SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
March 25, 2018

Autistic-O-Rama

 

About a year and a half ago the news started coming out that the lead levels in the water in a few of the neighborhood schools by me were much higher than anything they’d found in Flint. Well, that was a little disturbing.

            The city actually did something about it, however, digging up all the streets around here, ripping out the old water pipes and replacing them with shiny new ones. Whether or not it did anything to decrease the lead levels in the schools or the community at large is unclear, but it was a nice gesture, gotta say that.

            The whole thing got me to wondering. This is not a large or overcrowded block by any stretch. As I think I’ve mentioned a few times, most of the people here grew up on this block, and stayed here to raise their own families, often in the same houses where they grew up. Although I’d stop short of using the term “inbred,” it’s an extremely insular place. It’s just a little odd that in a population this small, we’d end up with so many cases of severe autism across such a wide age range.

            There’s a kid a few doors down, I’m guessing he’s about ten years old, who has a screaming fit and tries to flee in panic every time he’s forced to leave the house. His father seems very tired. A few doors further down the block is a teenager who’s in much better spirits most of the time, but is apparently incapable of saying anything more than “Rocket ship! Rocket ship! Rocket ship! Rocket ship!” And directly across the street from him is a guy in his late thirties who’s all messed up. Don’t know as I’ve ever heard him make a sound.

            My favorite of the block’s autistics, as well as the most functional of the lot, is Gerald. I have no idea how old he might be, but I’d guess somewhere between twenty and fifty. Gerald’s a big guy. A mighty big guy, to be precise. Most every day he can be found standing on the sidewalk in front of his house grunting, whining and barking. When I first moved down here I found it a little unsettling. Then I got used to it. Regardless of the weather, he usually heads outside to take his post around five in the morning, and stands out there whining and barking until after dark. Given he’s just across the street, we can usually keep pretty good tabs on Gerald’s whereabouts without even glancing out the window.

            He’s harmless, though for understandable reasons people do tend to be wary of him. Part of that trepidation comes from the fact that every now and again he’ll get a crazy, crazy idea in his head and take off running down the street, waving his arms and screaming like a banshee. Like I said, he’s a mighty big guy, and I’m told this is quite a sight to behold. A few years ago, though no damage was done, he effectively brought a stoop sale hosted by one of his neighbors to an abrupt end less than an hour after it got underway.

            Every now and again, Gerald moves his operation half a block down the street to the corner in front of the bodega. Sometimes he finds his way into the bodega itself, where most of my own personal interactions with him have taken place. First time I came to fully appreciate just how big he was, I was heading across the street to make my usual morning beer run when I found him standing in the open doorway, blocking my entrance.

            “Gerald!” I heard a voice shout from inside the bodega. “Move!” Without a sound he stepped approximately one foot to his right, and I excused myself and squeezed past him.

            “Sorry about that,” a man said once I got inside. He then introduced himself as Gerald’s uncle and presumed caretaker. “He’s autistic,” he explained. “And doesn’t know enough to get out of the way.”

            “That’s fine,” I said. “Not a problem.” Then I bought my beer and left before Gerald got restless and moved back to completely block the door again.

            A few weeks later I was making the same morning run. When I stepped through the door and turned to the left, I ran headlong into a hulking figure at least six inches taller than me. I had no idea who it was until I took a step back.

            “I’m very sorry,’ I said. “Excuse me.’

            Things were silent for a moment and I was expecting someone to sock me in the head. Then in a high-pitched, sing-song Baby Huey voice, the man replied, “That’s okay!” Just a little too loudly. Although I’d never heard him utter anything beyond animal noises before, he couldn’t have been anybody else. The clearly uncomfortable Egyptian behind the counter only confirmed my suspicions.

            “Well I’ll be,” I thought. He’d not only responded, he’d responded appropriately.

            As I headed to the cooler in the back, I heard Gerald shuffling toward the back himself, though down a different aisle. Then, in that same high, sing-song voice. He shouted, “I! Would like! A buttered roll please!”

            The guy behind the counter made no move to get a buttered roll, and a minute later Gerald wandered back out of the store and away.

            “Did, um, he ever get his roll?” I asked the counterman.

            “Naah, he just says that sometimes.”

            “I see.”

            Every once in a while, though, it seems, his uncle did hand him a few bucks and let him make a run to the bodega by himself. More than a few times he would wander in after me, shamble about for a bit, then head back to the cooler to grab a soda. Then as I was checking out, he’d barrel up the aisle and slam me out of the way before slapping the soda and money down on the counter. What could I do but take it in stride, right? After all, he’d been polite enough when I ran into him. Of course after being bulldozed out of the way for the third or fourth time, I discovered it was much easier and less painful to simply stand back out of his way until I knew he was gone.

            Although clearly more functional than the other autistics on the block, he still has occasional trouble keeping the whole process straight. This morning he walked into the store just ahead of me. He’d been out on the sidewalk since five as usual, grunting and mewling, and I guess it was time for a snack.

            He slammed some money on the counter and headed back to the coolers. He opened and slammed the door of each cooler he passed, but never grabbed anything. Then he headed for the door again, empty-handed.

            “Hey, you need help?” The old Egyptian yelled as Gerald was reaching for the door. “What you want?” Apparently the money was still sitting on the counter.

            “I! Would like! A big bagel exactly!” He shouted in that same voice.

            “What? What you want?”

            “I! Would like! A big bagel exactly!”

            “What is ‘exactly’? I don’t know ‘exactly.’”

            “THAT ONE!” Gerald screamed. He was nowhere near the bagels, and for all I knew he was pointing at the ceiling as he shouted this. Nevertheless the counterman tossed a bagel in a bag and handed it to him. Then much to my amazement he rang it up and counted the change back into Gerald’s hands. It made me start to wonder if Gerald’s uncle used these little excursions to test both men.

            Thanks to my sister’s decision to become a special ed teacher, when I was a kid I dealt with more than a few cases of severe autism when I was far too young to comprehend what was going on. Now that I’m older I can appreciate Gerald for what he is—namely far more entertaining than a lot of the people on this block. It does leave me wondering about the water, though.

 

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