So, I’m in the canned vegetable aisle of Ralphs in Encinitas looking for tomato paste, the little can. Down the aisle pushing a wide broom comes this short lady. She smiles at everyone and maneuvers patiently around shopping carts, excusing herself as she goes. Then she bumps into mine. We talk.
She’s Bobbi Schneider, and she’s as open as a Kansas wheat field. She likes her job and finds it challenging. Bobbi says she’s 40, which surprises me. I tell her she looks 10 years younger. (No, really. I don’t just say that to women, not always.)
And yes, she has a disability. “Kinda slow,” is how she puts it. In our conversation, kept brief because she has work to do, it’s clear she’s not used to people asking her about herself. However, she’s pleased by the attention; it’s something new.
I’m not surprised to find her here in this aisle. I’ve noticed that large grocers often hire the mentally challenged for jobs at a doable level. They’ll get well-earned points for that in corporate heaven, if there is one.
An hour later, my wife, Kathy, and I head for the Souplantation across the way with Bobbi as our guest.
There are navel-gazers in academe who don’t have Bobbi Schneider’s introspection. She looks at you squarely, answers every question directly, tells the truth and appreciates your interest. Professionals who charge $200 per hour to eyeball you across a mahogany desk could learn from Bobbi.
(I notice my tendency to think of this middle-aged woman as a “girl.” That may just be me, but I suspect not. Anyway, it’s disparaging and I silently vow to brush my mind of it.)
Bobbi was raised in Arizona and came here a couple of years ago at the urging of two female cousins with whom she remains close. Sadly, the same does not seem true of her parents back in Arizona.
What exactly is your disability, Bobbi?
“I’m not exactly sure. I learn slower than other people. My mom calls it ‘MR,’ which is mentally retarded, but I really don’t know.”
Does MR bother you?
“A little bit. I’d rather just be like normal people. I can do everything that normal people do. I take care of my house. I can cook. I like to make spaghetti. It’s easy. And tacos.”
Bobbi does not want to be rich, beautiful or successful. She wants to be normal — a more laudable ambition.
Did you ever ask your mother why you’re slow?
“I don’t think I ever did. Sometimes I wonder.”
A disability agency in Arizona once classified her as higher functioning, which she defines proudly as, “Higher functioning, like normal people.”
Do you sometimes regret being disabled?
“Maybe a little bit. But I can learn like normal people.”
Those who are disabled, as Bobbi is, though in her case only moderately, often show impressive resourcefulness. She has an iPhone. (I have a hoary flip-top.) She is active on Facebook. (I have an account, but I misplaced the password.) She knows her way around on city buses. (If I were to board one, I’d be lost until I heard, “Next stop, Yuma.”)
She spends time with her cousins, but hardly has any female friends because they like to gossip about guys, babies and fashion. She wouldn’t have much to contribute. Bobbi would like more friends, but is uncertain how to go about it.
She spends her evenings and weekends playing on her keyboard, watching TV and reading. She is currently reading “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” of which she says, “I think it’s a kid’s book, a teenage book.”
Where do you think you’ll be in 10 years?
“I don’t know. I don’t think about that too often. I bet you anything I’ll be right here.”
“Do you ever ask for a little more responsibility?
“I’ve never said that. I don’t even think to say that.”
When you were growing up, did kids tease you?
“A lot of kids teased me. They called me a retard a lot. I didn’t like it. I don’t like getting teased. If I told them to please stop, they wouldn’t. That made me sad.”
Any teasing as an adult?
“There’s a couple people that teased me. One called me — it’s kind of bad ...”
“He called me the B-word. That just hurt really bad.”
If it makes you feel better, Bobbi, a lot of women you would admire are called that name. It’s usually out of anger or spite. Whoever called you that was not making fun of your disability.
I ask Bobbi if she will return to Arizona for Thanksgiving or Christmas to see her family, and she hesitates. She doesn’t know, but says the decision will be hers.
She anticipates my next question: “I’m really not very close to them.”
Do you hear from them very often? Do they call you?
“Not too often. Sometimes I talk to my mom on Facebook.”
They weren’t mean to you, were they?
“I don’t think my mom was.”
What was the problem? Because you’re disabled?
“I think so, yeah. I’m just not close to them.”
Here’s an example of Bobbi’s maturity and bigness: During her first few months in San Diego, she lived with a cousin and that woman’s husband. However, as time went on, the home got smaller and smaller, so Bobbi looked for a different place to live. She says she “totally” understands the couple’s desire to have a more private life, and harbors zero ill will about it. Classy.
Fifteen months ago, Bobbi went online and applied for a “courtesy clerk” job at Ralphs because she worked five years in the same job at Fry’s in Tucson, and both are Kroger companies.
She works 16 to 20 hours per week doing a variety of jobs: sweeping, retrieving carts, bagging groceries, helping customers to their cars and doing price checks. She thinks her pay is $8.25 per hour.
That income gives a modest lift to her Social Security SSI benefits. And though her one-bedroom apartment in a Carlsbad complex rents for only $725, she still survives on thin gruel. She rides the bus and has no credit card, and that keeps her expenses down.
She’s been on her own since high school, but this is the first time she’s had her own place sans roommates. In the past, she’s also held minimum-wage jobs as a teacher’s aide at a preschool center and for a Dunkin’ Donuts in Tucson.
The Dunkin’ Donuts gig taught her one downside of the workplace. They closed the store without notice, and she found out about it only when she showed up for work. She thinks they paid her.
Bobbi is more interesting than many Mensa geniuses and has greater job satisfaction than many MBAs. She makes prudent money decisions that bankruptcy lawyers will say is beyond the common sense of some rich people. She’d like to be understood, like most of us, but it’s something she’s rarely experienced. She also finds some ordinary thought processes puzzling, which she freely admits, but she soldiers on.
She enjoys her job, though its twists and turns can be burdensome. Once in a while, she gets confused by the rules of bagging: Don’t bag food with household chemicals, and don’t make the bags too heavy. But with a little patience from the cashier, it works out OK.
Do you sometimes restock items on the shelves?
“Sometimes I have to do stuff like that. Sometimes that’s hard.”
Going to the shelves to price-check an item, however, can be a swim upstream in a spring flood. Though she gets the job done, it’s like a physics exam for a sophomore.
Retrieving carts from the parking lot is the job she would like to avoid but doesn’t, and she doesn’t complain, though multiple carts can be a heavy push.
Bobbi says she doesn’t have a boyfriend, and I ask if she’d like one.
“I don’t know. There’s times that I do, and there’s times I don’t.” She says she had a couple of dates when she was in her 20s.
Did that work out OK?
“Because it didn’t.”
Check that off, huh?
Bobbi Schneider is an exemplar of open-mindedness and a generous spirit. Often, we shy away from the disabled, not knowing what to say or afraid of saying the wrong thing; maybe thinking they’re society’s wallflowers and not worth the time. The feeling often is that different isn’t a bad thing, but it’s also not comfortable.
Listen to Bobbi. She doesn’t resent others’ better fortune. Honesty is at the top of her values list and vanity near the bottom. It would be a good thing if some of Bobbi’s “normal” could be more normal for the rest of us.
I’ll use the “G” word just one time. You go, girl!
Fred Dickey’s home page is www.freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org