The Man in the Grocery Line

Certain special needs are invisible, or really hard to spot. This can include Autism, in some people. That isn’t Bink’s reality, though. Anyone of the neurotypical persuasion who takes more than a minute to observe my adult daughter will understand that something’s up. The way she carries herself, her frequent self-talk and singing, her hands reaching for my hair and announcing frequently, to nobody in particular, “ Brown girl. Mommy is a girl. Brown girl hair” these things are among the give-aways.

When Bink and I go out in public, people’s reactions to her difference tend to fall into three categories:
1. People are nice, they glance a few times, and then look away, feigning indifference, because staring is not what a well-mannered person does.
2. People are nice, with a curiosity that sometimes crinkles the corners of their lips upward and radiates from their eyes.
3. People are caught up in their own affairs and genuinely do not notice.

In the course of twenty five years, I can count on one hand the number of times that strangers have said or done something truly unkind in reaction to Bink’s other-ness. I attribute this to growing and widespread awareness of Autism and other special needs. I’m also a rather understanding sort. In the face of possibly mean or ignorant behavior, I prefer to assume the other person has a headache, has had a really bad day, or has to pee and has been holding it too long.

Now that you’ve got all that background, let me set the scene for what happened last Sunday. Bink and I went to the market, as we often do. We work on several things there. She looks for items from our list, puts them in the cart, and scans them at the self-checkout. I’m selective about how much she takes on in any given visit, depending on time constraints, and her mood, and mine.

We’d set out with a pretty small list that day, but we ended up with about forty things, because our four felines like their stinky food in individual little cans. We found everything successfully and we headed to one of six self-check registers. Things were going well: she was happy, I was happy, there were no lines. I prompted her through the initial steps. Choose English as the preferred Ms Register voice. Let’s type in our phone number for those valuable gas points. Then I asked her to scan, and set myself up at the end of the belt and prepared to bag.

Bink began the process, picking up each item and looking for the funny lines and numbers that make the lady inside the register talk back. One dollar and sixteen cents. Sixty four cents. Savings: ten cents. And so on. The voice is slow and deliberate, and Bink’s actions usually match the pace. If she can’t find the code, she just turns the item in all different directions until Miss Register responds. She was doing a bang-up job this particular day, adding in her own random comments. “Brown giiiirrl. Two sides?” The three of us –Ms. R, Bink, and bagging Mom, were in a nice slow sync. All was well in the world.

From my vantage point as the bagger I noticed that a man had gotten in line behind us. As Bink did her thing, he seemed more and more…ummm..interested. That’s a polite, assume-the-best word to describe his countenance and demeanor. The more items she scanned, the more man-in-line was interested. As we were getting towards the final third of our checkout experience, he began to sigh loudly and move his body in a subtle dance of impatience. A few more minutes, a few more scanned items later, man-in-line leaned way over to his left and ducked slightly around Bink, almost like she was a shopping cart or a magazine display rack. He seemed eager to catch my attention.

I admit, I almost declined to meet his eyes. It sure seemed like he was not a happy man-in-line, and we were almost finished, and things had gone so well. Bink had scanned more items than she’d ever done before, I’m pretty sure. We thrive on these little triumphs. Anyway, I did meet man’s gaze, and it was then he spoke. “Really??” he asked. I detected a really big pinch of sarcasm.

Really?

Did I mention that there were not big lines at the SIX self-checkout lanes? That means man-in-line had five other places he could have gone to ring himself out.

There were so many things I could have said. In retrospect, the possibilities were tantalizing. I was taken off guard, though, by this man’s words. I’m also, as I think I mentioned, a rather kind sort. Most of the time. To most people. So here’s what I did. Here’s what I said. I stood up a little taller, put a big, genuine smile on my face, and said, “ Yes, she’s doing a GREAT job, isn’t she? “

Man-in-line kind of screwed up his face a little. He paused, and then he muttered, to the floor,” Yeah. Yeah.” Bink completed her scanning, I put our bagged items in the cart, and we left. Two happy women, out the door and home.

Is it possible, dear reader, that man-in-line, who appeared very typical in every way, had one of those less visible special needs? Maybe he had a whopping headache. Maybe he didn’t win the lottery last night—again. Who knows, and we never really do know, do we?

I wonder if compassion can be taught, or if it is an innate thing that lives in some hearts and not others. I wonder what could change if we all went a little out of our way to notice each other with a bit more kindness, to scrape up a little more patience, and to let those words fall more readily out of our mouths,” Good job. You’re doing a really good job.”

–Melinda Coppola

6 thoughts on “The Man in the Grocery Line

  1. I love the way you handled it, it was the right thing to do for Bink, And it seemed to work on the man. I of course would have wanted to yell at him. But that would be no help to anyone. Good job, Melinda.

  2. I recently had a person make a disparaging remark about Ed as he sat beside her on the bench at the grocery store waiting for me to finish checking out. As I came up to the bench I said Come on Ed we’re done and the old lady mutter – “People like him shouldn’t be left alone in public, someone needs to watch him so no one gets hurt, shaking his hands like that ( a stim) ” I wasn’t feeling especially kind so I responded with -“He has autism and he is not a danger to anyone, your ignorance is more dangerous for him than his autism is for anyone. Have a nice day ” Not proud but it gave me a certain satisfaction to see the shock in her eyes.

    • Sue, you educated that woman and hopefully she will think about what you said and will experience the “next time” with more understanding and compassion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *