The legend of DieselDucy: Vinton man's elevator videos go viral on YouTube (with video) [The Roanoke Times, Va.]
(Roanoke Times (Roanoke, VA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Oct. 20--Andrew Reams was in the basement of an old building on Campbell Avenue in downtown Roanoke, where he was making another masterpiece. He held a digital video camera in his right hand and a toy train in his left. He took a quick shot of the train first. That's the way he starts all of his videos about elevators.
"We are going to get to ride this historic freight elevator in downtown Roanoke, and guess what, it's an Otis !" Reams narrated on that April afternoon as he climbed aboard an elevator so old it had a metal gate he pulled open by hand. Wearing a Super Mario Brothers T-shirt over his fast-food-induced paunch and a ballcap atop his close-cropped receding hairline, Reams kept shooting as he talked and pushed the manual button that made the old cab climb.
"This elevator has what's called constant-pressure control, meaning you have to hold the button down to make it move."
He described the motion, the motor, the buttons and lights as if he was a car critic test-driving a new Mustang.
That's what Reams does. He shoots videos of elevators as he rides them. He posts them on YouTube. More than 2,300 of them since 2006. They are not all about elevators, of course -- he also posts clips of himself eating McRib sandwiches, and other mundane moments from his life.
But most are about elevators and that toy train Reams has carried with him since he was 2 years old. He is now 36. He calls the toy "DieselDucy," a nonsensical name left over from childhood. DieselDucy actually stars in its own videos, in which Reams provides a cartoonish, high-pitched voice for the fist-sized, die-cast metal engine. DieselDucy (pronounced "doo-see") even has a couple of theme songs.
Reams' videos have been viewed on YouTube nearly 41 million times.
That's right, 41 million.
"I'm not trying to brag, but I'm probably Roanoke's biggest YouTube presence," he said.
Except it isn't bragging when you have 41 million views.
A childhood obsession
Reams leads a fairly ordinary life in Vinton with his wife and stepson. He works for Norfolk Southern as a conductor, a job that requires him to couple train cars, operate track switches and spend days at a time riding the rails from Roanoke to West Virginia and Tennessee.
His wife of nine years wanted nothing to do with this story.
"She's a very private person," Reams said. "She doesn't get the whole elevator thing."
Reams said that his obsession with elevators is a vestige of his childhood, when he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a disorder that is part of what doctors call the autism spectrum. Asperger's symptoms include late development of basic childhood skills, social awkwardness and obsessive behavior. In addition to elevators, Reams' obsessions include fluorescent lights, padlocks and trains . He makes videos about those objects, too.
None of those are as popular as DieselDucy videos, in which Reams comes across as a Mister Rogers with Asperger's, talking to a toy train that talks back.
His YouTube channel has 10,500 subscribers who wait for a new DieselDucy installment the way comic book fans line up for "Batman" movies. He makes money off the clips from YouTube's advertising. He won't say how much he makes, but it's almost enough to live on.
In the very first DieselDucy video, Reams pulled into the Elmwood Park Garage and shot a 10-minute clip of himself riding and talking with DieselDucy.
"Does anybody know what time it is?" Reams said in the clip in his regular voice, which is sort of high and childlike.
"It's DieselDucy Time!" DieselDucy sings over and over to the tune of the old "Howdy Doody" theme song from the 1950s. (DieselDucy's voice, it should be said, sounds kind of girly.)
"I make the DieselDucy videos not just for kids, but for people who are kids at heart," Reams said.
Reams grew up in the St. Louis suburb of Des Peres, Mo . His father was a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and his mother took care of Andrew at home -- or tried to.
Bernard and Bridget Reams realized early on that their firstborn had developmental issues. Andy, as his parents called him, was slow to learn to walk and still had not uttered a word by age 3.
"People were telling us, 'He really should be talking by now,'" recalled Bernard Reams, Andrew's father. Comments like that only increased the couple's worries.
