Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Painting was on my list yesterday, and so I arrived at the new building bright and early....ok....it was 9:30, but that was as early as I could be there after sending kids out the door and packing a bag of lunch and toys for Charleigh.

The electricity is not on at the new building yet, but it is easy to work without lights. But without air, I had to open the front and back door. I felt vaguely vulnerable with the world just outside my door and me and Charleigh alone, but I pushed that aside and went to work.

Several hours in, I had made good progress and my excitement for sharing it with Vintage was growing. Most of them don't know where the new building is yet, let alone what it looks like inside. It's a surprise we've been trying to keep for them. With my roller full of green paint, I squatted down again in a position that has my knee aching a bit this morning.

The door darkened as a man walked in the open door. I was sweaty and covered in paint, and tried to think about who he might be. Perhaps the owner of the building? I hadn't met him, but Robb had described him as a well-to-do man. Without speaking to me, he began to look at the walls, his eyes following the borders of my green paint. I lifted my eyebrows, with a "Hello?"

"Like this..." he gestured to the walls. "You, okay. Like this. Okay?" His words were clearly distinguishable, but the order and use of them was topsy turvey. I mentally scrambled to determine why the words made no sense. Was his mouth disfigured? Did he speak another language? He kept talking and gesturing, walking around the room and showing me what I had done. "I don't understand," I explained apologetically. But he kept talking. He kept staying. He wasn't leaving.

"Are you here with someone?" I attempted. "Are you supposed to be somewhere? Do you need something? Did you drive here?"

More topsy turvy words. At one point he reached out and put his hand on my shoulder. I began scanning for information if I needed to be afraid. My instincts said only "Maybe." He seemed to know that he was hard to understand, but he kept stringing the words together fully believing they meant something.

"Do you have a wallet?" I asked finally. Without caution, he brought out the wallet, which had money and an ID inside. I saw a name and an address that I didn't recognize, but couldn't be far away. I also began to observe the brand of his polo shirt and the gold and diamond ring on his hand. He was at least 60 years old, and not frail.

"Like this" he demonstrated again, making a gesture like two hills. "Two." He was getting frustrated. I began to suspect that he had had a stroke at some point and these were the only words he had access to. But I wasn't confident that he would fully behave himself if I upset him. I began to guide him to the front door, gathering my purse and Charleigh.

I apprehended a clerk from the business next to me who was walking by. "This man came into my building but I cannot understand him." I had a sense that he understood what I was saying, and I didn't want to upset him by telling the clerk that I was afraid and needed help. The clerk tried to talk to him, and shrugged. "I don't understand him either." he said and walked on.

I tried again, "Are you supposed to be somewhere?" The man looked at his watch and effortlessly inserted a word he hadn't used up to now, "Damn." He scanned the horizon, as if expecting a ride.

"Ok, I'm going to call for some help now." I told the man. He frowned. "No. Okay. No. No." If I called 911, I couldn't explain to them what was happening without upsetting him. "I'm calling a friend." I told the man cheerfully, as I dialed for Robb, who was scheduled for wall to wall conference calls all day long. He answered.

"Robb, there is a man here. I'm having trouble understanding what he needs."

Confused at first, but clear on the fact that something was not right, he asked "Is he inside?"

"Uh huh."

"Does he speak English?"

"He is white." I was telling him that this was not a Hispanic person asking for directions to the nearest gas station.

It was becoming clear to him that I needed back-up. I could hear his breath in the phone as he began to sprint out of his office building.

"Ok, see you soon!" I said cheerfully as I closed to phone.

I invited the man to sit down on the curb and wait with me. "No. Ok. No. Like this. ok? Two." He nodded, put his hand on my shoulder again, and conceded defeat at making me understand. He started to walk away. With my phone still in hand, I quickly dialed 911 and explained as well as I could what had happened and that I really didn't think that this person was safe out alone.

Moments later, the officer arrived, took my description and went to look for him. Then Robb squealed into the parking lot, amped with adrenaline. Now confident that I hadn't exactly been in danger, I explained what had happened as well as I could. The clerk from next door emerged to fill in some details of his own...now he was so helpful.

It was odd and it was a little sad. I felt bad for the man with the garbled words. But I painted for the rest of the day with the doors closed.


klasieprof said...

I'm reading this JUST as I'm leaving to go teach ASL...it is just THIS kind of experience that I try and explain to students how it is to not be understood.

It really sucks.

Jasmine said...

merlot and emails don't mix?! pssh! says who!?

just kidding...sorta.

Jae said...

Vanessa- I think I might know who this man was. . . only by your description of garbled words, gold ring. Was he stocky and balding?

ness said...

hmmm...stocky, yes, but he had a hat on, so not sure about the balding. He had a LOT of hair in his ears though! (The things you notice?!)

Jae said...

I swear. . . that's him. He is a brilliant man who suffered a stroke about 5 years ago and his language is "lost." I can't imagine how or why he was out without his wife.

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