Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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Joshua used humor to keep people at arm’s length — which was funny in itself, because his arms were stunted from polio at an early age and now lay close to his body, twisted and next to useless. National Public Radio often called him for a sound bite on disability, and he would oblige with fifteen seconds of his trademark wit. The quote would be heard on the next broadcast. That was the kind of guy Joshua was — quoted.
I met him two years ago, when I still thought of myself as “physically challenged.” The way I saw it, everyone was different. Some people could hear the hum of fluorescent lights and some people couldn’t. Some people could run a mile before breakfast and some people needed a cup of coffee just to face the newspaper. Differences, not disabilities. What was the point of labeling things?
Joshua said labels were important. Joshua said the ultimate power was the power to make definitions. Joshua said he loved me.
I didn’t know if I loved Joshua, but I wanted to be with him; I knew that. And I wanted to give him things. The first thing I gave him was a framed photograph I’d taken from the top of Mount Tamalpais. (The walk up and down the slope had so exhausted me that I’d missed three days of work afterward, but I didn’t tell him that part.) He hung it in his hallway near the front door and showed it to everyone who came over. Then one day I brought him a shirt. It was in a wrapped box, which I had to open for him. Joshua looked inside.
“What is it?” he asked.
“It’s a T-shirt. Take it out and read what it says.”
Joshua took the shirt out of the box and laid it on the table. On the front it had a picture of a stylized wheelchair above the words “The Americans with Disabilities Act: To boldly go where everyone else has already gone.”
I expected Joshua to laugh, but he didn’t. For a few seconds he said nothing. Then he said, “Thank you.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“It’s a T-shirt,” he said.
“So I can’t wear T-shirts.”
I didn’t get it, and Joshua knew that I didn’t understand.
“I can’t raise my arms above my head,” he said. “An attendant dresses and undresses me. I need shirts that button up the front.” There was a slight pause. “Hadn’t you noticed?”
Obviously I hadn’t. This was a man who learned which authors I liked and went to used-book stores to find the few volumes I didn’t have on my shelf. Who called around on his speakerphone to gourmet food stores, looking for the right brand of bittersweet chocolate to get me. And I hadn’t noticed he couldn’t get into a T-shirt.
“Well, I guess I’ll just have to wear it,” I said too brightly, swooping the T-shirt back into the box. When I went home that night I put it in the back of one of my drawers.
The next day Joshua acted as if nothing had happened. He invited me to a gathering at a friend’s house. “It’s Stephanie, remember? The para you met when we went to dinner.” I couldn’t get used to Joshua’s way of labeling people: paras, quads, T-3s, C-4s. I would go out of my way to avoid referring to their disabilities. I’d say, “You know, the blond woman with the freckles on her arms? She wore a blue top with a paisley design on it.”
“You mean the one with Canadian crutches?” he’d respond, and I’d pause, as if I had to think whether that was who I meant.
I said I’d go to Stephanie’s with him. We both knew this was a big step. Although I had met several of his friends, in a way this was a coming-out party for me: I’d meet his circle en masse. As I drove us to Stephanie’s, Joshua was too busy giving me directions to notice my silence.
When we arrived I got out of the car and went around to help Joshua out. We crossed the parking lot and automatically slowed as we got near the curb in front of the apartment building. I grabbed the belt loops on the back of Joshua’s pants to steady myself as I stepped onto the sidewalk. Then I pulled on the belt loops to help hoist Joshua up. About ten feet away a couple had just gotten out of their car and were staring at us. I went red, imagining how this scene looked to them. Joshua, as usual, seemed to read my mind.
“You could probably pass on your own,” he said, “but not with a gimp like me next to you.” I turned a brighter shade of crimson. I was livid at Joshua, at the couple, at the world. But I said nothing. We went in silence to the elevator, rode to the second floor, and made our way down the hall to Stephanie’s door. We rang and she let us in, moving back in her wheelchair to make room in the entry hall.