Then, one day when he was nearly 4 years old, as he sat in the back seat of the family Oldsmobile his mother was driving, little Andy gazed out the window and spoke for the first time.
"Look, Mommy, over at the Phillips 66 station. An orange truck is filling the tanks with gasoline."
His mother was so shaken by her child's sudden verbal mastery, she pulled off the road and called her husband to come pick them up.
Something was going on inside the mind of this special child. As he grew older, he became entranced by the most mundane household fixtures -- switches, lights and even flushing commodes.
By the time he reached school age, however, his behavior had worsened. Reams was diagnosed and medicated for numerous conditions, including hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder, Asperger syndrome and obsessive-compulsive behavior.
The boy could not sit still or follow basic classroom instructions. Classmates picked on him and called him "Retarded Reamzoid." His utter lack of social awareness made him an easy target for practical jokes. Classmates would tell him to go write the f-word on the blackboard and he would do it, right in the middle of class. He was regularly punished by school administrators and occasionally expelled. He attended five different schools before he was a teen.
"It was amazingly stressful for a parent," his father said. "Nobody knows how to live with somebody who is constantly active. He was constantly driving us nuts. It required a very special psychological mindset hour after hour. His mother had great difficulty with it."
His exasperated parents eventually sent him to the Shedd Academy , a private Christian school in Mayfield, Ken., they had learned about from his father's secretary. Shedd provided a structured, disciplined educational environment for children with dyslexia , hyperactivity , attention deficit disorder and other problems. Reams received one-on-one instruction from his teachers and, gradually, his ability to focus on his school work improved. He and his father credit the school's former director, Paul Thompson, for improving Reams' life .
"He said, 'Your parents are great people, but they don't have instruction manuals for kids like you,'" Andrew said. "If not for Shedd, I would not be here this day."
Reams graduated from Shedd Academy in 1995 and enrolled at Murray State University, where the Office of Student Disability Services helped him earn a degree in management and organizational communication within five years.
"Retarded Reamzoid" was a college graduate.
Even during the hard years , Reams found solace in his obsessions -- especially elevators.
At age 3, Reams was captivated by pushing elevator buttons and watching the doors open and close. He rode elevators in his father's building on the Washington University campus, at shopping malls, inside hotels and at doctors' offices.
"I was about three and a half, and I remember pushing the button and thinking, 'That's cool, I want to do it again,'" he said. "Elevators were a treat for me. My parents would take me out to ride."
Reams stopped riding elevators for a couple of years as a kid, after he was trapped alone in one during a family vacation. He was so traumatized by the experience, he began to make his parents use the stairs . Two years later, while staying with his family at the same hotel where he got stuck, he climbed back onto the elevator . He beat his fear and has remained infatuated with elevators.
Reams' father was often charged with chaperoning his son's joy rides. Father and son would ride elevators in buildings for hours in order to give Reams' mother a respite from dealing with her rowdy, troublesome boy. The Reamses had a younger daughter, Adriane, who had none of Andrew's conditions.
"I had to find ways to entertain him," Bernard Reams said. "I knew we had a couple of places where we could ride elevators for a couple of hours. It was better than going to a bar and drinking yourself silly."
Bridget Reams, Andrew's mother, never had an emotional safety valve that allowed her to deal with the stress of raising her son.
"She started having stomach problems," Andrew recalled. "She kept popping Zantac."
In the mid-1990s, doctors discovered she had stomach cancer. She died in 1996 at age 52. Her son blames himself.
"I put my mother through a hell of a lot," Reams said. "I couldn't talk about her until about four or five years ago."
He wishes she could see him now.
"I'm leading a normal life," he said. "When I was 13, she and my dad never thought that would happen."
Of course, Reams' "normal life" consists of being an Internet sensation beloved by fans, many of whom actually make road trips to Roanoke just to visit him -- and ride elevators all over town.
Jeff Davis is one of those fellow elevator enthusiasts. Davis, a senior electrical engineering major at Virginia Tech originally from Richmond, contacted Reams after watching his YouTube video of an elevator at Virginia Tech .
