It’s pretty safe to say I’m a liberal. I generally try to avoid the tag like the plague because, for one, there are many negative connotations associated with it that I do not feel fairly represent me as an individual. There are also a lot of people around who I know that proudly call themselves liberal that are far more left than I’ll ever be. There is a time when you need to just call a spade a spade, though, and if I’ve got to have some kind of label in the political spectrum it might as well be liberal.
That being said, there are certain traits that a liberal is, apparently, “supposed” to have. We’re supposed to be caring and emotional. We’re supposed to be “in touch with our feelings.” We’re supposed to be environmentalists. We’re supposed to be opposed to war of any kind. We’re supposed to be completely free of any kind of prejudice or hatred (unless it involves someone who votes Republican). We’re supposed to be commie pinko hippies who would like nothing more than to get naked and sing “Give Peace A Chance” on the front lawn of the White House while doing lots of drugs and having sex with anyone and anything who tickles our fancy at the moment.
Hrm…You know that last part doesn’t sound quite so bad.
Anyway…we’re supposed to be all these things and more. We’re certainly not supposed to be they type who would be uncomfortable going into a room full of retarded people.
But I was.
I’ve been fairly uncomfortable at the prospect of this dance all week. I was not forced into it, and I do not wish to give the impression that I was, but even though I am not a Method Actor there was part of me that felt this was important. That it was something I really needed to do in order to really find Norman. I haven’t been around a retarded person since I was a child. And that man? I don’t even remember his name, I was so young. I remember not really understanding what was wrong with him. I remember that he gave me hugs and that it was weird because nobody else really hugged me outside of my family. I remember that he laughed a lot and always seemed to be in a good mood. I remember that when he moved away there was a part of me that was glad because I was always just a little uneasy when he was around, and I didn’t know why. I was ashamed of those feelings, though. My parents raised me well, and I knew from a very early age that it was wrong to be uncomfortable around another person simply because they were somehow different .1
I don’t even know what happened to him.
Those same feelings of unease and awkwardness walked into the room with me last night. How do I act? What do I say? Am I going to do something that will offend them? What if someone drools on me? Am I allowed to laugh if they do something funny? How long do I have to stay? If I can’t take it and I have to leave will the rest of the cast look down on me? Am I expected to actually get up and interact or can I just watch?
Yeah, I was nervous.
When I got there, thankfully, Leah was in the parking lot getting something out of her car. I had someone to walk in with! I also, however, had to go to the bathroom. Most of the cast was there, but nobody seemed to know where it was. Finally the organizer of the dance, Tiffany, pointed me towards two doors. As I walked towards them I was stopped by a woman who was wearing a leather jacket like I was. She had just reached out and grabbed hold of my sleeve, obviously wanting to feel the material. I smiled and took her hand.
She said something, I think. I didn’t understand. I kept smiling down at her (she was very short) and said my name was Mike. She nodded and smiled and said my name, and then kind of seemed to loose focus. I turned to go to the bathroom…and neither door was labeled.
What if someone was in there? What if they didn’t answer when I knocked? What if I went into the wrong one?
Uncertainty was the word for the day last night.
I knocked on the door to the right. No answer. I hesitantly opened the door and went in. It wasn’t a single seater, but there were no urinals and no doors on the stalls. Nobody was in there. Was I even in the Men’s room? I hurried to a stall, hoping to get out of there before anyone else came in.
No such luck.
I heard the door open, and someone go into the stall next to me. I started to sweat. I was convinced it was the wrong bathroom and I was going to traumatize a retarded woman by being in her bathroom. I finished, zipped up, and bolted for the door. I don’t know who was in the stall next to mine, but I did notice that they were standing up to go so I felt a little better.
I made a beeline back to my friends. Back to the “normal” people. Back where it was safe and I could be surrounded by them, cut off from the rest of the room.
Is this pathetic, or is this normal?
I was introduced to a woman named Linda. She shook my hand as well. Their hands were so soft. So gentle. Linda smiled and pointed at me while saying something. I have no idea what she said (which was not entirely her fault, as we were standing right near the speakers), but it had the feel of a “Heyyyyy, good to see you guy!” kind of statement so I just smiled and hoped that whatever she said required no response. I sat down next to tampafats and started talking to him, trying to relax a bit. We cracked some jokes. I laughed. I started to relax. I watched mollyq interact with them, dancing and laughing. I drew on the mental fortitude of my friends like some kind of psychic vampire, and I slowly started to feel a bit more comfortable. I started to look out across the room…
…and I started to smile.
