Saturday. April 25, 2015.
The Post Office here in Mayberry: As you can see, it’s not much of a hike from the handicapped parking space to the front door, practically just a hop, skip, and a jump for the likes of me. But for others it might as well be a mile, uphill, over rocks.
“That your car?”
A brusque, accusing voice. From off to my left and a little behind. I looked over and around. And down.
White-haired guy in a low-slung wheelchair.
“That your car?” He said again, and again with the accusing tone.
"Which one? The van?"
"Next to it. The black one."
"The blue one?"
"You're blocking me in." He didn't give me a chance to respond. "I have a ramp. You're blocking me in."
Hold on. Few things I need to tell you before I continue telling this story.
I sometimes make myself out to be the Disability Sheriff, policing the handicapped slots in parking lots, checking for window tags and plates, delivering homilistic lectures worthy of Andy Griffith to insensitive temporarily abled folks who don’t consider what it’s like to have to navigate through public spaces blind, deaf, leaning on a cane or on crutches, depending on a walker, or rolling a wheelchair and fail or refuse to make simple accommodations or show a minimum of common courtesy and respect. And I have played that role and I’ll play it again when it needs playing and I’m the only one there to play it. But the truth is the opportunity doesn’t come along all that often. I find that people are mostly considerate and helpful and would be more helpful if I let them. I usually don’t let them. I don’t need a lot of help and consideration myself because my problems aren’t that bad. I can get around well enough. I can’t walk far but I can walk far enough and I can tote and carry, not barges and bales, but bags of groceries and most items that need to be carried out of a store. I rely on the cane for support but my main difficulty is that holding the cane leaves me having to do many things one-handed so I do a lot of juggling when I’m out and about and that gets frustrating and comical in ways I don’t always feel like laughing about. The point is, though, that for the most part I am only mildly inconvenienced by my bad back and gimpy leg. There are plenty of people who have it far, far worse. Which brings me to another important bit of background for this story.
I try not to use handicapped parking slots, especially when there are only one or two in the lot, because I know there are people who have it worse. It’s much harder for them to get into and out of their cars, much more of a challenge to get from their cars to the door of whatever business or store they’re on their way into. I often wish there were more spaces. If you want to hear me play Disability Sheriff complain in front of me about the all times you had to drive around a crowded parking lot for hours looking for an open space and there were all those empty handicapped slots. Know what you encountered? A coincidence. You just happened to come along after the last people who needed one pulled out and before the next who’ll need them pull in. Another time, another day and all those slots would be full and some of the other cars driving around with yours hoping for a space to open up would have handicapped plates. Whenever it happens that I can’t find an open slot and I start to bitch and moan inwardly that I’m going to have to walk a few extra yards, I remind myself of the time another car beat me to the last open handicapped slot at a McDonald’s and an eighty year old woman bent almost double over two canes painfully worked her way out of the driver’s side door and onto her obviously swollen legs.
Okay. On with the story.
“That your car?”
I was at the post office. Outside the post office. Waiting in line to buy Girl Scout cookies. I’d been out running errands and as I’d passed by I’d noticed some Girl Scouts had set up a table just outside the front door. Of course I’d immediately hit the brakes.
It was a busy Saturday morning. The small lot was almost full. There was only one open space and it wasn’t the handicapped space. That was taken by a big red van. Which didn’t bother me because I almost never use the space when I go to the post office (and the space happens to be open) because it’s the only one---see above---and the lot is small and there’s no parking spot that’s far from the door. (By the way, the van had a handicapped license plate. I checked.) As luck would have it, the one open space was right next to the handicapped slot. In fact, because of where the sign’s placed on the wall of the building, it can be mistaken for a handicapped slot. Which is why I hung my window tag after I pulled in. I didn’t want some other self-appointed disabilities sheriff to think I was one of those people. You know, the “I’m only going to be a minute” people. I felt lucky but I wouldn’t have minded if I’d had to find a slot farther away. Like I said, it’s a small lot. More daunting than the prospect of having to walk the extra distance was the sight of the line at the Girl Scout’s cookie stand.
Lines are my biggest challenge and my fear of getting stuck in one is the main reason I have the cane, to lean on and take the pressure off my back and my leg when I have to wait in line somewhere. That’s what I was doing when I heard that brusque, accusing voice behind me.
