This “In Their Own Words,” is written by Patty Dobbs Gross.
Danny and I were riding on the subway last week, glad to have snagged seats next to each other, happy to be together on the way to enjoy both summer in the city as well as a ballet at the Met; we both share an appetite for the Big Apple as well as for the visual delicacy of dance…
The man coming toward us was very tall, with a heft to his body and a slice of rolling skin uncomfortably visible between shirt hem and ragged sweatpants. I was also inexplicably encased in sweatpants that had seen better days on this sweltering July day, and this was what I was thinking when the man suddenly looked up, raised his voice and addressed the entire subway car in one fell swoop of a sentence: “Attention…may I please have your attention?”
He had clearly said this before, and all eyes swung obediently to his commanding presence. “I am homeless and in need of change, even small change, to attend to my needs.” This is all I can remember him saying verbatim, for the mention of his needs dropped a curtain in my mind; he seemed much too tall, confident and well fed to be truly needy; at least to be significantly needier than my own family, quite house poor and college drained in the suburbs…
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Danny reach into his pocket for change; without a moment’s thought I gently touched his hand to communicate for it to still. Danny has autism and despite this fact (or because of it) he now attends USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, earning an MFA in film editing. His only adjustment to life at USC was his habit of giving cash to the strings of panhandlers that ring its iron gates…he called me one night and sheepishly confessed to doling out nearly $80 in cash to a woman who was homeless. After she took the money she claimed to have an inheritance she could share with him if he would just give her the $100 it would take to clear the court costs. Danny didn’t care about the inheritance, but he worried for her because she couldn’t reach this money without this initial outlay of cash; he wondered to me, in the voice of someone hurt by the level of misunderstanding between us, shouldn’t he give this relatively small amount of cash to her so that she could access this money and get off the streets? Doesn’t that make logical sense?
This was the moment I realized that although Danny never abused drugs or alcohol throughout his teenage years, he clearly still needed to learn how to just say no.
The man was moving toward us as he strode confidently down the center of the subway aisle, holding the overhead silver rings to steady himself with a steady rhythm as the car rollicked back and forth, but he stopped his journey when he noticed my hand touching Danny’s. He met my eyes with a snap.
“Are you his mother?” the man asked me, point blank and direct.
“Well, maybe that’s true….” I said, laughing a bit as if he had told me a silly joke. All eyes in the subway car were now on me while I struggled to hold his eye contact, my heart rapidly picking up pace. “Or maybe not.” It wasn’t that I wanted to be provocative or to attract attention, but that I didn’t want him to know anything about me whatsoever, and being Danny’s mother is at the white hot core of my being.
The man stopped his journey forward then, a move that struck me as mildly aggressive as he loomed over my sitting body. At my age my body is apparently sinking slowly into itself anyway, but he made me want to fold myself up in a hurry, but I happen to be Irish (and this explains a lot.) So instead of fading away I held his gaze for another moment while I told him: “That’s mine to know.”
He held my gaze pointedly for another moment, but then shook his head and broke eye contact (first! ;-) to resume panhandling; soon only his thrusting cup was visible, although his words rang out clearly as he altered his spiel to say, “Well, I wouldn’t let my mother stop me from doing what I wanted, and I wouldn’t let my aunt or my neighbor or anybody stop me either…I’m my own man…”
I tasted the bitterness of my sarcastic comment before I swallowed it, along with my considerable fear, to simply look down and pretend to study my shoes (they were black Velcro sneakers, cheap but sturdy, and quite handy if you need to dash off in a hurry.) I was old enough to know that you never poke the bear if you can possibly help it, and I was already figuring out how I’d shape this experience into a lesson for Danny if we survived to make our train ride home to Connecticut. It would definitely end with the moral of the story being why he should not give money to panhandlers.
When we left the subway car two stops later, on the grimy stairs that lifted us to the light of day, I whispered to Danny, “You didn’t take that stuff he said about manhood personally, did you?”
“What stuff about manhood?” he asked me, genuinely confused.
I remembered then what I sometimes forget, that despite his success in life Danny still doesn’t learn much from his auditory pathways; in fact, he hadn’t even processed this man’s taunting words once he was out of his personal line of sight. The visual information of the scene he later relayed to me was letter perfect, and he could describe the man’s outfit much better than I in the short amount of time he had attended to him. Danny is not cured of the sensory integration difference he was born with despite his successful life, nor has his gift/curse of not attending to social subtleties vanished; he has only learned to compensate for his inherent and supposed weaknesses and capitalize on his considerable strengths the way he had learned to do before he even crafted his first original sentence.
And he might have continued to attend to what the man was saying if he had kept his voice loud and commanding, but Danny didn’t end up processing any of his later words that were spoken in a sweet and saccharine tone, despite their mission to wound Danny’s ego in order to shame him into giving him money; the honey coated but cutting words had instead gone blessedly over Danny’s head. I smiled as I thought of this man being hoisted by his own petard rather than what might have happened if he were clumsily called out by me, and I silently vowed once again to remain quiet when my ego struggles to speak, as so many previous life lessons have also attempted to teach me.
I have been a slow study…
I raced up the stairs and joined the frenzied and sizzling pace of New York City in the summer, focusing on my gratitude for the breeze and my son beside me as we raced together toward the Met… just minutes later we were watching a ballet that it took a month of Sunday night hot dogs to afford to witness, and I swear I didn’t even notice the looks I must have received by virtue of my scruffy sweatpants and Velcro shoes before the lights went down; Danny and dance were the only things on my mind for the next few blessed hours, as I considered the beauty of all the lilies that graced our field.