Last Sunday evening the boys and I went to the bike path to walk. Usually we go to the stadium and walk along side the river, but I’m awfully tired of that section. It’s not my favorite any way (it is the boys’ favorite section) so this time we mixed it up a bit. This time the section was more wooded and more isolated. I enjoy it because I’m happiest when surrounded by trees and lush green and wildlife. Okay, maybe not the bugs, but we’ve seen deer and other critters many times while walking this section of the bike path, so it’s my favorite.
As we parked and exited the car, I heard a loud voice coming through the trees from the left. Almost immediately Doug, The Can Man came barreling toward us, waving his arms and yelling.
Allow me to pause a moment and explain who Doug, The Can Man is. Doug is a developmentally disabled individual who is an icon in our community. He’s earned the title “The Can Man” because he does our community, as well as the surrounding communities, a great service by riding around on his bike and picking up cans that have been carelessly tossed on the ground. His bike is fitted with a sturdy box as well as a trailer in order to haul the cans he’s found. I have seen Doug riding through our area most of my life. I have more than once heard him say, “Do you know who I am? I’m the Can Man!” He’s proud of his role in this life and I think that’s great!
I don’t know anything about Doug’s story, other than what I’ve seen with my own eyes. I know he wrecked one time and my dad stopped to help him. His bike was damaged and he was skinned up. It was back in the days before he had the trailer attached to the bike. Dad stopped and loaded Doug and his bike and all the cans that had spilled into his truck and drove him home.
Pretty much everyone knows who Doug The Can Man is.
Not everyone is as nice.
Sunday, as Doug came barreling toward us, it was obvious he was in major distress.
“Hey! Hey! There’s a bad guy down the bike path,” he claimed. “He was on the bench and he tried to get into my box and tried to climb into my trailer!”
Clearly he was very upset. If that sort of thing had happened to me on an isolated stretch of the bike path, I would have been upset too!
“That man did NOT have permission to do that! He did NOT have permission to climb in my trailer! I told him. I told him he couldn’t do that and he tried to anyway. He’s a bad man and I want him arrested!”
All the while Doug was flying around in circles, yelling, repeating himself and getting more and more animated all the while. And I realized something with great clarity as I watched him….I wasn’t afraid. If this had happened five years ago, I think I would have been. I think I would have been ready to get back in my car and drive away because I think Doug would have scared me with all his yelling and gesturing and constant motion. I think I would have been afraid for my safety and the safety of my children.
But I’m different than I used to be.
Now, I’m the mother of a sweet boy who just happens to be on the Autism Spectrum. Freak outs, meltdowns and hysterics are a part of my daily life. So I wasn’t afraid.
My main concern was for Doug because of how upset he was. I could no more walk away from him in his moment of need than I could if it had been Eli himself.
I phoned 911 and explained to the operator who I was standing there with and what he was claiming had happened.
“Tell Doug I have a deputy on the way,” she told me.
We stood there with him until two Sheriff’s Deputies arrived. Twenty minutes we stood there. We heard the story of how the man tried to climb into his trailer at LEAST twenty times. And no…. that’s not an exaggeration.
I began to ask him questions about the man. What was he wearing? What color was his hair? How old was he?
Brown hair. Black shirt. Jeans. Sneakers. And a black back pack. Sitting on a green bench by the “waterhole” along the bike path.
A man who’d been exercising came by and Doug told him the story as well. The man looked a little terrified because Doug was screaming at him about what had happened, and the man was probably 8 inches shorter than Doug. He kept glancing at me, and I gave him several reassuring smiles. “It’s okay,” I tried to convey with my smile, my eyes. “He’s just upset. It happens.”
Interestingly enough, the man indicated he’d seen the man sitting down there on the bench, just like Doug had said!
I phoned his aide and he seemed concerned as to whether or not the event had actually happened. I don’t know if it had or not, but right then, it wasn’t relevant. Doug was out in public, very upset and hysterical. It didn’t matter if it was reality or imagination. Please come help.
Finally … FINALLY…the deputies arrived. They heard Doug’s story and one of the deputies took off in his cruiser down the bike path. I got permission to leave and the boys and I finally took off down the bike path for our walk.
NOW I was afraid. Not of the upset man who was differently-abled. Now I was nervous because I didn’t want to run into the bad man. Now I was concerned for the safety of my children and myself. Because someone who is willing to pick on a person with special needs is far more scary to me than an hysterical 6 foot+ man whose diagnosis I don’t know anything about.
The boys had been quiet the entire time we were with Doug, letting me try to calm and reassure him; watching with wary but ever- curious eyes. As we hurried off down the bike path after our long-delayed departure, Eli leaned in toward Ash and me with a very serious face. In a conspiratorial loud whisper and big eyes, he stated in a very matter-of-fact tone, “I think that man might have had some problems.”
I do love that kid.
Yes, darling I affirmed. He does. That’s why we stayed with him until help arrived.
The deputy who had driven down the bike path came slowly driving back, empty backseat. He waved to us as we stepped aside to let him by, but didn’t stop to offer us any information as to what he’d found.
We continued on, wary but beginning to relax. We giggled and talked and had fun, just like we always do on our walks. After about a mile and a half, we were coming around a gradual curve and a bench came into view.
It was still at least a quarter of a mile or more away…but I could see a black back pack sitting on the end of the bench, and it appeared as if a man was sitting there as well, but I couldn’t really be sure at that distance.
It wasn’t relevant.
We turned around and headed back the way we had come. A little quieter. Definitely more on guard.
But Doug had been there for us, as well. And he didn’t even know it.
If we had simply walked away from The Can Man’s crisis, we wouldn’t have thought twice about walking past that man on the bench in the isolated section of the bike path.
I realized some time later that as wonderfully difficult it can be raising a child with autism, the experience has changed me for the better. Eli’s very presence in my life is more of a blessing than I ever would have expected. I’m different than I used to be. I lead with my heart more. I’m more aware. I’m more willing to help. I’m less freaked out by odd behaviors which are not “socially acceptable”. I’m more curious about individuals’ lives and histories and how they got to this point right now. I’m more tolerant.
So we trudge on in this life…growing. Learning. Improving.
How about you? Will you be open to loving individuals if they don’t fit the norm? Or will you be the person to walk away?
Or will you be wearing the black back pack and cruelly try to jump into The Can Man’s cart?
In the end…all that matters is how we treated one another.
Who will you be?