Finding Jeff

Delta Winds cover 2011Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


Finding Jeff

Robyn Puskaric

It is another Monday morning, no different from the rest. Our shift supervisor, Susan, Karon, and I have, once again, risen before the sun. The morning is like night-a black sky full of stars, cool air stinging our face and arms, and the city is engrossed in a pool of silence. We lock ourselves in the building that is our home away from home, and promptly begin our work at 4:30 a.m. Susan counts the money and prepares our registers. Karon begins her list of duties-brewing iced coffee and teas, stocking syrups, prepping the espresso bars, and ends with brewing all four coffees for the day. My task is the pastry case. Breads, bagels, scones, and coffee cakes, pastry after mouth-watering pastry, I fill up the trays in the case. Five o'clock comes, and, "Good morning, Lodi! Starbucks is open and ready for business."

The morning passes in its usual frenzy, customer after customer, car after car, and drink after drink. A whirlwind of noises engulfs the building. Employees are taking orders, both up front, in the café, as well as on the drive-thru headset. Almost an ear-piercing cry, the milk screams as it is steamed. Fridge doors shut with a slam left and right. Ice bounces off of the plastic sides of the blenders, inevitably falling victim to the revolving blade that crushes it to make the perfect Frappuccino. Unintelligible chatter of the customers sitting in the café drowns out the sound of the music coming from the hanging speakers. When more coffee is needed, the loud sound of the beans being ground acts as a cloud, blocking all the other noises for a short while. With this, a wave of rich, robust, coffee aroma crashes through the building, grabbing the attention of everyone. Judging from the morning, I would have guessed this day would turn out the same as any other. Little did I know, it would turn out to be one of the most horrific and memorable days I have ever had at work.

It is about noon now, and the scene of the store has completely changed. The drive-thru is basically dead, only having a customer here and there. Three to four people are sitting at different tables with either books or computers, but no new customers are in line. Walking around the café with a rag drenched in sanitizer solution, I wipe down the empty tables. After I am done, I walk outside to do the same to our patio tables. As I head back inside, in the reflection of the front door and windows, I see Jeff and Joey headed my way. Tan and gangly, Joey, in dark, denim shorts and a striped, scarlet red shirt, is running towards the front door. Jeff, a tall, stout man wearing eyeglasses, is not far behind. I hold the door open and let Joey inside before I hear Jeff say, "No Joey! Not inside."

"Oh, I am sorry," I say. "I thought you two were on your way inside." Jeff responds by saying, "It's okay, it's just that-" he turns to Joey, "-let's go sit outside."

That is when I notice the two drinks in Jeff's hands, and I put it all together. There is a new rule about Joey not being able to drink in Jeff's truck. Recently, Joey started an unfavorable habit of spilling his cocoa in the truck. This is why Jeff has been pulling back into the parking lot to sit on the patio after ordering at the drive-thru counter. However, Joey insists on sitting inside, so he and Jeff take a seat in the café.

Jeff and Joey are father and son. They have been coming to our store daily for years. They come around six o'clock in the morning, and use the drive-thru. A Venti, two-pump Mocha is Jeff's drink of choice, and he orders Joey a child's hot cocoa. Everyone who works here knows Jeff and Joey. Why? A little boy with the quirks Joey has is hard to forget. Out of the five autistic people I know, Joey is the most severe case of autism I have witnessed firsthand.

"Good morning, Jeff," all of us say when he pulls his truck up to the drive-thru window. After he responds, our attention turns to Joey. We say good morning to Joey, and wait with anticipation to see what his response will be. How will he act today?

Joey often yells at us. Sometimes he yells, "Hi!" Other times he yells, "Bitch" to whomever is at the window. Some days he even yells at his dad to shut up. A few times he has let out a scream, as loud as his lungs will allow. We have been told that the best thing for us to do is ignore his behavior, so we oblige. However, the actions usually lead us into discussion about this eight-year-old and his disease. Questions from "Does he know the meaning of what he just said?" to "Does he like to swim?" are answered by Jeff. We ask these questions, hoping the answers will give us some insight and understanding of this boy who is different from us.

