The end of this year's spring break coincided with a major late-winter snowstorm that tied East Coast air traffic up in knots. Shrewd cabbie that I am, I knew this would mean extra-heavy Amtrak usage by the returning college students. Sure enough, the evening train produced two fares headed into town: a bushy red-haired young man, UVM-bound, sat with me in the front, while a post-college-age couple relaxed in the rear.
Bunker-sized snowbanks lined the curbs as we circled around Five Corners in Essex Junction. My seatmate spoke up. "Wow, this snow is something. It seems like a lot for this time of year. Is it unusual?"
"Yup," I replied, "I guess we have had a lot of late snow this year. Is this your first year at UVM?"
"Actually, I don't go to school up here; I'm visiting a friend. I go to NYU."
"New York University - that's a great school. Do they still have that stellar filmmaking department?"
"They sure do. That's my major. I'm interested in directing and editing."
"Cool. What film subjects are you drawn to?"
"I tend to do stuff about computer technology. You know, how it's not all it's cracked up to be; how it can actually separate people rather than connect them."
"I don't know about that." The woman in the back seat joined the conversation. In the rearview I saw she had short, wavy brown hair, silver hoop earrings and a purple turtleneck under her coat. She appeared to be looking down at her feet as she spoke. "Well, maybe for regular people," she added.
The film student and I glanced quizzically at each another. I asked over my shoulder, "Uh, what exactly do you mean by 'regular people'?"
"For us autistic folks, the computer revolution has been a godsend," she replied. "For example, I met my husband on the Internet. A lot of autistic people have a difficult time communicating verbally, whereas talking online comes easily."
"Wow, I never thought of that," I said. "Is this because it's a more controlled environment, with fewer distractions than face-to-face interaction?"
"Yes, that's exactly it. Some autistic people are simply incapable of communicating verbally who thrive online. That's what brings us here to Burlington, as a matter of fact. We're visiting a friend who is actually quite famous in autistic circles. She's developed a website and blog that's become a center of the online community. She was even interviewed on CNN last week. I say 'interviewed,' but she's not verbal - she talks by typing into a machine called a voice translator."
Yet another of many stereotypes blown, I thought to myself as we approached the first drop-off on Redstone Campus. My image of autism was emotional lockdown: people with neither the means nor the desire to connect with others. I guess I had known that there were more and less severe variations of the condition, but this woman in the back of my taxi was positively engaging, even warm - not personality traits I'd ever associated with autism.
The college kid got out and we continued down the hill en route to 230 St. Paul, the public housing complex where the couple's friend resided. At 11 stories, it's the tallest building in Vermont. That fact always puts a smile on this ex-New Yorker's face.
"So what do you do for a living?" I asked the woman. I had considered trying to engage her partner, but I sensed from his ultra-shy demeanor that he might not be comfortable conversing with a stranger.
"I teach Spanish at a college in South Carolina," she replied.
"Really? I would have guessed that language skills are a challenge for folks with autism."
My customer chuckled. "I actually speak six different languages. Autistics seem to fixate on one particular thing, and my obsession has always been language."
As we pulled in front of the Vermont skyscraper, I said, "You know, I'd love to check out your friend's website if you have the address."
"I'd be glad to," she replied and reached into her handbag. "I'll write it out for you on the back of my business card." She passed it over the seat. "Is this your actual name or a nickname?" I asked when I saw her name on the printed side.
"No," she replied with the patient smile of someone who has probably heard the question a million times. "My name is really 'Love.' I had hippie parents."
I flipped the card over and read the web address Love had inscribed. It incorporated an unusual word, perhaps Latin or German: ballastexistenz.
Love caught me staring at the card. "It means, literally, 'ballast' or 'worthless life,'" she explained. "This was the Nazi label for the so-called 'mental defectives,' including autistics. Along with other undesirables, the ballastexistenz were designated for extermination."
I scooted around the back of the cab to unload the luggage, placing their two bags on the sidewalk. The couple stood there as Love counted out the fare. Eyes downcast, she passed the money to her husband. He whispered, "No, honey - the cabbie is over there," discretely motioning in my direction.
Love laughed out loud - delightedly, with no trace of self-consciousness. "This is what happens when you don't look people in the eye," she said, handing me the money.
I laughed along, and, for just the briefest moment, she glanced up - giving me, her lucky cabbie, a glimpse into the eyes of Love.
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