I looked over and down.
“That your car?” the white-haired guy in the wheelchair said---demanded---again.
“Which one?” I asked. “The van?” For a second I was thinking he hadn’t noticed the van’s plates and was doing his own handicapped parking sheriffing.
“Next to it. The black one.”
“The blue one?” My car’s dark blue but it’s dark enough that it looked black to him. He didn’t feel he had to explain that. He meant my car.
“You’re blocking me in.” He didn’t give me a chance to respond. “I have a ramp. You’re blocking me in.”
Now I was thinking the red van was his and I was chagrined. The van was on my car’s left and I’d been careful to leave room when I pulled in to because I know how it is. My friend and colleague, the activist, blogger, and anthropologist Bill Peace routinely returns to his car after running some errand to find someone’s parked gunwale to gunwale with him, leaving no room for him to open the car door wide enough to get himself and his wheelchair inside and forcing him to have to wait for the other driver to return from their errands. It’s often a long wait. I was about to apologize and offer to move but I happened to notice his gaze and follow it.
He wasn’t looking at the van.
He was looking at the car on the other side of mine.
An ordinary four-door sedan.
“I have a ramp,” he repeated, but edgier now, almost angry now, like I’d known this when I’d parked and blocked him anyway.
I hadn’t paid any special attention to the sedan when I’d pulled in. Maybe if I had I’d have seen the handicapped plates. I’m not sure what I’d have done about it. Tried to leave more room on that side while still leaving room between my car and the van, I guess. I wouldn’t have left room for a ramp though, because it wouldn’t have occurred to me there might have been a ramp to leave room for.
A ramp? I thought. In that car? That’s interesting. I wonder how that works with a car like that. Would explain the low ride of his wheelchair. He can fit it behind the wheel. Driver’s seat’s probably removed. Bill Peace doesn’t have a ramp. He gets in on the passenger side, boosting himself up and onto the seat, then reaching down to lift his wheelchair which he quickly and deftly disassembles, taking off the wheels and collapsing the chair to stow beside him, locked into a special set of brackets. Bill’s chair isn’t motorized. It’s hand-powered. Manual wheelchairs are more expensive than motorized chairs, by the way. Much more expensive. Good ones have to be custom-built and special ordered. This guy’s chair was also manual. I almost asked him about his ramp, but there was nothing in his expression or voice that invited friendly conversation.
There was also nothing in either that suggested he was asking me to do him a favor and move my car. He was asking. Wasn’t about to. There wasn’t going to be a please, wasn’t going to be a You mind?, and there probably wouldn’t be a thank you after. There was just the expectation that I would rectify my mistake.
Know what else there wasn’t?
Any acknowledgement of my disability.
It wasn’t that he’d overlooked the cane. The cane is how he picked me out as the driver of the car blocking his. He saw the handicapped tag and then looked for a handicapped person to go with it. He knew I wasn’t someone who could snap to it and go skipping right off to take care of a problem he clearly considered I’d caused. He knew it was going to take an extra effort on my part and that it was going to cause me to lose my place in line and that I would then have to spend more time leaning on my cane. And he could assume that I would also probably lose my parking space because I couldn’t just back out and wait for him. I’d be blocking other people’s way into the small and busy parking lot. I’d have to go out the back way and circle around the post office and by the time I returned the space would almost certainly have been taken by someone else. I’d have to re-park farther away. But he gave no indication he knew or cared that by doing him this favor I’d be causing problems for myself. He gave no indication he knew or cared I might have problems or that I would be doing him a favor. He gave no indication he felt any solidarity or sympathy between us. Of course, to someone in a wheelchair someone getting about with just a cane must look as an Olympic hurdler looks to me. And I’m probably a good ten years younger. It’s because there are people in his situation---that is, people who have it harder than I do---that I try avoid parking in handicapped slots. And my tag’s a temporary one. As far as he could know, I might have been using the cane while my sprained ankle healed. So I wasn’t irritated that he was indifferent to my plight. It was his plain, ordinary, inexcusable rudeness that made me mad.
I kept it to myself, though.
Sometimes I can be such a saint.
