By Herald de Paris Contributor's Bureau on July 3, 2009

By Cynthia Cohen
LOS ANGELES (Irreverent Homemaker @ Herald de Paris) – They looked like anyone else on the beach, and I never gave them a second thought sitting behind them.

After all, there I was, seated on my hooded sweatshirt, with rolled up jeans and a deep black shirt. Not exactly day-at-the-beach attire, but then again, I hadn’t woken up that morning intending to spend a day at the beach. But alas, as I’d been struggling with feelings of worthlessness and whisper-thin self-esteem for the past six months, I’d finally bottomed-out. An unexpected email from a friend hurled me into the depths of despair, as I continuously lost the battle to fight back my tears. They just came, and came, and came. The silent-but-deadly. The kind that stain your face, and wipe away any trace of cover-up you’d applied that morning. But I knew I had to do something, since my tear duct off-switch was inoperable and the waterworks weren’t going to end. Rebel that I am, I finally decided that, if I was going to cry all day, before I have to pick my child up from school, I’m not going to do it at home. I’m going to do it around life, around people who know nothing of me and whom I know nothing of. If I’m going to be alone and in deep pain, dammit, I’m going to do it in the middle of hundreds of people.

So I got my coffee and drove to the beach. The Santa Monica pier. Where I knew parking was relatively cheap, and considering I’ve been out of work for almost nine months, cheap parking was like Brad Pitt. Extremely attractive.

I found an empty bench — at ten o’clock on a Spring Friday morning, it’s not that impossible a task. I knew I was going to contemplate and soul-search and cry for a while, so I wanted a bench void of humans. If people wanted to join me later, fine, but in the beginning, I wanted to wallow alone and in a crowd. Just not one sitting next to me.

So I sat, and I stared. And I froze, as the beach doesn’t usually warm up til around noontime — at least, for my internal thermostat. So I put on my hooded sweatshirt, put my hands in my pockets, and continued to do nothing but stare. And cry. And let the feelings of worthlessness and loneliness and utter contempt for myself all come to the surface. Those feelings rose to the top and became painfully apparent, like refrigerated grease on a meatloaf. It hardens, and becomes that disgusting orangy-yellow color, and is just plain gross. You hate it, and can’t wait to cut the crap off with a knife. But I didn’t have a knife, and the crap just wasn’t coming off.

I cried some more. I watched a couple of little kids run dangerously close to the railing over the green, cloudy churning ocean water, and I looked around for an adult who might possibly be with them. I instinctively wanted to reach out for the child to protect her from falling into that foggy saltwater, but alas, I was overreacting. The railing was not built so young children could easily slip through, I reminded myself. When the mother finally came over, she saw me watching her kids, and offered, in her Australian-obviously-a-tourist accent, that she does get a bit nervous as her kids run towards the rail. I’m thinking to myself, then why don’t you hover over them, like I did when my daughter was a 2-year-old in some unfamiliar place? But instead, through my tears, guarded by my giant sunglasses, I smiled and said, yeah, I have a young daughter, I guess my instincts just kick in and I want to protect them. She smiled back, and her and her Aussie brood finally made their way down the pier. Thankfully, I hadn’t heard of any small kids falling into the Pacific ocean that day, so I knew they’d continued their journey on the wooden planks unscathed.

Finally, as my legs started to atrophy and my eyes began drying a bit, I decided to find another bench somewhere, this time, facing the sun. I watched a lone surfer do his thing in the very lame touristy waves, then was finally joined by a gentleman and his wife who said, “Halo.” No, not the Beyonce song. Halo, meaning, Hello. As I tuned into their conversation, I recognized the language as German, and was very close to saying, are you German? and possibly start up a conversation with the ultra-limited Deutsch that I knew, having been married to a German. But, as depressed as I was, I couldn’t even muster up the words to engage. After a short while, they left, probably muttering under their breaths about the unfriendly woman who’d been married to a German but didn’t bother to inquire about where they were from. Then again, like most people, they probably didn’t think twice about me. Or even once.

After watching the relatively unsuccessful surfer for a little while longer, I decided to walk a little down the pier. Perhaps check on my Australian friends and their litter who had a thing for ocean railings. I used the restroom, walked back, then realized that I needed to make my way to the sand. The weather had warmed a bit, and I’m not going to spend a depressed day at the beach without my toes touching the granules.

As I walked down the wooden pathway to the shore, I took note of the people I passed, if only because I was wondering just how ridiculously out-of-place I looked in my jeans and hooded sweatshirt. But the truth was, everyone at the beach looked like anyone on the beach. There were people much more overdressed than me, and people much more underdressed than me. And who definitely shouldn’t have been. But who am I to judge? Good for them for not giving one goddamn about what people think of them. Good for them. I wish that was me.

I also noticed a young man with Down’s Syndrome being led by a caretaker up the wooden planks, apparently, as I’d overheard, to use the bathroom. Don’t know what I noticed him, I just did.

I finally made my way to the sand, took off my sandals, and realized damn, that sand is hot. Somehow I managed to make it to a spot without too much embarrassment. I mean, I assume. God knows, I’m sure someone was watching me look like a fool. And to add to their enjoyment, I took off my hooded sweatshirt and apparently didn’t get the memo that it didn’t really double as a beach towel. But who gave a shit, there were people there that shouldn’t have been in bathing suits, either. No one cares at the beach – although everybody stares. Including me. Especially me. I just try to be discreet about it, behind my big sunglasses and my tears.

