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Warning: contains descriptions of events some readers may find upsetting.
As you read this, Brandon Wolf might be eating ice cream for breakfast.
Every June 12th for the last five years, he carves out time in the morning to “recharge” before preparing to attend the memorial events marking the 2016 massacre at Orlando’s LGBTQ Pulse nightclub, where 49 people were killed, two of them close friends, and where Wolf himself was present and escaped death. (Three days ago, the Senate passed a bill designating Pulse as a national memorial site.)
Since the massacre—at the time, pre-Las Vegas in 2017, the deadliest mass shooting in American history—Wolf has become a highly public gun safety and LGBTQ rights advocate, In 2019, he became the first Pulse survivor to testify before Congress, and his campaigning has been fulsomely praised by President Joe Biden.
In April this year, after a Rose Garden gun safety event, Biden wrote to Wolf to tell him that he was “humbled” by his “continued dedication” to his advocacy. Biden told Wolf, “I cannot imagine your pain, but I am inspired by your resilience and bravery,” that his work was “powerful,” and “I am so grateful you have been able to turn your pain into purpose.” Wolf is also the media relations manager for LGBTQ organization Equality Florida, and is currently focused on Governor Ron DeSantis’ sanctioning of a raft of anti-LGBTQ measures, perversely timed to usher in Pride month.
To see the eloquent 32-year-old speak on television, you might assume Wolf is a natural public speaker, but no. “I am naturally an introverted person, and June 12th is already a time when my batteries are quite low,” he told The Daily Beast. “I do whatever I can to take care of me, and so the ice cream for breakfast.” What flavor? “It depends on my mood. My ex, Eric, and I used to eat Talenti’s vanilla and caramel. It soothes the soul.”
Ice cream and quiet time over, today Wolf will head out to fifth anniversary memorial events, “because it’s important to me to be in the community.” Then on Sunday he will host a vigil and event for the Dru Project, which Wolf helped found after the massacre in memory of one of the two friends he was with that night who died, Christopher Andrew Leinonen. Leinonen’s partner, Juan Ramon Guerrero, was also killed.
It is his much-missed friend Drew who Wolf returns to again and again as we speak, and particularly Drew’s passion, energy, and insistence on being himself—all of which Wolf says helped him do the same. Now, through the Dru Project (which Wolf founded with Drew’s mom Christine), Wolf hopes to help foster that same set of qualities in the next generation of LGBTQ leaders.
“We were there on the dance floor with others in community, finding joy—that was our refuge”
Wolf says there are “components” of that awful night in 2016 that remain “very vivid, and in many ways moments you wouldn’t expect to be vivid. They are a cup sitting on a sink, a poster on a wall, a smell, a sound. And then there are other components of the evening that I forgot almost immediately, and I attribute that largely to the level of trauma I went through.”
Part of his journey over the last five years, Wolf says, has been an understanding of the role “safe spaces” play in LGBTQ lives. The term has, he says, “been perverted and used as a cudgel against LGBTQ people almost to say we’re not strong enough to handle the world as it is. Safe spaces for LGBTQ people are lifelines. They’re places we go to seek refuge from a world that does not always value or appreciate all of us. Pulse was one of those spaces. The fact we were there on the dance floor with others in community, finding joy—that was our refuge.”
Prior to that night, Wolf has been to Pulse “hundreds of times. It was a space I could navigate with my eyes closed. Pulse was the first LGBTQ bar or club I went to on my own as a fully formed adult. On that particular evening it was not abnormal for us to be at Pulse. It was not abnormal for us to be at Latin night. In fact, everything about that night was ordinary. I could almost clock how far our Uber ride was. It was seven minutes from our apartment to Pulse. I could tell you how long the line was going to be. We went to the same bartender we always went to. We ordered the same drinks we always ordered—vodka sodas. There comes a time when you can’t drink Long Islands any more, so you move to vodka sodas! It really was in every way an ordinary night at our usual safe space.”
He remembers the last words he shared with Drew. “I will never forget them. In true Drew fashion, it was profound and almost prophetic in the moment.” Drew had a masters degree in clinical psychology, and “had this way, after a drink or two or sometimes five or six, he would give you free therapy sessions. He would opine on your life. So, it was no surprise after a few drinks that night Drew dragged us out on to the patio, to our usual spot, and started opining. His lesson that day was on love. He talked a lot about how frequently we let the little things get in the way of how we care about one another. He talked about how we get bogged down in minutiae and forget to look at the big picture of relationships we have formed with people, and how that tears us apart.
