Little Man, Big Mind New Media Pioneer Gary Brickman’s Remarkable Life
Little Man, Big Mind New Media Pioneer Gary Brickman’s Remarkable Life
Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Monday, July 31, 2000
Bay Area new media pioneer Gary Brickman passed away quietly in his sleep last month. He was only 38.
If you’ve attended any big tech events here in the Bay Area over the last decade or so you probably saw Gary.
The little guy in the wheelchair was hard to miss.
Brickman was an inspiration to his many friends. He overcame a rare genetic bone disease that put him in the chair as a child to eventually become managing editor of broadband for NBCi, the Internet arm of the broadcasting network.
Last year, roughly twenty-five years after our friendship began in high school, Brickman invited me to go with him to attend one of the final Giants games at Candlestick Park.
As some of his other friends have noted on the Web site designed to honor his memory, attending crowded public events with Gary was always a good time, not only because of his fine company, but also because you inevitably got the very best seats.
In this case, though, the Giants had, in our view, seriously overdone it. As some may recall, the unprotected handicapped seating section at Candlestick, where able-bodied fans could sit with wheelchair bound friends, was generously located at ground level, just off first base.
Unfortunately, that’s also the place where foul balls whiz past at decapitating velocities.
“It figures they’d put the crips in the line of fire,” Gary said, eyes twinkling. “Adds a whole new dimension to the sport, don’t you think?”
Gary had a razor-sharp wit. He was also a devastating mimic, incredibly articulate, a connoisseur of the finer things in life, far more than smart, much more than pushy, and a very fine friend.
He lived a full and fully independent life. He drove his own car, had his own place, traveled all over the country, called his own shots.
But Gary’s disease kept his body small and fragile. As a child, a sneeze could break his ribs. As an adult, he never grew much taller than three feet.
He called his condition “shortycapped.”
There’s no problem with my hands, he’d say, occasionally flashing me a playful middle finger just to prove it.
Gary came out to his family and friends a few years ago. People in wheelchairs are often desexualized, Gary told us. He wanted none of that.
What else could you expect from a guy who often rode his chair into the middle of the mosh pits in the City’s most exuberant nightclubs?
It may have been because he endured so much himself, but Gary seemed to have an innate sense that clued him in whenever one of his friends needed him. In times of trouble, he would suddenly materialize on the phone or on the doorstep, ready with wise counsel, the perfectly-timed quip, or offering the simple gift of his time.
His rise to prominence in the new media industry demonstrated the remarkable contribution talented but physically challenged people can make if someone will just give them a chance.
It was a thrill to see him helping lead an international broadcasting organization that had the wisdom to hire him, the genius to put him in charge, and the resources to let him succeed.
But it wasn’t always that way.
I know Gary probably wouldn’t mind if I mentioned that it took him much longer than it should have to get his career off the ground, almost entirely because too many employers wouldn’t give him opportunities they reserved for able-bodied applicants.
As teenagers, Gary and I were both interested in media, politics, the news, business and technology.
But early on, I got the jobs and he didn’t.
I set up job interviews for Gary many times over the years, almost begging my employers and contacts to give him a try.
But it was always the same. Gary would dress up in his little suit, drive himself in his specially equipped van, and charm the pants off whoever conducted the interview.
Later, I’d hear the usual euphemisms, how my bosses or colleagues weren’t sure “he could handle it,” or how he “didn’t fit in with the team.”
“It’s okay,” Gary would tell me. “Thanks for trying.” He would remind me: “Remember it only has to work once.” I was crushed by some of those defeats. But if Gary was, it never showed.
Maybe you can imagine how I felt when it was Gary who lined up my current job, which I like more than a lot, as Silicon Valley Correspondent for CNBC.com.
The friend I had so fruitlessly tried to help ended up handing me one of the biggest plums of my career.
To be sure, Gary did have some early successes, serving, for example, in a national post in the Walter Mondale presidential campaign.
He did a stellar job working one summer in the early 90’s as a fill-in on-air reporter covering the political beat at KPIX-TV. Later, he worked behind the scenes in New York as an associate producer for both CBS This Morning and the Evening News with Dan Rather.
But the truth is things didn’t really start cooking for Gary until just a few years ago, after he launched the New York Times’ irreverent, trend-setting online Hyperwocky column.
Rather quickly, he became a must-read in the industry.
He finally landed his first truly good-paying permanent job with CMP Media’s TechWeb shortly thereafter. One year later, he came to the attention of the honchos at NBCi who, like many others, were impressed with Gary’s uncanny ability to figure out how to do things no one had ever before tried.
It was no accident, for example, that Gary was one of the first people, if not the first, to see how streaming media technology could be used to create a new, more user-friendly type of Internet broadcasting.
One of Gary’s revolutionary insights, which is now being copied by an increasing number of multimedia sites, involved breaking up an online video feed, say a news broadcast, into smaller parts and then graphically displaying a montage of small video screens accompanied with a short text description of each section of the broadcast.
That way, viewers can immediately find out what’s being covered in a lengthy broadcast and click on just the section that is of interest. He turned the old linear art of broadcasting toward a more powerful, non-linear model.
It was a huge breakthrough that won Gary the respect of many new media visionaries.
The idea, however, was a function of who Gary was. Who could possibly do a better job of figuring out how to make technology easier to use than someone who had spent his entire life struggling to open doors, push elevator buttons, or pick up the morning paper off the ground?
When you cope with bigger, more difficult, more complex problems than most people, you are either stunted, killed, or made stronger.
Like many physically-challenged people, Gary became stronger.
My first reaction upon learning of his death was disbelief, then furious anger.
I know the psychologists say that anger is a stage in the grieving process, along with denial, bargaining, and, one hopes, finally, acceptance.
But there was something more fueling my anger. And it wasn’t just because Gary and I had tickets to attend another Giants game a few days after he died.
I’m pissed off, in part, because the world will never know how much more it could have gained if just a few more of Gary’s dreams had time to come true.
We’ll never see, for example, what an amazing presidential press secretary he would have made. How his very presence at the podium, any podium, would have conveyed a lesson about inclusion and the special value of every single soul.
I’m also spitting mad that our government spends so little on adaptive technology, research and related programs, preferring instead to waste $100 million on corrupt, idiotic exercises such as the recent worthless missile defense test when just half that sum could have given hope and mobility to thousands of physically-challenged people just like Gary.
Mostly, I’m angry that Gary had to waste so much of his energy fighting the crippled thinking that tried, but always, always failed, to keep him on the sidelines.
Now that he is gone, the question left ringing in my ear is whether we, as a society, will continue to allow ourselves to be cheated out of the contributions others like him can make.
Gary’s memorial gathering was a touching tribute, attended by artists, filmmakers, noted entrepreneurs, and many friends and colleagues from the media, tech and gay communities.
At the conclusion of the memorial, we released helium-filled red balloons to symbolize Gary’s ascent to a place where no one has a physical advantage over any one else.
The balloons quickly turned into tiny red dots, and then disappeared altogether.
But mine, alone among the group, got caught in the branches of a nearby tree.
Freed a few moments later, it seemed to scurry upward in a solitary, mad dash to join the others.
I wasn’t worried, though. I knew Gary wouldn’t mind waiting for the last one to catch up.