“They” say that everyone has a special gift, and I have several: the ability to sleep Indian-style; a Rain Man-like memory; an uncanny awareness of strange genetic diseases; and a freak radar that empowers me to hone in on the most upsetting and disturbing individuals within my five-mile radius. On an alarming number of occasions, those individuals have been my friends and boyfriends. Most of the time, they merely leave me temporarily unable to eat or sleep. Other people seem able to block out or quickly forget about these unfortunates, but I remain haunted by lost, lonely-looking elderly people; spinsters; handicapped, retarded and cancer-stricken children; people eating by themselves in public; people riding the bus by themselves at night; mentally ill people; the homeless; and anyone I deem to be oppressed (Muslim women in burkas, Hassidic women toting eight kids and wearing itchy wigs, women who are 9 months pregnant in the middle of a heatwave).
This “gift” has plagued me as far back as I can remember. The earliest and most definitive example I can give you is the man from the Friendly’s on South Avenue, whose image is causing me to tear up even decades after the last time I saw him. Every single time I dined there – whether it was after school with Jan and Jamie, for dinner (the Early Bird Special) with my grandma on Saturdays, or late at night after a high school cruise through the Watchung Reservation – he was there too, alone. He was roughly middle-aged at the time, with dyed black hair, a dark complexion and a severe limp for which he used a cane.
It was bad enough that Friendly’s seemed to be the mainstay of his diet. It was bad enough he was crippled and bad enough he was always eating his sad little sandwich or hamburger by himself. But the clincher came at dessert time. Without fail, the smallest of the Friendly’s sundaes – the Happy Ending Sundae – would arrive at his table a few minutes after he finished his entrée. For reasons that I still don’t fully understand, this memory of the sundae’s arrival is among my most poignant.
Since then, anytime I’ve witnessed something of this nature – something sad to me but not tragic – I’ve referred to it as a “Happy Ending Sundae Story.” This categorization is often misunderstood, because its inclusion of the word “happy” does in fact imply an element of “happiness.” But make no mistake: there is NO mirth in a Happy Ending Sundae Story.
Jan claimed that she saw the man from Friendly’s driving around town with a wife and children, but I think she just told me that to make me feel better. I do wonder though, from time to time, if he ever went home to this theoretical family and said, “Every time I go to Friendly’s there’s this creepy little girl there, staring at me with a look of pity on her face …”
Another tale from the ice cream freezer … in the next, slightly more upscale town over from where I grew up, there was a brand- spankin’ new ice cream purveyor called Haagen-Dasz. And Haagen-Dasz, being all foreign and shit (or so we thought in 1982), was faaaancy. I mean people, they sold BOYSENBERRY ice cream. This town also had its own resident schizophrenic. I didn’t know he was schizophrenic – I just thought he was odd – but that’s what Lew told me when I’d sadly watch him lumber around the town center. The man was bearded with pocked skin, had a very clumsy gait and always wore too-tight, too-short khakis, black orthopedic shoes, a short-sleeved plaid shirt, and Coke bottle glasses.
One day, my friend Bethany and I were partaking of a frozen afternoon treat when the man got on line behind us. At the time, the custom-ordered ice cream bars, dipped in warm milk or dark chocolate and then coated with your choice of crumbled candy toppings, were all the rage among the tween set. But for an adult?! Unheard of. Yet that’s what he ordered. This in itself wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world – it was the way he ordered it. I can still hear him to this day saying, “Uh … uh … a vanilla bar please.” Needless to say Bethany enjoyed both hers and mine that day.
At the Bagel Chateau in the same town, a soft-spoken college girl with a severe under-bite and noticeably skinny wrists worked at the cash register. Snotty customers were always snapping at her, and she would get flustered, which made me feel sorry for her. Her cash register post also called upon her beverage preparation skills. Every day that summer, Jan requested a fresh-brewed ice tea, so finally, the kindly girl poured said beverage ahead of time and had it waiting for Jan when it was her turn to pay. That, of course, was the day Jan wanted a Diet Coke.