His yelling is not the only difference. Other common symptoms of autism affect his daily life. He very rarely makes eye contact with people, although I have noticed he makes more eye contact with his dad than he does strangers. While his body sits in an awkward, hunched-over posture, he wears a bland facial expression with his mouth hanging open. I have only once heard him say a complete sentence; delayed communication is also a common symptom. Although we ignore his obscenities in the moment, we often find ourselves laughing and seeing the humorous side of it. Most days, Joey shocks us with the words he speaks, and with his actions, but those things are the reason we love and remember him.

At this time, I am behind the counter, working on refilling the pastry case with more food.

"Welcome to Starbucks. What can I get started for you today?" says the Barista working in drive-thru. The shrill sound of steaming milk reaches my ears once again. Dishes crashing around the sink in the back room can be heard all the way in the front of the store. That is when I hear it, an unidentifiable sound.

"What was that?" I think to myself. Scraping, sliding, something falling . . . . "Where did it come from?"

After looking around, I see it. I have heard the sound of one of our paper cups, with a plastic lid, sliding across the floor, and crashing into the wall with a thud. Joey, from where he is sitting, has intentionally thrown his hot chocolate across the café floor, behind our counter, and under one of our small refrigerators, where it hit the wall. A long, wide, river of chocolate liquid marks the path it has traveled. Jeff jumps up from his seat and meets me at the end of the counter, the river running between us.

"I am SO sorry! If you get a rag, I will clean it up," says Jeff.

Talking at the same time as Jeff, I try to tell him that it is okay and we will clean it up. Continuously apologizing, he insists on cleaning it up himself. Trying my best, I attempt to reassure him that it is not a big deal, and I will be glad to clean it up.

I can sense the embarrassment and anguish building up within him. His hand slides from his forehead, down to his hip, and back to his forehead again. He anxiously glances from me, the chocolate river, Joey, and then back to me. All the while, words of apology come from him.

"Jeff, I promise it is okay," I say again.

He does not listen, nor does he calm down. It goes without being said that he has dealt with numerous situations of humiliation, but for some reason he is beyond tolerating this one.

It is as though I am trapped in a glass box. Jeff cannot hear me, and I cannot escape or reach him. A feeling is building up inside my chest. There is a sudden heaviness within me. My throat, I can feel, is starting to tighten. I need to calm myself down.

"Jeff, it is OKAY! We will clean it up. It is not a problem at all," I say yet again, a bit more firmly. How can he not believe me? He finally complies. However, the pressure in my chest is not gone. This is not over yet; there is more to come. "Would you like us to make him another hot chocolate?" I ask, trying to turn this nightmarish moment around.

"No, no! He does not need one. Again, I am so sorry," he answers.

Then he hits me with it, the dagger that opens a wound in my chest.

"I promise, I will NEVER bring him here again," says Jeff as he looks me directly in the eyes.

My heart stops, sinks, and starts pounding all at the same time. Suddenly, I feel empty, and at the same time feel as though my heart is pounding hard enough for people to see. I am engulfed in a hellish dream and cannot wake up. There is no way he can be serious. I have to do something!

"Jeff! No! Really, it's-" I begin to say, but he cuts me off.

"No, I PROMISE," he says.

I am frozen where I stand.

As he walks away from me towards the front door, with Joey's hand in his, he repeats two words, "Never again," over and over, each time sending the dagger a little farther in.

Then they are gone, and the pressure and the heaviness pour out. My cheeks are suddenly wet with streams of tears. The tightness in my throat has not gone away, and crying only makes it worse. On the positive side, my heart is no longer pounding. Instead, it has been shattered, exploded into a million microscopic pieces.

For the first time, the boy who has always consumed my attention has gone completely unnoticed. His father, his facial expressions, and his emotions have been all that I could see.

