Every store has regular customers who aren’t really customers at all. They’re people who stop by on a regular basis, look over the merchandise, and chat for a while. Sometimes they are older people dreaming of the past, sometimes they are younger people planning out their futures.
The puppies in the front window have a predictable following. The very same people keep coming back to look at them, every week, like clockwork. Each kind of animal, whether hamster, gerbil, cockatiel, or angel fish, has its own special kind of groupie. We even had one kid who used to come every Saturday afternoon and admire the snake in the terrarium.
“Hey Bobo, do you got any other snakes?” he’d ask. He was barely tall enough to peer over the counter at me, but he could read my name tag well enough.
“Snakes!?” I’d ask in mock horror, “What would you want with a snake? You can’t make friends with them like you can with gerbils and dogs and stuff!”
“Snakes are my friends,” the boy would insist. He seemed to be too earnest, so I never pressed the matter much.
He always came into the store by himself; never with friends, and he always wanted to look at snakes, ‘cause snakes were his friends. He settled for the one we had, though, and he’d watch it lie on the bottom of the terrarium until his mother came to retrieve him. She would always come into the store with a big sigh, muttering something about how predictable ‘that boy’ is, then she’d collect him over his protests as if he were just another shopping bag to be taken to the car.
What an odd little boy he is! If other kids were crowded around the lizard tank and blocked his view of the snake, he would wait patiently for them to move on. He never spoke to anyone in the store but me, and that’s only because I always started the conversation.
“But snakes are my friends!” he protested to me one weekend, and I finally asked him why he thought that. Nobody likes snakes; I said, they’re frightening, slimy, slithery creatures that give people nightmares. But that made him even more defensive. When I saw tears, I stopped.
“On the other hand,” I conceded, “snakes can be very interesting.” I showed him all about snakes in an inexpensive book about reptiles. His sniffles were replaced by avid interest and animated conversation. It wasn’t my intention to sell him the book, but he got all excited and wanted to buy it. He eagerly awaited his mother; but when she finally came to collect him, she wasn’t interested at all.
“We ain’t going to buy no book about snakes!” she exclaimed indignantly, “Now you just put those snakes right out of your head and come home!”
“But Mama!” the boy squealed to no avail. The mother yanked him by the arm. I caught the book as he dropped it, but there was nothing I could do but watch and let my heart be torn to shreds.
Mother and child made a very noisy and undignified exit.
Then one night I found myself at Connecticut Avenue and K Street downtown DC. As I was waiting for the light so I could cross Connecticut, a bus pulled up. Several people got out, and among them was the little boy from the pet shop! He was carrying a sack, and it looked like there was a coiled-up garden hose in it.
“Isn’t it a little late for you to be out all alone?” I inquired. He didn’t seem to hear me at first, but then a shock of recognition spread across his face.
“Hey! You’re the man with the animals!” he said expansively. He screwed up his face trying to remember my name from the badge I wear at the pet shop. “You’re Bobo!” Then his face became serious, and he stared down at his tattered tennis shoes. “I can be out as late as I want!” He tried to say it with pride, but it came out as disappointment. “My mama don’t care.”
We chatted for a while, as the wind gusted and the traffic lights changed. I didn’t think such a young fellow should be out so late without an adult escort, so I contrived the conversation so that I could wait with him for his next bus.
“What’s in that bag?” I asked gingerly.
“Oh, nothing,” he said as though the bag were only incidental. Then he mumbled something about his friend.
Finally, his bus pulled up in front of us. The bus burped to a halt, and the doors wheezed open. “Catch ya later!” he shouted over his shoulder as he entered the bus. He climbed the two or three steps up into the bus, and shifted the sack from one hand to the other to get the bus fare from his pocket.
That’s when pandemonium broke loose! The boy shrieked and started crying as though he had been seriously wounded. The bus driver screamed, then reached for the radio microphone. Most of the passengers didn’t know what was going on.
I asked another bystander to call the emergency number. I don’t know who got through first, but the police and an ambulance were on the scene in seconds.
The boy had broken into the reptile house at the National Zoo on Connecticut Avenue. No one could figure out why he would do such a thing, but I could: he thought snakes were his friends. In the little boy’s mind, his own unpopularity and the unpopularity of snakes became a common bond and developed into a friendship; but in this case, he had had the misfortune of selecting a particularly venomous “friend.”
Because I was obviously an acquaintance of the child, they asked me to ride in the ambulance with him, on the theory that a familiar face would help keep him calm. His mother arrived at Children’s Hospital shortly after we did, but it took her quite some time to jump over all the paperwork hurdles before she could join me in the waiting room. Her face looked like three days of rainy weather with flood warnings. She had been signing all sorts of authorizations without really knowing what was going on, and she feared the worst. After that the doctors were so busy with the patient that they only had a few breathless moments to speak to her. We were left alone together in the waiting room. I introduced myself, and recounted the evening’s events.
“Oh, Mr. Lornifar, I don’t know how to thank you!” she said nervously, “Who knows what would have happened if you hadn’t called the ambulance?”
“Probably the same thing,” I said, minimizing my contribution, “the bus driver did have an emergency radio.”
She opened her purse for another tissue as we sat on a bench. “You’re the guy from the pet shop, aren’t you?” she asked. I nodded. “Then that explains it,” she said with a sniff, “You and Victor seemed to hit it off.” Her face looked like a dam about to burst, “But snakes! My Lord, whatever made that child like snakes!” She sobbed into her tissue.
“Does Victor have very many friends?” I asked, and she shook her head no. “I think that is the problem,” I continued, “He needs to get a little extra attention and to make a few friends.”
“Lord knows, I’ve tried!” she sobbed, “I don’t think there’s anything I can do to bring him out of his shell!”
I thought she had been neglecting Victor, but as I consoled her, I came to revise that opinion. Child-rearing doesn’t come naturally to everyone, you know! Privately, I plotted some action. With a skilled social worker and a playmate or two, it shouldn’t take long.
That was two weeks ago. This last weekend I went to see Victor. He was playing outdoors with kids his own age.
His mother was very pleased. “It’s nice of you to come all this way to see about Victor,” she said with pride, “But you can see that things have just worked themselves out naturally. My new neighbors have all sorts of good ideas about raising kids. Why, Victor doesn’t even like snakes anymore!”
The new neighbor’s youngest daughter came up to me and gave me a big hug. “I don’t like this planet,” she whispered in my ear so she wouldn’t be overheard, “When can we go back to Earth Watch Base on the Moon?”
“As soon as Victor learns how to make friends,” I promised, “that won’t be long. Maybe a couple of weeks.”
“Great!” she said, and ran back to the other children.