Thursday, November 17, 2011

To Charlie, the bell ringer at Walgreens

I had to stop at Walgreens to pick up a prescription on the way home from work. Ugh. I sighed as I put my keys in my purse, ready to get out into the cold air and do chore number one on my list of 8.

I heard the bell ringer. Sighed again. Reached into my change purse for some coins. I have been doing this with Liv since she could walk. We would always put change in the bucket. Liv wasn't here, but it's a habit now and a good one.

When I advanced closer to the door, I looked up and made small eye contact with the bell ringer. He was about my age, I surmised, give or take a year. He had no jacket on, just a sweat shirt. He looked cold, his nose was cherry red. He stopped ringing the bell and spoke to me.

"Is thhhhhaaat your ttttrrruck?" he asked.

I nodded. Smiled thinly. Didn't want to encourage too much talk. I was in a hurry.

He went on.

I used ttttttto haaave a tttttttrruck llllllike th-th-th-that. It rrrran rrrreal gggggggggggooood."

A stutterer. My heart hurt a bit for him. I smiled again, this time put some shine on it.

I told him that it was not working all that great. Really never had.

SSSSSSSo, you inttttteresssssted in ssssssselling?"

I smiled even more deeply, shook my head. Told him that I would never forgive myself if I sold such a poorly working vehicle to anyone. Laughed.

He smiled, then laughed. He had soft blue eyes, tender in a way that older men have sometimes. Usually older men who have been through some miles and pain.

He tried to say something more, but it was too much. He shook his head ruefully, looked away, embarrassed.

I reached out and touched his hand, just once. But gently.

"Take your time," I told him. "I'm in no hurry."

Well, that was a fib. I WAS in a hurry. But, he seemed hungry for conversation and astonished that I hadn't walked away. So..he tried again.

He told me that he worked at a grocery store a few blocks away. That he worked in the meat department and if I had a dog, to come visit sometime and he would save a bone for him.

You would not believe how long it took for him to get this out. And I am merely being honest, not mean.

Something about him held me in place. Mostly, he looked like he couldn't believe that someone was talking to him. Taking the time.

I told him that I did indeed have a dog, a dog who adored bones.

This made him smile.

I held out my hand. Said that my name was Maria.


A snide voice behind me said, in sotto voice: CCCCCHHHHarlie.

I turned around swiftly in time to see a teenage boy saunter past us, chuckling to himself.

Rodent. Little rodent.

Charlie flushed. Looked away and then back at me.

I leaned towards him, conspiring. "He's not worth our time," I said.

Charlie nodded, but it was weary. This must happen to him all the time, I thought.
Suddenly, I just wanted to cry. And this was not the time and would absolutely not help anything. But, my throat felt tight anyway. I hated it that Charlie had to endure this. This was not his fault, I could see that this was so hard for him. He was obviously a gregarious man who had so much to say and yet his tool for talking was failing him.

I asked him why he was volunteering to be a bell ringer for the Salvation Army. He spoke up immediately, haltingly told me that it was the least he could do, that he had been helped so much by so many. That this was nothing.

But, it wasn't nothing, I told him. It was something. It was a big something.

I asked him if he liked the holidays.

He smiled incredulously at me as if this was absurd. OF COURSE, he liked the holidays, he told me. He loved how beautiful his church looked this time of year.

Of course, this came out something like: Offf CCCCCCCCCOURSE I lllllike the hhhhholidays. Mmmmmmmy ch-ch-ch-church is bbbbbbeautifffffffful."

I asked him if he had family to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with. He said yes, he had a brother. That his sister in law made the best turkey in the city.

I pointed to his sweat shirt.

"Where's your jacket, Charlie?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Nnnnnnnnextttt ppppppppay dddday," he answered.

I nodded. Said that I needed to get into Walgreens now. I looked down at my hand which was still holding my change.

"Whoops, almost forgot!" I said. "This goes in your bucket, Charlie."

Ggggggod Blllless you," he said.

I wanted to hug him. And believe me, I am SO not a hugger. But, something in him struck me. He was a good, decent man doing a good, decent thing. He didn't deserve the way that people must treat him.

I went inside and found the laundry detergent and went to go pick up my prescription at the pharmacy.

But, I found myself standing in the greeting card aisle. Tears suddenly brimming.

