Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The story of Doug and Shelly, turning a blind eye & a little bit of monkey business

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Yesterday, I walked up the street to my local Hallmark shop to buy some birthday cards.  (I have a few friends with birthdays in the next 2 months, but only a couple are getting cards—at 3.99-4.99 a pop, these blessed things are too darn expensive.  You got a nice little racket goin’ on there, Hallmark!)

The shop is small & quiet, run by 2 elderly women who are quick to greet you when you come inside. (One will ask if you need any help, then the other will follow you through the shop regardless of your answer; always at a discreet distance of course.)  So I’m in the rear of the store when I hear the bell over the front door tinkle, and the salesclerk on my tail gives me a final look before heading up to the front. I hear the murmurs of women’s voices then, and “of course we’ll be happy to assist you, dear.”  A couple moments later, I hear that same clerk: “Now this card has a little girl smiling at a boy who’s carrying a fishing pole and bucket of fish—and inside it says “You’re a great catch!”

I’m guessing her customer doesn’t see too well—and my neighborhood does have it’s share of elderly folk.  But then I hear this: Ah ha ha… I’ll purchase that one, provided it’s $3.00 or less. I can afford to pay more, but I refuse to go any higher for a Valentines Day card. For a child, I mean. A ha ha!

I freeze in my tracks and the card I’m holding (a monkey blowing out candles) slips thru my fingers.  It’s been 20+ years since I’ve heard that haughty voice & laugh, and I’ll never forget it.  It’s Shelly C.

Way back in 1988, after moving to Pittsburgh to go back to school, I was enrolled in a computer science program at CCAC-North.  My first week there, one of my instructors approached me & said “Doug, you live at Shaler Highland Apartments and take the bus, right?  We have another student who lives there and her ride canceled. Can you show her where you catch your bus home?”  Eager to please and prove I’m good for something, I told Ed sure, I’d be happy to.  A couple minutes later, he returns with a short, boxy woman with wavy brown hair.  Her hand is on his arm. He says “Doug, this is Shelly.”  Her face is tilted upwards and has a slight frown, like she just smelled something bad.  I notice her eyes then, they’re dark and foggy.  She’s holding a red & white cane in her other hand.  She’s blind.

She says “Hello Douglas.”  I reply “Hi Shelly! You can just call me Doug” and she says “When we’re better acquainted.  Are you ready to leave, Douglas?”  Er… yes, of course.  She reaches out and I instinctively hold out my arm, and we’re on our way.

I can’t remember everything we talked about, but along the way she asked if I was from from West Virginia.  I said “No, but you’re close… I’m from Waynesburg PA, a small town 25 miles north of Morgantown WV.  How’d you know?”  Her face lit up and she said “I detected a hint of country twang in your voice…. I’m very good with voices.  Are you new to Pittsburgh?”  I said yes, I’ve only been here a couple weeks.

She says “Ah, a country bumpkin! Not to worry, we’ll have you acclimated to city living in no time at all.  In two shakes of a lamb’s tail! Ah ha ha!”

Uh-huh. Annoyed

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Shelly stops over for a visit, 1989

In the weeks that follow, Shelly becomes more & more a fixture in my life.  She’s misplaced something important and needs her kitchen cupboard, bedroom closet or storage locker examined; call Doug. The volunteer reader who comes to her apartment twice a week to read her mail isn’t due for 2 days and what’s this thick envelope she just received?  Call Doug.  Her weekly shopper (who accompanies her to the supermarket) isn’t checking the expiration dates on these frozen foods, she just knows it.  Call Doug.  She wants to begin riding the bus regularly to school again.  Call Doug.

For the most part, I honestly didn’t mind & was glad to help.  I often tried to imagine myself in her place, having to rely on others for so many things we all take for granted.  She was a smart cookie though, and close to graduating; I was in my first year.  What I didn’t like however, were the constant, pretentious jabs.  “Douglas, I realize you have 2 more years of schooling but it’s never too soon to learn some professional style.  Have you ever worn a necktie?  Do you know how to tie one? These things will be expected of you.”  Jesus on a pony Shelly, who do you think I am—Jethro Beaudine from the Beverly Hillbillies?  I never wanted to upset her though, so I just played along.

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Shelly did inspire me to volunteer my time to the Pa Association of the Blind, where I visited a couple homes regularly to provide reading services for the visually impaired. One jolly older fellow even tried to teach me Braille, and gave me one of his Braille editions of Playboy Magazine for practice.

And no, it didn’t come with a centerfold!

 

And then one day at school, a couple of female classmates approached me and asked what I thought of Shelly.  Why haven’t you asked her out yet?  Are you afraid to date a blind person?  She can take care of herself, Doug. Are you seeing someone else?  Nope.  Do you want to meet someone someday?  Yep.  Then what’s the problem?

THE PROBLEM IS THAT I WANTED TO BE SOMEONE’S HUSBAND SOMEDAY, NOT THEIR HILLBILLY HOUSEBOY.  THEY DIDN’T KNOW HER LIKE I DID.

I didn’t have to deal with it much longer, though.  Shelly graduated a few months later and was offered an internship at Highmark Insurance as a computer programmer; she left our apartment complex at Shaler Highland and moved to a neighborhood closer to the city.  I did run into her a year later, when I was shopping downtown.  She was wearing navy blue business attire and walking with a couple other suits.  When I approached her & said “Hi Shelly, remember me?” She stopped and frowned a little, then said “Of course I do Douglas.  I take it you’re still in school?”  I said yes.  She said “My colleagues & I are on our way to lunch… we only have so much time you know.  Is there something I can do for you?”  Nope!  I never heard from her again, until a couple years later when I was working downtown now too, and ran into an old classmate who also worked at Highmark.  He told me Shelly was part of a big layoff, but was unhappy there anyway (and let her boss know it regularly).  It would be her first & last job, as she had social security and disability.

And now, here we are twenty-odd years later in the same little Hallmark shop in my own little neighbohood.  I wasted no time getting my cards to the front counter, only to see that other clerk fast approaching.  Ulp—and there’s Shelly.  She’s older, a little rounder, and now she’s standing right beside me.  The woman behind the register says “Anything else, sir?”  I shake my head no.  She’s squinting at the back of my cards and looks up.  “Sir, anything else?”  I grunt “mm-mm.”  She says “Cash or credit card.”  I hold up a twenty dollar bill.  She says “Sir are you a Gold Crown member?”  I shake my head no.  She says “I didn’t get that…”  I say “No, I’m not a Gold Crown member.”  I almost clap my hand over my mouth then, and look at Shelly.  Her face is turned up just a little bit now, with a slight frown.  She’s trying to place my voice, I need to get out of this store!  The clerk hands me a small paper bag and my change.  “Thank you sir, please—”

She’s talking to air. I’m gone.

I know this wasn’t one of my prouder moments, and I shouldn’t assume I’d be at her beck and call after all these years, but that old saying “my life flashed before my eyes” still came into play.  Because the minute I heard her voice, I DID see my life for the next 20 years—if she knew I lived a couple streets over!

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