The living room looked like a scene titled “Rejects from Central Casting.” Everyone there seemed to be missing body parts or be contorted or misshapen. I found myself gravitating toward one woman who didn’t look as if she had any disability. Pretty soon she was joined by her husband, who used a chair. He carried two plates on his lap and handed her one of them. I was struck by this: he, not she, had crossed the room, gotten two plates, filled them with food, put them on his lap, and wheeled back. Neither of them seemed to think this odd.
Joshua introduced me to everyone. I said, “Hi,” to the room at large, and not much else all evening. I was too busy looking and listening. It was clear to me I had entered another world — maybe parallel, maybe underground, maybe crazy; I didn’t know yet. But it was a fascinating world. People were educated and knowledgeable, but everything they talked about seemed to have some connection to disability. They discussed movies (the one about three paralyzed guys on a rehabilitation unit), politics (how funding for disability issues might change under a Republican Congress), books (one called CripZen), and a man they just referred to as Callahan. I couldn’t figure out if they liked this man or not, or who he was. And everyone seemed so comfortable — with themselves, with each other, with their bodies. I wondered if it was just a brave front.
I was surprised when Joshua told everyone about “the really great T-shirt” I’d bought him. They laughed at the message and looked over at me approvingly. Joshua started talking about a line of clothes he was thinking of producing.
“It would be clothing for crips. I’d call the line ‘Asymmetrical.’ Our slogan would be ‘They won’t make you look any weirder than you already do’!”
Someone else said, “How about, ‘They fit, but you don’t’?”
“ ‘Asymmetrical,’ ” someone bellowed. “ ‘Because there’s a little bit of crip in all of us.’ ” This brought raucous laughter. I had the feeling it was an inside joke, different from the other slogans, but I wasn’t sure I got it.
Later, in the car on the way home, Joshua asked if I’d had a good time. It didn’t seem the right question to me. I hadn’t had a good or a bad time; I didn’t know what kind of time I’d had. Instead of answering I asked Joshua, “Who is this Callahan everyone kept talking about?”
“He’s a crip cartoonist.”
“You mean he’s a crip and a cartoonist, or his cartoons are about crips?” I’d never used the word crip, but after the party it seemed to come more easily.
“Both. He was paralyzed in a drunk-driving accident. He was the drunk. He wrote a book about it. The title is from one of his cartoons: There are two sheriffs in the desert looking at wheelchair tracks in front of them. The wheelchair isn’t far off, and it’s empty. One sheriff says to the other, ‘Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot.’ That’s the title of the book.”
“And that’s funny?”
“You decide. Here’s another one: A bunch of three-legged people are giving money to a two-legged beggar sitting in a wheelchair.”
“That’s not very funny.”
“Well, no, it’s not very funny. But funny. Here’s another one: A guy is just a head on a skateboard. The guy next to him is also just a head on a skateboard, but he has a patch over one eye. The first guy says, ‘Guys like you are a real inspiration to guys like me.’ ”
“Don’t you think that’s just a little sick? Kind of like the dead-baby jokes from elementary school?”
“It’s different. Dead babies weren’t telling the dead-baby jokes. Anyway, you’re just at that stage of adjustment to your disability.”
If I hadn’t been driving I would have turned to glare at him. “First of all, I’m not disabled. I have a slight weakness in one leg, is all —”
“Yeah, right. And I have a slight shortness of my arms and a slight curve in my spine and just a slight difficulty breathing so sometimes I feel slightly better if I use a ventilator, and I have just a slight difficulty dressing and eating and peeing by myself.”
“All right, already. You interrupted. In the second place, I’m perfectly well adjusted.”
The next night we went to the movies. We were circling the block near the theater looking for parking when Joshua instructed me to drive to the handicapped spot in front of the medical building two blocks away. (Joshua knew every blue spot in town, and once broke out a bottle of champagne to celebrate the installation of a new handicapped parking zone downtown — one he’d bugged the city about for two years. “Think what you could do with your brain if you applied it to something important,” I scoffed. “Sweetie,” he replied, “there is nothing more important than disability rights. I love my people!” He gave me a kiss on the cheek. “And you too, gimp-o-mine.”) I offered to drop Joshua off at the theater first, but he said, “Hon, I can outrun, outclimb, outwalk, and outpiss you.”
