Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Portrait of a Young Man (Not Necessarily an Artist)

After reading the Jest, it seems quite natural to me to pick up some more heavy reading, so why not "Ulysses", right? And (thanks to my son (again)) Joyce wrote some background for "Ulysses", e.g., "Dubliners" and "A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man". I had an encounter late this morning that, now that I'm through "Dubliners" and halfway through "Portrait", just screamed for an entry with the above title.

Early this afternoon I stopped for lunch at the local Subway. I was on my way to pick up my car, which in the midst of my unemployment had started overheating. (The timing could not have been better, really.) Since I was without wheels, and not averse to a little exercise, I walked the three miles to the Goodyear dealer where my car was located. The car still wasn’t ready; the filler cap that it needed yesterday still had not arrived. All it would take would be to screw on that cap once it got here. After that three-mile walk, and a very early breakfast, I definitely felt that an early lunch was in order.

So while I’m placing my order, this guy walked in and asks for some water. The counter staff ignored him like totally, which I thought was a bit rude. I was scanning the people, looking for reactions, when he looked directly at me and said they were messing with him. They were always messing with him. They messed with Bruce, too, and Bruce stopped coming around. It wasn’t exactly a rant, but there was an odd sort of edge to his whole soliloquy. (I call it a soliloquy because, although he was facing me, he didn’t seem to expect a reply or even an acknowledgment. It seemed more rhetorical than anything else. But, well, he was looking right at me.)

As I paid for my sandwich and drink, I asked for another drink and gave it to the guy. He said thank you, thank you very much, and his eyes actually started tearing. It caught me a little by surprise. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such gratitude for such a small act. I encouraged him to fill his cup and enjoy his drink.

He sat down. I sat down at the next table and asked, “So, what’s your story, if you don’t mind me asking? I mean, I’m just curious to know. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.” He said no, he didn’t mind and offered the chair across his table to me, where I then sat.

He said he was handicapped and these people were stressing him out. He sipped on his drink, appreciatively and gratefully. He said he was on medication. For stress and for high blood pressure. The high blood pressure medication surprised me, because I guessed he couldn’t have been much more than 30. But considering his nervous and highly agitated state (which seemed to be a more or less constant condition for him) it made sense.

I tried to make more sense of him. He wasn’t homeless; he said he lived with his parents, who he said would fight all the time, stressing him more. Said his mom was always yelling at him, and that stressed him more. His brother borrowed his mom’s car that morning, but he knew his brother had driven it to the local liquor store. Or he had driven it to one of his friend’s, and the friend had driven him to the liquor store. Or he left the car in his mom’s driveway and his friend drove him. It was hard to make sense out of his story. But he didn’t seem strung out on drugs or medication or anything. But I got the sense of a somewhat underdeveloped adult in a very bad home life.

He look like he was scared. Constantly scared. That kind of scared like being constantly under attack by everyone around you. His hands shook the whole time I sat there at the table with him, and he had those vertical furrows in his brow, between his eyebrows, that someone under constant worry gets. He spoke with long pauses between each sentence, like something else was demanding his attention. My impression was of hunted prey. And, yes, I could see how someone not quite sharp enough to deal with the world around them could become prey to at least some elements of the world.

He had mentioned Bruce. I remembered Bruce from several years ago. I used to hang out at the Starbuck’s next door, and there was this character named Bruce who would come in there once in a while. Bruce was unquestionably mentally handicapped, but a very pleasant guy, really, and liked to talk, although you had to use simple sentences in any conversation with Bruce. Compound phrases just totally lost him. Bruce’s big thing was always asking for a hug. Eventually his conversation would always turn to a request for a hug. Most people, myself included, indulged him, disregarding whatever social discomfort it produced, which seemed pretty minimal in retrospect. And Bruce always appreciated a good hug. He always said thanks.

But there was an unfortunate side to Bruce as well, which you would find out if you talked to him for a length of time, that is, if you took the time to actually talk to him. Bruce had a hard life. He talked about his parents beating him, and of how hard it was for him to keep a job, and how he had to live at home because he couldn’t live on his own. Talking to Bruce, I could imagine the frustration of his parents dealing with their son who (through no fault of theirs, his, or anyone's, really) just didn’t have the mental horsepower to function on his own in the world and who would depend on them probably for the rest of his, and their, lives. This, in no way, excused the beatings (if, in fact, there were beatings, keeping in mind the child-like intellect I was talking to here.)

And this guy knew Bruce, apparently reasonably well; well enough it seemed to identify with him somewhat. He seemed familiar with Bruce’s situation, so I reasoned that this must be what his handicap was, as well.

He said I reminded him of his uncle Darrell, the way I calmed him down was like his uncle Darrell could do (but, hell, all I did was listen to him!), but his uncle Darrell died several years ago, and he missed him.

Aside from the store owners stressing him, there were these two kids on the sidewalk in front of the stores that were always messing with him. The cops were always chasing these kids away, and they were always in gang fights up the road. These kids threatened him with all kinds of things, and he gave them money to make them go away. I pointed out that giving them money was only encouraging them to keep threatening him, but he seemed to have trouble getting his head around the concept, and all I could see was predator and prey, a sort of intraspecies Darwinism. Considering that it was humans involved, it kinda made my stomach lurch; I guess I’ve held out hope that, just maybe, we could be better animals.

After going on about these two kids who seemed to be terrorizing him on the sidewalks in front of these stores, he told me that he guessed he needed to block out those kids somehow. His tone was kinda flat; his statement came across as, I dunno, a request maybe, or a confirmation or admission of sorts. But his face looked like a mixture of hope, deprecation, maybe a little embarrassment, maybe more. All I could think to tell him was some breathing exercises that seem to work for me; I didn’t know if they would work for him or not, because everyone is different, and our feelings are the hardest things to control.

After finishing my sandwich, and after one of the more interesting lunchtime conversations I’ve had in a while, I excused myself to go see how my car was doing. The kid wished me good luck on my job search (I thought of him as kid, because however developed he was physically, he still seemed to be a kid, a confused lost kid in a world he was trying very hard to figure out), with probably the most sincerity I’ve ever witnessed from another human being. I said, yeah, good luck to both of us, right? And he almost smiled.