Giving thanks for a community where there’s no need to worry

by Conny Mayer

As with all families who have lost a loved one this year, our family now confronts the holiday season without what, in our case, had been 52 years of a joyful presence in our midst. Though still acutely saddened and shocked by our sudden loss, we are looking forward to Thanksgiving as a time when we can once again give thanks for the time we did have with our beloved relative.

Our family will also give thanks for Takoma Park, because whether they realized it or not, the town’s merchants, police officers and citizens made wonderful and frequently touching contributions to the health and well-being of our dearly departed.

My brother Bart Mayer, known to family and friends as “Uncle Bart” because of his 15 nieces and nephews, was the disabled guy who used to walk for hours and hours around downtown Takoma Park and neighboring Takoma, DC. With Down’s syndrome and a habit of talking gleefully and frequently gesturing as he walked, Bart was one of Takoma Park’s highly visible characters.

We can’t remember exactly when he started wandering around on his own, only that it soon became a reality in our lives and a frequent provoker of what turned out to be unneeded worries. Our first reaction to his walking was fear and panic. Would he be safe? How would he find his way home? He was illiterate and tended to be unclear in speech to the uninitiated ear. He seemed singularly determined to shed all our efforts to affix a name, address and phone number to him. Carefully engraved medical bracelets and dog tags were dutifully ditched. Notes in his pockets discarded. He refused to wear T-shirts if he noticed we’d written his name and phone number on them. Because he kept coming home, we finally gave up.

We then tried to get him to stop talking and gesturing to himself so that he would better blend in and avoid unwanted attention from the wrong sorts. No dice. Takoma Park, we soon realized, was just going to have to get used to the walking, talking Uncle Bart.

Next problem arose when, appalled, we realized that Bart was very liberally applying the five-finger discount to secure Coke Zero’s and other contraband from merchants along his route, most notably from the 7-11 across from the Takoma Metro station. This period climaxed when the frustrated 7-11 manager called us (we’d left our numbers with the police and around town so that people could call us to come fetch Bart when he was being a nuisance) and said they’d had it with him. With little left in my tool kit to stop the stealing (I’d implored, begged, sent him to my sister’s for a month to break the pattern of behavior, lectured him on the importance of honesty –he knew, just couldn’t execute), I decided to drag him to the Takoma Park police station for an episode of

‘Scared Straight.” Scared Straight lasted only about two weeks, despite the best efforts of one of Takoma Park’s finest.

After the police lecture, Bart began taking a bit of change with him when he made his rounds so that he could stand forlornly in checkout lines acting like he didn’t have enough money to buy what he wanted. In fact, he was just playing the line, counting on the kindness of strangers to make up the difference. Many did. We’re afraid to contemplate exactly how many Coke Zeros, sandwiches, cookies and other assorted sundries Uncle Bart wheedled out of our fellow Takoma Parkers, but we thank everyone who might have spared good ole Uncle Bart the proverbial dime.

About a year and a half ago, Bart stopped roaming the streets of Takoma, almost as abruptly as he had started. He had begun suffering from early Alzheimer’s, which people with Down’s syndrome get more often than others, and he seemed to realize that it was no longer safe for him to go out. His absence from our streets was instantly noticed. Police who had helped keep an eye on him and merchants who he’d driven near crazy called us to ask if he was okay. Our family went from the constant debate over how to manage his incessant roaming, petty thievery and splendid con artistry to wishing we still had those problems.

Earlier this year, Bart also began suffering a series of mini-strokes, from which he miraculously recuperated, but this summer he had a health episode from which he was unable to recover. And though he will no longer prowl our streets, our family will always remember the times he did, and we give thanks that our special needs relative had the good fortune to live in this special and caring community.

Illustration by William L. Brown