I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
From high atop a sea of people, glancing, with wide eyes and high desire, toward the center of the very political center of our nation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. voiced his iconic words regarding his vision of the future to a people hungry for change and hurt from discrimination. He voiced these words directly about the judgment of people by skin color, but King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, remembered on this day saluting his life, pertains to all people, for America isn’t merely a nation of black and white. It is a nation of entirely unique people, in size, in shape, in intellect, in drive, in culture and in value.
I think about a man named Spencer, a short, rotund and wrinkly Jewish man in his sixties, at least. His face lights like a beacon, his cheeks like bulging berries. His hands are small as softballs, at once rubbing vigorously at his near-bald head, then caressing generously on a friend’s hand in a tender show of appreciation. Spencer wears funky sweaters. He sports special sneakers with Velcro fasteners. His socks are high and white. His pants are brown and always ironed perfectly. Spencer is autistic, and so highly autistic that he speaks in generalized fits of habit:
“Where do you work?”
“How do you get to work?”
“What time to you go to work?”
“Do you take the train?”
“What are we doing Saturday?”
He directs many of these same questions to my brother, a 21-year-old boy lost in his newly discovered world of young adulthood. Like anyone in this situation, my brother is experimenting with habits, behaviors and friendships. He’s adamant in his claim that he’ll thrive in his chosen field of work, which is music performance and production, while he attempts to finish school and earn regular money. My brother navigates a sea of friends, some trustworthy, some present only for fun, and finds both pleasure and danger by the day. He’s 21. That’s what he does.
But my brother also aids people with special needs, visiting their apartments and houses and cooking dinner, playing games, watching television, taking trips. He visits a regular group of clients, which fill all of his required work time. Then he visits Spencer. Not a client. Just someone he wants to visit.
On Saturdays, my brother drives Spencer to a nearby diner, or maybe IHOP, and the two will eat breakfast together. Sometimes an autistic friend, Ray, will join them. At first, it was my brother and Spencer, and sometimes Ray. They would sit at a booth and peruse the menus.
“What are you having, Spencer?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you want ham?”
“Oh no, no ham, no ham. I can’t eat it.”
“How about eggs and bacon?”
“Okay, eggs and bacon.”
Sure it’s funny, the idea that a man doesn’t know that bacon is also ham, but this man is in his sixties, at least, and he’s autistic. So it’s not funny, right?
My brother laughs. Spencer doesn’t react. He may know my brother is laughing, and he may wonder why my brother is laughing, but he doesn’t react. Instead, my brother continues asking Spencer questions – about the rest of his day, about Ray or other friends, and of course, about the next time they’ll meet. And about SEPTA.
You see, Spencer loves SEPTA. Most Philadelphians cast a foul eye at the organization that runs the city’s mass-transit system, but Spencer, and most of his friends, adores SEPTA. They love SEPTA because, if they weren’t receiving transportation from my brother, or a friend, or a family member, they could count on SEPTA. They can dress themselves, step outside, walk to the corner and wait for a bus. And they’ll greet the driver, find their seat and begin their journey. Barring a work stoppage, SEPTA will always be there. A bus will always take them to where they need to go.
And those with special needs, like Spencer, adore SEPTA so much that they remember entire route schedules, and not simply for their personal buses or trains. They remember every route. So when Spencer asks, “Do you take the train?” he’s not simply making small talk.
Sometimes, though, Spencer says this:
“You have to protect me from them.”
Spencer says “them” are people on the bus who trigger a sense of paranoia.
Because Spencer adores SEPTA, he adores anybody affiliated with SEPTA. So when my brother informed Spencer that our uncle works as a train supervisor for SEPTA, Spencer tugged at my brother’s hands, pleading for a meeting. So not long after, Spencer was hugging and shaking hands with the train supervisor who handed him a shirt and a tour of an off-duty car. Since, they’ve met numerous times, including at my family Thanksgiving, where Spencer arrived as an invited guest. Stroking, and then kissing our uncle’s hand, Spencer informed him that he had to protect him.
“You’ll protect me?”
After the first few weeks of breakfast meetings, my brother, Spencer, and sometimes Ray, were joined by my older brother, my mother and even myself. Hearing about Spencer made us want to meet him, not to laugh at his misunderstanding of ham, but to laugh with his misunderstandings and, more importantly, gain greater understanding of a man in his sixties, at least, whose brain operated at the level of a nine-year-old, at most.
With a full group of us at breakfast, Spencer loudly asked the same questions to me that he had been asking others for years:
“Where do you work?”
“New York,” I told him, then glanced slightly outside of our table view, and noticed a handful of eyes fixated at us.
“How do you get to work?”
“I drive to work,” I said, leaving Spencer slightly baffled, since he just expects that people only take public transportation. I glanced over again, and even more eyes had landed on us. Curious eyes.
“What time do you go to work?”
“Nine o’ clock,” I told Spencer. He nodded vigorously side to side.
“Oh no, that’s too late for me,” he responded, now very loudly, and I could hear more heads turn, eyes glaring at us. We were interrupting their breakfasts. No, Spencer was interrupting their breakfasts.
I can’t imagine what goes through Spencer’s mind from day to day, dressing himself, walking to the bus stop and climbing up the high metal stairs. So there’s no way at all I can understand, even with years of training and experience, what goes through Spencer’s mind as he sits on the bus, as the eyes point at him. As fingers point at him. As somebody snickers. As somebody makes a quizzical face. And maybe someone asks him a question. Maybe someone mocks him. Maybe someone moves to him and grabs him, teasing him. I can’t imagine.
When Spencer is near, my brother says that it’s all in his head, and that nobody will get him. Spencer doubts those claims, but he always relaxes himself while grabbing my brother’s hand, caressing it and kissing it.
“You’ll protect me, right?”
“I’ll protect you, Spencer.”