The World Is a Theater Full of Critics

“Neal was shy, and seldom spoke; and when he did, it was in a quiet voice. His speech was hard to understand; often I had to ask him to repeat himself, and that embarrassed him. He’d rub his hands together nervously before trying it again.”
Author

The person we describe as self-conscious is, at the same time, other-conscious. His tendency to feel nervous or embarrassed, even in ordinary social interactions, flows from an extreme sensitivity to the opinions of others. The self-conscious person views himself as an object of judgment. He can never be relaxed around people because he is always aware of being evaluated. He feels that his every word, his every act, is being scrutinized by critical eyes. He dreads the possibility that others might think poorly of him; he worries about it constantly. Often he tries to become inconspicuous, but the eyes of the world single him out and pursue him inexorably. Relentlessly he feels the heat of their gaze.

Neal, twenty-six years old, was thin and of average height. He dressed neatly and had short brown hair. He was shy, and seldom spoke; and when he did, it was in a quiet voice. His speech was hard to understand; often I had to ask him to repeat himself, and that embarrassed him. He’d rub his hands together nervously before trying it again.

He felt more comfortable signing than he did speaking. Neal always knew when it was payday, and invariably, at some point in the day, he’d catch my eye, then rub his thumb against his index and middle fingers—the universal sign for money. “Yeah, Neal, this is the day, isn’t it?” I might say. He’d grin and nod his head.

Often, as we were leaving the workfloor to go to break, Neal would look at me and sign coffee (made by holding one vertical fist stationary while the other moves in a horizontal circle a few inches above it, as though grinding coffee beans), break (the fists are now held horizontally and thumb to thumb, then suddenly snap apart, as though breaking something), and time (made by tapping the wrist with the index finger of the other hand, as though pointing to a watch). Neal would say the words simultaneously, though I could make them out only because of the signs that accompanied them.

Signing money or coffee break time assured Neal of familiar, predictable exchanges. He knew I’d understand him, thus sparing him the discomfort of repeating or explaining himself.

But Neal’s meaning had to be sought out if the conversation did not follow such well-worn paths. One day at lunch, Craig was talking to me about his baby girl. Neal overheard us, and later came up to me and said, “Got kids, too.”

“You’ve got kids?” I asked, a little puzzled.

“Yeaaah,” he said, purring like a proud parent. “One baby girl, one baby boy.”

“Oh… You don’t have kids in your home, do you, Neal?”

“No. My sister.”

“Oh, your sister has two babies?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, okay. That’s nice.”

He made a rocking motion, as though cradling a baby in his arms. The next day he showed me pictures of his niece and nephew.

Often, as in this case, it took a while before Neal’s meaning became clear. He experienced a kind of stage fright if he had to say very much to his audience—especially when he was initiating a conversation, and the spotlight was on him alone. The best he could do was to get out a few words at a time, releasing one bit of information, then another, until finally his story took shape.

One afternoon when everyone was outside, waiting for the buses, Neal said to me, “’At side foo.”

“What’s that?”

“’At side foo.”

“Oh… Say it one more time, Neal.”

“’At side full.”

“That side is full?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Oh… That side of what?”

He was squirming slightly, and I felt as if I were extracting words from him, one by one, with no novocaine to dull the pain.

“Outside,” he said.

“Outside? The outside is full?”

“Uh-huh. Garbage.”

“Oh, the garbage!” I said, and suddenly it all made sense. Several months earlier, we’d had some empty boxes to take to the dumpster. One section of the dumpster was nearly full; the other half had plenty of room. I didn’t want any boxes piled on the full side, but of the four clients I’d recruited—Neal, Leroy, Ramona, and Chuck—Neal was the only one I was sure would follow instructions. So while the other three kept bringing boxes out, I had Neal stay by the dumpster, receiving the boxes and throwing them in the empty end.

Now, as soon as he mentioned garbage, I knew what he was talking about. “You mean one side of the dumpster is full?”

“Uh-huh. Sure is.”

“Okay. So when you emptied the trash this afternoon, did you put it in the other side?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s good, then.”

Pause.

“’At side full,” he repeated.

“Okay, that’s fine, Neal. I’m glad you remembered to do that. Thanks for telling me.”

“’Ur welcome.”

One morning Neal brought a note from his mother saying he wanted to buy a mosaic glass. During break he and I went over to the shelves where we kept some of our finished glasses. I told him to find one he liked, but Neal wasn’t used to being the decision maker. We stood there for a minute, looking at the glasses in silence. He seemed uncomfortable, and finally pointed, a little hesitantly, at me.

“Me?” I said. “You want me to pick it out?”

“Yeah.”

“Don’t you want to?”

He shook his head. “No. You.”

So I picked out a nice glass, and that was the one he bought.

