Wednesday, June 11, 2014

coffee man

For years, he trudged down our street. Tall, paunchy, and stooped, he walked like a two-year-old walks: a little too much scuffing the sidewalk, and as much side-to-side movement as forward movement. As if he was begrudgingly following his mother. But he was always alone. I couldn't say how old he was. Definitely past his 20s. But 30s? 40s? 50s, even? His idiosyncrasies made it hard to tell.

He walked to get coffee. Every day. I saw him at the local coffee shop, both hands around his paper cup. I was never around when he spoke, but he must have told the barista his order. He sat in the same chair at the same table, looking at something invisible a few feet in front of him.

I watched him with a disengaged bemusement, perhaps even a little disdain. How odd he was. How could one man walk so slowly? Was that paunch getting bigger? Was it safe to walk so near him? I remember crossing the street to avoid getting too close to him on the sidewalk.

We moved away from that area three years ago. But today I stopped in the grocery store near that neighborhood. I ordered an iced Americano at the in-store Starbucks. And then I saw him at the small set of bistro tables. The same glassy stare, the same sloped shoulders, the same gripped coffee cup.

But a different flash of recognition startled me. He's now familiar to me in another way. I see it now: He is probably on the autism spectrum, perhaps with some intellectual disability. This could be a glimpse of Soren's future.

I surprised myself by how different my view of him became in a split second. I wasn't filled with disdain; I felt compassion, even a weird camaraderie with him. And I felt ashamed of the way I viewed him for so many years.

I'm mad at the person I was. She was judgmental and haughty and as much of a bully as any seventh-grade tormentor on the school bus.

People like this, like I was, are probably all over my community--in stores, Starbucks lines, watching out their homes' picture windows. They stare, judge, maybe internally mock my Soren. They wonder if he's violent and cross to the opposite side of the street. I can feel their judgment. I pray that Soren doesn't pick up on it.

And then I know there are others in our community who take the time to see us--not just the flapping, the wiggly body, the grunts of protest as we wait in lines, but the whole picture. They acknowledge us as a family that might be having a hard time navigating public spaces, or maybe as just a family that is a bit different. They may feel pity or maybe just empathy, but their first thought isn't disdain. I know that there are these kind people because once in a while I see their smiles or knowing nods. I can feel the difference; I know they see us, not just our quirks.

Coffee man, I'm so sorry about the old me. I see you now. You must live close to here. I bet you like coffee as much as I do. This coffee shop makes the best cup, don't you think? Man, you're tall. I have a little boy who is tall, too. Maybe he'll be as big as you some day.

I left the grocery store with this plea, to no one in particular: Please, dear stranger, be bigger than I was. Be better. See our children--and the adults they will become--with gentle eyes.


  1. Thank you, Jenny. This is my prayer as well. Not only for your son but for years it has been for my sister. Caught up in the Crack epidemic and the lack of understanding and services for mental illness in the 80s...for years off and on I knew she was out there, on the streets...and I've always hoped and wondered who might see her not as the "Crack 'Ho" but as someone's my sister.

    Coffee Man may not be able to respond to this post...but as his possible sister, thanks for noticing and having the courage to name what you've noticed.

  2. Jenny, as always, I'm moved by your posts and your writing. I'm amazed that humans have such a capacity to change themselves -- even things that we think are fundamental or intrinsic parts of ourselves. Your change gives me hope that I will continue to better myself and change the "bad" parts of me.



Give Me a Nap | Template By Rockaboo Designs | 2012