Jack appeared to be finished with his lunch. The only thing in front of him on the table was crumpled paper. His blue lunch box sat a little to his left, and he was pulling the straw in and out of the Styrofoam cup which contained his soda.
Although Kevin’s lunch appeared unopened, his head lay on his right arm which was stretched across the small table at which Jack and Dorothy also sat. Dorothy, who was sitting next to Kevin, folded her lunch wrappings several times over, and then placed them into her green lunchbox with quite a ladylike flourish.
At another small table right next to Jack’s, Kevin’s and Dorothy’s, sat Rico, and two African/American women. The women were talking in a very animated fashion to each other about the problems they had both experienced earlier that day getting Jack to board to van to make the trip to the mall. Rico was quietly humming to himself, swaying almost imperceptibly from side to side.
Jack, Kevin, Dorothy and Rico all wore the badge which distinguished them as people with cognitive disabilities – a fanny pack. In addition to the fanny pack, all wore clothes with no fasteners – elastic waist pants, teeshirts, and shoes with Velcro closures. Each looked rather unkempt – their hair was at least two weeks past needing a haircut; their clothes were not pressed but rather looked almost as if they had been slept in; their white crew socks were pulled up to different lengths, and in Jack’s case, were disappearing into his cheap, generic brand tennis shoes. Dorothy wore no makeup and her clothes were not of the current fashion but rather resembled clothes one’s aging grandmother might be seen wearing. Neither Jack, Kevin, Dorothy or Rico would make eye contact with anyone that passed their tables. They would not, in fact, even make eye contact with each other. All four seemed to be in their mid to late twenties or early thirties.
The two African/American women also wore a badge of sorts – an air of authority, almost like that one would find in a parent minding children, children who at the moment seemed more annoying than charming.
Although I had seen groups of people like this many times in the local malls and restaurants, and I knew that they were group home residents – group homes which served ‘clients’ with cognitive disabilities – today this group of people grabbed my attention and refused to let go. I sat and ate my lunch at a table just behind theirs, and tried to watch them without seeming to stare. And, I wanted desperately to catch Jack’s eye and smile at him. I’m not sure why that urge was so overwhelming on this particular day, but I was disappointed when I never could do that.
When the two women in charge had determined by some signal not discernable to me that lunch was over, Jack, Kevin, Dorothy and Rico were instructed to pick up anything left in front of them and put it in their lunchboxes. All four were then instructed to get up, one at a time, and throw their soda cups into the trashcans. When Jack pushed out his chair to get up before Kevin had actually returned to his seat, he was admonished by one of the women in charge. He obediently sat back down and waited for Kevin to return to the table.
Finally, when everyone’s soda cups had been disposed of, the four clients stood and waited patiently for the two women in charge to give them the signal that it was time to take a stroll through the mall.
I walked slowly behind them, again not wanting to intrude on their group, but wanting desperately to observe a while longer. I guess I expected Jack, Kevin, Dorothy and Rico to become more animated as they strolled through the mall. I thought the window dressings and other people might grab their attention. I almost expected them to head off in several different directions, their individual interests driving their feet forward. But that was not what I saw. I saw the two women in charge leading the slow-moving group, and the four clients trudging slowly behind, not seeming the least bit interested in their surroundings. They were in almost a single file line, and at the end of the line was Jack, working desperately to pull his underwear from his behind where it had apparently gotten ‘stuck’. As much as the group seemed to want to be invisible, the eyes of anyone who passed the group stared for a moment longer than is considered polite, and then were quickly averted.
After the group had made the circular trip through the mall’s lower level, the women in charge herded the four to the exit door and their waiting van. Again, I was reminded of parents getting their children loaded into the family vehicle. Jack, Kevin, Dorothy and Rico were told to put their seatbelts on. When Jack seemed to ignore that request, one of the women in charge, reached over him and buckled the seatbelt for him. Jack immediately unhooked the seat belt, and just the slightest hint of a mischievous smile crossed his lips. The woman in charge buckled him in again, and again Jack quickly unhooked the seatbelt. At this point, the woman in charge admonished Jack and said that if he did not leave his seat belt fastened, he would not get any ice cream after dinner that night. This time, there was no hint of the smile that had previously danced across Jack’s face. He sat grim-faced looking down, and no longer tried to unhook his seatbelt.