My older brother Mike is autistic, profoundly retarded and nonverbal. I had gone to parties at his group home before. I thought I had seen everything, and then I went to his Halloween Party. It was being held at a group residence in one of the bad areas of New York City, a place where I would never consider going. I was so happy that the party was scheduled to be early in the evening. I couldn’t stand the prospect of arriving after dark. As I boarded the train to East New York. I lapsed into my hyper-aware-yet-seemingly-unconcerned state. I stole one last secret glance at the subway map before I entered the strange station. “Never let them see you sweat,” was a motto I really believed. Things were going so well. It was daylight, when the train came out of the tunnel. I always enjoyed riding on the elevated lines. It was a chance to observe slices of life as apartment windows and playgrounds passed by. I was pleased. But it didn’t last long. The NY transit system seemed to conspire against me. The train service was stopped. Everyone had to get off and transfer to a bus. I had to strain my ears to hear the bus driver announce the stops. His voice was muffled by the crowd of the people standing in the aisle. I craned my neck to see the street sign, while making sure not to appear as if I was staring at anyone. At long last I found the street and, miracle of miracles I found the house. I was actually there at the appointed time. I was surprised that no one was about.
It was the right place. The brass plate next to the door had the correct name engraved on it. I went inside and there was no evidence of a party. Someone came up to me warily and asked what I wanted. I asked about the Halloween party and the lady told me that I had the right place but I was 4 hours early. No problem, I had spent 4 hours in less comfortable places, but the lady said I couldn’t stay. She wouldn’t hear me or consider my predicament. Good grief! Would she really make me stay outside, as it was getting dark in East New York on Halloween? The scene of an old movie flashed into my mind: the hero is trapped in a small compartment of a submarine as it was filling up with water. Instead of the mates looking on in horror through the porthole, it was the lady who had just thrown me out, looking on with glee. I racked my brains and asked how I could get to my brother’s house. She told me where to get the bus. It wasn’t as bad as I thought. I arrived unannounced at Mike’s residence.
Everyone at Mike’s place had the pre-party jitters. It was like being back stage at opening night. No one had started getting dressed yet, so I was privileged to get a preview of the various costumes. P___ went to fetch her Bat Girl outfit just to show me. I got caught up in the excitement. My brother’s costume was the king of hearts. It was sandwich-man costume, which consisted of two panels of foam sheets. One covered his front and one, his back. A picture of the King O Hearts was emblazoned on the front. After he was fitted in between the panes, his mates crowned him king. At long last, we were ready to go, just as everyone was getting overheated.
Fortunately, I convinced the person in charge to let me ride with them to the party. It was fun. When we turned the corner onto the street where the party house was, at least two-dozen egg missiles all sought out and splatted our van. One of my first thoughts was, “Gunfire should be louder than this.” Then I figured it out. M___, a resident who worked at a day job, said, “Oh, no!” and I could hear her voice tightening. The others also thought something was wrong. I tried to calm everyone and hoped that my voice was soothing enough to quell their fears. They did not know that I was also scared. I knew that this attack probably wasn’t personal, but these vulnerable souls in the van with me could be targeted on any day, not just Halloween. Fortunately, no more eggs were thrown as we made the mad dash to the doorstep.
Once in the door, the sights and sounds were overwhelming. The counselors seemed to be used to the juggling act of keeping the clients from wandering as the coats and jackets were taken and hung up. The music was loud and there were bodies already moving to the beat. I was surprised by the way that some of the partiers moved. It was incongruous. I could have watched them all night. I tried to follow Mike as he wandered about. L__ the manager, made a point of dancing with all the clients. He danced with Mike, the way Dad used to, holding his hands and moving them back and forth with the music. When Mike got tired, he found a chair and fell into it, just like he did at his home. He was unconcerned that there might be someone underneath him.
I was with Mike, in the entrance hall as another group arrived. One of the newly arrived guests was this very short, androgynous looking person. She did not talk, but she clearly wanted to tell me something. She looked right in my eyes and pointed to my brother and then pointed to herself. She repeated this. It was only after she did this several times did I realize that she had on the same costume as Mike, only she was the Queen of Hearts. I finally got it and winked at her. She smiled back.
I was surprised at the intensity at Michael’s Halloween party, but something about it bothered me. I kept feeling the irony; some of the costumes were grotesque, like any other Halloween party. The difference was, after the party many of these partygoers, like my brother, would still appear grotesque. This was the one night when they were same as everyone else. There was no self-consciousness and those who were aware of anything were wrapped up in the excitement, the music and their friends. I wished that I could have honesty they displayed in the enjoyment of their happiness.
Reminds me a bit of medieval Fools Day festivals when the world was supposed to be turned upside down and the village idiot was crowned king. Perhaps for a moment they felt accepted and part of everything. I wonder how they felt the next day when the world was just back to normal.
Good question. I think it was just fun for them. The world in the group home is pretty consistent. This was dress up time. P__ was so proud of her costume, it was a privilege to be part of the celebration.
It’s Ty’s favorite holiday. I hadn’t thought about the costume, but, you’re right. Ty is totally accepted and included on that day. I hope the next day they do the same as we do…talk about the laughs, the music, dancing, and the fact that “the Queen of Hearts noticed me!”. Great post, thank you.
Thank you! It was a great time.
Wonderful post Jack. I love your writing 🙂
Jack – I read this post on my iPad last night but for whatever reason it wouldn’t let me post a comment. I’m constantly amazed by the effort you have put forth over the years to see your brother and understand the world he lives in. As you described the other members of the Halloween festivities, I thought about what you wrote of how the costumes set them free somehow. I know I didn’t repeat your eloquent words – but that really hit home for me. I’ve never liked the Halloween celebrations and all that goes with them – but I am in favor of giving this obviously special day more times throughout the year to patients such as your brother. It’s when we can give those we love a moment of sheer happiness and they are able to live in the moment that I feel we’ve truly accomplished something great for those we love. Thank you for posting this blog.
Thank you, Sheri. Indeed it was something to behold. Very exciting even for someone like me, who also doesn’t normally go in for Halloween parties. Living in the moment is also a lesson I can learn.
Thank you for your kind words.