The year’s waning hours wash across the windows of the Denny’s in Cathedral City, with each literal raindrop down the glass evidencing the passing minutes until 2017.
The gray day frames what proved for many, a cloudy and confusing year, one which – from sport to politics to culture – oftentimes seemed a window of American history where hate usurped love, division edged cohesion and criticism bested compliment.
That’s what I see outside Denny’s. Inside, things look much brighter.
Engulfing a stack of cakes doused in syrup, a pair of sausages and a pile of scrambled egg whites swimming in ketchup is Nathan Bridges. His innocent smile wide and easy, his idiosyncrasy of dancing eyebrows popping with each gleeful bite, 45-year-old Nathan is an autistic, a grown man owning a childlike mind in a hulking body.
This is the first time I’ve dined with Nathan, but certainly – like many of you – not the first time I’ve encountered him.
My observance of 6-foot-2 Nathan dates back five or six years to when I first covered a Palm Springs High basketball game and noticed, with some pause, this large man clad in Indians’ red, emphatically supporting the hosts, socializing with fellow fans at will and, in truth, clearly making a few folks uncomfortable along the way.
Such is how we generally react to those who disobey societal norms and I’ll admit that I too evidenced a guarded, if not perturbed reaction. I clearly recall being a little frustrated by his massive presence lumbering from seat to seat while I was trying to keep stats and study schemes and eye the game clock.
That was the first time I saw Nathan Bridges. In the dozens of times I’ve seen him while covering Palm Springs’ games in the years since, I’ve come to not only respect the fortitude of his fandom, but to find inspiration in the purity of his adoration for all things Indians.
It was as early as Nathan’s pre-toddler years that his mother, Cheryl Ferri, recognized her son was different. Cheryl’s mother a Palm Springs’ resident, she a two-year-old Nathan moved to the desert where Cheryl learned that Katherine Finchy Elementary had programs to work with her with son’s special needs. In the challenging years ensuing, between doctors and research and countless drives and destinations in search of a firm a diagnosis of her son’s condition, Cheryl would eventually work with a neurologist who observed that while Nathan would have behavioral issues throughout his life, he’d be a very social creature, and recommended for him a high level of activity and engagement.
Cheryl Ferri communicates (refreshingly) in a way which requires little guesswork. Her eyes appear all-seeing and she speaks in a soft, learned voice which has paved her son’s uphill path.
As any good parent will tell you: Raising a child is an endeavor which finds no cease. Raising a child with special needs, however, is an endeavor which brings with it the added and ongoing challenges of achieving acceptance while, painfully, seeing your progeny being different, being “the other,” being the outsider.
“When you have that situation, you’re never really a part of anything,” says Cheryl. “If you have difficulty communicating, people may think of you differently and may assume you don’t have a certain amount of intelligence.”
Such an assumption, of course, would be inaccurate, as Nathan’s particular intellect is unquestioned by those who’ve come to know him.
And as Nathan came to know himself and the world around him, he echoed the behavioral patterns diagnosed by the childhood neurologist.
Remembers Cheryl: “As he was going through school, he realized more and more, that if he wanted to play with kids – they were moving.”
In adulthood, Nathan Bridges has rarely stopped moving. His fondness for sport – and the socialization therein – has seen him participate in the Special Olympics for nearly four decades, competing in all manner of sport, ranging from basketball and bowling to track and swimming, across which he’s accrued literally hundreds of medals.
Beyond his own fields of play, it would serve as a slight to refer to Nathan simply as a “Superfan.”
During his time at Palm Springs High (which he attended until age 23) and across the two-plus decades since, Nathan has been a staple at Indians’ sporting events and school functions.
Such a staple was not easily punched from the outset.
“He started making friends with people who, normally, would not be involved in a students’ life; the administrators, the principal, the athletic director – they started talking about him because you just couldn’t keep him down,” reflects Cheryl. “He pushed himself in where nobody wanted him to go, and he did it because he loves sports, wanted to a part of the school and wanted to be included.”
Yet, such communal acceptance and affection wasn’t gifted Nathan. Rather, it was something he earned, something he fought for. These doors weren’t opened wide for Nathan – he pushed his way in.
“That’s the equalizing factor. And he did it himself,” prides Cheryl. “When you’re told, day after day after day, ‘Do this, do that, act appropriately, speak appropriately, look appropriately,’ you just want to be you.”
