Group Portraits

Christmas Party

Every year, just before Christmas, the Center had a party for the clients. In 1981 it took place in an elementary school cafeteria and featured a Disney movie in the morning, then lunch, then dancing. Some clients were gone for the holidays, but most clients were there, and many wore their best clothes. Chuck had on a gray three-piece suit plus a brown bow tie that spread out from his throat like a large pair of wings. Sam wore a black-and-white striped suit that looked like the formal version of the striped overalls he usually wore. Even Otto came dressed in a brand-new, long-sleeved, cowboy-style shirt, though for me the image of a sharp-looking Westerner was tarnished a few minutes later when I saw him reaming his nose with the twisted corner of a paper towel.

The morning movie was not viewed in total silence. Sometimes when a man came on the screen, Jerry would call out, “Man!”; then, from the other side of the room, Gus would respond, “Ma-an!”; then back to Jerry, then Gus, then Jerry, as they egged each other on in an ever-escalating decibel contest. Several times the clients were watching the movie quietly when Margo suddenly let out a high, rollicking laugh that had no apparent connection with what was happening on the screen.

Charles, meanwhile, was off by himself at the side of the room. The moment he walked in the door, someone had gotten too close to him. Charles recoiled, then frantically brushed off his shoulder. “Doooon’t! Touch!” To get him calmed down, Molly led him to a table with a paper tablecloth and asked if he’d like to do some drawing. He stayed there for a couple of hours, until the tablecloth was covered with sketches—sketches of Santa Claus, of Christmas trees, of people watching the movie, of the buffet that was being prepared, of the cart with the canned drinks, and of the dance band that was getting set up on stage.

By the time the movie ended, the buffet was ready. Doug’s hands were actually shaking as he got near the front of the line; the sight of all that food overwhelmed him. Within minutes he gulped down his first plateful. Then, though he stayed in his seat, he turned and eyed the platters and platters of food that remained, just waiting to hear that he could have at it again. “Go ahead, Doug,” I said, and he charged back for more.

For most clients, dancing was the highlight of the day. Certainly it was for Ramona, for whom there was no greater thrill than to have me as a partner. She danced exuberantly, and occasionally let loose a country-western whoop—“Ya-hoo!”—when I least expected it. If I was dancing with someone else, Chuck was her second choice; and if, while she and Chuck were dancing, she happened to spot me on the dance floor, she’d lift her head off his shoulder and wave at me with a big grin.

If neither Chuck nor I was available, she’d race around looking for another partner, any partner, for the next dance; what she didn’t want to do was sit one out. Any time I wanted to stop dancing with Ramona, I first had to find her another partner. Sometimes I paired her with Andrew, who wouldn’t ask anyone to dance, but was willing to dance with any asker.

Other times I paired her with Doug. Doug stayed on the dance floor the entire hour and a half, though most of that time he stood by himself, immobile and ill at ease, while dancers whirled around him. When Ramona danced with him, she’d hop from one foot to the other while Doug remained as still as before; the only thing he actually did when he danced was to hold her hands loosely. Doug wouldn’t look at any of his partners; instead, with his face scrunched up in an expression of distaste, he’d look back over his shoulder at the floor.

Some clients had steady partners. Stan and Susie, for instance, were inseparable. They kept their arms wrapped around each other, with Stan practically engulfing Susie. Locked in this embrace, they rocked slowly from side to side, even during the fast songs.

Other dancers didn’t care whether they had partners. Even if no one asked him to dance, Herbert was determined to stay on his feet and stay in motion. He did a relentless two-step—bringing his right foot to his left, then out; his left foot to his right, then out—over and over. Barry, too, was willing to dance alone; to the beat of the music he pumped his fists, nodded his head, and said, “Uhhh, uhhh, uhhh, uhhh…”

Emma wasn’t at the party, and most of the day Norman sat by himself, looking glum. But when Lynn, a supervisor, got him to join her for a polka, he threw himself into it, twirling and bounding from one end of the dance floor to the other. Ben, meanwhile, spent the afternoon sitting with Becky, occasionally going to the coffee pot to get her another cup of coffee with cream and sugar.

I saw Otto dance only once, when Barbara, his case manager, asked him. They walked onto the dance floor together, but before Otto would take his partner’s waiting hands, he stood there adjusting the crotch of his pants. Eventually they did dance, but the moment the song ended, Otto dashed off without a word or a glance at Barbara.

The last song of the day was Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again.” As soon as Roger heard the first few words, he grabbed Jenny, his girlfriend, and ran onto the dance floor. If any couple at the Center could be considered the couple, it was Roger and Jenny, mainly because of Roger’s prominence; he was the Center’s equivalent of a high school quarterback. As he and Jenny twisted—“’round and ’round and up and down we go again”—Roger was just like any thirty-year-old who had tried to be hip in the sixties, and now jumped at the chance to show off his old moves.

Throughout the afternoon, Leroy, the self-appointed bandleader, stood in front of the musicians—laughing, waving two imaginary batons, and saying, “Muh-muh-muh-muh—meeee! Muh-muh-muh-muh—meeee!”

Around three o’clock the party ended. Gradually the clients filed out the door. When slow-moving Amy, tired but smiling, finally boarded her bus, we knew the day was over.

But not quite. Just as the bus drivers were revving their engines, Otto came running down the hall. I had noticed him a few minutes earlier, rummaging through a trash barrel. Now, as he ran out the door, I saw flattened aluminum cans protruding from all four of his pants pockets.

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