An old man sat on the blue bus bench. His teeth looked gnawed to half their size on his lower jaw. When he spoke, which was often to anyone, he sputtered. His hands made large gestures that interfered with passerby’s personal space. They walked around him with a considerable swathe of avoidance.
I judged his appearance for a moment, needing to sit on that bench and wait for my bus, and realized he wasn’t combative and, when I could understand him, he was trying to make conversation. Sure, it wasn’t the usual pleasantries, but I sat and listened.
“You look like a nice lady. Are you married?”
“Do you have any nice single lady friends I could take on a date?”
“Not that I can think of. Sorry.”
He leaned forward, putting his face to close to mine. I leaned back, unsure.
“My sister, she makes me dinner and I pick it up every morning. So I have something to eat every night.”
He went on in different conversation circles. At first it was confusing. He’d hopscotch from one subject to the next, but after awhile he’d recycle back to an earlier statement.
“My sister gets a check twice a month. I only get mine once a month.”
“Yeah, I’m disabled. That’s how it works for me too.”
“I’m afraid my sister will die. What will I do when she dies? Who will make me dinner then?”
I didn’t know what to say. If I had one person to rely on, I’d be scared too.
“When I was born, I was like my classmates. I was like my sister.”
Then he rewound back to asking if I had any nice lady friends he might be able to date. He’d really like a girlfriend. He swayed whiled seated, leaned forward too far when speaking, put his hands too close to me when gesturing and asked personal questions about my life others wouldn’t. Then it was back to his childhood.
“When I was born, my brain was good. I was like my classmates. I was smart.”
“You’re not still smart?” I didn’t want to offend him. He was obviously mentally and probably cognitively impaired. And who cared about IQ scores anyways?
“When I was 7, I made my dad mad and he hit me in the head with a hammer.
“After that, I wasn’t smart anymore.”
Horror iced my bones.
Soon after my bus arrived, but the conversation with the gentleman stayed with me for months. What bugged me about it — beyond the torture the man endured as a kid?
Us. Humans. The rest of us. That’s what irritated my brain. Our behavior. If we saw that man when he was a severely abused child our reaction would be different. We’d cry, cringe, demand that little boy get help. We’d talk about child abuse and how to stop it. As a collective we’d show love and compassion.
Seventy some years later, the boy was still there but in the disguise of wrinkled, socially inappropriate man who spit words. He lived on disability and sat on the bus bench, not to catch a ride, but to talk. Maybe make a friend. Perhaps find a date. But now, the humanity people would have shown him at seven was missing. He was now a crazy old coot to be avoided. A burden on society. One of the ones leeching our tax dollars and, in a political sense, taking instead of giving. That itch in the back of my mind finally formed a question: At what age did society (Us. We humans.) stop feeling compassionate about this man’s trauma and disability?
I know I’m pointing fingers, but understand, I’ve been just as guilty. Before I became mentally and physically disabled, I would’ve zoomed right by this guy in my car and not noticed his existence. I’d been too busy to reflect anyone else’s situation while I was worrying about a cup of coffee and if I was going to make it to work on time.
I don’t know if the questioned above has an answer, but it’s worthy of thought.
(From My Journal: Oct, 2012)