Playing with Words

I live on the 11th floor of a 23-story building. I’m normally at my writing desk, playing with language, by about ten each weekday morning. Sometime between ten fifteen and ten twenty, an autistic young man who lives on the second floor of the identical building on the opposite side of this condo’s playground comes out onto his balcony and starts shouting. He’s playing with language too, in his own wonderful way. When I’ve met him outside, down at the pool or riding his bike under the gentle supervision of his father, his voice has always been a monotone. Out on his balcony for the morning shouting session, though, he uses two notes. His focus is rhythm.

I work hard on getting the rhythm of my sentences to feel right, and I read everything I write out loud to see how it’s working. Meanwhile, across the space between our buildings, the young man plays and plays and plays with his own rhythms.

When I first noticed him shouting, he wasn’t playing quite as much. He just repeated “Roti prata teh tarik bye bye!” Roti prata is a meal of fried pancakes and curry. Teh tarik literally means “pulled tea” in Malay, and is a popular way of serving sweet milky tea in Singapore. Eventually he started pulling on the words, like taffy, and added new ones, such as Nestlé's powdered chocolate and malt drink, Milo. For whatever reason, the words he plays with are always foods and beverages. The chant became “Milo teh Milo teh roti prata Milo teh!” with each word rather than each syllable getting a beat, each pair of words being a bar in 2/4 time. On the piano, it’s G A A, G A A, G A A A, G A A.

Soon after that, he started holding on to the ‘a’ of prata, and the sound became plaintive, anguished almost, as if it meant, “Come back to me! I can’t live without youuuuuuu!” But he was just playing.

This week, he’s only shouting drinks, and rather than drawing out the vowels, he’s repeating them:

Milo teh Coca Cola
Coca Cola Coca Cola
Milo teh Coca Cola la la la la la la!

He doesn’t put the stress on the ‘co’ of Cola, as most people do. He stresses the ‘la’: Milo TEH cocaco LA. It’s still in 2/4 time.

Sometimes when I walk my dog by his building in the late afternoon, he’s back out on the balcony. He’s only a morning shouter, though. In the afternoon, he stretches his arms out between the balcony bars and claps his hands very, very hard against each other at length. If I look up and acknowledge him, he slinks back behind the laundry. I feel like he’s a little pleased to have been heard, though.

I also imagine that I know how he feels when he's making his noises. Across the playground in my writing room, I sit down to play with words, reading them out loud, clapping my emotional hands together as compulsively as he does.