Garry Chaplin rocks my world. I’m unsure if he knows it. Garry is autistic. Or not. Experts couldn’t agree when he was diagnosed two decades ago. To me he’s an enigma.
When I first heard Garry speak my radar immediately went on wide sweep. We both work part-time in a kitchen. He was talking with great animation about an event that never happened.
“If I was going to feed the pigs these food scraps I’d dump the bucket over the fence. Over. I wouldn’t go in the pig pen because that could be dangerous,” he stressed with utterly clear enunciation. “Over. I’d throw the food over.”
Within minutes my radar pinpointed Garry and deciphered the code that marks him as a special person to be respected. Garry has every rule of society memorized, locked in. Manners and safety are uppermost in his mind, and as we go through each step of our job the 29-year-old articulates these unspoken yet mandatory rules.
“Excuse me, I’m walking behind you. Good thing I told you I was coming behind you. It wouldn’t be polite to bump into you.”
His parents taught him social etiquette. It is the secret, unspoken code for fitting in that we take for granted. If you fail to perform our rites exactly as our unwritten laws specify, you will never fit in and we’ll never tell you why.
This Edward Snowden has tapped into classified information on our conventions of social conduct. Each time he recites one of our rules, he exposes the massive surveillance program we all operate to categorize and file each other. Garry has the data entered, stored and ready for recall. So we let him in our world, in a designated place.
“I’m not going to talk about that,” Garry will announce when certain subjects come up. “It wouldn’t be nice to talk about that because it might hurt someone’s feelings. We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”
There’s also a list of bad words that we are not to use. When someone new said “shut up,” the rest of us went on amber alert. Would Garry have a meltdown?
No. He surprised us by simply telling the newcomer that is not a polite word and we don’t use it here. Then he vanished for a while.
Every day Garry told the story of how he would feed the pigs. He was excited and I started to look forward to this ritual. I imagined myself standing nearby watching the squealing pigs come running for the food scraps Garry dumped over the fence. I mean over, of course.
Then one fall day, the boss told us to stop saving scraps for the pigs. Amber alert.
Garry was silent. I held my breath. After a moment he asked, “What will the pigs eat if we don’t save them scraps?”
The boss flushed and said, “There are no more pigs. They’re gone.”
I waited for a volcanic eruption from my muscular friend. Garry showed no emotion, said nothing more. For a few days there were no stories. The hours felt empty. Work was monotonous.
I don’t know what he thought or felt. Then I remembered what he told me once when our boss was away for a day and someone else filled in. Garry doesn’t like change but he baffled me by being very cool with it. He explained, “I’m imagining our boss is here, but he’s just invisible.”
Then he began an imaginary tale where he and the boss locked a rude person in a closet. Garry’s voice rose to a pitch of excitement as he described the rude person pounding and pleading to get out.
“No, you have to stay in there!” Garry yelled so loud it sounded like a real fight.
The plot continued with Garry and the boss gleefully running up the stairs and laughing. I was envious of the boss for being included in this world. I wanted to go down the rabbit hole with them into Wonderland. But week after week I stood as a lonely observer in the flat light of reality, not invited, not included.
“How long have you been working here with the boss?” I asked Garry to find out how long my initiation might be to get accepted.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said casually. It turns out he’s been volunteering at this job for over a decade, which is longer than the boss or any employee.
He’s never late and doesn’t miss shifts. Garry has a few other jobs and, although he never mentioned it, I learned he is a triple-medal Special Olympics cross-country skier. He’s competed at events across Canada and in Japan.
Garry is in now training for bowling this July in Vancouver at the Canada Summer Games.
Back at work Garry continues to surprise me – like when he announced that Rita McNeil is in a teapot. The image boggled my mind. I went straight home and Googled it to learn yes, indeed the fat singer was cremated and requested her ashes be put in her teapot.
Of course eventually I couldn’t take it anymore. I crossed a line. Garry was retelling the story of locking up the rude person and running away as I stood on the outside. Forgetting that I could shatter something beautiful by crashing into his orbit, I wailed. “What about me?”
Garry shouted back, “Come on Roxanne! Run! We don’t want to leave you behind.”
Roxanne Livingstone is a freelance writer in Whitehorse.