Yesterday I had an adventure. Yes, only one of those adventures only I could have. My boss called and asked if I could do a Marilyn Monroe telegram. I said sure. Since the New Year it has been slow, and of course I would take any work I could get aside from working outside in the bitter Artic zone known as my home city. I figured this telegram would be open and shut. But then my boss added a side note. He cleared his throat and explained-because this was probably a first for him-“The lady wanted me to tell you in case he acts a certain way, etc. April, bottom line is, he likes pretty girls, loves Marilyn Monroe-“ My boss than took a pause trying to search for words to sensitively convey what he wanted to say. He is progressive, he is liberal, he has a good heart and cares for his customers. Finally he blurted out, “What I am trying to say is that he’s retarded!”
My mouth hung open.
Touched.Special.Room down the hall with two teachers.
Bad jokes at recess.
Mongoloid , the old term used and not so politically correct and actually insulting to Asians. Apparently one of my great cousins was what they referred to as a Mongoloid. He died very young as they often did in those days. But wow. Yes, I got the point. This was going to be an experience.
On my way there I just marveled at how my life could turn into one big adventure at the drop of a hat. There I was, minding my own business and now I was delivering to a man with a touch of the Down’s. I had never done a show for someone who was mentally impaired before. I did puppet shows for people in nursing homes so senile they not only thought my figure was real but begged my puppet to rescue them. I did puppet shows for people with Autism who took special liking to the puppets, and even signed my sweater. But singing for a mentally disable individual. Would he be able to understand this?
I couldn’t help but think of Sarah Palin, the adversary of career women everywhere. The one who carried her baby to term knowing he had Down’s, but then named him Trig. She named him after a class he will never take in school. How cruel is that?
I expounded on all my adventures with the word retarded. It was a favorite insult in elementary school. So much so that we flung it at each other any chance we got. Finally during a music class when our teacher explained it meant to slow down, we were out of control with laughter. We asked her why music had to be so retarded. Well she then explained her sister in law was carrying a Down’s Baby and miscarried, and the term was derogatory and hurt. So Derrick White asked her , “Miss, why are you being so retarded?” We all laughed and he was sent to the principal. But he had a point. This woman was retarded. Good call Derrick.
In high school my brother Wendell was on the football team. The water boy, or more aptly known as the team manager, was usually a kid with Down’s. Most of the time, by high school folks had calmed down with their insults towards those with special needs. However, every once in a while there was a dust up. To their credit, the football players had the back of the team manager as sort of a group of impromptu body guards if anything were to happen. Some of the football players took a barb at the team manager from time to time, but never anything mean. Sure, the team manager may have been a retard but he was their retard. And that retard was one of a band of brothers. He was connected. I call that a stroke of retarded genius.
The supermarket I worked in often employed people with mental disabilities. Most of the time they were hard workers who stayed under the radar. However, one of the more infamous ones was named Mikey. One manager used to send him to do returns. Mikey would stop at the bakery on his runs to try to discreetly grab a jelly donut from the case. Using his stealth, he was on the look out to make sure he never got caught. However, Mikey had an IQ of about 30. Translated, he didn’t understand jelly donuts all look a certain way. So Mikey would sample all the donuts until striking gold. However, if a donut was just another piece of coal back in the case it would go. Customers began to complain about the half eaten donuts in the cases. An investigation was conducted and Mikey was caught on camera. They fired him. However, the story does not end there. Mikey went to the union, lawyered up, and sued the store for lots of money for discrimination and wrongful firing based on a disability. Mikey never has to work again-doing better than all of us. Another stroke of retarded genius.
Sometimes, however, the people with the Down’s can get you when you least suspect it. My brother Wendell was once visiting Super Cuts, a discount barber shop when he was in college. Not known for their technique and originality, they nonetheless got the job done for the male living on a discount budget. Wendell was studying, playing football, and needed a quick cut. Well when Wendell climbed in the chair he noticed his barber was talking oddly and looked a little strange. Half way through the cut Wendell realize his barber had Down’s Syndrome. However it was too late to bail. When Wendell finished his cut he had a mix between a helmet head with a touch of mullet with a large chunk missing in the back. The barber was well aware that he had the Down’s. Wendell was not. What does that say about my brother? I suppose you get what you pay for. But it is also a testament to the little retarded barber doing the best he could with what he had to earn a living, kudos on him for working hard.
