Tuesday, July 18, 2023

The Random Encounters We Have

The checkered flag flew over the race in Toronto. It had been a great weekend of racing and the tear down process had begun. It was a couple hours into the process when I was parked at the entry to turn one with my golf cart. I was standing on the other side of the wall, and I heard a voice walking up the straight, “hey, we can steal this one!”

“We are looking for volunteers to willingly take a later flight. We are offering gift cards and a hotel” said the gate agent over the PA. So often I’m not able to take an airline up on the offer because of my usual tight schedule, but this was an exception, so I quickly got to the counter. It wasn’t a given, so I’d have to wait, but after the day I had in Toronto the previous day, an extra day to decompress didn’t seem like a bad idea.

I looked perplexed towards my golf cart. Surely this man, along with two companions, weren’t serious about stealing a golf cart, much less mine. And besides that, I was maybe 20 feet away from it. Surely they couldn’t be so brazen. I watched, and the man got in, and panic set in.

People boarded the plane. I stared into the smoky sky that the wildfires in Canada had caused over New York City. As people boarded the plane at La Guardia, I was hoping to stay. The golf cart incident was weighing on me and I thought back to a line in Finding Kansas, “people are mean and not worth knowing.” While this has been disproven in my life, I still have to fend off the thoughts in my autistic brain that fear the unknown; that fear other people. While yes, my thoughts about others have been disproven many times, as the last people boarded the plane and the gate agent looked at me and said, “yup, we used your seat” I couldn’t help but think that maybe other people are, in fact, too scary to deal with. I was feeling my will I have to venture out into the world fading. 

The man put the golf cart in gear and I immediately let out a voice I don’t think I could replicate again. I yelled, “Get off!” and the man attempted to nonchalantly get off as if nothing were going to happen. My voice did scare him, and it certainly scared me as I didn’t know I had that ability to be forceful, much like a kitten has the first time it hisses and is in wonderment as to what just occurred, but the man and his two cohorts began walking towards turn one once again as I was frozen in anger, fear, and silence. 

With the news that my seat was used, I had one the airline lottery. I looked to my right and there was another man smiling. This was my second win in eight days, and the man asked if I had done this before to which I said, “yeah, second time in a week!” and this struck up a conversation as he wondered why my pullover I was wearing said INDYCAR.

The people walked by me. I looked at them through the catch fence watching them like a frozen sentry. The man that had gotten in my cart began talking, “I wasn’t really going to take it. Really. Truly. It wasn’t even close. Not even close. Okay, maybe close.” How could he joke about grand theft cart so carefree? While he thought it was a laughing matter, I was now flooded with fear of what might’ve been.

Smiling, I told the older gentleman about my job with INDYCAR and it was my dream come true. His wife joined the conversation, as both of them also won the airline lottery, and we began to talk about Saint Louis. They asked where I lived, and they have family very close to me, and I mentioned that Saint Louis is nice when I’m home, but between INDYCAR and my real job, I don’t get to see it often. 

The jokes, the jests, and the smiles didn’t go away from the three as they walked under the Prince’s gate. I stayed frozen, staring at them as they vanished behind the gate, and I was left with a flood of disgust. What would’ve happened had he ran off with my cart? I feared the end of my dream job, and for reasons I don’t understand, my past incidents with others flooded my brain. I thought back to my hostage ordeal in Kenya in 2005, and I wanted to be home, within the confines of safety, because I knew the world is a cold, dangerous place as the man that tried to cartjack me proved. 

“What’s your real job?” Asked the woman. This led me to say I’m an author and public speaker. Naturally, the follow up question of, “what do you write?” was asked and this opened the door to autism. “Autism?” she asked while looking at her husband, “What’s that gala we went to at Westport Plaza?” I looked, smiled, and asked “Festival of Trees?” And she said, “yeah, the event put on by Judy Kent.” I smiled and said, “yeah, I’ve presented at her house many times.”

