Lessons from Cowboy, Dave, and a not-so-unique Minnesota friendship

"Cowboy" was one of the first Minnesotans the author met. The first impression stuck.

"Cowboy" was one of the first Minnesotans the author met. The first impression stuck. Will Bahr

On my first day as a Direct Support Professional for men with intellectual and developmental disabilities, I was sure I was in the wrong place.

I’d plugged the right address into Waze, which matched the number on the house — but that was just the problem. I’d expected an office; here I was, smack in the middle of Twin Cities suburbia.

I sat in my Prius, still reeling from its three-day haul from L.A. a week prior, and watched the morning tableau unfold. Neighbors rolled in empty garbage cans and fetched the paper; an old man sucked at a pipe from his folding-chair-perch in the driveway. I called any numbers I could scrounge from onboarding emails: no dice. My only choice was to risk it — knock on this random Minnesotan’s door and hope not to wind up on the wrong end of a meat raffle.

Whatever the hell that was.

As I crossed the sodden lawn, the old man rose. He ashed the pipe against the sole of a slip-on sneaker. He wore blue jeans and a Charlie Brown T-shirt, a goatee thin and white as his pipe-smoke clinging to his chin. He approached me with confidence, squinted at me from below the brim of a worn black Stetson — and stuck out his hand for a shake.

“The cops gave me a ride home last night,” he informed me, plain as anything.

Ah, I thought. This must be the place.

I would come to know this outlaw, fittingly, as Cowboy, and the suburban backdrop as the ideal setting for a group home. Since the deinstitutionalization of the late twentieth century, the group home model has provided integrative housing for much of the disabled community. When they’re not home, some individuals go to work (for staggeringly low wages) or day programs; Cowboy attended the latter before COVID shuttered its doors.

When he is home — much more often, now — Cowboy navigates domesticity with three other housemates. Over the last six months, I’ve gotten to know him in particular. Just goes to show the lasting power of a good first impression.

It’s an intimate job. I cook and serve Cowboy food, which, more often than not, he tells me to return to the “icebox” to cool. I try to get him to drink water, which he abhors. I administer his medication, always a precursor to his driveway pipe sessions. Pre-global pandemic, I chauffeured him to and from libraries, toy stores and the obligatory McDonald’s drive thru.

Our trips afforded me sightseeing opportunities in towns that did, in fact, appear big enough for the both of us.

“We try to keep up his cowboy image,” my supervisor told me that first day as I glimpsed Cowboy’s room on the house tour. She wasn’t kidding: Johnny Cash and John Wayne loomed down from framed posters. Cap gun revolvers and harmonicas splayed on bureau tops. A posse on horseback in desert brush spanned the room in a wallpaper border.

Still, there are the unavoidable anachronisms. In lieu of a canyon view, Cowboy watches a flatscreen TV nested on the wall. He’s swapped horse-and-buggy for remote-control-car. And, since Western Union axed its telegram service (in 2006!), he’s been stuck with the phone — which, for hours on end, night after night, he uses to call Dave.

Like so much else in my first few months, I didn’t question this. This was the guys’ house, some of them for years; routines had long been cemented. But as that new-employee smell wore off, I grew more comfortable. I began to ask questions. Who was this mysterious force on the other line?

I only ever heard Cowboy’s side of the script, consisting of a reliable rotation of several lines in falsetto: “Hi, Dave... I love you, Dave... I like talking to you, Dave... You’re my best buddy. I don’t know why...”. I learned that Cowboy and Dave were old housemates at another group home, somewhere in Minnesota’s frigid past.

I learned that Dave still lived nearby but, despite their faithful chats, the two hadn’t seen each other in years. With Cowboy’s consent, I called Dave’s staff and arranged a meeting.

The day came. It was exciting, playing matchmaker. In a job where I was told loudly and often that I was “making a difference,” I felt, for the first time, like it was true. We trundled along I-35 in the blue house minivan, Cowboy scanning the radio for Dolly Parton or the Beach Boys. In the same breath, he told me he wanted to both visit Dave monthly and “go get a pop” afterwards. Like the strong, silent types of his namesake, Cowboy’s true motives are oft-clouded in stoic mystery.

We pulled up to Dave’s place and got out, Cowboy cursing my parking job. I stayed a few beats behind him as he climbed the concrete steps in his plodding, careful manner: right foot on one step, left on the same, right again on the next.

At the door, we scrapped silly social conventions like knocking — Cowboy elected instead to just waltz right into the living room where several residents sat, watching television. He briefly scanned the crowd, found Dave, and offered that signature shake to his old friend. Who, I learned within seconds of meeting, was almost entirely nonverbal.

My last few months fell apart at the seams. I had been watching and listening — every night of the week — as Cowboy talked with someone who was offering approximately zero English in response. It made no sense: Cowboy didn’t call Dave out of some sense of routine, nor was it a begrudging obligation, as phone calls are to so many of us. He was always itching to dial, sometimes asking to call Dave twice in the same night. He would talk, listen, and respond, sometimes for hours on end. How was this possible?

In hindsight, it’s simple. When specifically prompted by his staff, Dave could eke out a few words — “Hi” and “Bye,” mainly — but this took effort, and clearly wasn’t his preferred mode of communication. But communicate he did. Dave made a consistent shushing sound, as though someone had just picked up a call in a movie theater. He also tapped and banged on nearby objects and did plenty of pointing. Within minutes of our arrival, he yanked on a sweater and shushed and pointed his way to the door, indicating that he wanted to take us on a walk. It was clear that while Dave wasn’t speaking, per se, the two were still having a conversation.

On my drive out from Los Angeles, I decided that a Big Life Change required some Big Ideas. Naturally, I turned to TED Talks. Among the sea of information that poured forth from the Prius stereo, Dan Gilbert stood out. A Harvard professor and psychologist, Gilbert’s latest object of study has been human communication.

“Conversation,” Gilbert says, drawing on his novel research, “is a social activity in which people cement bonds between them. We’re basically sitting next to each other and saying, ‘I like you, I like you, I like you, I like you...’ Those words aren’t the ones we’re using, but that’s really what we’re saying.”

Occasionally, we converse strictly for information exchange — “Where can a man get a drink in this one-horse town?” — but this is rare, and usually takes place between strangers. With our friends, beneath the gossip and syntax, it’s usually just one big validation fest.

If nearly all talk works this way, then Cowboy and Dave are not the exception, but the norm. Cowboy has simply trimmed the conversational fat. His is a far more efficient version of the dance we all do with our nearest and dearest. Dave, for his part, appears to receive the message and respond in kind: night in and night out, after all, he keeps picking up. Though staunchly different communicators, they are likely saying the same thing. As, apparently, are we all.

As COVID-19 continues its global slither, our in-person visits with old friends have ground to a halt. For some, modern technology may prove a poor substitute for flesh and bone, but Cowboy seems unfazed. The call still goes out, trusty as a good horse: “Hi, Dave! I love you, Dave. I like talking to you, Dave. You’re my best buddy. I don’t know why...”

Will Bahr is a freelance writer and recent Los-Angeles-exile based in Minneapolis. Since October, he's been a member of the Cow Tipping Press fellowship, working in a group home and teaching creative writing classes to adults with disabilities. You can find his book reviews here and his journalism here