Many if not most wheelchair users, present company included, see the outside world as patronizing, indifferent, or hostile. By and large, we don’t trust those ambs out there. There is a classic scene in the 1969 Academy Award winning film, “Midnight Cowboy,” where a street bum with a gimp leg named Ratzo Rizzo, played by Dustin Hoffman, confronts a taxi edging into his crosswalk with the immortal line, “Hey, I’m walkin’ here!” Every time a car, desperate to make a left turn, blocks an intersection I’m trying to cross, I become immediately outraged, a la Ratso, and want to bash their hood with a baseball bat, shouting, “Hey, I’m rollin’ here!”
Even when people out there are being nice – or maybe especially when they are being nice – we have the same unconscious reaction. You usually don’t say it but you think it: “No, lady, I don’t need your help getting into my (blank) car, how do you think I got out of it?” “Nice and helpful” often reads “patronizing and feeling sorry for.” Someone blocks your way in a grocery store aisle and it’s a personal affront, like they plotted and schemed to be right there, in Aisle #4, casually checking out the Chardonnays, so you couldn’t get through. It’s like we are just waiting to be insulted. Our insult button has a hair trigger that takes very little pressure to discharge. It’s not the exact equivalent of road rage, but it’s the same defensive, on edge attitude, again usually felt but not expressed. You could call it “roll rage.”
If you are the person on the other side of one of these encounters, you are caught in a classic double-bind. If you offer to help a person in a wheelchair, say, get through a heavy door, you could be snapped at or patronized yourself, e.g., “Maybe I should help you through this door, grandma…” If you don’t offer to help, the angry scowl on the face of the user as he or she struggles to open the door will stay with you all day and you’ll drink too much at dinner. People often shy away from wheelchair-ites in public for this very reason. They really don’t know what to say or do that will get an appreciative response.
I hate to break it to you, but a lot of people out there are genuinely caring and thoughtful and do not act or react with the notion that you are a lesser-than or a weakling. Often, in my own case, I don’t fully realize this until something so startling and extraordinary happens that I am shaken out of my cynical mindset. Such an event happened just a few days ago.
I always wear my favorite baseball cap when I got out tootling in my chair, usually on a healthy work-out round-trip to the local Starbucks. The hat is a souvenir from an Oklahoma City Thunder basketball game I attended last year with a bunch of old, old friends, one of whom has since passed away. Every time I stick it on my head, I think of him, one of my favorite people on the planet. So, last Tuesday morning, I roll to Starbucks, have my no-frills coffee of the day, and roll back home. As I am crossing under the overpass of the 10 freeway, a gust of wind comes sweeping down the tunnel and blows my hat into the street. The curb is a good two feet high and cars are whizzing by at blinding speed. I am totally screwed. Between the roaring SUV’s, I try to use my backpack to edge the hat closer to the curb, which is both silly and dangerous. Seeing no one afoot in any direction, I decide that I simply had to head home, hatless.
Just then a big GMC Yukon SUV, a whale of a truck, going real fast, stops on a dime just beside my hat in the road. This wasn’t a Prius, if you get my point. The guys in the trunk, working guys also wearing baseball caps, didn’t seem to care if they were going to get hit from behind. “No one’s that stupid,” I imagined their thinking. As they stopped, I ask, nervously, if they could retrieve my hat. The big ol’ boy behind the wheel announced, “That’s what we’re here for.”
As his partner casually got out of the truck and handed me my hat, I realized that they must have been driving the exact opposite direction under the overpass, saw me and the hat, went down at least a block, made a U-turn, and raced back to save the day. I thanked them profusely, they waved, and were gone, like the Lone Ranger would always disappear at the end of each of his TV shows in the 50’s
I kept trying to figure out who those guys were. They certainly knew the value of an favorite old hat. My guess is that they were tough guys working a nasty job somewhere, probably struggling anyway, and that they hated the federal government with a passion, not to mention all of the idiots freeloading off the government. I was one of those potential idiot/freeloaders. Apparently that didn’t matter to them. They loved the risk of making a U-turn in the middle of National Blvd, something they seem to handle with ease. And they loved to hand me that hat knowing that all three of us would feel good.
It’s taken me a few days to return to my old, “I’m rollin’ here” attitude after that incident. That was an act of genuine kindness. And a bit of bravado. My kind of guys.
© 2013 Allen Rucker |
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