When we got to the theater Joshua stopped (winded, I thought, but he’d never admit it) and pointed with his shoulder across the street. There was a Honda in the blue zone. “Definitely not a crip car,” he announced. “A Honda isn’t a crip car. Now, a Pontiac, that’s a crip car: wide doors, big trunk, and a back seat you can fling your chair into.”
“Where do you get this stuff?” I asked him.
“Hey, I’m a ‘disabled-rights activist’!” he replied. “I know this.”
“And what you don’t know you make up.”
“Check it out, will you? I want you to see for yourself.”
So I went across the street for this man who said he could outpiss me. Sure enough, there was no handicapped placard in the windshield, no DP license plates. Joshua could see it in my face as I crossed back.
As we sat in the movie theater waiting for the lights to go out, Joshua ran through the list of reasons people give for parking illegally in blue zones. In a falsetto voice, he said, “Oh, I was just running in for a minute!” Then he changed to a deep bass: “No one ever uses it. This spot is always empty.”
“Then every so often you get the guy who says, ‘It’s people like you who give the handicapped a bad name.’ He’s picking up on your anger, see, your attitude. It’s a problem for him. It’s like someone calling him a racist. Who wants to admit it?”
“Josh, do you think we could just eat popcorn and watch the coming attractions?”
“Pop one in my mouth.” He grinned. Sometimes it looked as if nothing disconcerted him. I put some popcorn in his mouth and held the straw to his lips so he could sip some Coke.
A few days later I wanted to stop at the bakery on the way home to pick up the bread Joshua liked. The parking lot was crowded, but the handicapped spot closest to the bakery was free. Just then a Volvo station wagon pulled into the spot, seconds ahead of me. I had a feeling the driver wasn’t disabled — probably Joshua’s influence — so I pulled behind the Volvo and rolled down the window. A woman in her late thirties emerged, well dressed, with no visible signs of infirmity.
“Excuse me, do you have a handicapped placard?”
“No, I don’t,” she said, her voice rising melodically at the last word. She didn’t stop, didn’t even pause, just walked on. I watched her disappear into the laundry next to the bakery. Thanks to Joshua, I knew what she’d say, if pressed.
I sat in the car fuming. For the first time I felt my rights had been violated, though I couldn’t say exactly what those rights were. Even so, I decided to take action and parked my car behind the woman’s Volvo, blocking her in. Then I got out and walked to the bakery.
The bakery smelled of cinnamon rolls and chocolate-chip cookies. There was a line of people waiting their turns. I reached for a number: fifty-six. They were only up to forty-four. I looked anxiously out the window to see if the Volvo driver was coming back. I knew she’d be done at the laundry well before they got to my number. How rude would it be to make her wait until I was done? I could hear Joshua’s answer, but there was more anger and decisiveness in it than I could muster. And what if she got angry and slit my tires, or smashed my windshield? What if she carried mace in her purse?
I saw the woman walking toward her car with her laundry in hand, saw the exact moment she realized her car was blocked in. I left the bakery, still clutching my number fifty-six. She started toward me, and my stomach knotted up.
“I’m so sorry,“ she said. “My boy’s home sick, and I’m rushing around doing errands so I can get back to him. I still have to stop and get him a prescription. I didn’t realize you had a handicapped sticker or I wouldn’t have parked there.”
I was too surprised to answer at first. Don’t forgive her, I thought. But I said, “I understand what it’s like when you’re in a rush. It’s just that I couldn’t walk any farther to the bakery —”
“No, don’t apologize,” she said. “I’m the one who’s sorry. I won’t do it again.”
I moved my car for her, and she drove away, giving me a slight wave as she went by. I pulled into the handicapped spot and walked back to the bakery. They were up to number fifty-eight.
That night I related the story to Joshua, slightly embellishing my role: “So I said to her, ‘That’s no excuse, lady! You could have found a spot a few aisles down.’ ”
“Did you move your car for her?”
“Well, yes. But the point was made, don’t you think? She won’t do it again.”
