Sam Was Content Where He Was

“You know, Glenn, I’m really lucky, really lucky, working here at, at Easter Seals. I got, I got all my friends here, and all my girls at Tracy’s Restaurant. I’m really fortunate, I really am.”

While most of our clients were sequestered and managed, rarely traveling unaccompanied in the outside world, Sam was part of the community at large, and moved through it freely. Like a regular at a small-town cafe, he always had his morning and evening coffee at Tracy’s Family Restaurant downtown. There he’d talk in his fast, friendly, repetitious way to the waitresses at the counter—“my girls,” he called them. “They all love me; they’re all real nice kids.” One rare morning he was unable to stop at Tracy’s, but he made up for it by calling his girls from the Center; even across town, he managed to snare each one for a quick chat. Clerks at the grocery store he went to likewise had trouble cutting him off: Sam was neighborly, but he clung like a burr. He was the only client who roomed at the local boardinghouse for men, and he was something of a downtown character. Occasionally he could be seen strolling down Central Avenue, serenading the heavens.

Sam was forty-eight years old, a tall man with wide shoulders and an erect bearing. He had a large-boned face and wore glasses. He kept his black hair clipped so short it seemed bristly. He always dressed in striped bib overalls—these made him look like an old-time locomotive engineer—and a worn sport jacket.

Much more than most clients, Sam was aware of the world around him. He followed the baseball playoffs every year—“Hey Glenn, my Yankees won last night, did you know that, my Yankees won last night”—and in 1980 he kept up with the presidential race: “I really hope Carter gets elected again, Glenn, I really do. I think he’s a good president; I sure hope he gets elected again.”

Sometimes he talked about his family. He loved showing off pictures of his one-year-old niece, and one time he told me he had asked his dad for five dollars to tide him over until payday. “He’s a good dad, he’ll send it to me. A dad’s supposed to help his son, right? He’ll do it, he’s a real nice man.”

In late 1981 Sam’s brother used a gas stove to commit suicide.

“My brother died this week, Glenn, did you know that?”

“Yeah, I just heard about it, Sam. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, that makes it a sad Christmas this year, a sad Christmas, it really does. They’re burying him today.”

“Is that right?”

“Yeah, that’s right, they’re burying him today, makes kind of a sad Christmas.”

Every day Sam came to work with a lunch pail full of supplies. One time he showed me what was inside: laxatives, liver supplements, high blood pressure pills, Mentholatum Ointment for sore muscles and joints, Vaseline Petroleum Jelly for dry skin, Band-Aids, Vicks Inhaler, aspirin, four mostly empty packs of cigarettes, and a bottle of cologne. Sam’s face had an oily sheen, and his fragrance suggested that he capped off his morning ablutions with the liberal application of aftershave and cologne. Sometimes he’d speak of his congestion or his rheumatism or his constipation, and I always imagined that in a large store Sam would gravitate toward the drug and toiletry aisles the way other people gravitate toward clothing or hardware or books.

One day on the workfloor Sam started describing the diarrhea he was suffering from, stopping only when Ellen, his supervisor, objected to the graphic details. The next day he told me—this time in a whisper—that last night he’d had a shot of blackberry brandy. He was amazed that such a small drink would cost a dollar, but was ecstatic over the way it had cured his diarrhea.

At the Center, Sam talked almost exclusively with staff. He was quite a bit older than most of the other clients, and given his verbal skills and his independent way of life, he may have felt that no other client was his peer. In the lunchroom he didn’t interact with other clients as equals. Usually he ate by himself, or if he did eat with a client, it wouldn’t be someone like Roger, whose expressive skills and level of awareness were comparable to his own. Occasionally he’d sit next to Cyrus, acting like a grandfather doting on a young child: he’d make faces, wiggle his ears, hide Cyrus’s lunch, or poke him in the ribs. “Oh, I’m just funnin’ with him, Glenn,” he said to me one time, a little embarrassed.

For years Sam was the only client on janitorial duty. Instead of being part of a crew, he worked alone all day, cleaning the bathrooms in the Center. The building manager kept an eye on him, but other than that he was unsupervised. This job gave him a degree of autonomy that other clients didn’t have, and also provided a fixed, relatively high, income.

In mid-1981, however, staff decided that other clients deserved a shot at this job, especially because Sam wasn’t working very hard at it. He was transferred to the glass assembly area, where his paychecks, now based strictly on production, went down. Though upset by this, Sam also saw the advantages of a sit-down job. He began bringing his radio to work—a ten-dollar special from Downtown Drug. Clients in the Glass Department were allowed to have a radio on as long as it didn’t become a source of distraction or disputes, but after a few days Sharon began squawking about his country-western station. Sam pouted when he had to turn his radio off, but the next day he solved the problem by bringing an earphone. From then on, every minute he was working, he was plugged into KMFT (“Kountry Komfort”), and occasionally he’d announce an up-to-the-minute weather report or baseball score to a passing supervisor. The only snag came whenever his batteries began to fade. He’d spend the rest of the day fiddling with the dials, swearing under his breath, and sulking.

Sam didn’t have the restlessness or the ambition of some of the other clients whose intellectual disabilities were classified as borderline: Charles with his determination to speak, Roger with his desire for a regular job, Ben with his depression over his meager paychecks. Sam was satisfied with what he had. “You know, Glenn, I’m really lucky, really lucky, working here at, at Easter Seals. I got, I got all my friends here, and all my girls at Tracy’s. I been here at the Center almost five years—did you know that, Glenn, I been here almost five years—and I love it, I just love my job. I’m really fortunate, I really am.”

Sitting at his work station, listening to Kountry Komfort and assembling glasses at a leisurely, unhurried pace, Sam was content where he was. His job at the Center gave him exactly what he wanted: people he liked talking to, a moderate amount of activity, and a way to spend his days. That, plus a bit of money, was all he asked. He enjoyed life’s predictable daily pleasures, and saw no reason for them to be overshadowed by a lot of needless aspirations.

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