"I kind of kept to myself, because I thought it might seem pretty weird," Davis said of his own fascination with elevators. After subscribing to the DieselDucy YouTube channel, Davis, a small guy who wears glasses, sports a goatee and wore a Snoopy T-shirt when he visited Roanoke last spring, realized there were people like him out there.
Two days in May, Reams and Davis punched buttons, rode elevators up and down, critiqued interiors and the quality of "leveling" (the point where the elevator stops level with the floor) -- all while making videos of every step of the tour.
In a downtown parking garage elevator, Reams and Davis pointed their cameras at the numbered buttons and recited a play-by-play, as if they were broadcasting a ball game.
"Three looks like it has some gum on it," Davis said. "A little bit of cleaning and it will be good as new."
"Someone punched the heck out of that," Reams said about a badly dented button panel. "That panel's seen better days."
"It smells like wet clothes in here," Davis said.
Minutes later, the men stepped outside to the intersection of Williamson Road and Bullitt Avenue, where other elevator enthusiasts have come over the years to shoot the Elmwood Park garage elevator made famous in Reams' DieselDucy videos.
"This is the Abbey Road of elevator photography," Reams said. "Everybody wants their picture here."
The men continued their tour . An elevator at another parking garage was low on hydraulic fluid, causing it to bounce to a stop on Level 5.
"Get ready for some 'plop leveling,'" Reams said. "This runs like crap."
"It smells like a mall elevator," Davis said. (Describing smells allows YouTube viewers to get the whole elevator experience.)
They rode the elevator in the Municipal Building -- "An original Dominion" elevator, Reams pointed out. Occasionally, an unsuspecting rider got on who was using the elevator to actually get someplace. One woman did a double-take when she stepped inside an elevator with a couple of guys pointing cameras at buttons .
"Just enjoy ... whatever," she said incredulously as she got off on her floor.
"Actually, we're doing a story for The Roanoke Times," Davis explained quickly. He knew the scene seemed odd. Reams said nothing.
That "social deafness" that Reams' father mentioned sometimes reveals itself when Reams makes his videos. He adamantly defends his right to shoot videos in public places, even if it makes people uncomfortable. He sometimes shoots video in privately owned buildings, but will ask permission first.
"I've done a lot of research on my rights," he said. "I'm well known enough now, I do all my filming with permission."
Over the years, he has had a few run-ins with security guards and even the police . The worst incident happened on Dec. 9, 2009, at Campbell Court in the lobby of the bus terminal. It's still on YouTube.
The video makes for uncomfortable viewing. Reams wanted to shoot the building's glass-paned elevator ("It's a piece of junk," he said later), but an employee told him to leave. The nervous employee called police, who questioned Reams on the sidewalk. The officers did not know what to make of the frumpy guy with a video camera.
"I just want to take a picture of their elevator!" Reams told them.
"Why, though?" an officer asked.
"I'm an elevator photographer!"
"You're an elevator photographer?"
Reams was cited for trespassing and barred from the building. Although the order was voided a month later, the debacle made Reams wonder whether he should shoot videos around Roanoke anymore.
What he did not know was that two weeks earlier, just a short walk from where the Campbell Avenue meltdown occurred, something had happened that would turn his discouragement into happiness.
T.J. Burns had about as rough a start to life as a person could have and live to tell about it.
Soon after he was born in Charlotte, N.C., in 2000, he was diagnosed with a hole in his heart, which required surgery when he was seven weeks old.
He underwent treatment for hydrocephalus, a condition in which spinal fluid builds up in the brain and can cause damage. He had kidney disease and his eyesight was extremely poor. And he had a mild form of cerebral palsy that affected his motor skills. He spent much of his first eight years in physical therapy and in hospitals.
He could ride elevators, though. Even with his limited physical abilities, T.J. could push buttons and enjoy the movements and sounds of elevators.
