Passing the torch in high style.

Published 20, Mar, 2017
Author // Félix Garmendía

Félix Garmendía recalls Bill, the man who taught him that self presentation is self celebration -- and that both are important.

Passing the torch in high style.

I used to see him very often in the neighborhood. I didn’t even know his name but there was something about this man that was very pleasant and captivating. My husband, Denis and I used to comment on how handsome and dapper he always appeared. He was a really sharp dresser, a very elegant man with a well-crafted retro sense of fashion. With his linen suits, alligator shoes, ascots, and meticulously crafted handlebar mustache, he was always a sight to behold.

Every time he crossed our path, he put a smile on my face. I felt his enigmatic personality. He was always cordial, smiling, nodding and saying “hello” as we crossed paths here in the neighborhood. Seeing him was always a pleasure and he actually became an inspiration to me.

When we first started running into our dapper, neighborhood friend, I was still able to walk. Walking was increasingly becoming a struggle but I was not quite ready to accept that I may soon be wheelchair bound.

When I was first diagnosed with Inclusion Body Myositis back in 2001, the first question I asked my doctor, who was an old and dear friend, was, “Russell, will I end up in a wheelchair?” Asking that question was terrifying but I had to ask.

Russell’s answer was quick, but clearly evasive. Russell stopped looking at me in the eyes and his gaze drifted to the floor when he said, almost whispering, “I don’t know Felix”.

I knew Russell very well and knew how to interpret that evasive answer. I would become bound to a wheelchair. From that moment on, I became depressed. I struggled intensely with feelings of despair and self-pity. I found myself sleeping 14 hours a day. I stopped taking care of myself and did nothing but cry and sleep. My appetite went away, my strength was very low and I felt like I was running out of reasons to keep on living.

During this dark time, on one of our trips around the neighborhood, I noticed that our dapper, enigmatic, stylish acquaintance appeared to show signs of difficulty walking. He appeared to be struggling to walk, his movements were slow, weak and deliberate. It wasn’t long after that, that we saw him in a power wheelchair boldly wheeling around the “hood”, STILL impeccably attired, smiling broadly, exuding confidence, style, even elegance. I remember concluding that this guy wasn’t only a FIGHTER, he was a triumphant, Ralph Lauren, Bill Blass, Calvin Klein kind of fighter.

It wasn’t long after this that a bad fall landed me in the ER and put ME in a wheelchair as well. And then it happened. It was a bright, spring day when we found ourselves “facing off” on a path in the park and I decided it was time we got to know each other. Shortly into our conversation I remember feeling that we were, in fact, old friends. His name was Bill and he and I officially became friends right then.

I realized very early in our friendship that Bill had something that I wanted. He was vibrant, I was somber. He was well dressed, I look like a slob. Bill was strong, I was drowning in self-pity. I think Bill was put in my path to teach me a lesson. This dapper man looked happy. I was not.

"It became quite clear to me that Bill celebrates his life by taking pride in himself and making a daily routine of “presenting” himself to the world. It was shortly after this epiphany that I bought my very first bow tie."

Slowly but surely I realized it was time to stop my self-destructive attitude towards life. I needed to regain my confidence, restore my self-esteem and start to celebrate my life like I used to before my Inclusion Body Myositis diagnosis. I got together with my doctors and we “tweaked” my antidepressant meds.

As the weeks passed, we continued to run into Bill in the neighborhood and I became aware that the new meds were in fact making a difference. I remember feeling that I was coming out of a fog. My outlook on life started changing and I finally was starting to “LIVE” again. That’s exactly when I figured out the lesson I needed to learn from my friend Bill. Bill became my inspiration.

It became quite clear to me that Bill celebrates his life by taking pride in himself and making a daily routine of “presenting” himself to the world. It was shortly after this epiphany that I bought my very first bow tie. As I became more adept at navigating EBay, I decided to get myself an entirely new, super stylish, “retro” outfit.

Before long, I had assembled an awesome example of “1950s” stylish splendor (think a Puerto Rican version of Cary Grant in “To Catch A Thief”) A sports jacket (sports being polo or croquette), a nice pair of cuffed, pleated plaid pants and a few other accessories that included cuff links, tie clips, stick pins, pocket squares, and yes, even ascots.

