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Couple of guys savor life despite disabilities


Tommy Goad calls himself a pretty tough guy. Do not judge him by appearance. Ed "Bunky" Whitley walks through life on crutches. Put him in Goad's league. They've been tough enough to live their lives to the fullest when the world told them to forget it.

Everybody looked at Goad, 31, and saw the broken body strapped into a wheelchair and the oxygen machine pumping air into a hole in his throat, and they told him to spend his life in a little room. He has muscular dystrophy.

Everybody looked at Whitley, 30, and saw him dragging his body damaged by cerebral palsy, and they told him to watch life from the sidelines.

"I'm too tough a guy for that stuff," says Goad, pausing halfway through his words to let his oxygen catch up with his thoughts.

"I don't want to spend my life watching television," says Whitley, looking across this little room on Chestnut Avenue.

For the past five years, they've spent their weekends around the corner at Zissimos' Bar on 36th Street, in Hampden, working until 1 in the morning as disc jockeys.

"Make sure," says Whitley, "that you mention we'll be going to Thursdays pretty soon, too."

"Yeah," says Goad, "and tell 'em we want to do nightclubs, too."

They seem to fill in the blanks for each other, the way partners do.

They've been friends since 1975, when they met at the William S. Baer School for handicapped children and found things in common beyond their frail bodies: a love of music and an understanding of each other's sensibilities which have bound them together for the last 17 years.

"I had a lot of doubts about myself back in school," Bunky Whitley says. "But then I saw what Tommy's gone through. I guess it's made me a better person."

Tommy Goad comes from a history of muscular dystrophy.

An older brother, John, had it and died at 25.

He fought some of the early fights in Baltimore for fair accommodations for the handicapped.

Their mother, Ruth Goad, and her late husband raised both sons to stretch themselves as far as possible.

Never has it been easy.

In this little room on Chestnut Avenue now, Ruth Goad holds out an old photograph, a picnic shot from 1964.

There are about 20 children in the picture, all muscular dystrophy victims. All but Tommy have died.

"And all these children, every one of them, was like family to me," she says softly. "Life can be pretty short. Whenever Tommy said he wanted to do something, I'd say, 'Go for it.' He's not one for sitting back and watching TV. Heck, he types better than I do."

He types by placing a stick in his mouth and hitting the keys with it. Below the neck, he's immobilized. Ruth Goad, at 68, still lifts him in and out of the wheelchair, still helps him into bed each night.

But what her son can't accomplish professionally, his partner can.

They convinced the Hampden Democratic Club to give them a job in the early '80s: one night a week, for $15 apiece, plus tips.

Some nights, they remember with wry smiles, they made "as much as $10 or $20 in tips."

It wasn't much, but it was the beginning of the fulfillment of a dream: to play music, to take part, to live their lives as fully as possible.

When they approached Nick Zissimos about working in his bar, he initially said no. He already had a disc jockey working for him.

"And anyway," Whitley says, "everybody told us we couldn't make it at Zissimos'. They thought, you know, because of our disabilities. They were too polite to say why, but we understood the brush-off."

"So I kept bugging Nick," Goad says. "I'd bug him and bug him."

Then something happened, a fallout with the old disc jockey at Zissimos'. There was a knock at Goad's door, and a guy from the bar said, "You're hired." They've been there the last five years, playing oldies and country, some stuff from the 1940s, and even some rap.

"Rap comes to Hampden?" somebody asks now. "Yeah," says Whitley, "if we don't play some rap, they start complaining."

"I'll tell you something," says Nick Zissimos, owner of the bar. "People really like these guys. They're pretty good at what they do, and they make people feel good. Times are tough, but people see these two, and they feel good."

On Chestnut Avenue, Goad and Whitley sit in a room decorated with pictures of Elvis Presley and John Lennon and Randy Travis. Tapes and CDs fill a couple of cabinets, and there's a television against one wall.

But nobody wants to watch it. Life is for living, at whatever level you can handle.

"If somebody says to me, 'You can't do this,' I say, 'The hell I can't,' " says Goad.

"And he's given me the same attitude," says Whitley. "You know, we're pretty opinionated guys. We fight a lot. I mean, Tommy can't use his hands, but he has his ways. One time, he butted me with his head and bloodied my nose."

In his wheelchair, Tommy Goad laughs at the memory.

But he has to laugh in little spurts, waiting for the oxygen to catch up to his feelings. In a way, it's appropriate. What these two have done with their lives is breathtaking to everybody.

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