God, WHY do people treat people with impediments so badly? I thought of my mentally handicapped niece, Amelia. How one time I picked her up at work for dinner and she came lumbering out in that way that those who are mentally handicapped walk sometimes...a back and forth motion to her walk. I watched her, smiling, waving.

And then I noticed a young boy about ten behind her with a man who probably was his father. He was mimicking her walk and the grown up with him was laughing along with him. I felt rage take over. I wanted to spring out of the car and go up and slap both of them. But, I did nothing. Amelia hadn't noticed and would never notice unless I brought attention to this. So, I sat, seething.

When she got to the car, I unlocked the door and gave her an impromptu bear hug. She laughed and patted me.

Gosh, Aunt Maria, you just saw me YESTERDAY," she had said, laughing.

I had just seen her, but I needed to hug her.

That incident had infuriated me and stayed with me for a long while.

It was how I felt then, staring down at the rows of cards, trying not to cry.

Charlie was a good man. He deserved better from all of us.

I paid for my purchases at the pharmacy window and groaned a little, checking my watch. Really, really running late now.

And then I saw him. That teenage boy who had taunted Charlie. He was standing next to a teenage girl in a Walgreens smock top as she re-stocked the candy aisle. She was pretty. He was obviously trying to flirt with her and she was allowing it, albeit halfheartedly.

I walked up to them.

"Don't waste your time on this guy," I said to her, using my firmest voice possible.

The guy gaped at me, surprised. The girl looked up, startled.

"He just made fun of the bell ringer outside who has a stutter," I said. "Honey, you can do so much better than this jerk."

The girl looked up at the guy.

"My brother used to stutter when he was in junior high," she said.

The guy's face was bright red.

The girl picked up her box and walked to the swinging employee doors. She didn't look back.


The guy looked angrily at me.

"I can't believe you just did that," he said.

"Believe it," I told him. "It's called karma and it was going to bite your dumb ass sooner or later. I just made it come sooner."

I walked briskly away from him, feeling just a touch jubilant. I wasn't scared at all. Pip squeak.

I turned around and said in a loud voice, "That was for all the Amelias and Charlies out there."

I saw Charlie standing by the inside front door, rubbing his hands together to warm them.

I stopped in front of him. "I have an old jacket that belonged to my father," I said to him. "It's leather and very warm and I think it would fit you. It's not doing any good sitting in my front closet and I think my Da would like knowing that it was being worn by someone as nice as you. Can I run home and bring it back?"

Charlie said that he had to leave, and it looked like his ride was here, the minister from his church. But, he would be at this store again tomorrow, same time. Could I bring it then? That is, if there wasn't someone else who needed it more....

Of course, it took a LONG time to get this all out.

No, I told him. I knew my Da would absolutely want him to have it. I would bring the coat tomorrow.

I know you're thinking that the perfect end to this story would be that I hugged him. I didn't. I gotta be me and all that shit. We parted at the door. He walked swiftly to a big blue car and I went to my truck.

But, when I got home and pulled that coat out of the closet, I felt good about the decision. That coat will have a good home with Charlie. I had only kept it in my closet because it reminded me of Da. Time for it to go have some fun with Charlie.

I didn't pass this story along to show what a good person I am. Sometimes I am good, sometimes not. On many occasions, I would have not encouraged talk and slipped away as quickly as I could.

On many occasions, I am certain that I have missed good chances to make the world better, to be a kinder, gentler me.

Just not this time. This time, I stopped. It didn't kill me and it was a good conversation with an interesting man who probably doesn't get to let his words out enough. I think it would drive me nuts to not be able to communicate. I probably would not have a tenth of his good cheer. I most certainly would not be volunteering to be a bell ringer.

I don't understand those who feel the need to mock those with a disability. I just don't. And I do believe that while I may have given that dick head kid something to think about, I probably didn't change him. I probably just pissed him off and he'll pass that anger and disappointment on to someone else.

Most people don't learn well through humiliation, which is basically what I did to him. I humiliated him.

I suppose I should feel sad about that. But, I don't. I still feel this little rush of glee that I was able to slug one in for the Amelias and the Charlies.

I'm looking forward to seeing Charlie tomorrow and giving him Da's coat.

Da would have liked that, I think.


Vinita said...

Am sure he would :) Hugs!

Earth Muffin said...

Oh, Maria! This post just about brought me to tears.