In that moment, reality hit me about as hard as Babe Ruth hitting a homerun ball. Joey's life is not the only life affected by his disease. I realize Joey's disease is probably more difficult for his father to deal with than it is for Joey. Unlike Joey, Jeff is fully aware of, and understands, the consequences of Joey's actions. Although outsiders, such as my co-workers and I, can take Joey and his actions "with a grain of salt," it is not a matter to take lightly. For his father, it is a struggle day-to-day. He has to deal with embarrassment that stems from his son's obscene words and his rash actions. Frustration builds because of his son's differences and slow development. Looks of judgment from surrounding strangers anger him. Moments fill with selfish thoughts of "Why me?" or "Why MY son?" Inevitably, at the end of the day, he will fall victim to guilt, for letting anything or anyone take away from his love for his little boy.

After all of these years, I find that I have been overlooking Jeff. While I have been fixated on Joey and understanding his life, I have underestimated the life of Jeff. A great deal of strength and dedication is needed to deal with such trying circumstances. I have never realized the toll it could take on a parent to have a child who is a little different.

It is Wednesday, two days after the incident. Jeff comes through drive-thru. By now, word has spread, and it is the store's mission to talk to Jeff. I have told my manager, Tom, about what happened, and asked him to try to talk to Jeff and restate what I tried so desperately to convey to him. Once Jeff places his order at the speaker box, I run to the backroom.

I tell Tom, "Jeff just ordered! He is four cars back in drive." When Jeff pulls up to the window, Tom begins his speech. Although I do not hear the very beginning, I hear the end, and see the result.

"If Joey throws his hot chocolate, we are here, and happy, to clean the mess. We will even make him a new hot chocolate. And you know what? If he throws that one, we're going to clean it up and make another one. We will do that all day if we have to. That is what we are here for. You are not alone, Jeff", Tom says.

Jeff starts crying. My heart sinks again, as I recognize his tears to be ones of relief.

On a daily basis, for years, although we talked with Jeff, our attention, my attention, was on Joey; all eyes on the Autistic Child. But on that day, I found my eyes to be blind to that same boy. The only person I saw in that moment was the tall, stout, soft-spoken man wearing eyeglasses. Fine wrinkles curve around his mouth, while his dark hair is lightly speckled with gray. Weary eyes gaze back at me, and his shoulders are slightly slouched. Wear and worry seem to be the very essence of him, although I never noticed it before that moment.

Being a parent presents numerous challenges and hardships, all without a "How-to" manual. If a disease is added into the picture, such as autism, life and parenting become that much more difficult. The incident with Jeff helped me get a closer look at the type of person he has to be to make it through life with his son. The characteristics that define him as a person and a father are beautiful and desirable. Parents have to show an exceptional amount of patience, like Jeff always has. He has an enduring strength that comes from the day-to-day challenges he has to overcome. His love for his son is unwavering, even when he finds himself in those frustrating moments. Kindness fills his heart, helping him nurture his son.

When life becomes overwhelming for Jeff, I think it helps him when there is a little normalcy and acceptance in his life. This is something he always experiences at our store. For him, our Starbucks is his safe place. Although we ask questions about his son, we are never judgmental. We have never had an incident with Joey like we had that day. Jeff, I feel, became exceedingly upset that Monday afternoon because he felt his safe place was gone. In that moment, he felt he lost the bit of normalcy his life had, and therefore, lost himself.

After talking to Tom on Wednesday at the drive-thru window, Jeff knew he was finally understood. I caught a glimpse of what it is like for a parent of an autistic child, and how the parent can disappear behind their child's disease. However, I am no longer blinded by this child and his differences. At the end of that frightful Monday, I felt touched and accomplished. Jeff was lost, caught in his own world that was different from ours. Now, he knows I see him, not only his son. He never will disappear again, because on that day, I found Jeff, and he became free. No judgment or cruelty would ever reach him or his son in our store. The safe place he longed for was staying right where it was.

The next morning, I walk into work around 5:45 in the morning. As I walk towards the backroom, I look up at the drive-thru window directly in front of me. Sitting in the gray pickup truck are Jeff, AND Joey. I pause long enough to make eye contact with Jeff. We both remain still for a moment, and just smile at each other.