The Contrast.

Standing next to the gas pump, it was 9:30 in the morning but the air was hot. The wind blew her recently brushed hair onto her nose, and in her eyes and mouth. She held the pump with one hand and pulled the hair out of her mouth with the other. The temperature of the breeze was just enough to feel perceptibly cooler than the hot morning air.

The breeze carried with it the smell of tacos. They made her hungry. She had no desire for a taco but the smell beckoned her. She fleetingly thought how difficult it would be to work so close to that smell without wanting to eat one every day.

Six feet away from her was the emaciated frame of a man with long gray-blond hair parted in the middle and braided down his back to his belt line. With a back pack on, he was bent over the trash bin.

At first, she thought he worked there, changing the liners of the bin. On second glance, and hearing the clinking of aluminum cans, as she filled the tank of her enormous SUV, she saw that, yes, indeed, the man was working. He held a black plastic trash bag in his hand and was sifting through the garbage for recyclables. It was clear, though, that he was not an employee of the establishment. His face never turned toward her. He never made eye contact. Nonetheless, she had that nagging discontent that he might come forward and panhandle from her. He did not.

He found that for which he was searching as she continued to fill her tank. The metal clinking moved from the receptacle to the bag. Then, he left, crossing the street and disappearing beyond the taco place. She wondered if he too, wanted a taco.

The irony of their life stations was not lost on her. She felt a twinge of guilt. Why was her circumstance so different from his? Why was he searching in the trash bin for the elusive nickel of aluminum to trade for cash, while she was able to pay $4.29 per gallon to fill her vehicle? Why was she traveling so comfortably while he traveled on foot with nothing more than a backpack and black plastic bag?

She often wondered what led people to homelessness. What separated her from them? Why was it that there was such dichotomy in life? Was it just luck? It pained her to her core.

More importantly, she could see how social missteps could lead to this place. Misunderstood, missteps in a society that pushes for social conformity. Unable to place the square peg in a round hole, perhaps the man searching for cash in the trash said or did the wrong thing, or a series of wrong things that led to one loss after another. Perhaps he was an addict. Maybe, he did not think like the majority and was ostracized for his ways.

It was comfortable for her to think he was lazy, a drunk, a thief or worse. Any thought wasted on him at all was easiest if she could dismiss him. She could only do so if she thought he wanted others to do things for him for selfish or immoral reasons, instead of having the pride, self-respect and desire to it himself.

If she made the effort to think otherwise? It might hit too close to home. It might bring her to thoughts of the little boy waiting in the car seat inside that SUV, while she stood next to the grown man bent over the trash. The little boy whose needs were different from the rest. The little boy whose social skills were missing. The little boy whose social missteps might, God forbid, lead him down the wrong path someday.

In her heart, she knew that. And she could not bring herself to say anything to that man before he ran across the street and away. So, instead, she said a prayer. And left it in God’s hands. Was that a coward’s way out? Would she really do anything differently next time? Was she soothing her own needs with that prayer, or was she foolish to think that this man might have some value, some worth to contribute to others?

She did not know the answers. She did not know that she ever would. She only knew that between her life and his, there was a huge contrast. A contrast that could evaporate in an instant, and one that she never wanted to face.

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About solodialogue

I'm a lawyer and the mom of a 6 year old boy with autism. I work part time and spend the rest driving here and there and everywhere for my son's various therapies. Instead of trying cases, I now play Pac-man and watch SpongeBob. I wear old sweaters and jeans and always, always flat shoes to run after my son. Yeah, it's different but I wouldn't change it for anything. The love of my child is the most powerful, beautiful and rewarding aspect of my life.
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10 Responses to The Contrast.

  1. Lizbeth says:

    This is a fear that keeps me up at night Karen. A very real fear. And the sole reason as to why I can not die. Because what happens to our kids without us there to steer them in the right direction? To guide them, to help them when they make a social misstep? I feat the fine line between what happens and what is to happen. I know we can only do our best with our kids and God knows we are trying, but what if? What if???

    • solodialogue says:

      I know. We just can’t help it. I think it is just part of special needs parenting that is different. Once the thoughts are there, it makes us stronger advocates, deeper thinkers and we try to lay every possible foundation because of the vulnerabilities our kids have and the fear of the “what ifs”.

  2. Lisa says:

    This gave me goosebumps…..in my days prior to being a special needs parent, I would have looked at the guy with a certain air of disdain. Today, my heart skips a beat…”what-if”, indeed. I don’t like going “there”, but have to…so that I remind myself why we do everything we can do for our sons. And why the advocacy never ends…

    • solodialogue says:

      Pre-Tootles, I would have done the same. Now, we think harder and longer. It’s just different. The things that were so small once, aren’t anymore. And in a way, i guess it just pushes us harder to protect our children.

  3. projectmat says:

    Watching my friends with adult special needs children has changed my perception of the homeless. If not for parents or advocates who go the extra mile some of them would be on the streets looking for handouts.
    I have a friend who keeps $5 bills in his car to give those in need. I prefer to use gift cards. My personal preference is Del Taco (which is found widely in our area). I think one can get a more satisfying meal at these restaurants, though they can buy the hamburger just like other fast food places. I have seen too many programs on the down side to giving cash to homeless.
    On the brighter side, aluminum cans recycling is actually a very productive way to earn cash. CA especially pays a premium amount for the cans.

    • solodialogue says:

      Doing instead of just thinking makes you one of the special ones. Your advice inspires me to do the same. I just wish too much for the utopia where there was no need.

  4. Having a special needs child has changed me in many ways, your story being one of them.

    Living in Austin, where there are tons of homeless people, can make me a bit jaded sometimes. But I have found that every now and then, I spy someone on the side of the road, holding their sign, and my heart just overflows. I like to think that God is giving me a little nudge because He knows what’s going on when I don’t. When that happens, I’m giving something. Loose change, a couple of dollars, fast food gift cards, or special bags I try to keep in my car that are full of granola bars, peanut butter crackers, and bottles of water. I know there are people on the streets who are lazy and just looking for a handout. But it’s not my job to decide if someone is worthy of help or not – it’s simply my job to be willing to offer what I can when I feel the Lord leading me to do so.

    On a related side-note, when we were in CA to see Dr. Goldberg, we stayed in a house on the beach and taking the trash out one morning, I discovered a woman going thru the garbage. After some stilted conversation in my limited Spanish and her limited English, I realized she was looking for aluminum cans. Well, I can tell you that the next morning, I had separated out all our cans from the rest of the recycling, rinsed them out and had them sitting in their own bag, waiting for her. Part of my memories of that trip are seeing that woman’s sweet smile when I showed her what was in that bag so she didn’t have to dig through our trash. Sometimes the smallest things can make more difference than we know.

  5. Oh, what a heart ‘she’ has. Lovely. Look forward to our coffee chat in CA. ~ Sam 🙂

  6. eof737 says:

    But for the grace of God…. we are all steps away from change that could elevate or devastate us.

  7. Oh my, yes. I was on the bus in the states one time with a young man who was clearly homeless. He flapped just like Pudding.

    Living in a place where the haves and have-nots are so starkly contrasted, I can’t escape these thoughts every time I leave my home. One day my kids are going to start asking questions I can’t even begin to answer.

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