"Back in physical therapy, all he wanted to do was ride elevators," said Jeff Burns, T.J.'s father. "The physical therapist would reward him by telling him, 'If you do your work, we'll ride the elevator.'"
His parents, Jeff and Julie, made videos of T.J.'s rides so that he could watch them later on DVDs. His mom looked for other elevator videos on YouTube, which is how they discovered the DieselDucy channel.
T.J. loved DieselDucy videos and their host. He memorized Reams' running commentaries and studied Roanoke's elevators as if he had ridden them himself. Then, in late November, 2009, the Burns family made a road trip to Roanoke, just so T.J. could ride the elevator in the Elmwood Park parking garage .
His father videotaped the ride up the five levels of the parking deck. When the doors opened on the top level it was as if T.J. had reached holy ground.
"I can't believe I'm really here, in real life, at one of the parking decks that my favorite man on YouTube filmed the U.S. Elevator at," T.J. said, doubling over as he spoke each phrase. The whole thing is on YouTube.
To T.J. Burns, DieselDucy was not just some guy with a toy train who had a weird hobby of making videos of elevators. DieselDucy was an inspiration. He was his hero.
Thousands more T.J.s were out there -- children and young adults, afflicted by physical limitations, or diagnosed with autism or Asperger syndrome, or just people who were misfits and outcasts in "normal" company. This little world known as the DieselDucy channel was a place where they all fit in.
Over the past four years, parents of autistic children have contacted Reams to thank him for DieselDucy videos. A woman named Patty Young wrote on Reams' Facebook page:
"Hi there! Just wanted to let you know that I have an 11 year old son with autism. He discovered your YouTube videos a few months ago and you are now a well recognized voice in our household! He watches your videos continually, multiple times. ... thanks for putting clean, fun and informational videos up that I don't have [to] worry about my son watching! God bless!"
A mom who writes a parenting blog gave a shout-out to DieselDucy by posting elevator videos for her autistic son ("Thanks Dieselducy!" she wrote). A father of an autistic son wrote on his blog that "DieselDucy is sort of the Steven Spielberg of YouTube elevator videos."
A brother and sister in England, each diagnosed with autism, have starred in several YouTube videos in which they sing the DieselDucy theme song, including the high-pitched parts sung by the toy train.
These are some of the people among the 10,500 subscribers who have accounted for most of those 41 million views. Dozens have come to Roanoke to visit Reams and ride Roanoke's elevators.
"The joy I get is in making other people happy," Reams said. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd start an online revolution by liking elevators."
T.J. Burns and his parents befriended Reams not long after their first video hit YouTube in 2009. The family has visited Roanoke several times since.
They returned this summer to visit Reams and ride elevators. Jacob Bachta, an elevator enthusiast from St. Louis, came to town the same week. You could say that DieselDucy has made quite an impact on the Roanoke Valley's tourism industry.
T.J. has become a video star, too. His YouTube channel "TJElevatorfan" has more than 1,800 subscribers and has racked up 3.2 million views. He was featured in a lengthy promotional video for Hampton Inn, after a hotel manager learned that he liked the elevator at the Hampton in Asheville, N.C.
Reams, Bachta (who was inspired to start his own elevator channel on YouTube) and the Burns family hit all the places made familiar in hundreds of DieselDucy videos -- parking garages, office buildings and finally, the site of DieselDucy's brush with infamy, the elevator at Campbell Court . Now, Reams has been given permission to shoot all the videos there that he wants.
As they left the building, Reams took T.J.'s hand, and the socially awkward guy and the teenager with cerebral palsy crossed busy Campbell Avenue. Two video sensations, right in downtown Roanoke.
"I'm happy to be with you, T.J!" Reams said, beaming with a smile.
"Well, I'm happy to be with you!" T.J. replied.
Then, they led their group hurriedly up the sidewalk toward another building. They had an elevator to catch.
(c)2013 The Roanoke Times (Roanoke, Va.)
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