Bobby Mac used to leave things at my doorstep. Lots of things. I’ve come home to homemade music-mix CDs wrapped in Saran Wrap (“I couldn’t find a cuhvah”), to books (“Saw this book about writing. Thought of you, Babe”), to entire rashers of bacon wrapped in tin foil (“Happy Tuesday”). Most recently, it was 10 plastic squeeze bottles of mustard, ketchup, and mayo, and an industrial-sized can of applesauce. I’m an associate producer for a science TV show and a day earlier, I’d asked Bobby, a longtime chef for an MIT frat house, “where does one buy empty squeeze bottles?” We were planning to shoot a scene where we’d squirt condiments at a non-stick material; as usual, Bobby’s response: “I gotcha cuhvahed.”
I met Bobby like everyone else did: riding a bicycle. Actually, not quite. I met him before I ever hit the bikepath: it was 1999 and I’d just moved to Boston, straight out of college. I’d heard about the AIDS Ride, the 230-mile charity ride from Boston to New York, and, feeling rather aimless after 17 years of school, I was looking for something to latch onto. Back then, the AIDS Ride held information sessions where speakers would tell you all about the ride, and how great you’d feel doing it. Bobby was the speaker at the info session I went to: He talked about the money we’d raise to fight AIDS, and all the important scientific work we’d be funding. These good works should have been motivation enough, but frankly, what I remember is his personal story—his “Fat Bobby” story—the one that got hundreds of people off the couch over the years. This now-buff 50-something had once been a 300-pound guy in love with food and cooking. Then, in the early 90s, Arlington built an 11-mile bike path along an old railroad trail, and he started riding an old knobby-tired mountain bike a few miles a day. And then more miles a day, and then more. “I’m telling you, anyone can do this…I mean, look at me. I’m built like a tank. Look at you guys. You’re all already…bettah.” I remember thinking, “if I train for this thing, I’ll get to hang out with that guy.” He made me feel like if I signed up, I’d already have a friend waiting for me.
That was before I’d even said a word to the guy. And having read the hundreds of posts these past few days on Bobby’s Facebook wall, that’s EVERYBODY’S first impression of Bobby. He made people feel like they’d walked into the right place, like he’d been waiting for them all this time, like this family of bicyclists really needed a new brother, sister, mother, father, gramps. Whoever you were, you had just what this team needed.
The thing is, it wasn’t generic. Once you joined the rides, Bobby got to know you. And whatever you were good at, whatever your talent was, he saw it. Bobby thought we were all better bikers than we were (and for a lot of us, at least in the beginning, we couldn’t have been much worse), but he was keen to protect his investment. He rode as slow as the slowest rider, just to make sure you’d prove him right. And then…we’d come back. Week after week. People became the “Amazing So-and-So,” or the “World Renowned Whoever-You-Were.” For me, I became “The Lovely Cara.” Which got shortened to “LC”, which eventually just became the name “Elsie.” And that’s what he’s called me for 15 years.
I rode two charity rides with Bobby and trained with him for several summers on end. I met fellow rider Karen Ruccio on those rides, now one of the closest people to me in the world. Eventually, I stopped riding altogether; my life got busy, my job got serious, other things filled that niche. I could fill pages with our conversations and experiences riding up and down the Northeast Corridor. But really, that’s only half the story. What began as a mentorship and companionship throughout a common endeavor eventually became a treasured friendship—a person I could call for a dinner date, a walk downtown, an aimless browsing tour of Newbury Comics. If he was free, he was up for it. And every outing brought a surprise. Once he wrote in an email: “How do you want to travel tonight? Bike? Car? Helicopter?” I answered “helicopter,” and that night, he arrived with a remote-control toy helicopter he’d gone to three stores to find.
It was in these past five years that I really got to know Bobby, years when Macular Degeneration stole most of his vision. I heard many tales of THE GREAT BOBBY MAC, and amazing cycling stories about the Quad team. But eventually, I heard some of the great Robert MacMurray stories. The terror of losing his eyesight. And losing sight of what we all thought we saw in him.
In 2010, I made a short film about blind woodworkers – three different people who’d lost their sight as adults, and then went and learned how to use hammers, drills, and power saws. Bobby sat in the front row when it played at a Boston film festival, and slipped out before I could talk to him afterwards. The next day I received an email from him: “Your film changes everything. If they can do that, I can do this. You have no idea.”
We had frank discussions after that, real discussions about what it would be like to lose your sight, what that world you couldn’t see might look like. These weren’t discussions I would have wished for, but they gave me a chance to give him a watered-down approximation of what he’d given me. A chance to tell him exactly what I saw in him, and I hope, for him to see himself as I did. As we all saw him. As the force of nature he actually was.
I wrote back to Bobby’s email about my film the same day he wrote to me. My response easily could have been written by anyone who knew him, a tiny tweak to the note he’d written to me:
“Bobby, YOU changed everything for me. If you can do that, I can do this. You have no idea.”
Bobby died this past week from pancreatic cancer. I have so many Bobby stories, so many more things I want to talk about. So many more things I wish I could talk about with him. But I have no words for how heartbroken I am to lose him. And how much I will miss just knowing he was there. I will miss being “Elsie”, being "The Lovely Cara", being the way I felt I was when I was with Bobby Mac.