Neal lived with his mother. In his teens and early twenties, attending Special Education, he often missed school on Tuesdays. His mother was off work that day, and they liked spending it together.

He came to the Center in 1977. By early 1979, he’d seen most of his friends advance to Division II. His mother, knowing he was upset, complained to the Center, asking why he was being left behind. Later that year, Neal’s work did earn him a promotion. But after moving to Division II, with its higher levels of production, he told his mother he was afraid he’d be fired for being too slow. Soon afterward, he went through a period of bed-wetting, which she said was caused by excessive pressure at work.

It was Neal’s mother who gave voice to his worries and complaints. Making waves was not his way. The world, to him, was a theater full of critics, and he fretted over the possibility of even a single unfavorable review. The only way to preclude that was to be docile and amenable to all.

I know of only one time when he strayed from that course. He was working in the shop, moving lumber, when Valerie, his supervisor, said he should be stacking the boards a different way. Neal threw a 2 x 4 on the floor, took a step toward her, and raised his fists. Almost immediately he checked himself, and was quietly escorted off the workfloor. His case manager told him that someone could have been hurt by the board he threw. Neal, unaccustomed to reprimands, was clearly ill at ease. He apologized to Valerie and returned to work. The incident served as a reminder of something he had learned long ago: that acting out in anger brings nothing but rebukes. And nothing could be worse than a rebuke.

Neal was reliable and businesslike. If I asked him to do an odd job—move some boxes, carry a sheet of glass, fold the lunchroom tables—he’d respond with alacrity. Every morning he went promptly to his work station and started right in on whatever work was left from the day before.

He had a habit of reciting a few key words relevant to the task he was doing. Whenever I gave him a glass to antique, he’d say “Silver paint” if the glass was blue, or “Gold paint” if it was any other color. Or if, in grouting, I gave him a glass that needed patching, he knew he should apply just enough grout to fill the hole. “Not too much,” he’d say.

“That’s right, Neal.”

These were quintessential Neal Granger remarks: they were brief, they were sure to be understood because of their context, and they were guaranteed to win approval. He wanted me to know that he paid attention to instructions and always followed them.

In the grouting and steelwooling areas, Neal was a slow, steady worker, so self-effacing you forgot all about him. But when he moved to the Spanish/Florentine room, he really blossomed. I needed the most skilled workers for assembly and Craft Steel; the rest of the crew did the antiquing, and of these Neal was far and away the best. He knew I depended on him to do the largest and most difficult glasses, and the responsibility lit a fire under him. His productivity rate jumped from his usual ten percent up to forty percent. His glasses were perfect, yet he completed as many as the other five antiquers combined. No longer just another worker, he became vital on that crew. Whenever I told him he was doing a great job, he’d be delighted, and would attack his glass with renewed energy.

When he finished a glass, if I wasn’t looking his way, he was too shy to try to get my attention. Instead, he’d walk over to the glasses that were ready for antiquing, then stand there quietly until I happened to glance over. He’d point uncertainly at one of them and say something too soft for me to make out. I’d reply, “Yeah, that one’s fine, Neal.” He’d pick it up carefully, with both hands, and carry it back to his seat.

Our largest Florentine glass was called a hurricane shade. It was twelve inches high, five inches in diameter, and open at both ends. Producing just one of these was quite a project: Otto would glue some two hundred circular glass jewels around the outside; Ken would fill the spaces between the jewels by encircling each one with Craft Steel; and after the steel hardened, Neal would apply antique paint to it, then wipe off whatever paint accidentally got on the jewels.

Once, after Neal finished antiquing a hurricane shade that had red jewels and gold paint, I got out one of the wooden bases that we shipped with each shade. I set the shade on top of the base so everyone could see the finished product. Neal was grinning, and seemed on the verge of saying something. Conversations with Neal were often punctuated with pauses, up to five or six seconds long, while he thought about what to say, then debated whether or not to say it. Before that much time passed, however, Ken spoke up: “Mmmm, ’at’s pwitty.”

“Sure is,” Neal said.

He was as reticent around clients as he was around staff. For a while, in the steelwooling area, Neal, Lisa, and Andrew sat together at one table. Quietest table imaginable.

But in the Spanish/Florentine room he opened up a little. The chemistry in the room was just right: Neal liked being around Ken and Leon, and the prestige of being the number one antiquer may have emboldened him. One line in particular became his trademark. “Make him hap-py,” he’d say, several times a day, with the him in that sentence being me. Occasionally Ken said it, and Neal responded, “Yeah” or “You bet”; but usually Neal said it, then Ken and Leon laughed. If I told a client he was doing good work, or if I explained to someone how I wanted a job done, Neal would smile and say, “Make him hap-py.” To make me happy, and to thereby win my approval and earn a favorable review—these were Neal’s goals; and not only in this room and with me, but in all places and with all people.

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