I gave him a long, level, less than genial look to let him know he had failed miserably in his attempt to make a new friend, then said I’d move my car and hobbled off to do it.
No thank you followed.
And I did lose the space. I had to park across the street. The wait at the cookie stand wasn’t terribly long, however, and I came away with three boxes of Girl Scout cookies. Worth the trouble so I wasn’t too mad in the end.
Would have felt differently if they’d sold out of Tagalongs while I was moving the car.
Now, here’s the thing.
Whatever that guy was expecting of me, I wasn’t expecting anything out of him but ordinary politeness. I was doing him a favor, but it wasn’t much of a favor. You might not even call it a favor. It was simply an act of common courtesy. A thank you would have been nice but he wasn’t obliged to be excessively grateful. Bill Peace and my longtime friend, the poet Steve Kuusisto (who, some of you may not know, is blind) have written and spoken repeatedly about how the temporarily-abled often seem to expect a disabled person to gush and fawn and flatter in gratitude for what amounts to a simple act of common courtesy or, and not incidentally, obeying the law. There’s also the expectation that pity and condescension are like gifts for which the giver should be rewarded with extra does of gushing, fawning, and flattery. “Oh, how kind you are to feel so sorry for me. God bless you!” On top of this, is a general expectation that the disabled should be cheerful, uncomplaining, humble, and brave as if it’s our purpose and responsibility in life to set an example of perseverance and hope in the face of adversity or as if we should know how much trouble we’re causing the abled and go about in a permanent state of smiling apology.
This is from people who want to be kind and are tying to be helpful.
There are plenty of others who make it clear they think the disabled should just stay home or at least out of their way.
It’s surprising how many of these others make it clear while they are working at jobs that require them to make accommodations for the disabled as a matter of course and of law. Bill can tell you stories about flight attendants who seem to think it’s their duty to keep passengers in wheelchairs off their airplanes and Steve can tell you stories about restaurant hosts and hostesses who’ve all but said shoo when he’s showed up at their front doors with his guide dog. And since both Steve and Bill are activists, advocates, and educators---in very real ways one of their jobs is Disability Sheriff---they’ve interceded on behalf of many other disabled people and can tell you their stories about when they were abused, insulted, belittled, dismissed, shamed, humiliated, discriminated against, and denied their rights by all sorts and conditions among the temporarily-abled making it clear they think a disabled person is practically committing a crime by trying to live a normal life.
Here’s another thing.
I know that guy I encountered at the post office. That is, I know who he is. He’s a prominent citizen here in Mayberry and I’ve met him at a number of public events. And this is a small small town. We bump into each other often. He almost certainly recognized me. The other thing I didn’t get from him besides a please and a thank you was a Hello, how have you been? And it wouldn’t just have been neighborly of him. It would have been typical.
I would never have thought of him as a rude or unfriendly guy and I still don’t. I’m thinking of him as someone who was probably having a bad day.
I have no reason to think his bad day had to do with his disability. Another thing Bill and Steve will be glad to talk to you about is how disabilities don’t define people except in the eyes of others who think of disabilities as defining and limiting. But the fact was that however his day was going, at that moment it was worse on account of his disability. Not because of his disability. Because there was only one handicapped parking space. And this is routine problem for him and therefore a constant frustration. I didn’t mean to block him in. I wouldn’t have if I’d known it was his car. He didn’t know either of that but that was beside the point. The point is that the guy spends a lot of time being blocked in and in more ways than just not being able to get to his car right when he needs to.
And that’s the way it is almost all the time for everyone who is in any degree disabled. One way or another, at one too many times or another, we find ourselves blocked in when all we’re trying to do is live a normal life. And it doesn’t matter how many people there are who are kind and considerate and intent on doing the right thing, which is, the commonly courteous thing, there are still plenty of others who think that our being blocked in and blocked out is the way it should be and who are determined to keep it that way. At least one of them is running for President, and I can’t say this enough, Fuck you, Rand Paul.
That gets infuriating, when it’s not depressing, demoralizing, and flat-out overwhelming. And it doesn’t matter how cheerful, uncomplaining, humble, brave, resilient, resourceful, persevering, or hopeful we try to be, we’re like everybody else.
We’re not saints.