When we climbed out of the van this afternoon, the heat was unbearable. We had gotten out of school early for the third day in a row, so errands were on the “to do” list. Isaac ran ahead and into the store, while Noah, Henry, and I walked in a few moments later.
I was in the entry area when I saw a man who I’d guess was about my age standing near the pizza counter, very close to where Isaac usually stands. My eyes were low as I walked forward. Before I saw the man’s face, I noticed he was wearing a gray tank top. I saw a body that didn’t appear to be wearing shorts. I saw dangling body parts. I saw a penis.
I can spot a penis anywhere. After all, I am the mother of three boys and I have a husband, but I never expected to see one at a grocery store. A woman was talking to the pantless man in a calm tone. I recognized the tone because it is one I have used with my own kids. I couldn’t hear exactly what she said, and I was still trying to process what I had just seen. When she walked to the pizza counter, I saw Isaac coming over with a cart, and I said the only thing I could think to say.
“Noah and Henry, did you just see that man who was NOT wearing pants?”
“I did,” said Noah.
“That was weird,” Henry said.
We stood among the fruits and vegetables for a few minutes. The man was out of my sight, but every person coming into the store seemed to have a reaction. I could have set up shop right there at the entrance with a clipboard and tally marks to determine who had seen what.
When to mark a tally in the “no” column: A person enters the store. No interesting facial expressions. Seems like business as usual.
When to mark a tally in the “yes” column: A person enters the store. Mouth is open. Eyes are as big as saucers. No words are spoken. Pace has slowed. Person occasionally stops and turns around. Person looks to see other reactions of nearby shoppers.
As we walked down certain aisles, it seemed the store was abuzz with chatter. We didn’t have much to buy, but as we got to the other side of the store, I heard the credit union employees talking, even though they were trying to be discreet.
“That’s right. He wasn’t wearing any pants. No, nothing at all!”
“Are you kidding?”
I then overheard a Hy-Vee employee say, “Two customers mentioned this to me, but I’m not going out there! Is he still outside?”
We bought our groceries and wandered out to the parking lot. Henry spied the mall security guy in the red truck with the yellow lights twirling around on top. He was inching along through the parked cars.
Henry said, “I think that mall guy is too late.”
I have misplaced my keys on occasion. Often I can't find my phone. I have left my purse in odd places. But no matter what the situation or circumstance, I have never left the house without wearing underwear.
We’ve all seen signs in businesses – no shirt, no shoes, no service. In this case, he was not wearing shoes, either. No wonder everybody was looking at him at the store entrance. He didn’t have all the apparel to go inside.
I talked to the kids as we drove out of the parking lot. “We can’t assume anything about this guy,” I said. “Do you think he needs help? There might be someone who is supposed to be caring for him. Maybe that person is gone? He may not be thinking clearly. He might be disoriented. He may be taking drugs or he may be mentally ill. He may have forgotten to take his medication. He may just be really hot and decided to leave his pants at home. He may have a disability.”
As I turned the corner, my eyes filled with tears. I didn’t expect it. I said to the boys, “I hope we see him again because he’s someone’s son. He might be someone’s brother. He might be someone’s father or husband, and it’s hotter than blazes out here. He’s not even wearing shoes.”
As we drove, I spotted him – sitting down near a busy road with his legs curled up under his body. He pulled down his tank top to cover himself. He was carrying what looked like a slice of Hy-Vee pizza in a little cardboard box. I tend to think the woman had bought him the pizza, as he clearly had no pockets in which to carry money or a debit card. He stuck his thumb out as he stood up to walk, trying to hitch a ride. Even without a sign, he got plenty of attention.
I turned into a parking lot and called the city police non-emergency number. (I put it in my cell a few years ago after I saw a high school student drive over a stop sign one morning near our house.)
“Non-emergency dispatch, this is Hannah.”
“Hi, I’m at the corner of University Avenue and Blackhawk Village, and there’s a man walking on University Avenue who is not wearing pants.”
“What I mean is that he’s not wearing pants, underwear, or shoes.”
“Can you repeat your location again? We just received another call about this situation. An officer is being dispatched.”
I thanked her and hung up.
Henry was confused. “Mom, why did you call the police? Is it illegal not to wear underwear?” He seemed nervous.
I explained he would be fine without underwear if he were wearing pants or shorts. I imagined Henry being at home, changing from one pair of undies to another, terrified that the cops were going to break the door down to arrest him.
I said, “Henry, you can’t show your penis in public! That’s really the problem.”
The boys were a little annoyed, but I pulled into a nearby parking lot and waited for the police. What would happen when the police arrived? How long would it take? Would the shoeless man run into traffic? Would he be combative? Would things escalate? Would the man be able to provide some ID?
It might be uncomfortable sitting commando in a police car on a steamy summer day. Hopefully the leather seats were not hot to the touch. It was all I could think about when I saw his bare butt.
I don’t know the man we saw– and we saw much more than we wanted to see – today in the store, and I likely will never see him again. I may never know the full story, and that’s okay. I don’t need to know. As a mom, autism advocate, and human being, I’ve been there. I’ve seen people staring for one reason or another. Most of the time people have no idea what is going on. I’ve heard rude comments spoken about my kids and me, and often it’s when people are making assumptions. Not everyone understands our battles or joys.
This man matters to someone. I don’t know what happened after the police found him, but I hope he’s safe. I hope someone will watch over him, guide him, and give him some direction. I hope he’s eaten his pizza and folded his laundry. I hope he’s found his shoes and can sleep in a bedroom with air conditioning tonight. Tomorrow is a new day. It's going to be warm. I hope he’s wearing underwear.