Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Greg and the Woman Beside Him

I shop at the grocery store that is across the street from where I live. It's a nice store, as you'd expect from one in the relatively upscale neighborhood that I cling to the bottom bracket of. It's friendly and I know most of the tellers and clerks by face, if not actually by name.

Today I had a new bagger. His name is Greg.

Greg was dressed in the white polo shirt and dark slacks that makes the store uniform. He has long and sinewy fingers which he kept in motion, but often laced and unlaced them compulsively in front of his sternum, elbows bent. His face has a mass of dark curly hair and an enthusiastic but out-of-control stubble that some people with dark hair deal with daily. His brow is heavy and his eyes, though dark and kind, were unfixed and nervously moving from groceries to faces to ceiling to floor to carts to noisy children to ice machine. He paced uncomfortably from foot to foot in a jerky and unsettling way. He looked to be in his mid-to-late twenties.

Greg is autistic, from my amateur diagnosis.

Standing next to Greg at the end of the checkout station was a dark-haired woman wearing a slim down vest. She kept up a continual patter of conversation and observation, in soft but musical and reassuring tones. For his part, Greg said nothing. The woman asked Greg to open a new bag and start putting my groceries in, but Greg didn't. After a couple of attempts, she started prying apart a plastic bag, talking about how sticky the bags were, especially compared to the paper bags and did you see that it was supposed to snow again but ended up not snowing and make sure the bottles and heavy stuff goes under the bread, Greg.

For his part, Greg seemed to hear her, but moved so reluctantly that he sometimes appeared to stand frozen for moments at a time, hardly seeming to trust moving anywhere or anything. But the constant stream of reassurance and words had an effect. Between the two of them, I soon had all my groceries bagged, with the fabric sheets double bagged to contain the fragrance, and the gum held out to me in case I wanted to immediately pocket it.

"What do you say, Greg?" said the woman. His eyes darted to a point on the floor some eight feet to my left and he paused. Seizing the moment, I used my most cheerful voice and said, "Thank you very much!" Briefly, he raised his eyes to look at me, but there was no recognition or meaning and Greg's eyes sailed past me and ended up looking at a spot on the ceiling over my left shoulder.

I thought about him as I walked to the door. I thought about him as I crossed the parking lot and drove home. I thought about him as I loaded the shelves in my pantry. I thought about him as I sat in my chair and immediately began to write this entry.

I assume the woman was his mother. No store would devote two employees to take care of one position for any length of time. No employee would keep up a constant stream of one-sided talk in a friendly voice and have to do more than half the work.

She was someone who cares about him and wants him to have a place in the world. I can only imagine what it must be like for Greg.

I imagine it this way: suddenly, I've been dropped into a building in Japan. All day long, a stream of Japanese citizens approach me, bow, then say a paragraph of unintelligible language. Afterwards, they expect to have a certain number of small balls placed in their hands. Some people look happy, some sad, some angry, but I never have any idea how many balls to give anyone. I just want to go home.

Greg is in the busiest part of the market, filled with strangers. Machines go beep constantly, there's music playing, people are always in a variety of moods and states of rush, and everyone keeps talking to him. I bet he really just wants to go home.

But his mom/case worker is there to help him. To make sure he doesn't get flustered. To try to give him a marketable skill and a bit of socialization. To show him that there's nothing to fear from being in public where the people are pushing and shoving. To try to earn a bit more money.

I hope he lasts. I hope I get a chance to tell him "thank you" each time, and eventually, I hope it matters to him. And I really want to hug his mom and tell her she's amazing (assuming that's who that woman is).

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