Wednesday, June 12, 2013

12 Pack

When I used to work in group-homes back when I was in college, every Friday night we would go pick the folks up at the workshop and we'd go help them get their workshop paychecks cashed.  We'd be in the van, picking up 8 people.  I remember some of their names:  Elel, Betty, Welby, Janice.  This was like 24 years ago.  Damn.  But I remember them in my head getting into the van with their checks in their hands, very excited about cashing them so they could go to the Wal-Mart and get their pop.

"Pop" was the word of the evening.  I kid you not.  It was vitally important, especially for this one guy, Tony.  He was kind of bent over with a melted Elvis face, and he wore a uniform to the sheltered workshop not because he had to (they didn't have uniforms for the people who went to the sheltered workshop), but because he demanded it.  The maintenance people (employees who weren't labeled with a disability) at the workshop wore uniforms, and Tony pitched a fit so they let him buy himself a set just to keep the peace.  He had two uniforms eventually for rotation purposes.  He was a very serious person.  He always seemed to be thinking of ways to disassociate himself from the group.  We always went everywhere together, so it is totally understandable:  8 people with developmental disabilities, 2 staff, in a big van.  To the bank, out to eat, bowling, to the park, and like this evening after going to the bank, making that vital pit-stop at Wal-Mart.

We all walked into the store, and all of us went to the beverage aisle, and Tony automatically got a shocked look on his face.

"My pop," he said.  His voice was low-pitched and as a serious as a judge's.  "My pop."

The shock turned into anger real quick.

The 12-pack of red pop he normally purchased on Fridays wasn't in its normal place.  All the other folks had gotten theirs, but Tony walked around, searching out the red pop he always bought.  There were a couple other kinds of red pop, but not his brand.  He started to cry.  Not secret, inward tears, but large guttural ones.  Here was a dude in a janitor outfit, slumped over, with buzz-cut salt-and-paper hair sobbing in the Wal-Mart because they didn't have his 12-pack of red pop.

I know exactly how he felt.  What did William Carlos Williams once write?  "So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow."  Etcetera.  So much depends upon a 12-pack of red pop, it is beyond description.  The other staff person, a morbidly obese lady who really seemed to think of herself as "in charge," talked to Tony in a stiff professional but kind of motherly manner.  I stayed with the other guys on the other side of Wal-Mart.  They were subdued.  They had seen Tony do stuff like this before.  He was totally defeated.  The staff person had to walk Tony out of the Wal-Mart and counsel him in the van.  I went ahead and got him a replacement 12-pack, but he never drank any of it I don't think.

He survived.  But that moment sticks in the my head because I knew right then, in that store, what life was about, witnessing that outburst.  I was 24-years-old.  Working my way through college.  Trying to become a writer or whatever, but for some reason I felt inspired by Tony's desperation and disappointment, not because it was funny or weird or eccentric or wrong, but because it was so intensely human. 

He had counted on one thing, that one goddamn thing, and it was gone.