“Drew had these long, gangly arms, and when he was coming in for the landing of his point, he would drape one of his arms over your shoulder. In pictures you see him doing this. He would lean into you. It was like, ‘Have you had one too many to drink, and I’m holding you up, or are you holding me close to bring your point home?’ That night, he threw one arm over my shoulder, pulled me in, and the last thing he said to me in our free therapy session of the evening was, ‘You know what I wish we did more of? Tell each other that we love each other.’”
The group went back into the club to dance. “Then there was this realization that we were not 18, 19, 20 years old and probably didn’t need to close the club,” recalled Wolf. “The idea was Drew and Juan would finish their dance. Eric and I would go to the bathroom, call an Uber, and go home.”
In the bathroom, there was confusion as the first sounds of gunfire rang out.
“We were in the hip-hop bar. My first thought was the soundtrack playing had some sort of gunfire in it,” said Wolf. “But I remember thinking in that moment that it was very loud, almost excessively loud. There was a pause in the gunfire, and it was in that moment Eric and I realized something was very wrong. That was the first moment the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. About a dozen people rushed into the bathroom, and they were panicked. They were afraid. Their eyes told you that whatever they had seen was the most terrifying thing a person could witness.
“We were huddled against a wall, and the gunfire started again. This time it didn’t relent. One of the vivid memories I have is of the smell of blood and smoke that started to waft into the bathroom. There was this debate among everyone in the room about whether to run or hide. The restroom we were in was a men’s restroom. There were no stalls to hide in, and no door that would open or close to the bathroom. It was essentially a hallway with urinals along the wall. And so the decision was made that we would have to run, that we didn’t have an option. So, I grabbed Eric’s hand, locked arms with these people I had never seen before, and we ran.”
When the group came out of the bathroom, Wolf said, they took a right and went towards the front of the club. There was a door Wolf had never seen open before, perhaps a fire or emergency exit he thinks, that was cracked open. “So in the back of this dark bar was a sliver of light from outside,” Wolf recalled. “And I remember running through the room, the fog machine still pumping, the music still thumping under our feet with this bang-bang-bang in the background from a gun. And I remember willing myself not to look into the dance floor where the gunfire was coming from. I think it was a subconscious decision at the time, because whatever was in there I knew I would never forget. And so I just kept telling myself to run for the sliver of light at the back of the room.”
Halfway to that sliver of light, Wolf recalled “having this feeling of grief that I had not gotten the chance to speak to my parents recently. I was thinking, ‘I wish I had gotten the chance to say goodbye. I could not peel my eyes away from the door. It was a combination of not wanting to see the horror happening inside, and also this feeling that if I saw it that it would be real. All of a sudden the door was flung open and we were in the front parking lot. We were outside, and it was so disorientating to go from the dark, foggy club to the parking lot, the bright street lamps, police sirens, and lights everywhere. It was chaos. People were jumping over obstacles. There was blood, and there were screams.”
The next few hours passed by as a “rollercoaster of anger, grief, and anxiety,” Wolf said. “I called Drew what must have been a thousand times, every time thinking that would be the one when he would finally pick up. Obviously, he never did.”
Wolf and others made their way down the street to a nearby 7/11, “where we essentially set up a base camp.” He started calling people, and sharing information on social media, including a Facebook post which alerted Drew’s mother to what had happened. He recalls being frustrated at how aggressively some media sought comment from the group, at the same time as other people inside Pulse were still being killed or held hostage by the gunman. But other members of the media—who brought food and water, or who joined the group in prayer—were the first experiences of “humanity” Wolf experienced in the wake of the massacre.
At around 10 a.m., Wolf returned to his apartment. At the time he and Drew lived two doors down from each other. Either apartment would be “home base” at any given time, with friends enjoying drinks and chatter. That day, he and Drew had planned a pool party, and so many of the friends in Wolf’s apartment had planned to be there anyway. “But there was this despair hovering over everyone,” Wolf said. “People were talking in hushed tones. No one would make eye contact with me. We sat in front of the television watching the local news, waiting for names. We knew at that point 49 people had been killed. We just waited.”
