Tom is a big guy. Big and muscular, mid-twenties, quick and agile, and very fast. He’s Caucasian, black hair, over six feet tall, over two hundred pounds, broad shoulders, top-heavy in build, very powerful arms
He also has absolutely no control over his body.
Tom is severely developmentally disabled–probably autistic–and when I boarded the 71 bus at 8th and Market after shopping at the Civic Center Farmers Market on Sunday afternoon, he was screaming at the top of his lungs at the floor of the bus and stomping that same floor with both feet simultaneously.
“Tom? Tom. Sit down.”
This was his caretaker. She was a plump Asian woman about 60 years old and sixteen inches shorter than Tom. She said, “Please sit down, Tom,” but instead he ran at the front doors of the bus, pounded them with both of his fists, and ran out when the driver opened them.
Ten seconds later, his caretaker had exited after him, calmed him down, and led him back on the bus, leading him to a seat by pulling on the hem of his coat, and then sitting next to him.
“Tom, we’re almost home. It will be all right.”
And it was all right until the 71 stopped at the Van Ness and Market bus stop. At which point, Tom jumped up again, screaming at the top of his lungs at the floor of the bus and stomping the floor of the bus with both feet simultaneously. His caretaker tried to pull him back in his seat by holding onto the hem of his jacket again, but instead Tom ran at the front doors of the bus, pounded them with both of his fists, and ran out when the driver opened them.
Once again, within ten seconds the diminutive Asian woman had disembarked, calmed Tom down and led him back onboard to another seat on the bus.
“Tom, calm down, calm down. We’re almost home, Tom.”
At the next stop, Market & Haight, Tom jumped up again, screaming louder than ever, covering his ears with his hands and stomping the floor of the bus once again. Still seated, his caretaker took hold of the hem of his coat again, but this time–and I cannot believe how quickly this happened–Tom kicked her in the stomach three times, ran to the side doors screaming, pounded them until they opened, and ran out.
Surprisingly, she seemed unhurt. Astoundingly, she seemed unmoved, unsurprised and unafraid.
The caretaker sighed, disembarked from the bus, and calmed Tom down again. This time, however, the bus driver refused to let them rebound the bus, telling her, “Lady, he is a menace.”
Tom cowered against the wall of the Cardio Barre studio at the street corner and screamed again, covering his ears with his hands again and wrapping his elbows in front of his face. His screaming turned into a sort of really loud mournful moaning. The 60 year old Asian woman held the hem of his coat again and said, “We were almost home, Tom. Almost home. It will be better. Just calm down and we can get home quickly. The police can take us home. Would you like me to call the police?”
The driver pulled away quickly, and one of the passengers, a young blond man, called out, “You should have let them back on. He’s only autistic.”
Another passenger, in his seventies with grey hair, said, “No, that young man belongs in an institution. He is a menace to himself and to others. And I am an other.”
They proceeded to debate the proper means of caring for the severely developmentally disabled.
Me? I kept thinking about her.
I know she’s paid a pitiful sum for her social worker job, and her hours are Sunday through Sunday, 7:00 a.m. through 7:00 a.m. She gets hit so often that no emotions register when the next kicks strike. Tom is a big, strong, young man who can not moderate or soften his movements when he lashes out at the world.
And she keeps doing her job.
I don’t have the guts to do her job. How many people do?
And she does that every day.
Ordinary everyday extraordinary courage.
Every single day.
Vonn Scott Bair