Joshua gave me a mock scowl. “So much to learn, so little time.”
Joshua was becoming a part of my life, maybe even a big part. But he wasn’t my whole life. I still had my work at the bank, other friends, hobbies. He’d give me time, he said. “I love you, gimp girl. But stretch your legs if you need to. You’ll come limping back to me. I can wait.”
I had an office picnic one weekend. Since Joshua hadn’t yet met any of my co-workers — or, more precisely, they hadn’t yet met him — I decided to go without him. I needed space, I told myself.
A big banner with the bank’s name marked the entrance to the park picnic area. Fortunately there was a parking lot close by, although without any handicapped spots. I parked as close as I could, pulling into a semilegal spot at the end of a row. Tim, from the office, was just pulling in a few rows behind me. The dirt lot was pocked with small stones and the walking was hard, so he soon caught up with me. We were joined by several others as we headed toward the picnic area. Since everyone had food, containers, baskets, or blankets to carry, no one seemed to notice I was going slowly. I chatted with Tim.
At the edge of the parking lot was a cement curb about six inches high. As we approached the curb I slowed. No one else did. They all stepped over and kept walking, leaving me by myself. I couldn’t get over the curb without something to hold on to. Tim didn’t seem to notice. By the time he looked around to see where I was, I had walked to where I could lean on a car as I used one hand to swing my left leg over the curb, then turned full around to repeat the process with the other leg. I could feel my face blushing as I forced myself to walk back to the group. By now they were all waiting for me, the polite smiles on their faces saying it all: “You’re disabled. We’re not. How sad for you.”
I left the picnic early and drove to Joshua’s apartment. On the way, everything I saw looked strange. Even the trees seemed now to be either “disabled” or “normal”: the tall eucalyptus standing straight and firm; the gnarled cypress crooked and deformed. I pushed open Joshua’s unlocked front door, sending it banging into the wall. I yelled out for him and he called back from the kitchen, where he was sitting at the table sipping tea through a straw.
“You’ve ruined me!” I yelled.
Joshua looked up and narrowed his eyes. “I’ve ruined you?” he said. “I haven’t ruined you. I’ve taught you.”
“Who asked you? Who asked you to teach me a goddamn thing?”
We stared at each other for a minute. Then Joshua said, “And just what knowledge have you acquired that is so ruinous, may I ask?”
“Not in that tone, you can’t!” I pounded on the kitchen table and his glass of tea jumped, spilling a bit. I sat down in a chair opposite Joshua. We looked at each other. For once, he seemed to have nothing to say. I was starting to learn this about Joshua — you could cut his act with a feather.
I told him about the picnic, leaving out the part about crossing over the curb. That incident, embarrassing as it had seemed at the time, paled in comparison to what came later.
The picnic began as they all did, with some of the women setting up the food, waiting for the coals to get hot, arranging plates and cups and plastic ware. Most of the men, and a few of the women, started a softball game. Last year I’d been umpire, perched on a bench behind the catcher and calling balls and strikes at the top of my lungs. I’d worn my T-shirt with the bank’s logo and had posed in the team photograph taken at the end of the game. But this time I sat on the sidelines and watched. In the second inning, Tim slid into third base and didn’t get up. When the circle that had formed around him dispersed, he was upright but walking with a limp. He came to join me, and, as he plopped himself down on the grass beside me, he said, “I guess I’m a gimp now, too. Out of the game.” Then he gave me a wink. The wink was the worst part. It said, “You can’t get offended or I’ll just say it was a joke; where’s your sense of humor, kid?” It said, “Now that I’m limping, I have the right to comment on your limp, even though I’m not really one of you.”
I told Joshua all about it, even the wink, but not about how it made me feel. I didn’t have to.
Joshua jerked his crooked elbow onto the table and used it to push himself up. He walked a few paces across the kitchen and then leaned against the counter, watching me, not saying anything.
Then Joshua started to smile. “Welcome home,” he said. If he could have, he would have opened his arms to embrace me. But, of course, this was something he could never do.
R. J. Olkin