So there I was, on the beach. Up close and personal now with the cloudy green churning Pacific, and the people who I had stared at from afar for an hour. Thankfully, no one came up to me and said, weren’t you the sad, depressed woman staring at us from afar for an hour? Then again, nobody noticed me. No one ever does. Paranoia rocks.

And then, things changed.

In the near distance, I heard someone making indistinguishable noises. It sounded like someone who obviously had difficulty with speech. I looked up, and saw a young man – perhaps a teenager – from whom those “noises” emanated. At first glance, I thought he was another young man with Down’s Syndrome. But upon closer inspection, I realized that his face did not have the signs of Down’s Syndrome at all. It was completely flat. Slightly unsettling for me at first, if only because I’d never really seen a young man like this before – it was pure ignorance on my part. And there he was, except for his face and his limited speech, looking like any other young kid on the beach – in shorts, and a tee shirt. Except, I then noticed he had his tennis shoes on. And his socks. And he was desperately trying to make contact with the group of people in front of me.

One woman, an African-American, called out him and told him to come back to his group. He obliged instantly – there was obviously a relationship here. I watched him walk back to the group, the group that looked like any other group spending a day at the beach, the group I never even noticed when I sat behind them.

And then I noticed.

This was a group home. For the mentally-challenged.

Now, I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. Was that wrong? Something felt wrong about it, even though I was filled with compassion. But I was also filled with, there but for the grace of god. And, perhaps, morbid curiosity.

At first, I was struck with how difficult it was to tell them apart from their caretakers, if only because, without a definitive focus, the mentally-challenged, when sitting on a beach, are merely you and me. But upon closer examination, it was painfully obvious that these people, mostly young but a few past middle-age, suffered with afflictions that set them apart, intellectually.

What also struck me, once I deciphered what was going on, was the caretakers. All of them African-American. And all the mentally-challenged were white. For some reason, this angered and moved me at the same time. Were African-Americans the only people with heart, capable of caring for these white, afflicted people? Were they the only ones willing to put up with the immense responsibility of assisting these white people so in need of assistance? Perhaps, perhaps not. Merely an observation on my part, with no necessary explanation, but made me ponder.

Then, back to my mentally-challenged friends. How accurate a label is that, exactly? Am I mentally-challenged as well? Certainly, that morning on the beach, in the desperate state of depression that I was in, my mental prowess was being contested as well. No question, I wasn’t thinking clearly. Of course, I could function, but not in an optimal state. What is the definition of mentally-challenged, anyway? Webster’s doesn’t even offer a definition, it directs you to “mentally retarded–” subaverage intellectual ability equivalent to or less than an IQ of 70 that is accompanied by significant deficits in abilities (as in communication or self-care) necessary for independent daily functioning, is present from birth or infancy, and is manifested especially by delayed or abnormal development, by learning difficulties, and by problems in social adjustment And defines it as “a euphemism for mentally retarded or disabled.”..
Nonetheless, if I were to abide by the clinical definition, I was not these people. I was not rocking back and forth as I sat on the stand. Violently, subtlety, or endlessly. I was able to form complete, clear sentences. I was able to be understood, if not by myself, then certainly, by others. I was able to dress myself that morning. I was able to drive my child to school. I was able to find my way to the shore without someone holding my hand or leaning on another person for dear life. I was not wearing a two-piece bathing suit that anyone with any modicum of vanity and concern for what others thought of them would be wearing. (I suppose that applies to a lot of people, mentally-challenged or not. But not me. I’m always wondering what other people are thinking, as they laugh, or stare, or completely ignore me.)

But, not this group. This was a group of people who were just happy to… be. Happy to be out of their group home, taking in the rays. Staring at the waves. Collecting empty coke cans. Bonding with their caretakers. Hugging each other. Rocking nonstop, as they say. Taking in their surroundings. Yelling at each other. Perhaps, some even hating it, because though their IQ level is at a substandard level, their emotions are not. They still feel. They might’ve gone to the beach reluctantly. Some might’ve been frightened of crowds. Of other people, who were not like them. Of the water. Of the seagulls. Of just being out of their comfort zone. But as I watched them, I saw a group of people, like me, in their own worlds. But without the mental capacity to know that there was anything better or worse than the world that they live in. Unlike me.

I can’t say that I had an epiphany that morning at the beach. I can’t even say my world was rocked. I can’t say that I had an epiphany that morning at the beach. I can’t even say my world was rocked. But I do know, in some small way, my word changed. Or, at least, my world view. Something affected me. There was some reason, on a vast beach on an extremely hot Friday morning, I sat behind those lovely mentally-challenged people from the group home. And that I hadn’t even noticed them at first. Because, people are people. There will always be people more successful, less successful. Smarter, less smart. Fatter, thinner. Brazen, timid. The list, obviously, goes on and on. So, what did I learn? That everyone, no matter who they are, teaches you something. Or affects you. Or, perhaps doesn’t. I’m not sure. But I still left that beach, feeling much better than when I came.

sharon rainey July 6, 2009

good piece. nice to walk along the beach and sit on the bench with you for a few minutes tonight. 🙂

Al Carlos Hernandez July 6, 2009

Felt like I was at the beach with you, and emotionally I have been.

Enjoyed your work very much.



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