When I was very young, 6ish, I watched one of those cheesy After School Specials called "Hewitt's Just Different". It was about a regular teenage boy who befriends a mentally impaired boy and then goes through the typical motions of dumping him because he wants to be popular, then realizes his mistake and maintains the friendship. So silly, I know, but at my young age it made SUCH an impact on me! I love what you did for Charlie and, dammit, I really love what you did to Mr. Cool when he was trying to flirt. I'm glad that young lady gave him the cold shoulder. Your Da is looking down on you from somewhere, proud as can be, right now.

You. Are. Awesome.

JohnD said...

Gawddd! Strewth! That's almost like a Christmas Carol story! Well done and I'm pleaseed you gave that boy in Walgreens a 'flea in his ear!'

e said...

Good on ya, Maria!

sybil law said...

We are SO alike.
Your Da really would've loved it, I believe.
Bless all the Charlie's and Amelia's in this world. And the Maria's, too.

Kimberly said...

This is amazing and I want to hug you for it. And I'm not a hugger, either. Good for you for recognizing a need in Charlie. And for teaching that jerk kid a lesson. I'm sure Charlie will appreciate the coat! And he sounds like a very deserving guy.

True story said...

I'm sorry, but... FUCKING A, Maria!

Right on!
You go, girl!

Awesome of you to put this jerk into his place!

My nephew has a disability and people should just fucking get over it and accept that everyone who is different has same rights AND feelings.

Anonymous said...

You're a much kinder and gentler woman than you give yourself credit for.

Suzer said...

Maria, thank you for posting things like this.
You are truly inspiring and make me remember that being the person you want to be takes effort . I will try harder all the time, and especially today when I have this in mind.

Chris said...

you have written plenty of things that i love, M, but this is my favorite favorite. it's a perfect example of what happens when we stop.

Anonymous said...

What a great story. Thanks for the reminders... Kindness goes a long way...

weese said...

ya know..blogs are funny.
i often hesitate to write about stuff that i do that makes me seem like i am 'blowing my own horn' so to speak. in the end i usually post it regardless. as you say - getting praise or admiration from readers is not the point. the point is - the world needs to be a better place. so lets do all that we can to make it so. not only that - but when i do something similar it just feels so wonderfully warm and cuddly inside. i would love more people to experience this feeling.
(reminding me to get my old coats out to someone who is cold)

Tiger Chanter said...

((HUGS)) :)

English Rider said...

The coat will hug him every day and remind him of your compassion.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Lilith

Destingirls said...

I teach Special Ed in a public elementary school. My kids are probably the lowest you will ever see, but I try to do as much inclusion time as I can with them, not because they need it (because honestly they don't even notice) but because it is so important for the kids in the general ed classroom to be exposed to my class. The more exposure they get, the more accepting they become and they get very protective of them. Every once in awhile our counselor will bring in a child who was caught making fun of my kids and it's always a classmate who turned them in!

Destingirls said...

And I can't believe you guys already have bell ringers! Haven't seen any yet down here in Texas.

poet said...

What goes around comes around. Good for you for doing this. Charlie will enjoy that jacket, and your Da will be looking down and bursting with pride. ~

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I'm sure your Da is smiling right about now, and I'm glad that Charlie will finally be warm.

I loved that you killed the little dickhead's budding romance. This story really resonated with me for all the usual reasons and also because Flip, who was once articulate and witty, has been unable to verbalize for about 3 years or more, yet he still tries. I have often thought that if I could not speak intelligibly, I would implode. There is no way I would handle it with even a smidgen of grace like Charlie, and like Flip.

Fen said...

Bloody well good on you. I'd hug you for doing that. I work with mentally ill clients and I know the prejudice they get all too well. Especially my transgender client, who admittedly is a bit odd to look at, but he's a human being too, with feelings. Just because someone has a disability, doesn't mean they are less able to be hurt by idiots.

You're lovely & I'm glad you spent the time listening to Charlie.

Camille said...

Good for you Maria. I'm so happy your Da's coat will be working double time by keeping Charlie dapper AND warm this winter. Excellent story.

jen@ living a full life said...

you are awesome, no doubt about it maria. this story just made my day.

the only daughter said...

so many good, positive messages. such a good story.


Linda@VS said...

The "warm fuzzies" I felt while reading this post will stick with me for a long time, Maria, and I'll bet Charlie will feel the warmth of your kindness for the rest of his life. Way to go, girl!

Annabelle said...

Beautiful telling of an inspiring story.