A Tribe of One’s Own

Watching the final outs of the seventh game of the World Series last month, I couldn’t help wondering whether the San Francisco Giants’ left-handed pitching star, Madison Bumgarner, was Jewish. I texted a friend to ask what he thought. This is a silly, parochial little game of mine, one pretty much ruined these days by Google. Bumgarner is not Jewish. You can indeed look it up, as Casey Stengel might have said. Still, it’s the kind of speculation I’ve been indulging in since I was a kid; since another left-handed ace, Sandy Koufax, refused to pitch in a World Series game because it was Yom Kippur. I remember being inexplicably proud back then, feeling the curious sense of allegiance that comes with discovering you’re part of a tribe and, better yet, you have your very own champion. The feeling is ancient, even primitive, and has its dark side, of course. But its appeal is hard to deny.

For instance, when my son Jonah returned from Camp B’nai Brith last summer, we learned he had been on the green team for various activities. We knew this because he wore his green t-shirt to bed the first few nights he was home. This is an unusual sort of attachment to others for Jonah, who is on the autism spectrum, and one we are grateful he had the chance to experience at camp.

Last month, I chronicled some of the more isolating treatment my wife, Cynthia, and I have endured over the years when we’re out with Jonah. But there was another story I wanted to share about receiving a very different kind of treatment. It didn’t seem to fit in the previous blog. It fits here, though.

In September, Jonah and I went to the bakery on a mission. We were to buy a dessert that was nut-free, a dessert we could then bring to a house where people suffered from severe nut allergies. As a result, I was being extra careful, studying the display case where the cakes and pastries were kept. In the meantime, Jonah was standing at the counter, in front of the clerk, who had shown up to serve us. Jonah was involved in his own kind of study, which is to say he was staring at the brownies directly behind the clerk.

This was, coincidentally, the same moment I decided I needed some help making my choice and I called out to the clerk. “Does the chocolate cake contain nuts?” I asked, once I’d caught his eye.

But he ignored me. The clerk, a tall, handsome young man, seemed not especially interested in doing his job. So I asked my question again. This time he looked right at me, glared actually, with an expression full of unconcealed contempt. When he looked away it was to turn to Jonah and ask my son if he could help him. Jonah didn’t say anything. No doubt, he was thinking of what strategy he could use to convince me to buy him a brownie.

“We’re together,” I finally said, patting Jonah on the shoulder. The clerk’s dark expression lightened gradually. He told me all the cakes were nut-free and I could choose whichever one I wanted. When I was paying, he apologized for his dirty look. He also explained the reason for it. As far as he was concerned, he had been waiting on Jonah and I was pushing in line in front of him.

“I have an older sister who has special needs and I don’t like to see people like her taken advantage of,” he said. “I have seen it way too many times.” I knew exactly what he was talking about and immediately felt a kinship with this young man I’d just met. I think I saw his eyes well up; I know my mine had.

Then as we were leaving the bakery, the clerk called Jonah over and handed him a small brown bag. It had a brownie inside. “It’s on the house,” he said. It was a tiny, touching gesture. And it also felt like more than that. Like we had discovered we were on the same team, part of the same tribe.  Most of all, I was proud of him for defending his sister and my son – for being his champion. I felt a little like I was watching Sandy Koufax take to the mound all over again.

In his prize-winning book, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, Andrew Solomon writes about kids with a wide variety of disabilities and specials needs, including autism. The book took Solomon 11 years to write and what started out as the story of the differences that have so often divided and isolated us ended up being the story of how “difference unites us.” So many more of us than ever.

These days, Solomon adds, “The exceptional is ubiquitous; to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state.”

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