Yesterday at Starbucks, an older homeless man growled at me, “You should control your kid, he’s gonna get hot water spilled on him.” I was near Dar as he did his usual walking; this man did a quick 180 from the cashier counter. I judged that in terms of invading personal space, it was roughly a draw. Granted, when this man was a kid, kids did not get half the deference they get now. I also factored in Dar’s “tee-tee-tee-ing” – as usual, he was making his “tee-tee-tee” noise as he passed, so the man had an auditory warning.
I didn’t say anything.
The reason I know the man was homeless wasn’t just because of his dress and mien, but because he had put three big bags, including a sleeping bag, and a canteen and a few assorted plastic bags, on a table near the Starbucks front door. After growling at Dar, he went back there and sipped on the tea he’d just received.
I sit at another table, waiting for my just-ordered latte. Dar keeps “tee-tee-tee-ing,” not to this man, but just walking around the Starbucks. The homeless man bellows at him, “Quiet down, little boy.” I don’t say anything. Dar doesn’t even notice him.
On the one hand, I can see this man’s perspective. He can’t pay for Starbucks every hour. The one time that he’s decided to splurge and get some peace and quiet away from the rain, there’s this boy making annoying noises. I get that. But he knew he was going to a public place that happens to be jam-packed with people. Dar’s noises are only a few decibel levels above the rest of the hubbub. Probably what irked him are the noises combined with Dar’s somewhat unpredictable movements. I know Dar isn’t going to actually bop into anyone, but this guy doesn’t.
I also know Dar will sometimes stand at the front door of Starbucks and look out the window, but never actually leave until he’s with me. Dar is doing that when homeless guy goes “LITTLE BOY! LITTLE BOY! HEY, LITTLE BOY!”
Dar acts as though he doesn’t hear him. Frankly I’m not sure Dar does hear him in the way that you and I would (although Dar’s hearing was just tested at Children’s Hospital and he passed fine).
A young woman is leaving Starbucks and she turns to homeless guy and says “He can’t hear you…” and then I can’t catch the rest of what she says. He replies with something like “oh, still.” This is the Starbucks next to Dar’s school, and I’m always running into unfamiliar people who greet Dar by name; I don’t know this person either, but I appreciate her alighting like an angel in Dar’s orbit. The employees there all know me and Dar as well, so there’s that.
I’m telling you this story not because it represents anything new for Dar, but because it represents something new for me. Normally I would react to all this with something like “Oh, sorry, excuse me,” and/or “he’s non-verbal and autistic.” I should add that because of home(less)boy, I did hold Dar’s hand longer than usual, forcing him to sit next to me. But mostly, I didn’t react at all. This is new for me.
Look, if he had put his hands on Dar, that would have been different. Of course I would have jumped up and told him a few choice words. The difference that day was that those words weren’t even percolating on the tip of my tongue. If a guy spoke that way to my other kid I would say something only because my other child has to know that I will defend him against even verbal assaults. Perhaps I’m crazy, but I don’t see Dar needing that defense. His autism sometimes manifests itself as a form of freedom, in this case freedom from concern over trifles.
At Starbucks it was like I was in a dream, or like I was an astral form of myself, looking down on the proceedings. It’s remarkable to me how Zen I was about it, particularly B.C. (before coffee). It was as though it was my first day back in the States after a year away, or the day before cancer treatment, or something. I reminded myself of one of my students from last week whose notebook I found open an hour after one of my lectures: she had scrawled over her own “I DON’T CARE” about a dozen times.
I shouldn’t portray myself as ZenMaster Flash. There may have been an element of pleasure. As most of my female friends have known for much longer than I have, there’s a certain power in periodic silence. I’m reminded of advice the late great David Carr gave to my friend Sasha Stone (who runs Awards Daily) about social media: “Don’t respond. Leave them screaming down a hole.” Now, would I have behaved differently if this man wasn’t obviously homeless? Perhaps. Power relations color everything. I’m not nominating myself for sainthood.
I got my coffee and immediately left with Dar. I never really made eye contact with the homeless guy, not even when he told me to control my child. And for some reason I felt not the slightest twinge of guilt. This is unlike me.
I wonder if national affairs had something to do with it. When the Legion of Doom takes over Metropolis, bent cuticles start to seem less important.
Later that same day (yesterday), during a break from the rain, I brought Dar back from school, and as we got out of the car near our house, I saw on the sidewalk what appeared to be some kind of physically disabled person. He was moving with labored duck-footed steps in our direction. I hustled Dar into the house, clearing the way for this person and avoiding him at the same time. As I did, I felt a twinge of – what? Hypocrisy? Not exactly. But something seemed odd, after the (non) events at the Starbucks. I certainly bore this person no ill will, I hope he didn’t see my body language as saying “Run, child! Run from Quasimodo!” But you know, I can’t rush to correct every potential misimpression. Sometimes people just have to figure it out for themselves.
I don’t pretend that I did everything right yesterday. Perhaps I should have done my usual “sorry sorry sorry.” But…I liked the above-it-all feeling. I like knowing this blog post will be here when I’m in my more normal, over-thinking mode. It’s a nice reminder of a nice feeling.