On the train coming back from Washington just last week, my Spidey sense located TWO Happy Ending Sundae stories. One was the geriatric woman sitting next to me. She slept most of the way, but woke up every 20 minutes or so, pulled out a Tupperware container, took two bites of what smelled and looked like blondies and zucchini bread, sipped from a Tupperware/Rubbermaid water bottle, then went back to sleep. Someone had obviously put her on the train and made sure she had sustenance for the whole ride. The other was a man, also with a severe underbite, who couldn’t close his mouth all the way and chewed extra loudly as he ate a giant bag of generic Dorito-esque Party Mix, most of which ended up in his beard. He, obviously, couldn’t afford name-brand Doritos and had probably saved up his whole life for this one train ride.
There was the girl in my class who had no bladder control. I don’t mean she was a 1st-grader still having accidents. I mean she was 10 and had some sort of condition – involving a third kidney, it was rumored – that left her unable to know when she had to go to the bathroom. You can imagine how nice the other kids were about this. To make matters worse, she chose to go by a nickname that just about HAD to be paired with “Wetsy.” The kids truly tortured her, and one day, it got to me. I guess I couldn’t help but feel there was a little bit of her in all of us, and while I wasn’t strong enough to stand up for my picked-on self, I could do it for her. So I stepped out of line on the way to the playground and told one of the 4th-grade bad asses to shut up and leave her alone. It was the first and only time I ever had detention. The next day, the girl came up to my desk and asked, “Would you like a green apple jelly bean?” I remember being very touched by this gesture and accepting the bean, but then being afraid to eat it because I thought it might have had pee on it.
My sensitivity to the sad-sacked didn’t always result in kindness or appreciation. Around the same time that Peegate went down, a particular group of girls took to ganging up on me for no apparent reason. Let me tell ya – it’s real nice when girls gang up on one another. Real nice. I’m just thankful we didn’t have Facebook back then. They took turns being “the boss” and declaring who in the class should be ostracized. It was always me. (Remember, this was pre-braces, flat-iron and undereye concealer.) One time – ONE LONE TIME – they turned against a girl named Susan instead. Recognizing the pain and horror of Susan’s position, I disobeyed the “no talk” decree and made an extra effort to be nice to her. It was great for about two hours, at which point the gang reinstated Susan and returned to their hatred of me. I assumed that Susan would stick up for me, now that I’d stood up for her. But I remember her running away from me and saying, “I don’t know what to tell you Traci. No one likes you now.”
I’m quite sure that not one of the Happy Ending Sundae Story victims I’ve described here has any recollection of me. But I’ve never been able to forget them. And there are MANY more.
But every now and then, almost always in New York, it goes without saying, I’ll witness someone so odd that the rest of the world notices too, and for whom I just can’t conjure any feelings of empathy. I don’t like when this happens, because it makes me feel like a terrible person, but it’s beyond my control at times. Yesterday on the subway, I sat across from the creepiest man I’ve ever seen in my life. He was in his late 60s or early 70s, thin, muscular, and bald on top. The hair that he did have, on the side of his head and in back, was silver and very long. He had secured it in a ponytail with a leopard-print scrunchie, and his fingernails were freakishly long. The set of his lips made him look like he’d just tasted a really sour lemon. He was sporting the following: a skin-tight, polyester tank top with images of Marilyn Monroe silkscreened all over it. A polyester, skin-tight Speedo-shaped bathing suit or undergarment, black, with a neon polka dot motif. Knee-high running socks with stripes at the top and vintage sneakers. A dozen colored, plastic bracelets and rings. And ginormous Dame Edna glasses like the ones pictured here. He really wasn’t bothering anyone – in fact he was intently reading the New York Times – but the two women on either side of him got up, preferring to stand than be contaminated by his creepiness. I could see that everyone in the car was looking at him. I wished that I could feel bad for him. I certainly wouldn’t want people to run away from me like that. But I just couldn’t.