P.S. 104 sat nestled neatly inside the Bayswater community where I grew up. The eastern most corner of the Rockaway Peninsula, Bayswater very much mirrored our own Plainview-Old Bethpage community demographically.
Margret was in my class in P.S. 104 from third-grade through sixth. Six- to nine-inches taller and 20 to 30 pounds heavier than all her other classmates, Margret stood out physically. If that struggle didn’t prove difficult enough for Margret, she barely ever spoke and when she did, it wasn’t above a whisper. Margret was teased daily. Made fun of relentlessly and, in the most derisive way possible for pre-adolescent children, Margret was labeled with the indelible stigma of having cooties. By sixth-grade Margret seemed to become resigned to her fate as a social outcast, while we, (her fellow classmates) came to know that Margret always graded out near the top of the class on all exams.
“Crazy Eddie” was a frightfully familiar image walking along Far Rockaway’s Central Avenue commercial main street. At 12-years-old it was hard to know exactly how old “Crazy Eddie” was, but suffice it to say he was younger than 30. Eddie was approximately 5’10” tall and rail thin. Eddie walked endlessly along the Central Avenue thoroughfare holding a dog-eared loose-leaf binder stuffed with lyrics to hundreds of songs. Eddie would walk through groups of people, seemingly ignoring their presence on the street, singing over and over the lyrics to songs like Barbara Ann. The Beach Boys version repeating chorus of “Barbara Ann, Barbara Ann…” shouted incessantly by Eddie stride after stride, unemotionally and eerily stoic. Eddie was mocked, avoided by younger kids like me. Moms would pull their young children’s wrists, tugging them across the street to avoid having to deal with passing Eddie coming towards them.
My friends and I played PAL baseball and JCC basketball all through our teens. While some teams had a dad coaching in a titular manner, we always allowed Jake to be our coach. Four or five years our senior, Jake was an awkwardly angular guy with a constant goofy smile. Not unlike “Crazy Eddie,” Jake carried an old loose-leaf with him where he stored the statistics from all of our baseball and basketball games. In addition to our statistics, Jake filed the stats for the opposing teams. We shook our heads and made fun of Jake for his over the top involvement in our frivolous contests, but win or lose Jake would treat us to sodas and French fries at our favorite luncheonette (Ellie’s) after every game. We knew Jake traveled into Manhattan to work, but not a game or Ellie’s postgame celebration went by without us ribbing Jake about what we assumed to be the menial nature of his job.
Audrey and I have taken full advantage of the beautiful early summer weeks of TOBAY Beach. Parked traditionally to the right of the eastern most concession stand (we were told 20 years ago that to the right was the Plainview side), we generally arrive around 11 a.m. and try desperately to obtain a patch of sand as close to the ocean as the tide’s schedule will allow.
It is because Audrey’s early employment with the Plainview-Old Bethpage school district related to working with children with autism, that she is keenly aware of a parent trying to manage a child on the autism spectrum.
Over the past several weeks at TOBAY we have marveled at parents, related adults and older siblings, lovingly being the guardian, coach, encourager for the children trying to enjoy TOBAY on their unique, individual terms.
As I check out from the register at ShopRite after my weekly food shop, I can’t help but note what is usually a young man ready to assist me in packing my groceries into my non-eco friendly yellow shopping bags. With focused precision and unmistakable pride in having completed a useful task, these men have thankfully been professional prepared and embraced by Mr. Greenfield’s organization to become a valued component of our daily business setting.
Our first cousin’s son who is in his mid-20s is a college graduate, possessing several areas of exceptional skill, most notably culinary arts and computer science. “Paul” has been guided to independence by the most supportive of parents and has recently been hired by Google. Diagnosed early in his life as having Asperger’s syndrome, Paul has always struggled in social settings. Paul’s success, and the success of some of the world’s most famous entrepreneurs who are on the Autism spectrum, has brought a much needed awareness to the challenges of individuals and families affected by autism.
Hopefully, our long ago ignorance will no longer add to the struggles placed daily at the feet of the individuals and families coping with autism’s affects.