Nathan’s love of sport sees him attend hundreds of events a year, both locally and out-of-town. The school prints him his own special game schedule and it’s with weekly, if not daily regularity, that Nathan will phone Palm Springs’ athletic director Dennis Zink to check on game times and locations.
“And if there’s not something going on in sports, then it’s a play or the band is doing something – he goes to every one of those functions too,” says Steve Harmon, a friend of the family who drives and accompanies Nathan to many of the events.
Over time, Palm Springs High has been very supportive of Nathan’s fandom, giving him an annual complimentary pass for games, providing him all manner of apparel (including his “No. 1 fan” shirt and a letter jacket) and presenting him a championship football ring from the Indians’ CIF title in 2009.
Reveling in the speed and spirit of football, the heights and noise of basketball, an emphatic game call and (like any of us), a begrudge of poor officiating, Nathan has become as much of a Palm Springs team as any jersey-wearing member.
Such inclusion, for example, has seen him rally football teams with pre-game speeches.
“You guys have done a great job, and keep it up throughout the football year,” Nathan recites with spirited remembrance. “And now, I’m gonna’ get off the bus and let you guys go.”
Akin to many in the sporting world, Nathan isn’t beyond his superstitions.
“It’s got to be red socks and red underwear for every game,” smiles Cheryl. “He gets very aggravated if he can’t find his red underwear.”
Like the sun spread daily over our desert sands, Nathan Bridges is the constant in the Palm Springs’ stands.
“He’s been there (to games) on days that were tragic, he’s been there through deaths, and he’s been there through births; things that would normally stop someone else, but they don’t stop Nathan,” says Cheryl. “Because that’s a survival mechanism for him, to, in some way, make his life normal, to kind of anesthetize him from very serious things that could be going on around his own life.”
Says Harmon of the relationship simpatico: “If he’s not there, they want to know why, and they’re concerned.”
When not being driven to games by Harmon, Nathan is a regular rider of SunLine buses, and has been, Cheryl says, “as soon as he got old enough to do what he wanted to do.”
An encyclopedic knowledge of bus schedules is but one form of Nathan’s self-reliance. He’s got a girlfriend, has worked at various places across the valley for all of his adult life and has been highly active in communal philanthropy, raising thousands of dollars for several charities by selling chocolate bars outside malls or by going door to door.
His own money? He’s donated a good deal of it to Palm Springs High School.
Owning a seemingly endless appetite for socialization, Nathan’s slate isn’t limited to prep games. He’s also a rabid Palm Springs Power fan in the summer months, readily enjoys going to movies (and performing impressions; just ask him to do Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy) and attending myriad local festivals and gatherings, with a special appreciation for car shows.
To document his activities, Nathan is also an avid photographer.
“He doesn’t just buy one (disposable) camera, he’ll buy three at a time,” says Harmon. “What he’ll do is put (hundreds of) the photographs up on the wall in his room and then eventually replace them with new and different ones.”
Like some higher-functioning autistics, Nathan has a photographic memory, and will recall small details from events decades prior. The photos – which he’s happy to present in bunches – appear a way for him to construct a linear narrative.
“That’s language for him,” explains Cheryl. “It’s what he did that day, where he went, who those people were, what was the weather like.”
To look at his photos is to see the world through Nathan’s eyes, and to remind oneself of the innocent wonder we must have all experienced at our first car show, our first parade, our first ball game.
The rain has quelled, the sun peaks through the mist and 2017 has grown ever-nearer during the course of our lunch. Plates are cleared and Cheryl has shared, in ultimate jest, a host of what she refers to as her son’s “Mr. Bean stories,” a reference to the comical, bumbling fictional foil created by Rowan Atkinson.
Nathan performs his Jim Carrey from The Cable Guy for the table and the cross from fiction to reality finds further purchase as his mom grants that, yes, her son is kind of like Forrest Gump.
Except she neglects to add that Nathan Bridges is our Forrest Gump.
We leave Denny’s and exchange holiday greetings and go our separate ways. At night, I listen to the tape of our conversation and replay the following from Cheryl’s tender voice, over and over: “As people become more exposed, they open their hearts and their personalities to change, and accepting things that are different.”
Yeah, Nathan Bridges is different. But it occurs to me that the great irony of his life — his years of impassioned fandom and standing sentry in the Palm Springs’ stands – is that here is a man who has spent so much time, so much energy, so much effort, so many games just trying to be like us.
And, really, we could be so well-served as fans by trying to be more like him.
Nathan Bridges isn’t just Palm Springs’ No. 1 fan. He’s the No. 1 fan in all of us.