Tuesday, April 03, 2007

"I'm not special."

Back before Michael Richards' self-destruction, there was an episode of Seinfeld that really stuck with me. I don't recall all of the details, but I think Richards' character, Kramer, had some type of dental work done, which caused a temporary speech impediment. That, combined with what I think was another of the character's fashion faux paus, lead to certain people thinking that he was "special," if you know what I mean. Every little thing he did was a marvel and they were all too eager to help him with other tasks, big and small.

That's what I experienced this past weekend.

On Saturday, the intense coughing associated with my illness was at its peak. Speaking was all but impossible so I pretty much gave it up for the next day and a half. People at the stores and restaurants I visited were usually barely interested in helping me... until they saw that I was typing my requests on my Treo and giving them the "thumbs-up" sign to reply in the affirmative or to thank them.

In a lot of cases, I could see the moment realization dawned on their faces. Their eyes would go from a glazed-over expression to one of full attention on me and whatever I needed. It was like they were happy for me, trying to be "a big boy" and take care of my shopping and dining needs all by myself.

A server at a local IHoP went from speaking to me normally, to mouthing all of her words and using exaggerated gestures to point out things like her name-tag. Apparently, she thought I was hearing-impaired and incapable of speech.

A middle-aged Wal-Mart associate near the pharmacy area seemed so pleased to help me out, often checking on me to make sure someone was taking care of my requests. Usually, I'd be forced to respond with a thumbs-up which just cemented the impression that my vocabulary was limited to a handful of hand gestures. Later, she pulled back her blond hair to reveal a hearing aid, which I believe was a way of showing how much alike we were. Of course, that confirmed my fears and my conscience wouldn't allow me to respond to her extreme sincerity with anything short of whatever full disclosure I was capable of expressing.

I basically mouthed the word "I," performed a talking gesture with my hand, pointed to my throat, balled up my fist and twisted it, while performing silent coughing movements. I think she got the point that I was capable of speech, but that it hurt too much and caused me to cough incessantly.

There were plenty of other incidents where people who were completely uninterested in me or who seemed to be attracted to me changed their tunes (more or less) after seeing something wasn't quite right with me.

I expected most to respond like a guy in Best Buy did, a couple of days, ago. After I let him know I was sick and didn't want to pass it along to him, he went well out of his way to keep his distance from me. Fair enough, if a bit out-putting.

To my surprise, most folks seemed more interested in showing support for me (possibly because they thought my ailment was something less contagious, like being speech- or hearing-impaired).

It was hard not to be simultaneously moved by their altruism and amused by their assumptions.

It's been an interesting, if very trying, series of days.


chele said...

Dude, I know you didn't mean for this too be funny but dang ... when you said, It was like they were happy for me, trying to be "a big boy" and take care of my shopping and dining needs all by myself. I hollered.

Can you imagine how many folks made you the topic of dinner conversation that night? Going on and on about how they helped the "challenged Black guy" today.

West said...

I feel you. Really.

It was sweet of them, but also kinda funny and rather patronizing.

I wasn't offended, at all, but it was interesting to see all those different layers born of their interpretations of my limitations.

So much like that Seinfeld episode.

Miz JJ said...

I will think positive. How it was nice that so many people wanted to help. Even if it was a bit patronizing. Although, you did have me rolling with the quote that chele pointed out. Hope you are feeling better!!

Keith said...

LOL! Sorry for your pain but this was a funny post. I am surprised that people were nice to you though. If you were in NYC you may have been cursed out for coming outside without supervision.

TDJ said...

This was funny! Like Miz JJ, I saw the good in this. I think that the average person goes a little out of their way and is just a little nicer to someone who may be "special" or "challenged". I can see how you felt a bit patronized, but I'd take their extra compassion, over intolerance, annoyance or being ignored.

West said...

Part of my maturation as a person and as a blogger involves accepting the fact that different people note different things, despite how much I might *think* I've emphasized something else. That's just how it is once you put something out there and detach the umbilical cord. It becomes its own thing, independent of its creators' ambitions.

Although I'm trying to learn and accept this, I feel compelled to say, again, that I was largely moved by these people's actions and reactions to my illness. I wasn't really offended. I regret not having made that point more clearly, but I was willing to risk the potential misunderstanding to express the many layers between the interactions I describe in the post.

Thanks, again for your responses.