At the time Wolf did not have cable news, so did not know at first how the world was talking about Pulse. His singular focus was finding out where Drew and Juan were. A mutual friend told Wolf they had witnessed an ambulance carrying Juan from the scene. Wolf recalled speaking to Juan’s family on the phone.
“His sister kept begging me to tell her that he wasn’t there that night. I had never met her, but had heard wonderful things about her. Now there she was on the other end of my phone saying over and over again, ‘Please tell me he wasn’t there, please tell me he wasn’t there.’ I remember vividly saying to her the only words that could come out of my mouth which were, ‘I’m so sorry.’ His mother’s scream in the background was something that broke my heart that I don’t know I will ever recover from, like a piece of her had died. It was primal. He was the baby of the family. He was her baby. And so that pain really broke me. That was the first time I experienced what heartbreak feels like.
“So, they went to the hospital, identified his body, and let us know he had not made it out of surgery. His sister called me, and she could barely choke out the words that they had identified his body in a hospital bed. And my first thought was, ‘How do I, when we find Drew, tell him that the love of his life has gone? What does it look like to help him to live the rest of his life without the person he thought he was going to marry?’ That’s what was consuming me in those moments.”
Drew’s mom was staying in Orlando at the time, Wolf said, adding it would be another 24 hours before police took her aside to let her know her son had never made it off Pulse’s dance floor. When Wolf heard the news, he recalled, “feeling shattered almost in disbelief, like it was a nightmare—the sort of nightmare where you’re half-asleep, half-awake, and can’t figure out how to jostle yourself enough to wake up. It was like that, but in perpetuity.”
“It is always there. It’s ever present. Certainly, some days are harder than others”
Grief, for Wolf, has been “unending.” Pulse was not his first experience of its strange and unpredictable terrain. When he was 11, his mother died of cancer. At the time she was in remission, and the young Wolf had believed her prognosis to be “pretty good.”
One day he returned from school to find his father at home—unusual, as he would typically be at work. His dad asked him to put his bags down, and that they had to go to the hospital where Wolf saw his mother in a bed, which was jarring for her son who thought she was OK. The doctors sat the family down, and told them she had a month to live, “and so we were going to try and get everything we could out of that month. I remember how devastating that was for me. For a long time, my mom had been a single mom, and for a long time I was her only child.”
The next day, Wolf was woken by his grandmother. She lived three hours away, and so this was another jarring moment. They drove to the hospital, where they were told Wolf’s mom had less than 12 hours to live. Each of her children spent time with her one-on-one, she videoed conversations with the kids too. “I remember distinctly crawling into the hospital bed with her,” Wolf recalled. “She was giving me life advice. Obviously, I was too young to be out, and I don’t think I knew what sexual orientation was. But I remember her telling me to be myself, and that was something she would always be proud of.”
As with Pulse, Wolf’s grief over his mother is something he carries with him all the time. But with Pulse, “the very violent and sudden and chaotic manner in which my chosen brothers were stolen from me has made the grief more intense and more protracted, I think,” Wolf said. “Every day is not terribly hard. But it is always there. It’s ever present. Certainly, some days are harder than others. June 12th is a very challenging day for me. June 1st was Drew’s birthday. That day is a very challenging day for me as well. In the moment of June 12th, 2016, I felt the excruciating pain might actually kill me. That has now lessened to a dull ache. It’s always there, ever present, always at the back of my mind, but I have learned how to live alongside it.”
Wolf didn’t immediately seek mental health support, having “succumbed to the stigma” that in doing so would be an admission of weakness. But then he and Eric broke up in 2017, he recognized he had not processed what he was feeling, and sought out a therapist, “who I love dearly and who has been a critical component to my healing. I would encourage anyone, whether they have gone through trauma or not, to leverage mental health resources.”
His and Eric’s separation was not directly related to Pulse. Having gone on their own “healing journeys” and “finding power in our own voices,” Wolf still loves and cares for Eric deeply. Wolf himself is single, and says wryly that given his public profile any potential boyfriends “know what they are getting into.” He had never done any activism or campaigning before Pulse.
