The young man at the counter takes my order, tallies the bill and reads out the numbers efficiently if not mechanically, before asking me how I’d like to pay.
“Nets or payWave, whichever works, please,” I reply. He takes my card, looks at it, and then looks at the retail point-of-sale machine, appearing to struggle to make sense of it. His colleague, who appears to be a supervisor, comes to his assistance.
“Usually, if the customer says, ‘Visa’, it means payWave,” she explains patiently, and shows him how to work the machine.
He then hands me my card and says, in a rapid burst, “Take a seat and wait for the number,” raising his right hand mysteriously as he does.
“You must show him where the board is,” says the supervisor calmly, extending her arm towards an electronic board overhead and slightly to their right. Her explanation is for the benefit of the staff member, but it also helps me understand what he’s trying to tell me.
“I’ll wait for my number, then,” I say, thanking the young man as he hands me my card and receipt.
I take my seat just across the pick-up counter, and moments later, the same young man appears with my tea.
“English breakfast tea,” he announces brightly, as I take my time to get off my seat to make the first of five paces to pick it up.
“If it isn’t very crowded and the customer is seated so near, you can just serve it to him,” says the supervisor gently.
“It’s OK,” I say, as the young man prepares to walk around the counter. “I can take it myself.”
He looks at me somewhat confused, and hands me the tea.
Minutes later, he emerges at the counter again with a plate of spaghetti and chicken meatballs. Overhead, the number “37” flashes. But I don’t notice it until he announces: “Number 37.”
I am expecting the young man to deliver the plate to me, but he makes no attempt to move from behind the counter, so I make those five paces to pick it up instead.
Ordinarily, I may have become irritated that a staff member was unable to understand what to me was simple instructions from his supervisor. But this was no ordinary situation. This happened at Professor Brawn’s Cafe – an inclusive eatery which employs people with special needs – last week, in what was only their first week of operation.
The young man was probably on the autism spectrum. He may have thought that I preferred to help myself on account of my earlier action – when I said it was OK as he attempted to take the tea to me.
But it was all good. People like him struggle daily to make sense of what neurotypicals (supposedly normal people like me) think and have to adjust to a world that is often strange to them. It was much easier for me to take those five steps to pick up my lunch plate.
As I sipped on my cup of tea, a busser came to collect my empty plate.
“Do you like working here?” I asked her.
“Yes, it’s really nice,” she replied, beaming as she did.
When I was done with my tea, I went to the counter to order another. And a plate of potato wedges. Before the counter staff – a different young man – could tally my order, I told him to wait.
“I want a banana muffin and a chocolate muffin to go, please,” I said. No sooner had I returned to my seat than the young man came, asking: “Do you want your muffins warmed?”
That won’t be necessary, I said. They are for later. He smiled, and returned to his work station.
Minutes later, he arrived with my tea and wedges.
“Do you enjoy working here?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said, slowly and deliberately. “I just started working here.”
“How are people treating you?”
“People? You mean, the customers?” he asked. I nodded. “They are ordinary,” he replied. Which may not have been something to celebrate, but he was smiling, so I gather it was a good thing to him that people behaved ordinarily.
“So, you’re happy?” I asked. He smiled, and nodded.
“I will leave you now,” he said, smiling as he did, before withdrawing to his place behind the counter.
Considering how difficult it must be for people on the autism spectrum to make small talk, I was suitably impressed at how he held up despite my inquisition.
Soon, it was closing time. The neurotypical supervisors had a sort of post mortem with their atypical charges, and all of them looked really happy.
All in, there were perhaps just more than 20 people they had to serve from the time I arrived till they closed, which was about two hours. It was by no means a very difficult day, but they were still learning on the job.
“You were carrying a stack of dirty plates. What happens when you put it on a stack of clean plates? What will happen to the clean plates?” a supervisor asked the busser who had told me earlier that this place is really nice.
“It becomes dirty,” she replies, smiling a little sheepishly at her mistake. But even the reprimand – if you could call it that – was delivered so gently, and I am confident the busser will not repeat the blunder.
In the two hours or so that I sat there observing the staff and asking annoying questions, I heard the word, “sorry” said many times as patrons and staff endeavoured to understand each other better. What was sweet to me was that everyone was very forgiving of either side’s shortcomings.
People with special needs struggle to adjust to the world. It was nice that, for a change, I was given an opportunity to adjust to them. I’d never felt more human in any eatery prior to the duration I was there. Perhaps every food and beverage outlet should have a special needs member in its staff – the neuro-diversity will make it necessary for us to learn to be more accommodating to one another. It would help us to become better people.
Professor Brawn Cafe is a social enterprise which “provides job and social integration opportunities to people with special needs and the disadvantaged in society”, according to its website. It has outlets in Raffles Institution and the Autism Resource Centre in Ang Mo Kio, which is also home to Pathlight School, a school for children with autism.
What they are doing for special needs adults – providing jobs for them – is particularly heartening for me. You would understand when I tell you I was at their outlet at Pathlight School waiting for my son Alex, who is autistic. The two takeaway muffins that I’d ordered were for him.
As a parent, I can buy Alex as many flavoured muffins as he can eat. However, I’d like him to be able to buy his own muffins at some stage.
Which is why social enterprises such as Professor Brawn Cafe provide me hope that there will be a better future for Alex – when papa is no longer around to buy him muffins.