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An Outing for Evan

Normally I avoid eateries that cater to families with  little children. My experience,as a tough parent, has been holding my tongue while the little ones run wild and the parents do nothing but use their inside voices to ask, not demand, that the kids sit down. But it was mid-afternoon on a sunny Saturday and my daughter likes the strawberry mimosas served at Big Daddy’s on the Upper Westside, so we headed there. I was prepared to be overwhelmed by brats. Instead I got a taste of why people, teens, adults, people on dates and a mother and daughter looking for cocktails go there.

Big Daddy’s has a full menu for adults and the child in all of us. They blast music from the 80s and 90s, have that old soda fountain atmosphere (and the sodas and milkshakes to prove it) and are kid friendly.  I have been there during the week when you get stay-at- home moms with undisciplined kids out for lunch. Cocktail for mom, kid size milkshake for Jane and John, and a lack of interest in parenting of any kind. I have never seen kids run wild in this place, but they do talk loud.

But this past Saturday, the atmosphere was different. The hostess bubbled just enough to brighten everyone’s day. People were bouncing in their seats to the music. One little girl, no more than four, stood up in the booth and started dancing.

Everyone was smiling.

Then Evan, his mom and his aunt, came in. Evan wore a smile attached to a vacant look in his eyes. Eyes that made contact with no one.

The first thing the aunt said once they were seated in a booth was: “I don’t remember the music being this loud.” She rushed over to the happy hostess and spoke a little below the din, but enough for the waitress to understand.

They needed another table.

They needed the music lowered. This I did not hear but became aware of it when a Stevie Wonder song came on at a reasonable volume.

Aunt and mother were hoping it would be enough to move Evan from under the speaker and lower the music. It was obvious Evan had some form of autism. It was obvious this was his time out and the music, at this level, made him happy.

A woman came in with three unhappy pre-teen girls. It wasn’t the place, they were enjoying that. It seemed to be that thing that all teens claim: my life is so hard. They were settled in their booth and frowning as the weary eyed adult, burdened with them that Saturday afternoon, tried to cheer them up.

Evan let out a hoot from the table next to me. The first of many. The girls looked concern. Other people in Big Daddy’s from couples to families looked his way and then let it go. They understood, including the pre-teen girls. Poor Evan’s  mother looked embarrassed but I felt relief. Here her child was not going to be judged for being autistic. Not by the staff, not by the guests. Not by my daughter and I as we ate salad and sipped cocktails at the next table

A couple came in and were placed on the other side of him. Two hoots and they got up and asked to be seated elsewhere. The hostess obliged them because the place was not full yet. But those that came in after him didn’t complain.

Evan was eating his french fries, he was smiling and his mother and aunt were talking. For one second she took her eyes off of him and he wandered away from the table. He walked around me to get to the other room, but I stretched out my arm as a barrier, not sure if words would connect. The slight physical contact did help and he turned directions long enough for his aunt to get him and his mother to look frustrated.

His hoots were no more annoying to me than the man with Toreettes syndrome that had been in the audience once while I was singing Sweet Georgia Brown to a packed house. In between notes I could hear him say “Watch the play, watch the play.” My voice may have set him off. I didn’t want to do that to Evan.

There were two more escape attempts but nothing happened. And no one complained. I could tell he was getting bored when he started watching my hands. So I grabbed a napkin and folded it and refolded it, the repetition catching his attention. Then I fanned it out and reached out to him. His mother finally smiled. “Look, Evan!”

It was nothing more than a white napkin with folded and torn corners. But he took it and placed it in his pocket as my daughter and I smiled at him and at her.

It was time for them to leave and the aunt took Evan outside. The mother came to me and squeezed my hand and smiled mouthing thank you. I don’t think my daughter and I did anything but be respectful of the people at the table next to us. We realized how hard it must be for Evan’s mother to take him out alone and with help.

And the restaurant did as well.

It was no longer just a place for spoiled kids and their parents. It was a people place.

Before I left I went to the manager and said I wanted to pay Big Daddy’s a compliment. He was all smiles when I said I appreciated the way they had dealt with Evan on his day out. It was obvious this was a place that cared.

Then he shared with a sad, but knowledgeable smile. He told me that he understood the plight of Evan’s mother. His own mother had four brothers all with severe mental problems when they were growing up.

His understanding of the situation poured over into his work. His ability to tolerate differences was accepted by his staff and others around him.

I appreciated what they did for Evan and other children. They turned the music down, they got him a good table. They did not judge.

We shouldn’t either.

I just hope Evan had a nice day out.

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Minnette Coleman is a writer, actress and singer born in Atlanta, Georgia. She is the author of two novels “The Blacksmith’s Daughter” and “No Death by Unknown Hands.” She resides in Harlem, New York and is a member of the Harlem Writers Guild.

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