Mid-dessert, Tony Vela pauses to listen. He cocks his head slightly.
"Crosby Stills and Nash!" he whoops. "One of my favorite bands!"
Indeed, the haze of folk rock wafts over the South Austin eatery’s sound system. From then on, Vela names each song’s artist almost instantly: "Genesis!" "Rod Stewart!" "America!" "Creedence Clearwater Revival!"
"I always pay a lot of attention to music," he says. "I never get tired of that."
Legally blind and diagnosed with a moderately severe intellectual disability, Vela possesses a rare gift of musical recognition.
That’s one of the unanticipated delights that his friend Ellis "Pat" Craig has discovered during their 17-year-friendship.
"Tony is really into music," Craig says as his buddy across the table smiles broadly. "He has a great CD collection, and after just two bars he can name songs that go way back to the ’50s. He can imitate voices amazingly well."
The Austin companions met in 1995 when Craig, now 69, was invited to become a volunteer guardian for Vela, now 43. His legal guardian was Family Eldercare, the Austin group that provides a range of services for older adults, people with disabilities and their caregivers.
Recently, the nonprofit honored Craig for his volunteer work.
"I always look forward to meeting him," Vela says of Craig. "I just like Pat being part of my family."
Craig, who retired from the Texas Department of Mental Health and Retardation, came to the friendship with some understanding of its potential.
Born in Three Rivers southeast of San Antonio, Craig grew up in Alaska. When he was very young, he played comfortably with neighbors and relatives who had disabilities.
A psychologist by training, he researched intellectual disabilities at the University of Alabama. He worked at the Mexia State School and continued to study at Yale University.
He met Vela during a Christmas party at a group home.
"He’s a likable guy," Craig thought. "I’ll give it a whirl."
An almost random suggestion blossomed into lasting rapport.
"It turned into one of my longest friendships," Craig says. "Certainly longer than any romantic relationship I’ve had."
For the record, the childless Craig has been happily partnered with Beatrice Sager for 14 years.
Born in Libertyville, Ill., Vela — who looks 20 years younger than his biological age — came to Texas in 1977. He was removed from his natural family and attended the Texas School for the Blind before he aged out and joined a group home. He now lives with a foster care provider and his family in Pflugerville.
His providerslend Vela as much independence as possible.
"I’m allowed to be by myself," Vela says. "I decided to make my own choices. I like picking my own movies. I like going out to eat. I just like being my own self and by myself in my own way."
He also participates in the Special Olympics and loves bowling.
Vela and Craig get together twice a month. The shop for CDs (Vela) and antiques (Craig). They attend sporting events and music venues. They walk around Lady Bird Lake fairly regularly.
"Tony’s real sociable," Craig says. "Whenever we go shopping, people know him and come up and talk to him."
And no wonder. Despite his early traumas, Vela is routinely cheerful. His nickname at one group home was "Joy Boy."
"I like being happy," he says. "They tell me I always have a smile on my face. I’ve always been joyful in my heart."
Physically small, Vela talks fondly of his girlfriend of three years. His face turns cloudy when he brings up his biological family, whom he hasn’t seen in decades.
"I just don’t have any mom or dad," he says, his voice rising. "It’s painful. It’s a shame."
His natural joyfulness returns quickly, however. Without prompting, he talks frankly and un-self-consciously about his future with his foster family, his girlfriend and Craig, the most loyal of friends.
"I’ve been a kid my whole life," Vela says. "I don’t mind staying young the rest of my life."