by Ben Sachs
When Alvin and the Chipmunks came out in 2007, I was working at a day center for developmentally disabled adults on the northwest side. They still lived with their parents or with other relatives; buses picked them up in the morning and brought them home in the midafternoon. The clients (which is what we called the adults; it was professional jargon we were supposed to use in place of “students” or “kids”) had been diagnosed with severe or profound mental retardation, “severe” meaning an I.Q. of about 30-50 and “profound” meaning an I.Q. of 25 or below. Working with them was a lot like working at a preschool: our regular activities included arts and crafts, practicing daily living skills (cleaning up, helping to make lunch, etc), and taking walks. The most mentally proficient client was about as clever as an average second grader; the profound clients, who lacked the mental capabilities for toilet training and most verbalization, essentially behaved like infants.
The day center received some of its funding from the state of Illinois, which required that it devote a certain number of hours each day to “vocational training." And so, another regular part of my job was administering skill-building exercises like identifying the difference between men’s room and women’s room signs (cognitive reasoning), crushing aluminum cans that clients’ family members had donated (machine operation), and sorting a box of plastic pegs according to color (I don’t know). When I started the job I found a lot of this absurd, but soon I realized how much these exercises meant to the clients. Their minds were stimulated by these routines. The ones who could complete them (most of the clients couldn’t understand the tasks well enough to bother) were proud of themselves when they did. Here was a definition of work that made sense to them, and their ability to carry it out, whether on their own or with some assistance, reassured them that they were adults.
I probably watched more bad movies at the day center than I do now as a professional critic. Watching movies was the chosen activity at afternoon break at least twice a week, and the selections tended to be inane kiddie movies. Occasionally some of the clients would go through a phase where they wanted to watch the same movie again and again (during my two years at the center, that movie was the first High School Musical, a film that looks even more like animated wallpaper after you’ve seen it 50 times); for the most part, we’d choose from the dozens of videocassettes that had been donated to the center. The titles included Beethoven, some recent animated films like Mulan, and several of the direct-to-video Olsen twins features. They were like unhealthy snacks we could reward the clients with after a tough morning of vocational training, unchallenging bursts of bright color and cheerful behavior (the films of Michael Bay serve a similar purpose for violent-minded adults). I soon learned to appreciate these movies for the pleasure they brought the clients, as I would be stuck watching them for months and had no other choice. I also learned how to judge them as some of the clients might: for instance, the Eddie Murphy comedy Norbit is a much better movie than Beethoven because the colors are a lot brighter and the performances are more clownish.
Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the day center operated like a summer camp. The vocational activities were kept to a minimum, and the directors tried to arrange as many field trips as the meager budget would afford (in some cases, like when we went to see the Shrine Circus at UIC Pavilion, a donor had kindly provided us with tickets). A few times each season, a contingent of clients and staff would go to a second-run children’s movie that multiplexes show on weekday summer mornings for camp groups. Alvin and the Chipmunks was playing when it was my turn to chaperone the trip. Some of the higher-functioning clients were especially excited—ever since the DVD came out, they’d mentioned the movie often at morning meeting time (they'd liked the songs and the one man who shouted “Alvin!”), and the film seemed likely to eclipse High School Musical in popularity.
We brought as many people to the multiplex as we could fit in two short buses, about a dozen clients and four staff. I sat at the end of the theater row, between one of the higher-functioning men and one of the profound clients, who sat in the aisle in a wheelchair (she went everywhere in it; she hadn’t developed the mental skills necessary to learn to walk). The man’s intelligence was close to that of a seven-year-old—he could read about 100 words and he liked to boast that he could make his own lunch. Like all of the verbal clients but to a greater degree, most of his conversation revolved around food. Several times a day, he would stop me (or any other staff person who would listen) and list every item he could conceive of that he would like to eat. His mother had overindulged him (a common mistake, I was sorry to learn, among the parents of developmentally disabled adults): at 39, he was about five-and-a-half-feet tall and weighed nearly 350 pounds. His gas was literally nauseating, and he’d developed a serious case of diabetes. About a year later, after I’d left the job, I learned that he’d suffered an emergency one night and had to be rushed to the hospital. He returned to the day center after several weeks’ absence, connected to an oxygen tank. A short time after that, he left again and never returned.
He loved Alvin and the Chipmunks. Or, rather, he loved the commercials that screened before Alvin and the Chipmunks, which he mistook for the movie itself. He attempted to read the text at the end of each ad, boasting to me of the words he’d sounded out. One car commercial ended with the promise of “Yours to own, starting at $17,000,” to which he responded, “Seven . . . teen . . . dollars. That’s a lot of money!”
One effect of his diabetes was that he fell asleep whenever he sat in one place for very long, and sure enough, he was out soon after the movie started. He'd awake intermittently and always for long enough to appreciate whatever bright colors and upbeat behavior were onscreen (when we got back to the day center and the clients were asked to describe the movie they’d seen, he remembered just as much the others who could talk). He’d point at what he liked with one hand and grab my arm with the other, so I wouldn’t miss out on the images he enjoyed. Elsewhere in the row, my coworkers were receiving similar assistance.
The clients’ joy could be detected by anyone, even the grade school children of normal intelligence who’d come to see the Chipmunks with their summer camps (I don’t remember passing by any brats who tried to make fun). Almost none of the clients ever went to the movies, for reasons that should be obvious. And since most of them lived in dangerous neighborhoods, I sensed they didn’t go out much at all when they weren’t at the day center. I tried not to think about this very much—it was one of those upsetting realities the staff just had to overlook to do their jobs as optimistically as possible.
Some of my coworkers had been at the day center for decades. They had honed an ability to love strangers as if they were family into a remarkable professional skill. Considering the level of commitment the job demanded it paid obscenely little (when I was hired in 2006, I started at $9.25 an hour). Some were committed of religious conviction, others because they'd grown up caring for a disabled sibling. But the constant, practical requirements of the work—having to supervise a client at the toilet, for instance, which seemed to happen hourly—made motives irrelevant.
There was one woman I admired above all. She’d held her job for more than 25 years, ever since she was 16, when she’d come there as a volunteer. By the time I met her, she did pretty much everything the center needed done and, almost always, she casually displayed the good cheer that I'd have trouble summoning. She drove the buses, sometimes cooked lunches, helped clients get to the doctor, and took others in for the night when their parents were in the hospital. I've never met a person whose life was so determined by love. Earlier today, I read that Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked was still playing, and so I celebrated Valentine’s Day by thinking of her.