A coworker drove by and picked up that something was amiss with me. It’s great having the coworkers I have in INDYCAR that have given me the platform to succeed at what I’m good at, and that starts with understanding. I told him what happened and as another coworker joined, the second laughed and said, “yeah, it happens.” The carefree nature it was spoken of confused me, but then I realized I was seeing the world in black and white absolutes. 

We began to talk about mutual connections and the thoughts of Toronto vanished. The woman began looking me up on Google as I talked to her husband, and she said, “Asperger’s… isn’t that what my friend’s son has?” It had been a while since I had someone look me up in front of me like this, but the more info she had led to even more conversations as the gate agent got our hotel vouchers ready.

Those with autism can see the world in black and white and when encounters go bad, we may think all encounters will go that way. For myself, I fear the unknown because of how much processing it takes to try and calculate the infinite. Life, for me, is like walking out into the world with the thickest of fog imaginable. If you hold your hand out, it becomes lost to the void of the fog. Imagine trying to navigate a world like that. Because of that, when things go awry, my brain tries to compensate by wanting to stay in place because, if one doesn’t move, how can one walk into an unknown danger in the fog?

My phone dinged. It was the email for the hotel along with meal vouchers. There was a phone number for the hotel shuttle. The man asked if I were staying at the LIC Plaza Hotel, and I said yes, so he motioned for me to join them. I didn’t hesitate in walking forward. 

For a couple of hours I needed solitude so I stayed productive by moving forward and coiling cables. When my brain goes into, if the brain is like a computer, safe mode, I need to minimize input to process. I was torn; if people equal danger and danger is bad, then wouldn’t it be safest to stay in at all times? But… if I did that, how could I do my job? I worked my entire life to make it to INDYCAR and there had to be a gray area somewhere, right? My logic had to be flawed, the random encounter wouldn’t always be bad, right?

They had called for the shuttle and put my name as well. I hadn’t known this older couple for more than 30 minutes and they treated me like family. We talked travel, work, the Indy 500, autism, and after the shuttle ride and check in, they asked if I wanted to join them for dinner. I had looked up pizza on Google maps, so we walked a block north to a literal hole in the wall.

“Aaron,” I thought, “you’re being catastrophic.” I’m guilty of that a lot. My brain instinctively goes to all or nothing. No harm came from the golf cart incident and had he driven it, there wasn’t anywhere he could’ve gotten. He shouldn’t have been on track to begin with, but the only remnant of the event was the adrenaline flowing through my body, but everything was okay. I had to tell myself that. Everything was, and would be okay. People may make poor decisions, but this doesn’t mean everyone everywhere all the time are a threat beat to be avoided. 

The smell coming from the hole in the side of the building that served pizza was causing my appetite to spike. This place had no indoor seating, so we took three seats on the sidewalk and continued talking. The wife asked me many questions and I gave a miniature presentation. When I woke up, I never could’ve imagined I’d be having pizza on the sidewalk in Queens with the buildings of Manhattan as a backdrop. 

As the tear down of our equipment concluded, I was back to being myself. I was sure I wouldn’t be having any random encounters with strangers for a while as I wouldn’t dare put myself out in the world, but for those I work with I was back. We said our goodbyes, as we said, “see you Wednesday in Iowa” and I those remaining one more night, including myself, headed to the hotel.

As the pizza concluded, and the hot and muggy air turned just a tad bit cool, we headed back to the hotel. This was it, this was goodbye. I told them, “this was one of the coolest experiences of my life” as this random encounter disproved what I wrote in Finding Kansas. People can be worth knowing, and on top of that I am capable of surviving, and enjoying a random social encounter. I meant it too! It wasn’t a throw away line, that day was one of the most meaningful days I’ve had, and as the red sun started to drop behind the skyscrapers, I realized not everything shrouded in the fog of life is a threat, or bad, and a random encounter can end up being the most wonderful of experiences. 

1 comment:

  1. As always, extremely interesting, full of observations and insightful conclusions. I am so happy that you had this wonderful, supportive random meeting, Aaron! Thanks for sharing both events. Very creatively written.