Making History in Hoboken (#88)
25 September 2005
When Charlie and Jim drove up to Jim's parents house this evening, one garage door was already open--because it was broken. Four years ago (when we had just moved back to New Jersey), Charlie was addicted to the mechanical opening and closing of those two garage doors. He'd anchor himself to the cement floor so he could stay near the buttons controlling the doors and howl away when we insisted he could only open and close them, once each. Charlie is far from alone among ASD kids in his infatuation with mechanical devices. Gameboys and microwaves, Alphabert and the TV remote: These mini-machines do the same thing over and over, once one figures out what buttons to press and when. They are predictable and even make the same sounds repeatedly (and Charlie used to growl out his imitation of the garage "cose-ohpen").
Jim had gone to pick up his sister, Aunt Janet, to drive her early Monday morning to the airport after a long weekend visit. She and Jim quickly called out "broken, broken," about the garage door so Charlie would not press the magic button and send it crashing down to the pavement. "Did it bother him?" I asked. "Nah," Jim responded. "He's growing up."
"Strain," Charlie had said around mid-morning. Jim and I had been talking about taking the train to Hoboken to hear a friend, Bill McGarvey and his band, the Good Thieves. Our luck did not hold: Shortly aftter pulling out from our town, the train stopped and stayed that way for ten-plus minutes.
A subtitle for this blog would be Travels with Charlie. Ever since he was a baby, he has loved being in the car. Charlie craves motion: When I was expecting him, I used to watch my stomach ripple and smooth out as he (I presumed) arched his back and stretched out, again and again, and count his hiccups. Like many a new parent, we have found that strapping a wailing infant into his car seat and driving up and down city streets brings on sleep and silence (both of which are disrupted soon as said infant is removed from said car seat and carried back home). In the hot days after Charlie's autism diagnosis in 1999--an unusually hot summer in Minnesota, we heard--we spent hours in the air-conditioned green car, travelling to Anoka (Garrison Keillor's hometown), round and round the lakes in Minnetonka and Excelsior, up to Dayton's Bluff from which you can see both of the cities, out to Stillwater and Lake Pepin. The return home was always to a fragrantly hot second-floor duplex apartment with one air-conditioning unit in our bedroom and a kitchen ceiling fan that we could not turn on, lest Charlie climb on the table below it.
Today, Charlie sat out yet another wait on NJ Transit and we proceeded into Hoboken, but missed Bill and his band. Outside City Hall Jim spotted an empty bench, where we sat so Charlie could down the Johnny Rocket's burger and fries he insisted (not surprisingly) on having over the ethnic offerings of the street fair. "I love someone with autism, too," said a woman with a stroller on the next bench. Jim was wearing his t-shirt with those words (an ultra-variaion of wearing one's heart on one's sleeve) and fell into a friendly conversation. She was Canadian and had worked for twenty years helping autistic adults live in apartments; she smiled more than kindly at Charlie (whose shirt bore a solid line of red down the middle, the result of an explosive pack of ketchup).
"We can make the 3.38 if we take the PATH and then I can do the lawn and maybe a bike ride?" Jim glanced in the direction of Charlie, who had said "cake fork" and "Gramma Granpa" exactly once this morning. "Let's look at the river first, right, Chucky?" "Piggyback Daddy," said Charlie and grinned. We caught the PATH and easily connected to another train in Journal Square, with just enough time for Charlie to have a spectacular escalator ride--the British have it right, to call it a "moving staircase." On the final train ride home. Charlie stretched out in both of our laps, occasionally wedging his right hand between the seats in front of us (where an architect with a patch on his eye was most earnestly solicitously the attention of the blondish woman stuck in the window seat beside him).
So often I think of raising my son with autism as a struggle against intertia. Charlie's obsessive preference for routine--for "everything the same"--is a tendency we always strive to disrupt, to show him that, yes, you've got to be ready for the unpredictable. The world is not a garage door going up and down (though once Charlie could stare for hours at this only). The world is change and motion and waves that sometimes foam and sometimes crash upon you.
When Jim was driving a taxi in New York back in the 70's, he lived in Hoboken, in a third-floor walk-up that went unheated in the winter when the Italian landlord took his family back to Italy. The shiney gentrification of the "mile-square" town always stuns and bemuses him, as he told the kindly Canadian woman this afternoon. Jim remembers having stuff thrown at him, "bombed out" blocks. And then there we were today with so many young couples and new families sampling ethnic cuisine and drinking their Starbuck's. "History," I once heard him say, "is change over time."
By that definition, Charlie, 8 years old, autistic, Jersey boy, ocean swimmer, is making history just by his calmly sitting out in the open on a bench in front of the Hoboken City Hall and by shrugging off a broken garage door. Once upon a time, we would never have heard the end of his screaming at a world changed by a stuck garage door--already, that is starting to sound more like a fairy tale to me. Especially when my boy walks off the moving staircase and leans his head against me, and says "home."