There is a line in the play that is given by Jack, the case worker who takes care of the boys. He is talking about a dance very much like the one we are at, and he says “I can never decided if it’s the saddest place I’ve ever been. Or the happiest.” That line is dead on. You’re sitting there in a room with people who have a wide range of physical and mental disability. Some of them could possibly pass for “normal” if you weren’t paying attention, and others were in wheelchairs with tubes in their throats staring off into nothing. Most of them were somewhere in between the two extremes, but none of them seemed to care. There were no inhibitions. There was no vanity. These were just people having a good time. Dancing. Singing. Doing impressions of Elvis and Michael Jackson. The guys were just…people. They were doing everything that we would do at a dance, but they didn’t need any liquid courage to do it (and from what I heard the punch at the party wouldn’t inspire anything but a desire for something else to drink). Who had the inhibitions? People like me. They’re having a good time. Dancing. Interacting. Making jokes. I’m hugging my chair like some awkward, pimply fat kid at the 8th grade dance.
I felt like I was the one that was handicapped.
It took me a good long while, but I did get up and dance. I never fully engaged any of the retarded people, though. My focus was on my friends and cast mates, and my interactions with the others were only peripheral. I didn’t know how. How about that, huh? I can talk to anyone. I can get up on a stage in front of complete strangers and cry. But I can’t start a conversation with a retarded person.
Despite all of that, I still left in a good mood. I couldn’t help it. You just can’t stay in a place where that many people are having fun without getting some on you.
This morning, however, despite that fact that I’m still smiling when I think about them, I can’t help but being a little disapointed in myself. I should have been more open. These people invited me into their world for a night, and I couldn’t get past my inhibitions and fully appreciate their generous offer.
As I sit here writing this I can’t help but think of the things I noticed last night that pointed out how they were not
completely different from us. The guys who kept dancing close to Jaime and sneakily trying to get a glance down her sweater. The rather cute girl who saddled up close to me while I was dancing, shyly glancing over at me and smiling. Was this flirting I detected? Surely retarded people don’t flirt, do they? I noticed how they didn’t all dress the same. That some of them actually looked fashionable and well kept. Wait, are you trying to tell me that retarded people can have a sense of fashion? Absurd! And yes, some of them even looked bored. Oh, come now. Surely all retarded people will dance and laugh when you put on music. There couldn’t be individuals who actually don’t like dancing!
Oh yes, they do all of these things and more.
How does all of this relate to my performance in The Boys Next Door? I know now, more than ever, that I need to do everything in my power to not make a joke out of my character. To not be a white version of Damon Wayans giving my take on “Handi-Man.” The audience deserves more than that. The people I met last night deserve more than that.
Of course I’m going to be more self conscious about coming off as phony.
How does all this relate to me as a person? I really don’t know yet. I’d like to say that this morning I appreciate what I have more and that I’m feeling at one with the world and my fellow man, but I’m still trying to process what I went though. Am I going to bristle now when spprs wears his Special Olympics T-Shirt or someone makes a “‘tard face.” No, I don’t think I am. These things have never been done to be hateful or hurtful in the past, and I still stand by the fact that most humor is based in some kind of drama. I can’t help but think that every time we make a joke like that we’re thinking “That could have been me.” Am I going to start volunteering with organizations like HARC and become more involved with them, even after the show is over? That’s the knee-jerk reaction that we liberals have so often, isn’t it? They fade pretty quickly, though. Hell, how many of us were going to go right out and start volunteering to work on the next Presidential campaign the day after the elections, and how many of us actually did it? At the very least I think maybe this is something I need to expose my son to (and possibly J. as well, but that isn’t my call). Maybe I can help him to not have that awkward feeling I do when I meet a retarded person. That’s the whole point of being a parent, isn’t it? You’re trying to help them be just a little bit better than you are. Try to push the family down the evolutional chain. Try to work the negatives out of the system generation by generation.
So maybe I’ll go back. I don’t know. What I do know is that right here and right now I’ve got a character to find. His name is Norman, and he’s a real person with real feelings. Despite the fact that the things he does are comical, he as a person is not a joke. He has dreams, desires, and passions. He has aspirations for a better future. When he says he is in love with Sheila he isn’t just saying it. He means it. He knows what love is.
And he really likes doughnuts.
His name is Norman Bulansky.
Welcome to his home.
Won’t you take a seat?
1 – There is another post hidden in here about my Father and his strangely contradictory views on race, but that has no place here.