LIFE IN THE DARK
“Hey Jude, the key of D,” shouts Dave Ephross, sitting in front of his electric keyboard. It’s plugged into an extension cord artfully threaded through the window of James Palmaro’s Park Slope brownstone home.
Palmaro lifts a harmonica in the correct key out of a black case, where it was resting next to seven others. There’s a small drum at his feet, a black tambourine nestled by his side, and a pipe flute he got on a trip to Copenhagen - dangling around his neck. A Jamaican flag is wrapped around his head to honor his wife’s heritage.
The two have been playing music together almost every day since New York has been in lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, from about three to seven when Jeopardy starts, but it always depends on the day.
Occasionally they are joined by a third musician, but today it’s just the two of them. The gate to Palmaro’s front garden area is closed, and the two men sit six feet apart while jazz and blues music escapes their instruments. Neighbors and passersby often stop and listen; they applaud the men and sometimes sing along.
Ephross counts them down, then starts whispering Palmaro the lyrics line by line, who sings it out. “He’s illiterate,” Ephross quips. “I’m not illiterate,” Palmaro defends himself, “I just can’t see.”
Palmaro will turn 64 this coming July 14th, Bastille Day. He was 24 years old when he started having issues with his vision, just one year shy of his wedding.
Palmaro first realized something was wrong with his vision while playing sports and when lying in bed during the dark night. “When I would play basketball in the gym, the glare behind the ball would bother me, and I would have to turn my head around completely to see what was happening behind me.”
Palmaro would soon be diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, also known as RP. It’s a genetic eye disorder that passes through the mother’s side and comes with night blindness and tunnel vision.
“You lose your up, down, right and left.”
However, Palmaro doesn’t know of anyone in his family who had the same condition, so he assumes it’s from some distant ancestor in Italy.
RP has no cure, and it took Palmaro about 20 years to lose his sight. It wasn’t until then, in 2001, that he left his job working at the Post Office. Palmaro says it’s very rare to lose all of your sight, and that only 20% of people who are blind have no vision. He has about 2% of his sight and can see no shapes or colors, just variations of light and shiny things.
Losing his vision meant Palmaro had to make some changes in his life. “From the beginning, I had to give up sports,” Palmaro explains. “That hurt - not playing ball. I was a good player, and I loved playing it. I played a lot until the age of 25. I filled my childhood with sports.”
That didn’t prevent Palmaro, whose strong and positive attitude radiates through every word, “I was never devastated by it, I had a good spirit and strength. I have a lot to be grateful for. I have my family,” he says.
RP opened up a new door for Palmaro, giving him the drive to learn and take on new hobbies and work. He likes to call them his many “vocations.” He started with tutoring his son and his son’s friends, which soon led to tutoring children after school at the Wyckoff Housing Projects, where he continues to help out to this day.
Palmaro also taught Sunday school for some time at his church, St. Augustine. It was there that he met the retired social worker and ministry volunteer Ellen Edelman. She had just moved churches and was organizing a program for children of incarcerated children and their families.
Palmaro was the first and oldest volunteer to approach Edelman. “He has tremendous energy, ability to learn, enthusiasm, and ability to involve people in his enthusiasm,” Edelman explains. “He built the music program and brought his friends along.”
Edelman helped organize a lot of events for the church, sometimes Palmaro would involve the kids he tutored at the Wyckoff house. “He has participated in everything, and he brings a lot of positive energy to everything he does,” Edelman says. “He’s been a really good ambassador.”
Palmaro is a jack of all trades, and involves himself in every activity he can get his hands on. After losing his vision he taught himself how to play the harmonica and started writing poetry. He now regularly performs both in small restaurants and cafes.
“For each one of us, one of the most important things that we can be is being understood for who and what we are,” Palmaro says. “Poetry is a way of me sharing what I believe in and what I do. Playing music is that for me too.”
Palmaro had to overcome a lot after losing his vision. “My biggest struggle I would say, oddly enough, is people only seeing the blindness and underestimating who I am. Well, that bothers me the most, but it’s not a struggle.”
“If I could get my vision back, yeah I would. But I wouldn’t pray for it.”
Back at Palmaro’s house, he and Ephross bounce a couple of suggestions back and forth, from the Cheers theme to Watermelon Man, before agreeing on the next song to play.
The same ritual begins, Ephross starts playing his keyboard, and really starts getting in the groove when he’s interrupted by Palmaro, asking for the key. Ephross then feeds Pamaro the lyrics to the Stevie Wonder song they’re playing, who then sings it out loud and proud as soon as the words hit his ears.
As Palmaro explains, he can’t remember the words to every song.
The two men first met at a barbeque a few years back. A shared sense of humor and the fact that they live on the same block brought them together. “He meets all these friends because he just talks to people on the street,” Ephross says. “ When I’m walking with him and we pass someone asking for money, he’ll know them by name and he has money ready for them. They immediately start talking.”
Ephross says that he and Palmaro have gotten closer since lockdown. Besides playing music, he’ll help buy Palmaro newspapers or groceries when his wife is at work.
That Sunday evening, as they finish their song, they hear the 7 p.m. cheers from their neighbors, thanking the essential workers. The two men join in, pouncing on their instruments.
“One more song?” Palmaro asks as the cheers die down. Ephross agrees.
“How about Imagine?” Palmaro suggests. “That’s a good song for right now.”
By James Palmaro
I did not lose my sight in a day
Nor week, or month, or year
It slowly slipped away
Yet my vision became more clear
No longer am I awash in the glare of flood lit scenes
Instead, I focus on life’s essences
And my perspective grew more keen
I heard the words of others
As I never have before
I found a peace in patience and gratitude
And each moment means much more
My blindness became my teacher
His lessons were profound
I learned through touch and listening
The depth of textured sound
I greet obstacles and challenges everyday
There are countless things I miss
But look beyond my loss and you’ll see I’ve gained from this
My life is now more vivid
Despite this loss of sight
For the light concealed by the day’s distractions
Revealed itself at night