Cliff House

I lost an autistic person in the woods this week. We were hiking in Marin, which is one of the cool things I get to do at my job, which is working with mentally retarded adults. Anyway, I was also with my other client Cathy, who moves very slowly and, shall we say, takes in the views. She likes to do things like point to every dog that we see and yell, "Hi, moose!" (she calls all animals "moose") or she will stop at every tree and exclaim, "Free!" (She is très Thoreau). Hiking with Cathy is very cathartic and sweet, but don't expect to break a sweat.

David, on the other hand, the man with autism, loves to walk, something he does at about a 90-degree angle, leaning forward as if he is being pushed by an invisible force. That motherfucker can scoot. "New champion gold record!" he pronounces before he sets off ahead of us. He had just bought a copy of the soundtrack to Fame at the Goodwill store and was very excited, and this would be one of his mantras for the day. I absolutely love to make David happy, especially since his life is so hard. Every day he wakes up and has to figure out where he is, who he is, and what he is supposed to be doing. Then there are communication problems on top of that. Words and language swirl around in his head like one of those blowy-money things that they have on game shows, where the people frantically grasp for bills before the time runs out. To top that off, he is stuck with me, someone who can't keep herself from lovingly referring to him as "Tenacious D" or making all manner of abstract jokes that he has no way of ever comprehending. Despite all this, I love David, and in his strange way I think he really likes me, too.

So yeah, I lost him in the woods.

When I thought about it later, sitting at the main bar in the Cliff House and staring blankly ahead, I realized that I had chosen this place wisely. It's very Hitchcockian, with waves crashing into craggy rocks; tall, North By Northwest vistas of gigantic, windowed rooms, and shifty bus boys who look like tiny monkeys will hop up on their shoulders at any time. Oh yes, beware the Cliff House bus boys. They will sooner slit your throat than part with their bejeweled crumb-scraper. But I digress.

I ordered a Hangar One vodka on the rocks and did my usual eavesdropping. To my left were two businessmen talking about, um, like something having to do with money, would be my guess. There was the usual give and take of conversation that men have, which is different than a conversation between two women, in that neither of them ever seemed to agree with the other. It was a debate, not a series of compromises. I liked how a few hours before I was crying in the woods, dragging Cathy around and desperately searching for David, and now I was here, at the Cliff House, sitting next to two rich guys. They probably pay someone once a year to drop them in the middle of the woods so they can try and find their way out. You know, one of those "encounter" type vacations that allows them to escape, if only for a day, from the pressures of work-induced stress.

I don't like stress, and avoid it at all costs. So when it became apparent that the park we were in that day stretched on for miles, and that there was a fork in the path that went off into three different directions, and that David hadn't left breadcrumbs, well, I freaked. You see, most days David is fine, joyful even. "Happy smiles," he says, putting his mouth in smile formation, which ends up looking like a grimace because he is acting like other people do when they smile, instead of reallysmiling. I can tell when he is really smiling because his eyes light up, even though the rest of his face is flat. Like when he bowls a strike and says, "A new car!" or "Valuable cash prizes!"

But on bad days David can really freak. He tries to gouge his eyes out with his thumbs, or he hits his head against walls, or he throws whatever he can get his hands on. This is usually accompanied by "Call the police! Call the police!" which is his way, amid all the chaos, to ask for help.

I pictured David alone on a path, poking his eye out with a stick and asking an inquisitive squirrel to call the police. My heart was about to beat out of my chest. Cathy was very unhappy as well, but she was oblivious to the fact that David was missing. No, she was just hot and tired, and the thrill of nature had long ago left her. "Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!" was her refrain, which meant, in Cathy-speak, "Goddamn it, I hate this! Why are you making me walk all this way?! Jesus, I need a drink!"

"Another drink?" asked the bartender. She was pleasingly plump and I could see her thong poking out above her pants despite the ornate groomsman's uniforms they are supposed to wear. I ordered a fizzy water, the vodka having done its trick.

"Yes yes yes," said one of the businessmen forcefully, "but that is not taking into account the idea that ... "

A strange happiness came over me. I would rather spend weeks searching for David in the woods than have a job like those guys. The story had a happy ending, anyway. After walking for 45 minutes, I decided to just go back to the car and see if he would show up there. As we made our way down an embankment, "Ouch ouch ouching" all the way, I heard some rapid steps behind me, crunch crunch crunch. "David!" I yelled out, throwing my arms around him and sobbing. He had no concept that I was crying, or why.

"Good walk David!" he said proudly. "You are looking good! You are A-OK! No. 1 David!"

"Yes, David," I replied, wiping my face and giggling with relief. "You are A-OK."

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