A funny moment this morning involving Jay had me thinking of one of my favorite movie scenes, from Throw Momma from the Train. Larry (Billy Crystal) is a bitter ex-husband and Owen (Danny DeVito) is a soft middle-aged man who lives with his verbally abusive mother. The two men become entangled when they strike a deal inspired by the “criss-cross” in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train: Larry agrees to kill Owen’s mom if Owen will kill Larry’s ex-wife.
Larry and Owen spend a lot of time together as they try to carry out their bumbling plan. This grates on Larry, who disdains Owen as a loser and fears (correctly) that the association brands him as a loser, too. One day the two are hanging out when Owen says he wants to show Larry his coin collection. Larry refuses, but when Owen says “Never showed it to anyone before,” he relents out of guilt. The following heartbreaking exchange takes place:
Owen: This one is a nickel. This one also is a nickel. And here’s a quarter. And another quarter. And a penny. Nickel. Nickel. Quarter. Quarter. Penny.
Larry: Are any of these coins worth anything?
Larry: Why do you have them?
Owen: What do you mean?
Larry: Well, the purpose of a coin collection is that the coins are worth something Owen.
Owen: Oh, but they are. This one here I got in change when my dad took me to see Peter, Paul, and Mary. And this one I got in change when I bought a hot dog at the circus. My daddy let me keep the change. He always let me keep the change.
Jay is too young to have a coin collection (in fact he can’t even be trusted not to swallow a penny), but already he’s developed his own idiosyncratic idea of value.
This morning while Jay was at school Caroline and I packed up his things in advance of our move on Friday. We stuffed his books into boxes and his clothes into bags, and then we came to his plastic ride-along fire truck. Jay loves to sit on the truck and propel himself around his bedroom, calling back over his shoulder, “I go to the supermarket [sooop-a-mahket!],” and showing off how fast he can go. Riding on the truck makes him feel powerful, I think, like a boy who commands the world.
Jay’s favorite feature of the fire truck, though, is a small compartment beneath the seat, which intuitively he recognizes as a good place to keep special things. This morning Caroline opened the compartment looking for stray Legos to pack away. When she saw what was actually inside she laughed, and then sighed, and then called me over to have a look. Here’s what Jay had collected:
- The spare tire that had broken off of his favorite model car.
- Three wooden people that he only gets to play with every now and then as a special treat (because we’re afraid he’ll lose them)
- An old car key that we gave him after our car was stolen last year
- A plastic butterfly that had once served as a cake decoration
- A brown squirrel finger puppet that usually resides in the pocket of a quilt that hangs on his wall. (I have no idea how Jay got his hands on it.)
It was a hodgepodge of things, all trivial at a glance. But as soon I thought about it, I understood why Jay had chosen these out of all objects to squirrel away; it was clear what, through a toddler’s eyes, might have marked them as special.
It broke my heart to see Jay’s treasure chest, in the same way it breaks my heart every time I watch the scene of Owen with his coin collection: Owen are Jay are both vulnerable people and the world is a harsh place, and the more Jay cares—the more deeply he feels—the more potential he has to get hurt.
At the same time, I found this glimpse into Jay’s world exhilarating. I spend hours every day watching Jay, but looking inside the fire truck’s secret compartment made me realize how much goes on right before my eyes that I don’t perceive. If you’d asked me yesterday what Jay stores in his fire truck I would have said “Any old thing he happens to be holding when the fancy strikes him.” But seeing the purpose to his collecting was a reminder that while Jay’s behavior may appear random and the things he says may sound like non-sequiturs, beneath his chaotic surface a person is forming.