By Aldis Petriceks
At Home with John Collins, Wherever You AreUploaded: May 29, 2018
This piece is the second in a multi-part series, telling stories about employees of Ada's Cafe -- the 501c3 nonprofit cafe in the Mitchell Park community center, which employs individuals with disabilities. To learn more about Ada's, read the November 2017 PA Online article, or visit www.adascafe.org.
When I first learned of John Collins, I was intrigued. When I first spoke to the man, I was spellbound.
What makes this man, you might ask, so unique? There are many answers to that question – his simple charm, his constantly-churning brain, his humble compassion. Yet for everything which makes Collins distinct, the man’s greatest idiosyncrasy is a sincere and familiar heart.
Collins, 54, has an interesting way of telling stories – one wholly contextualized by memories of the world outside. “Proposition 13 was about to pass,” he says perfunctorily, recalling his 1977 childhood move to Palo Alto. “The six-day war had just finished,” he remembers, of a family vacation to Israel. Defunct airlines are his synaptic filing cabinets, presidential terms his recollective secretaries. Yet for all his outward-facing stories, all his minutiae of memory, Collins centers himself squarely within.
“I like my privacy, keeping things to myself,” he notes, while sipping a Coke. “I’ll share some things with people, but… I mean, I wouldn’t give you my social security number.” This intimate mindset perfuses Collins’ entire life – his relationships, his work, and yes, his finances. When asked where he feels most comfortable, Collins simply chuckles, “My apartment” – referring to his Palo Alto residence, where he has lived on his own since 2003. The man may exude a certain worldliness, but his serenity is found in the inward mind.
Though that mind faces inward, however, it rarely sits idle. Since his youth – when the Collins family bounced quantumly from the East to the West coast – Collins has boasted a joyful and creative wit. “My dad built this TV, a Heathkit, from scratch,” he recalls, describing his inspiration for a lifelong ingenuity. “Then my brother and I made this little Heathkit-junior thing; we built custom HAM radios,” and in the stirring crackles of a child-produced radio set, John Collins declared himself to the world.
This passion for creating – especially electronic devices – was, at the time, only a nescient intuition. But after a half-century of life, Collins’ avocation glows with diverse fervor: the Gunn High School graduate owns three video game consoles, builds model planes in his spare time, and holds a self-endorsed knack for “figuring out cables.” His mind spins swiftly on the wheels of creative disposition, keeping life fresh and full of potential for the Palo Alto resident.
While electronic creativity suffuses Collins’ home life, the man’s vocation is equally productive. Having lived in Palo Alto since high school, Collins now embraces his community with culinary creations at Ada’s Café – a community coffeeshop and nonprofit organization, lauded for its empowerment of disabled people. Indeed, Collins himself is one of those disabled employees: “I have autism,” he says, without any weight or diffidence, “It feels normal to me, I guess.” His humble contentment does, at times, find itself enmeshed with trials and impediments: “It’s frustrating at times,” he admits, “Sometimes I have trouble concentrating, I get a little anxious if I lose something.” But, glancing at the green Ada’s apron on his torso, he notes that “I guess everybody does that.”
Officially classified as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), autism encompasses a wide breadth of presentations. The condition is labeled a “communication and behavior disorder,” recognized nationally and internationally through deviance from certain interpersonal norms. Often considered a developmental disorder – because signs of autism usually begin during childhood – its wide-ranging indications carry on through life.
On the one hand, people with autism can experience difficulties in back-and-forth conversation, such as restrictive or repetitive behaviors, and sparse maintenance of eye contact. On the other, these individuals can sometimes excel in math or science, retain detailed facts and recollections, and flourish through creative expression. The extent and combination of these traits, as one might expect, are multitudinous. But in any case, autism has continued to garner worldwide attention in the past decades, as prevalence in the U.S. has climbed steadily since 2000 – from 1 in 150 children then, to 1 in 68 children now.
But for Collins, who claims to be “a little slow at some points, but not that slow,” spectrum of behavior is simply another term for human nature. Collins is different, yes, but much in the same way as all people. His independence, his work ethic, his gentleness, all point towards a humble unity with the world around him. His indiscriminate acceptance of others, evident the moment we met, beams forth with instant familiarity.
When asked to describe himself, then, Collins remains deliberately general: “I’m funny, easygoing, creative,” he says, shrugging his shoulders in humility, “and intelligent.” His modest warmth melts even the coldest of strangers – shaping them, inevitably, into steadfast friends.
The cardinal characteristics which define Collins – gentleness and creativity – find perfect unison today, as he continues his work at Ada’s. In the café, invariably, Collins’ tender introversion turns to friendly and meaningful comradery. Colleagues find him joking, relaxing, and working diligently through seamless interchange.
“Everyone here is easy to talk to,” he says of his coworkers, with a shy yet joyful grin. Indeed, throughout my own conversation with the Ada’s employee, one insight has become abundantly clear: To be with Collins is to feel at home. The man himself might find truest comfort in his apartment, but for those fortunate enough to hold his company, Collins’ humble heart is an open door. As conversation flows, the man may look up, or down, or all over, at the beautiful scenes around him; but inattentive he is not. Collins, always the creator, is simply blending that first defining trait of his – humility – with a wandering love for creation. Spending time with Collins involves no grand declaration, no self-serving delusion on his part. There is only a familiar, unadorned sincerity and wonder.
That, after all, is why I adore John Collins: I have never felt more at home while interviewing another person. A conversation with John entails no fear – none of judgement, nor of selfishness, nor malevolence. Questions are returned with neither stale glances, nor long treatises. They are pondered, if only for a moment, and answered with meekness and honesty. There are no lies with Collins, because the man feels only truth; there is no pretense, because presumptions are pleasantly absent. To know this person is, quite simply, to be intrigued. To know John Collins is to be at home.