I walked into the place where I was to sing and immediately was greeted by a man with Down’s Syndrome who answered the door. I took a breath. While I have nothing against those who have the Down’s, I had to brace myself because I was about to be outnumbered. I told myself all retard jokes and references were to stop from this point forward. No barbs at people who wear Disney fanny packs. There would be none of that. Walking into the office, I was greeted by the contact who was a nice African American lady. She took me up to my changing room.
On our way to the elevator a resident, an older woman who obviously was Down’s as well, snuck up behind her and pulled her snow cap. “Boo, I got your hat.” She stated. My contact smiled gently. I suppose they are used to the eccentric antics of the mentally challenged residents, forever frozen in the innocent childlike state. In a way it was charming they had that sort of relationship, but it took me off guard. I would never get away with that. But then again, being mentally retarded does have it’s perks sometimes-you can get away with anything.
As I changed I felt a wave of trepidation. This was either going to be the best delivery ever or the worst idea in the history of all singing telegrams. As I changed I took a breath. I was going to treat Mr. Michael, my recipient, like any other delivery I decided. If he was going to go to sleep or eat paint or anything crazy I could cut it short.
About fifteen minutes later, Mr. Michael was showered and ready for dinner. I was taken to the man, sitting in the dining hall amongst his friends. All had Down’s, all went to school on the short bus when they were young. I walked over to Michael and some of the others in the dining hall-other residents-signaled the others to be quiet. In a very first grade way they screamed, “SHHHH!!!” Not realizing they were actually making more noise, it is the thought that counts, right? Within seconds they were quiet though, so perhaps they understand each other better than we could ever imagine in our so called normal world.
Mr. Michael himself blushed as soon as he saw me. He asked if he could kiss me. I had never had a recipient be so straight forward, so I rolled with it and let him kiss me on the cheek. He wore a professional wrestling shirt and had on a championship belt. The Hulk had long since retired, and Mr. Michael was tough enough. Part of me was taken aback that they let him wear the pro-wrestling motif so freely in the home. I could never get away with that. On the flipside, as I said, there is a certain freedom that comes with being retarded. You can do whatever the hell you want. As he blushed during my routine the outfit ready for Hulk-o-mania became rather endearing. He was sweet, gentle, and kind. He was Michael. And move over Judah Freidlander, this was the true world champion.
The staff graciously recorded the whole thing, and the residents sat in attention. At the end I got them to join me in “Happy Birthday.” They seemed to enjoy singing “Happy Birthday” to their friend. It was sweet to see these people, inviting me so openly into their community. This was their home, and this was their world. So it was different than the normal world that I called my home. In a way it was better because they seemed kinder and gentler to each other. By the time I finished I had forgotten that I was performing for a bunch of people who had Down’s Syndrome. They were like any other audience: sweet, warm, and appreciative.
The staff said I was wonderful and asked for business cards when I left. I was glad everyone liked it. Actually, it was a blessing to be reminded of how I can brighten up a person’s day no matter who they are. That felt really good. It’s a kind reminder that we are all in this together no matter what our functional levels are.
As I made my way to the train I remembered a special needs bell choir I once saw perform at a church. I was ready for this to be the Olympiad of Tune Terror, however they surprised me by being melodious and had a wonderful energy that I don’t see often in orchestras with normies. It’s because as normies we take our ability to be normal functioning for granted, and often don’t work up to our potential because we have a lot to work with and waste our energy doing stupid things.
They on the other hand, well, they need to put all their energy into just trying to be normal functioning, and therefore surprise us and teach us something.
Perhaps they are the prophetic visitors and we need to listen to them from time to time. Perhaps we all need a ride on the short bus once in a great while to teach us humility and kindness as well as gratitude.
Or maybe this whole blog entry has been simply me just being retarded.
I Came, I Saw, I Sang: Memoirs of a Singing Telegram Delivery Girl
Available as a paperback and ebook on Amazon
Portion of proceeds go to benefit the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School