Autism is getting tons of attention these days. That's partly because so many children are being diagnosed with it, but also because it's just a really fascinating disorder. People who have it are a mystery to unlock; getting to know them takes years. And anyone who knows me knows that I like a good mystery.
You might remember when I wrote about David, an autistic man in his early 40s whom I "lost" in the woods one day when we went on a hike and I foolishly let him walk ahead of me. It turns out he was fine. He had been enjoying his solo walk and he eventually came back to our starting point to greet me with a "Hi David!" when he was done. He often says "Hi David" instead of saying someone's name, something that is fairly typical of autistic people. David is extremely routine-oriented and his speech is robotic. Consequently, he is very hard to get to know. I am therefore obsessed with breaking through to him.
Once you start learning about autism, the one thing that becomes clear is that we all have some level of the "disorder" at work in our own minds. We are all creatures of habit, whether that means never eating green foods or always lining up our spices alphabetically or not really wanting to get our hair wet.
I was mulling over these ideas as I sat down at Rye last week. I purposely chose a stool that was on the left side of the bar, one that wasn't positioned in front of the ol' relish tray. I had to be on the left. If the bartender had asked me to move over to the right side of the bar, I would've felt a genuine unease and my heart rate would have quickened. I cannot explain why. Now, if a bar is full and there is only one stool and it is on the right side, then I can sit there — even if the seat is in front of the condiments. But if a bar is pretty empty, as Rye was, I need to sit on the left. It's the same with movies, or classrooms, or outdoor festivals ... give me the left.
So there I was on the left, perusing the expansive (and expensive) Rye drink menu. They take their mixing very seriously. They also hire outgoing bartenders with a chef's eye for new ingredients and combinations. In that sense, I am not autistic, because I love to try new things.
The bartender was a bubbly woman who carefully created my cocktail and then tested it before she gave it to me. She used the law of physics for the latter job, dipping a straw into the beverage and creating a vacuum with her finger before bringing the bottom of the straw up to her lips. The taste was to her liking, and so she presented the drink to me like a little gift. She then told me that she would charge me the happy-hour price since she had made me wait a tiny bit after I first sat down. Sheesh ... what a cool chick.
I had spent my whole day with David, and I was sort of drained. It is always a little strange to leave his side and then go into a bar in the heart of San Francisco, especially a bar like Rye that has a well-heeled clientele. I listened to people's conversations about meetings and productivity and computer capabilities and how to get from point A to point B on the next project, and realized that David was probably at home sitting ramrod-straight in a chair listening to his new Lettermen record he had bought at the Goodwill store. It was an odd juxtaposition.
It was 8 o'clock at night, and there were probably ten people drinking at Rye. The design of the place is pretty nice. It's not as cozy as Bourbon & Branch; Rye is the kind of spot where you would bring a colleague rather than a mistress. To one side of the bar is an expansive, sleek, restaurant-like seating area, while the other side is smallish, with a pool table and some interesting artwork hither and thither.
Two men were at the opposite end of the bar, loudly discussing their workday. It sort of sounded like the teacher from Peanuts to me, all "wa-wa-waa-wa-wa ..." They looked like lawyers or maybe investors, and struck me as color-coded-drawer types, or maybe even only-wear-black-cotton-socks types. They also seemed to be onto something big, or at least they were both trying to convince the other that that was the case.
I had been onto something big myself that day, and I was celebrating. David had made a breakthrough. Every other week I drop him off at his mother's house, and every other week he walks in, barrels past her, and heads to his room to sit ramrod-straight listening to some kooky record. He loves to play one song over and over, sung by Connie Francis or some such ninny: "Kiss me, kiss me, but not like a sister ..."
We had been practicing saying "hi Mom" when he walks in the door. For weeks I had been going over the routine with him.
"David, what should you say when you see your mother?" I'd ask.
"Hi Mom hi David" was always his reply. I couldn't get him to drop the "hi David," but heck, so what.
When I dropped him off last week, though, he did something amazing. He walked in, said "Hi Mom hi David," and then he embraced his mother. He hugged her for a full minute. He finally let her go and then he shook her hand and said "Congratulations!" Then he headed to his records at the back of the house. I was stunned. So was his mom.
Congratulations were indeed in order. I finished my delicious drink and left a generous tip. I have to leave bartenders at least 20 percent or I feel uneasy and my heart rate quickens. It's nothing too serious, just a quirk.