“Growing up queer and a person of color in a rural, conservative white community (outside of Portland, Oregon) meant that there were a lot of things I felt I didn’t deserve in the world,” Wolf said. “I didn’t believe I deserved to be accepted for all of myself. I felt like I had to choose a part of myself to make palatable for people around me. I felt like I didn’t deserve love or a chosen family. I grappled with that a lot, and it was part of the reason I moved across country to Orlando in the first place.”
Wolf attended the University of Oregon for Political Science, before relocating to Central Florida in 2008, building a career in business management. In the years preceding Pulse, Wolf said he had found “a sense of belonging” in Florida, as well as an “incredible community, chosen family, and my best friends. I found many of the things that for much of my life I didn’t think I deserved. For that reason, I wish a lot that I had been more of an advocate before what happened. I wish I had done more to protect Drew and Juan, frankly. I feel ashamed of myself for not meeting the obligation for doing more for my community earlier.” This seems an especially harsh self-assessment, given the amount of work around gun safety and LGBTQ equality that Wolf has done.
This reporter asked Wolf what he feels about the gunman (the reportedly Islamic State-supporting Omar Mateen), who killed and injured so many at Pulse, and who was killed after a three-hour standoff with police.
“I have not thought about him in a really long time,” Wolf said. “And I don’t think I’m going to start today.”
In the days after the massacre, the first that Wolf saw what the wider world was reporting of the tragedy was at a friend’s house. The friend had cable, and Wolf watched, “infuriated,” a Fox News discussion panel “of white cisgender heterosexual men who were erasing parts of the story I felt mattered most. They were talking about relations between the Muslim community and LGBTQ community, ‘radical Islamic extremism,’ about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and how this would play in a presidential election cycle.
“But they weren’t talking about the queer people of color who had been murdered, the lives they had lived, or the undocumented family members or survivors who didn’t want to come forward for resources because the gatekeepers to care were the FBI. They were not talking about the gay men who turned up to give blood, but were turned away because that is illegal in this country. They weren’t talking about us. They weren’t telling our stories.”
This was a “galvanizing moment” for Wolf. “I had a crystal clear understanding in that moment if I didn’t say anything, if I chose to stay silent, if I moved on with my life, Drew and Juan would be 2 of 49 victims in another mass shooting in America; that their stories would never be told, that their names would never be shown, that their lives wouldn’t matter, and their deaths would be in vain. So, I committed myself in that moment to never letting that happen.”
Wolf thinks the media is better at talking about Pulse now than in the past. It did not matter to Wolf if it was designated as a hate crime. “I always said, the barriers to healing still exist. After attacks on people of color we’re still disenfranchised from any of the systems of support we need. I think we’ve done a good job of centering LGBTQ people, post-Pulse. I think done we’ve done an OK job of centering Black and brown folks. I think we’ve done a better job of centering Latinx voices, and not a great job of centering Black voices, and certainly not a great job of centering trans voices. There were Black trans people who survived the shooting at Pulse, but we don’t hear their voices or perspectives very often.”
There is another disconnect, Wolf said, in identifying Pulse as an attack on LGBTQ people, but to then not ensure that there is a corresponding access to resources in “the non-profit industrial complex.”
“Those structures and barriers to resources still exist today,” said Wolf.
The virulently anti-LGTBQ, anti-trans political climate in the many states which are introducing various discriminatory laws, and the uncertainty of how a Trump judge-stacked Supreme Court will rule on cases (as well as the lower courts, also featuring many of his appointees), means this is a “treacherous” time, said Wolf. “We’re in an extremely hostile and divided political climate. The most marginalized people are being used as political pawns, or tools, to further divide us.”
The legislation is, he says, a response to progress made in recent years, such as marriage equality and last year’s “Bostock” Supreme Court ruling around non-discrimination protections, authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Trump appointee. For Wolf, these positive steps have rattled Republican legislatures, who have decided to weaponize bigotry to—they hope—fire up their base to vote.
“What Governor DeSantis has done in Florida is not an accident,” Wolf said, detailing DeSantis’ signing of an anti-trans sports bill, his slashing of funding for mental health support for Pulse survivors, and for a charity that supports homeless LGBTQ youth.
“Here’s @GovRonDeSantis in 2019, standing on hallowed ground, promising me that he would always support those of us impacted by the Pulse nightclub shooting. Today, he vetoed mental health services for us. I will never forget,” Wolf posted on Twitter at the time.
