remember which direction he came from. Or where he was supposed to go. Or what he was supposed to do.

Delmar, as you might imagine, often had a tough time at work.

But the job suited him in one important way: He worked every holiday, from New Year's Day through Labor Day to Christmas, and for each holiday he worked he earned an extra day's vacation, 10 extra days a year, which gave him a total of seven weeks off.

He would plan a trip for months. He had to, or he would get hopelessly lost. He planned where he would stay, how to get there and how to get from there to the symphony hall. He studied photographs of where he was going. Once he got to a city, if he didn't have a street map, he wrote down which direction he came from so he could retrace his steps.

If you've been wondering where Delmar has been over the past 20 years, and why he no longer crashes as many parties as he once did, he has been traveling to Bulgaria and Iceland, New Zealand and India, Scotland, Peru, Albania, nearly 80 countries in all.

People around the world know our Delmar.

Call me Olek

But not by that name.

He decided years ago that Delmar was too weird a name except in Spanish-speaking countries, where Delmar means “by the sea.” So when he travels, he introduces himself by his middle name, Alexander. His travel name. Because Alexander the Great traveled so widely, there are many variants of the name and, in each country, Delmar adopts the local version.

In Egypt, people know him as Iskander.

In Poland, Olek.

In China, he's ya li shan da.

In Russia, Sasha.

Even in Charlotte, he said, dozens of Russian people know him as Sasha.

Why am I different?

He has met thousands of people here and thousands more worldwide, has had two close girlfriends since college, but in a fundamental way Delmar has led an isolated life.

It wouldn't be correct to say he was happy, not even content. So many things confused him, frustrated him, sometimes embarrassed him.

Why couldn't he tell his right from his left?

Why was he good at math, but had trouble following a movie all the way through?

Why couldn't he feel empathy for other people? Why couldn't he make his co-workers understand he was doing the best he could?

“I don't want people to hate me, or dislike me,” he said. “I want people to like me.”

Most of all, Delmar wanted to like himself. He was hard on himself because he's smart and he's aware he has odd social habits and can't accomplish some of the simplest things.

And so in 1999, the year Delmar turned 45, he drove to Chapel Hill to the Clinical Center for the Study of Development and Learning.

“I wanted to know,” he said, “why I am different.”

Not his fault

After a day of tests, Delmar found out.

The reason, the doctor told him, is neurological. His brain is wired differently from other people's brains and that affects the way he processes information.

There's a reason he's obsessed with classical music. There's a reason he doesn't understand when his girlfriend feels sad. There's a reason he may not realize you're trying to end a conversation.

The reason is Asperger's syndrome.

Asperger's? Delmar had never heard of it. Not many people knew about it. Though Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger identified the disorder in the 1940s, it wasn't recognized by the American Psychiatric Association until 1994. Scientists still aren't sure what causes it.

Asperger's, Delmar learned, is considered a high-functioning form of autism.

He took home a sheet of paper, now soiled by frequent use, that lists some of the characteristics: pedantic or repetitive speech, a lack of common sense, exaggerated interest in one or two areas. People with Asperger's usually have average or above-average intelligence, he discovered, but are socially clumsy. They enjoy social interaction, but they don't know how to go about it.

It was as if he was reading about himself.

He finally had a label. And it wasn't just him. There are other people at his party: Actor Dan Ackroyd has Asperger's, and told interviewer Terry Gross he has a fascination with police and feels naked if he isn't carrying a badge. Some people suspect Einstein had Asperger's, maybe Bill Gates.

Delmar's quirks, his obsessions, his limitations are involuntary parts of who he is. It's not his fault. He can't change the way he is.

An innocent person

Torrance Banks recognized those qualities in Delmar years before the diagnosis.

He grew up with Delmar, played with him in the UNC Symphony Orchestra and worked at the post office.

“He has no way of mediating between himself and whatever he's being confronted with,” Torrance said. “He's an innocent person in a fundamental way. He doesn't or is incapable of guarding his essential self. That's a gift or a curse.”

It's why Delmar doesn't realize he's driving his girlfriend crazy by going on and on and on about some minutia of classical music. Martha Miller has known Delmar for about 25 years, lived with him for almost six and appreciates his uniqueness.

“It's taken me a really long time to understand that certain things are much harder for him,” she said. “I don't think people have any idea what it's like to be like that. He just doesn't fit into a normal social setting at all. There are people who know him well enough to accept him. A lot don't know him well enough and get thrown off.”

Martha, a Spanish professor at UNC Charlotte who met Delmar at an anti-nuclear rally, credits his success to incredible determination.

He can't remember which direction he came, yet he's traveled around the world, often alone. He has trouble tracking conversations the same way he has trouble mapping physical spaces, yet he knows thousands of people. He couldn't survive as a professional musician, yet professional musicians around the world seek his advice.

“He's a gentle, sweet person,” she said. “You can't stay angry at him because he always tries to do the best he can.”

She loves him, she said, not in spite of who he is, but because of it.

‘Amazing things'

There's one thing about Delmar, said his therapist, that's unique.

While most people with Asperger's have trouble staying in a job, he held the same one for 23 years.

“He really has done amazing things,” said psychologist Angie Owen-Killar, who specializes in developmental disabilities. “He's such a success story. I admire him so much for what he's done, just facing some of the challenges that he's faced and doing it head-on, full throttle.”

She encouraged Delmar to tell people about the Asperger's. She thought it might help him feel better about himself. Delmar hesitated. He agonized for a year about sharing this story. In the end, he decided it might help others understand him and people like him.

He has spoken at Asperger's workshops in Charlotte and recognizes his good fortune.

“I've met people like me who are floundering around in life, who don't know where to go,” Delmar said. “I feel sorry for them. At least I found a good job. I love music. I love to travel.”

His next big adventure will be in March to Brazil, where Martha won a Fulbright Fellowship. Delmar began planning weeks ago. He researched on the Internet and checked out travel books from the library. From his bedroom in Charlotte, he is gradually learning his way around the city of Recife.

But there are some things in life Delmar will never quite get. He saw the same therapist in the same office at least once a month for three years and after nearly every visit for the longest time, when he left her office, he turned right when he should have turned left.

Now you know why.

Honk! Honk!

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