I’m sat, typing away, when the cafe door bangs open and a stocky man with a booming voice strides in. He’s shouting at me. ‘Who are you in my cafe?’ He has wide set eyes and his hands are balled into fists. He must be over 6 foot tall.
I think about how scary this would be for somebody else. Glancing up, & I smile and say, ‘hi, I’m Sara, it’s nice to meet you’
I feel safe, because I’m fortunate enough to have known lots of people similar to this young man, and feel confident in reading his intentions.
I work from different cafes on different days; it seems to keep me inspired. I’m in a different one when a conversation catches my interest in the background. I’m aware of a man, beginning to shout. He’s talking to a waitress, telling her she needs to move to a specific Birmingham suburb, and the more resistant she is the entering into this strange, seemingly random conversation, the louder and more irate he becomes.
People are staring. He’s well dressed – he could be one of any young business professional stopping by for the gourmet coffee on the menu, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that he probably isn’t. People are getting nervous. Two women take their rattling teacups downstairs.
Since upping my cafe time for work, I’ve noticed this happens surprisingly often. Each cafe seems to attract it’s own regular crowd, and within each set there are one or two people who stand out as different. Sometimes its subtle – an insistence on the same table every afternoon, overly engaging in friendly conversation with the staff. For others it’s more extreme, like this gentleman today. It’s clear he’s a regular – the waitress tells him she isn’t in the mood today, and reassures another customer that he’s harmless.
This preponderance of oddballs surprised me, though it really shouldn’t have. I know these people – or, I should say, I know their younger counterparts. Young people working their way through the education system with a degree of cognitive impairment – on the autistic spectrum perhaps, or with learning difficulties. In a warm, nurturing school, they’re encouraged to strike up conversation, have willing and open recipients who are happy to follow along with their interest, however strange or specific it might appear. It’s a great place to work; these are warm, gentle souls, handed a shitty card in life but still looking for friendship and connection and fun. I never laughed so much as I did working in special schools.
But in adulthood, it can be different. The support infamously dries up post 19 – 21, when these young people leave college or supported education. They might access some day centres or council-run activities, but these are increasingly limited and poor. Skills and flexibility are gradually lost, as life becomes routine and mundane, and employment proves almost impossible without the right support.
In my past life, pre-Orla, I worked in special schools for Speech & Language Therapy. It’s where Rory and I first met – we both worked in the same secondary specialist support school, with the same gang of funny, warm and brilliant teenagers. Working in special needs is a great way to push yourself through a lot of your social and mental barriers, I think – once you’ve tried to stop someone eating their own poo and helped someone make their first real sentence after a brain injury, you see the world with new eyes. Some of the best people I’ve ever met were students at that school.
I miss it a lot – I suspect I light up a little bit when someone strides in with different needs, because these are the people I most enjoy making smalltalk with. Parties full of middle class politics and polite weather observations turn my blood to treacle; give me signing about biscuits, any day.
So right away, I can tell this particular young man probably has a learning difficulty, as well as a hearing impairment – that’s why he’s speaking loudly, and isn’t following all the social rules we’ve come to consider ‘normal’. It’s ‘his’ cafe because he comes here every day, and he’s asking who I am because he’s never seen me there before. He genuinely wants to know.
This cafe is different to most because it sets out to cater for this audience more than most: it employs people with learning disabilities, and supports them to acquire useful occupational skills.
It attracts customers with similar needs, so I meet a lot of vibrant young people on my days here. Some want to shake hands, or sit with me, and others aren’t interested in me at all. I’m glad to support the cafe financially, by spending here – and also by being a different face to chat to. These are young people vulnerable to isolation, who don’t get to enjoy the same incidental social interaction as the rest of us.
It occurs to me that the loners and ‘oddballs’ in the more mainstream cafes are not so different, really. They’re somewhere on that continuum of ‘different’ with all the limitations that brings in our society. They don’t head to cafes to upset people or cause drama, but for the same reason I do: to be around other people, to submerge themselves in a social environment. They chat to the staff because they know them – they’re a familiar face, and a person who can be trusted. Someone who won’t walk away or be rude, because you’re paying to be there.
I hate imagining how lonely that must be; and so, even though I’m busy, even though I’m naturally pretty antisocial – I’ve started to say hello.
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