“The Republican party is solely owned and operated by Donald Trump, and it believes the way it will continue to win elections is by stoking the fears of people around things they don’t understand, or that have been mischaracterized,” Wolf said. “They have demonized the most marginalized, who don’t have the political power to fight back themselves, and turned them into a political football. It’s really shameful, and it has harmful, if not deadly, consequences. Ron DeSantis is only getting started. He wants to be president of the United States, and those political ambitions are built on the backs of the most marginalized people in Florida—trans kids. Instead of confronting the real issues we face emerging from the hell of the pandemic, he invents problems to solve. He doesn’t have the courage and knowledge to deal with real problems.”
Wolf insists there has been progress made in regards gun safety—such as the gun control legislation in Florida, signed post-Parkland, in 2018—although he also knows the mass shootings, and body counts stand as resonant anti-evidence of such progress. “America may run on Dunkin’, but I run on hope. Like everyone else, I’m waiting for that New York Times front page headline, ‘Assault Weapons Ban Reinstated in United States.’ But until then, we can’t lose sight of the progress we’ve made, or all we’re running on is despair.”
Wolf first met Biden in the wake of the Pulse massacre, and found him—as others have noted—“incredibly empathetic,” knowing the terrain of grief all too well himself. The difference between the bigotry of the Trump administration—and the anxiety it caused—and the vocally supportive Biden administration is pronounced, Wolf said.
However, despite all Biden’s fine words of support, many question what it will add up to in concrete legislative terms, with the Equality Act stalled—perhaps fatally—and the onslaught of discriminatory legislation in the states, so far unchallenged by the administration or the Department of Justice.
“I’m conflicted,” said Wolf. “I think the president has incredibly good intentions. He is doing good work. He has strong plans. But we have to stop living in the fantasy land that the Republican party—on the federal and in many cases the state level now undermining democracy—is going to sit down at the table and conduct good-faith discussions about gun safety legislation or LGBTQ equality, the list goes on. (Senate Minority Leader) Mitch McConnell wants to work (Democratic senators) Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, and wait until the clock runs out. I’m hopeful Democratic leaders will stop playing the Republican game, or we run the risk of losing the control we have, and our efforts will be doomed for a long time.”
“The LGBTQ community has saved my life over and over again, and I feel a deep sense of obligation to give back”
In his own work, Wolf confesses to feeling “existentially exhausted. I am tired of having to fight for the most marginalized people in our society to be treated with respect. I’m tired of having to beg for the very basics of common decency. I’m tired of having to relive and perform my trauma for the world in the hope someone in elected office will change their mind and suddenly decide the things that are killing us in our neighborhoods are worth addressing. This existential exhaustion isn’t just mine, but shared by people in my community, across the country and world. Our existential exhaustion is having to live this nightmare over and over again, and waiting for someone do something about it.”
As for his future, Wolf knows this may sound cliched—"If a politician said it, you would roll your eyes”— but he wants “to give back to the LGBTQ community in central Florida. My LGBTQ family saved my life more than once, first when I essentially ran away from home looking for a place to belong, and then after Pulse when I thought that losing Drew and Juan would literally kill me.
“It was the person in line at the grocery line who I had never met before offering me a hug. It was the bank teller who, when I went to replace the card I had left open behind the bar, brought me a box of tissues. It was the person who at the first vigil cradled me in her arms as I cried. She shielded me from the world at that moment. It was all of that. The LGBTQ community has saved my life over and over again, and I feel a deep sense of obligation to give back.”
Wolf, who in 2018 received the Voice for Equality Award at the 2018 Orlando Gala, helped found the Dru Project “to keep the best parts of Drew alive, sharing the sense of love and acceptance and audacious pride he had with another generation of queer leaders.” Over the last 5 years, the organization has awarded around $100,000 in college scholarships to those leaders. “When I feel that existential exhaustion, what gets me out of bed the next day is knowing we have these incredibly powerful young leaders. They’re remarkable. At their age, I was trying to figure out where to eat lunch in high school.”
