In the mornings I set out from San Francisco in my 1968 Plymouth Valiant, the most reliable of cars, eastbound across the Bay Bridge, the most reliable of routes. I had work, after all. There was little traffic, my employer had no set starting time. So with no pressure, I headed up Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue and pulled directly into what was almost always an empty parking space right in front of the Center for Independent Living. I turned off the engine. The car clicked and pinged, cooling from its mild labor. I eyed the glass doors of the place. Wheelchairs banged in and banged out. People with crutches, which at that stage included me, pushed their way through. It was work. It was what I had. It was 1975. It was the new me, less than seven years post-injury. It was a new day. And somehow I was back in Berkeley, a place that belonged to the era of my late adolescence, my supposed education, my injury and my past. Really, I wanted to move on. I had no place to move to, that was the bitter truth, and nothing to do but get out of my car, grab my crutch and head inside like everyone else.
Graduate school had ended quickly. And my subsequent job began just as quickly. Though not auspiciously. I turned up for my interview only to find my future boss absent. No one seemed to know where he was. Absolutely no one knew about our appointment. I worked through it with my psychologist, why I should not simply say fuck off and look for another, better job. I had no demonstrable skills. No prospects. No other options. And so, after another drive across the Bay, I finally met Ed Roberts, disability rights leader, founder of the Center and indefatigable mega-extravert. He spent much of the days in an iron lung, various assistants acting as his limbs. His was not a private world.
Nor was his office and headquarters. Once inside the glass doors, the Center for Independent Living was an introvert’s worst roaring nightmare. Hobbling to my desk, I sat down and tried to work through the din. The nature of my work kept changing. Initially, I was conceived of as a grant writer. I did my best, but the work was slow, my output insufficient to meet demand. So I did other things. Which eventually evolved into a sort of PR function.
It was a first of its kind, the Center, one-stop shopping for disabled people who needed almost anything. The woman at the desk behind mine found attendants for people in wheelchairs. It wasn’t a bad job for students, helping a disabled person rise, bathe, eat. And it wasn’t a bad job for the post-1960s people living cheap around the campus. The young woman handling attendant referral decided hers was not a bad job either. She spent long hours on the telephone gossiping with friends, details of her frolicsome sex life clearly audible. Wheelchairs whirred, crutches clicked, people screamed, and amid the din somehow work got done. I took to wearing sound excluders of the type used by airport workers. The decor, a gauche and florid scheme painted by one of Ed’s friends, assaulted the eye, but not if one tuned it out. As for the passing scene, it was like having a television on without the sound. The office had been an automobile showroom, with huge plateglass windows still framing Telegraph Avenue. Once, absentmindedly turning to watch the foot traffic, I noted a wizard strolling by. He was holding a crooked staff, wearing a starry cloak and a pointed hat, Gandalf in the flesh. I resumed typing. Moments later I looked up, realized what I had just seen and how little it had affected me. Where was I?
At the desk to my left a young man named Ralph gathered statistics and completed reports. This was a fact of NGO life, that with the grants came the supposed results. Which was Ralph’s job, assembling numbers of disabled people improved by all this. He wore a hearing aid, extremely thick glasses and tried to keep his flailing limbs directed to a task. Whenever I said hello, he beamed. His cerebral palsy made him hard to understand, but not impossible. He was a quiet guy, quite proud of his job, serious about trying to get things done. I felt bad for his circumstances. My work was somewhat portable, phone calls and typing could be accomplished in the big empty meeting room, or even at home. But Ralph’s work kept him at his desk with loud Nancy right behind, screaming about news of her dates, and revealing the steady botching of her job.
‘German, the guy said he wanted someone who speaks German.’ Nancy was on the phone with a friend, describing some hapless wheelchair visitor from Deutschland. Nancy’s voice was heavily Brooklyn and scraped over the ears like ground glass. ‘So I told him, you want an attendant? Go talk to the United Nations.’
Ralph was on the phone much of the time, dealing with bureaucrats of various government agencies and foundations. He kept repeating things, people having a difficult time understanding him. Still, he kept at it. This was his job. He was very proud of it. He was always on time. Always worked late. He looked me in the eyes when I said hello, laughed at my occasional jokes. Earnest and seemingly innocent, he kept moving through the numbers, making the phone calls, finishing reports.
To permanently escape this madhouse, I needed skills, some demonstrable accomplishment. It was not difficult to get reporters to come have a look at the Center for Independent Living. And whenever I snagged one, I took them on a tour. It was important that we get out of the main office, anywhere in which it was possible to talk, and to conceive that work might get done.
The best place for this was the wheelchair repair shop. The site had been an automotive sales operation and conveniently offered a garage. Repairing wheelchairs was a serious need, constituted real, observable work. So the shop formed an important part of my press tour. I had developed a commentary, my guess at what journalists might want to know. How hard it was to get wheelchairs repaired. How vital this service was. How the repair crew included disabled workers. Like Ralph, I was proud of my efforts.
It was one of those things one hears and doesn’t hear, partly because my attention was on the job at hand, the reporter I was conducting through the shop. We had just paused to observe something truly press-worthy, a paraplegic mechanic pounding a hub back on someone’s wheelchair. The reporter folded his pad, headed out while one of the able-bodied mechanics sidled past me. ‘Does your shit smell?’
What happened next I can’t remember. But I have recalled that moment on and off over the last 35 years. Most recently, I was at Peet’s, placing my order and fumbling for my card, aware time was passing while the barista waited. ‘What’s wrong with me,’ I asked. C-4 quadriparesis would be the logical answer. Sufficient reason to keep the world waiting while I fumbled with my Peet’s card. And then, bouncing home, this moment in the wheelchair repair shop, 35 years ago remembered and relived on Live Oak Ave. What was wrong with me?
Oh, I probably should have done any number of things. Confronted the dolt who insulted me. Tried to get to know the wheelchair repair crew. I probably did any number of things wrong. But there was nothing wrong with me. That was the thing that was probably unclear then, not entirely clear now. And I keep struggling with. My heart was in the right place. And still is. As for my heart, I trust it more. Maybe that comes to all
of us with time, or maybe not. I was young and impatient. Now I am old and impatient. And what I recall most about that time 35 years ago is Ralph. He was, as someone explained it, living in not the nicest part of Berkeley. Someplace wheelchair accessible, within reach of work. Taken care of by attendants. One of whom killed him. Murdered in his own home by his own helper.
He had a good heart, Ralph. He had a job and was proud of it. And probably just as proud to be in his own apartment with his own life. Which we have in common, Ralph and I. As for the wheelchair repair shop incident. Whatever. I had a job. Which led to another. And I toast Ralph at this moment. We had what we had. And as the song says, no, no, they can’t take that away from me.