At a school such as Stuyvesant there were many bright oddballs and Ryo had a few good friends. He also had crushes on several girls and made no secret of it. One in particular he admired, not only for herself but because she spoke Malayalam, a language of southern India. He liked the sound of the word “Malayalam” and spoke it with an Indian accent. He sent her notes referring to her as “my wife.” Being a good sport, she took his social clumsiness in stride and they remained friends. A buddy of hers became his first steady girlfriend the summer they graduated from high school.
Ryo entered New York University and for a while considered a career in anthropology. At another time he thought briefly of studying medicine. Nothing really grabbed him. Instead, he suffered such inner turmoil that midway through his second year at NYU, he dropped out. Everything felt wrong. His whole life was uncomfortable, as though it didn’t fit him, or he didn’t fit in the world. A therapist he saw during that period noticed that Ryo had some autistic traits. Ryo stubbornly refused to continue the therapy. As if the Asperger’s weren’t enough, his stubbornness was an additional curse that went on plaguing him.
When that dark episode passed, he transferred to Grinnell. It was in Iowa, he could live away from home, and that was good. He began his studies with great hope but again fell apart. Later he admitted he had been doing drugs. He frittered away another year or so working at various odd jobs or doing nothing at all. Once more he pulled himself together, gave up the drugs, and went back to Grinnell.
There he had good friends and, now and then, a girlfriend. He was appreciated for his humor and sense of fun. He and his roommates named their dormitory “Asian House,” although he was the only Asian there. His ancient car became the “Schlub Mobile.” One friend later wrote:
I can’t remember how many times the Schlub Mobile drove the I-80 Grinnell shuttle [to New York] but each trip was filled with adventures and mishaps. One freezing cold night drive, we found our way down to the banks of the Mississippi River and collected a large piece of ice and transported [it] on top of the Schlub Mobile. We hauled it all the way back to NY just to drop it in the Hudson River. We both thought it was a hilarious idea to transport water from one drainage system to another.
Another friend wrote:
I remember Ryo as a quiet, deeply intelligent person with a puckish sense of humor . . . enigmatic, unpredictable, ephemeral . . . months with a full beard then clean shaven the next day without comment. A burst of words and ideas for 30 seconds followed by 45 minutes of silence.
Aspergians tend to be honest, straightforward, and without guile. Even as a grown man, Ryo retained a childlike innocence. It wasn’t in him to put on airs or try to impress. The mother of a college friend wrote:
I remember so well how good and kind he was with our two grandchildren. I recall how on the evening of July 4 we had gone to watch our little town’s fireworks. Our group sat at the top of a 30 foot knoll to watch. Holden [her grandson] got bored waiting and proceeded to roll down that hill and who should join him but Ryo. This went on for a good while, roll after roll. It must have made Ryo quite dizzy but he kept it up for the fun it was giving Holden.
Ryo graduated from Grinnell with a degree in American history. It was what he enjoyed, but not very useful for landing a job. He returned to his parents’ home, by then in suburban New Jersey, and worked at what he could find.
His Asperger’s and his shyness didn’t help. During the summer he applied for a job with a landscaping company. When asked what heavy equipment he could operate, he was at a loss. He had never driven a tractor or a backhoe but was paralyzed at the thought of admitting it. Yet he couldn’t lie. The Asperger’s wouldn’t allow that, so he stood tongue-tied and mortified. This echoed years later after he lost his job with Sullivan County under charges that he felt were slimy. He knew he had to admit being fired, but how to explain the reason? He despaired of ever finding another job, although he tried for more than a year.
That, however, was still to come. Meanwhile, feeling at loose ends, he left New Jersey and set off for Los Angeles, where he had relatives. There he found work as a legal secretary. He made good money but, in spite of his father’s encouragement, had no interest in pursuing law as a career. Ryo found an apartment in Sherman Oaks and was there when the Northridge earthquake hit. It broke all his dishes, but he survived.
Not because of the earthquake, but still hoping to find his niche, he moved back across the continent to Washington, DC and worked again as a legal secretary. Meanwhile he asked himself what his real interest was and decided it was maps. He resolved to study a fairly new technology called Geographic Information Systems, or GIS.
One problem: There was no place in the DC area where he could take night courses, and he couldn’t study in the daytime because he had to work. He went on the Internet and found that if he returned to LA, he could take evening courses at Santa Monica College. It might all have worked out but for an unfortunate living arrangement.