If Wolf goes to Pulse itself, he tries to do so when others will not be there, “because it is really hard for me to be there. In many ways you may not know that. If you consume media content about Pulse once a year you will see me filmed just outside Pulse telling my story. But the way we compose ourselves in front of the camera isn’t real life. Being in that space is really pajnful for me. It’s the last place I saw my best friends. It’s the place I never got to say goodbye. Being there gives me anxiety. It is a weight on my shoulders, but at the same time I feel a sense of peace there because it is where I can be closest to Drew and Juan. It’s a difficult space. I don’t go there as often as I would like to.”
Wolf knows others may disagree—and he doesn’t proclaim to speak for any Pulse survivor (or anyone directly affected by the massacre), other than himself, he says—but he is glad the site will feature a dedicated memorial and museum, slated to open in 2022. “I’m really excited. It feels the right way to honor the ones we have lost. I think it will be beautiful, and capture the legacy of something we loved so much in a profound way. If it had reopened as a club I probably wouldn’t have gone. I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that.”
Marking the fifth anniversary of Pulse, or indeed remembering it at all, is valuable, said Wolf. “I’m always afraid people will forget. This anniversary is a really important opportunity to center ourselves, reflect on how far we’ve come, and then to recommit to the work we have to do. And we have so much work to do.”
“I tell people that I don’t think I am the protagonist in my own life story. I think Drew has that honor. I’m just here to tell his”
Wolf’s exhaustion with “a broken and deeply ineffective system” means he is not only looking forward to quiet reflection (and ice cream) this morning, but also to the six-week leave of absence he will begin in two weeks’ time. “It’s on the horizon, I can feel it,” he said, with audible relish.
Wolf signed a book deal in February to write his memoir, and he intends to use the time to do so on a Mexican beach. The book’s working title is Safe Space, and while Pulse is obviously a key component of it, “really this is a story of being queer and a person of color being intersectional in a conservative white community, what it feels like to grow up being disassociated from your identity, and being forced to choose an identity that is most palatable for the people around you, and how that drives you later to form community with people.”
Wolf’s is a life in progress, and he is “excited” to peel back the layers of it so far in the book. “My hope is that it inspires people to ask questions about their own journeys, not necessarily seek answers from me.”
What he went through at Pulse has not affected how Wolf approaches social spaces. “I proudly go into clubs and bars. I went to a club two days after the shooting because that’s in the DNA of being an LGBTQ person in this country. The riot at Stonewall is in our DNA. It’s what our culture. It’s defiant. We chose the word ‘Pride’ for a reason. We are proud in spite of how the world may see us, or try to push us down.
“Going to clubs, being joyous, dancing, and singing are acts of resistance against the act of hatred that tried to suppress me, and the world that tried to tell me that being myself was something to overcome rather than celebrate. Those things are acts of resistance and protest. I don’t do them casually. I do them proudly. It’s what Drew would have done if he were still here. He would have refused to let Pulse define how he moved in the world. He would have refused to let the world control or suppress him. He was always defiantly authentic, so I guess I channel my inner Drew.”
Wolf said this with such feeling, this reporter asked if Drew still felt very present to him.
“Drew is ever present in all ways,” Wolf said emphatically. “I tell people very often that I don’t think I am the protagonist in my own life story. I think Drew has that honor. I’m just here to tell his. So that helps you understand how close he is to me.”
We had spoken of his and Drew’s last words, but presumably the last visual Wolf holds of his dear friend is of Drew dancing.
“Yes,” Wolf said, chuckling quietly. “On the dance floor, Drew was just the most ridiculous dancer. But that was just him. It was quintessentially him to not care. He didn’t care what the world thought of his dancing. He didn’t care what the world thought about his identity. He was just him, and he was so proud of that. It was truly awe-inspiring for me, as someone who struggled to believe that my identity was worth valuing, to see someone so unapologetically exist. I very frequently caught myself just watching him exist, in awe of how he could move in the world.”
So, Drew has been Wolf’s touchstone these last five years?
“Yes, better late than ever,” Wolf said, with a little sigh. “I don’t know if I ever got the chance to tell him this, but Drew was the first person who taught me to love myself. I don’t know if I had figured out how to show that externally until after Pulse. But it’s part of my mission, part of my obligation, to exist as unapologetically as Drew did, because somewhere out there is another Brandon, another Drew, looking for a spark or inspiration. I have the obligation to deliver that, because if Drew were still here he would be the one doing that.”