Throughout this whole process, my wheelchair bound friend Bill was on my mind and continued to be my inspiration. I wanted to be like him, I wanted to celebrate life and getting dressed up became the fuel that restored my long lost self-esteem, courage and confidence.

It might sound a bit superficial to some but for me it was the first big effort that I used to help recognize, address and conquer my depression once and for all. I started getting dressed, even if I was going to the local park or even the pizza place (“Hmmm, what goes with pepperoni pizza?”)

I started to get compliments from people. I was not invisible anymore like I felt when I was depressed. One of the most beautiful compliments I ever received confirmed that I was doing something right. A lady told me once, “Every time I see you, you make me smile.” I was making somebody else happy! What a beautiful concept to grasp.


Today I ran into Bill in our local park. Like always, he was impeccably dressed as he ventured into our beautiful Fort Tryon Park to photograph all the flora and fauna there.

I felt as if Bill had passed me the torch. It was up to me to recognize it and light my way through my self-imposed darkness. Today I thanked Bill. I told him he was my inspiration. He showed me that taking pride in the way you look, can be a very effective tool to fight depression and inspire others to keep on fighting their battles.

Today, I can say that I’m a happy man. I feel like a warrior that has learned a valuable lesson that may have saved my life. Bill, thank you for stealing the fire like Prometheus did and sharing that torch with me. Thank you for lighting my way.

Now, I’m ready to pass the torch. Would you like to grab the torch and pass it to someone else? I assure you it’s one of the most self-reassuring efforts I have ever made in order to become a happy and proud disabled man.

About the Author

Félix Garmendía

Félix Garmendía

"I was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico in the 60s. Living in Puerto Rico, and growing up there was a bumpy process. I was very aware of my homosexual identity at a very early age, so fighting the stigma was a very intense journey in my native island.

I love art. The Ponce Art Museum was my shelter since I was in high school. As my first job ever, I guided bilingual tours for locals and tourists from all over the world.

In high school, I was introduced to music and theater, after that, I chose to pursue a B.A. in theater at the U.P.R. ( University of Puerto Rico ). Rio Piedras campus.

In college, I discovered many things about myself. My sexual identity became established, my religious beliefs changed dramatically and my awareness of my role in society became the first and biggest challenge of my life. I became a proud gay man, an atheist and an activist. The political climate in Puerto Rico was very far away from recognizing any kind of gay rights so I knew that I needed a community that I could call my own, and be myself. After several years in Puerto Rico, in my twenties, I moved to N.Y.C. to pursue a Master’s Degree in Art Education and Art Criticism at New York University. I decided to stay in Manhattan. Here I found myself. I discovered my passions, causes to fight for, and the strong community that I always dreamed of. I became a passionate man with strong convictions.

After graduation I became a N.Y.C. school teacher. I taught art in the South Bronx, Spanish Harlem and Upper Manhattan for 15 years.

Sometime in my twenties, I was exposed to HIV. I tested HIV-positive and after a serious depression, came out strong and victorious. I became an AIDS activist. My passions in life became the gears that fed energy into my existence.

Very early in my N.Y.C. years, I became a staunch liberal. All my causes were related. I was trying to survive in a world where not everybody cared if I did or not. Politics made clear who cared for me as a human being.

That’s why I’m very vocal about my postings. Not because I want to convince anybody, but I do it for those who, like me, once needed some direction in life. I want to share the "real" me with those friends with similar beliefs or at least respect for my beliefs.

Today, I still live in Manhattan. I’m legally married to my husband Denis Beale and I’m disabled. My life is not easy, I have several health related conditions that are a real challenge these days. This bring me to another one of my causes. From personal experience, I believe in the legalization of cannabis (marijuana). 

I consider myself a loving, compassionate and spiritual person. I have no patience for bigotry, especially the kind of sanctimonious bigotry that wraps itself in prayer and fake compassion.

This is a synopsis of who I am. It would be really helpful to start introducing myself with my favorite warning. Warning: I’m human, far from perfect, passionate about life, the pursue of difficult answers, and the conviction that we are all equal."

Felix has been featured in The Huffington Post’s Queer Voices; see the piece here

You can follow Felix on Facebook here or here, on twitter @PozHeart and also on Instagram, here.