Buffie and I have emerged from Trader Joe’s, now sharing our neighborly secret, that both of us never miss the samples counter, where the free taste of the day is eternally on offer. We are now heading home, our apartments sharing a common footpath, all roads leading south. Or is it east? Actually, the latter is a much more useful frame of reference, the San Francisco Peninsula making some odd turns and twists as it skirts the Bay.
Buffie is full of traffic warnings. Do I really cross right in front of Trader Joe’s, nary a stop sign, and just a zebra striped safety zone for pedestrians? Yes, I tell her. Dangerous, she says. Which I at first register as overly solicitous, then decide is something worth attending to. That I make certain drivers have seen me and show signs of slowing before I venture across the pavement, this reassures her. Global capitalism is cracking at its foundations, and the general impact on Menlo Park drivers cannot be ignored. Traffic being one of the likely early warnings that social collapse is imminent.
Buffie and I continue past the zebra crossing and down Crane Street. More passersby are noticing her today than usual, she says, and it is certainly due to me. This must be what it is to be an extrovert, to notice such things, to keep an approximate score of eyes darting your way. With a more detailed report detailing the number of male eyes, female eyes, and so on, perhaps even gauging the intensity or apparent motive. Fascinating. But also puzzling, for there is an essential, unanswered question. Or several.
Do people stare at me solely because of my wheelchair? Why? Should I care? Either way, am I truly oblivious to these stares? And if so, am I really not noticing, or am I blocking? Or more to the point, that is to say, perhaps closer to the truth, am I actually registering and ‘steering’ these wheelchair-inspired glances? By the latter, I mean smiling at people and encouraging them to do the same. Or, at other times, avoiding their gaze and finding the pleasant surprise of their smiles. Or staring back, almost challenging them to look right at me and…what? Acknowledge that they are looking right at me because I am rolling, and not ambulating. Go on, cripple starer, make my day. Gosh, what a rich and varied life is the introvert’s.
Not that true oblivion is a particular virtue. In fact, ignorance is next to ungodliness, in my book…and because my book is about to achieve actual publication, let’s get straight about this. People stare at me. Does it bother me? Would I like them not to stare? Depends.
I did have early exposure to Ed Roberts, avatar of the 1970s disabled movement, founder of a famous advocacy organization. Polio having taken its neuromuscular toll, Ed spent his days tooling about Berkeley in a wheelchair. He spent his nights in an iron lung. Which may explain why his ‘tooling’ anywhere was such a wonder to behold, Ed steering his electric wheelchair with two extremely weak fingers and the faintest hint of a wrist. His postural support was rather massive, some sort of formfitting design that tilted him backwards, perhaps to aid with his efforts at swallowing air, his daytime alternative to breathing. And it should be noted that, batteries being what they are, Ed achieved some impressive speeds on the local sidewalks. Hard to say precisely how he crossed streets. Ed wasn’t all that good at turning his head, except in one direction. Still, he knew what he was doing, getting around places quite successfully for three motorized decades. But I digress. The point is that Ed cut quite a figure, and being a public figure and somewhere in the Nobel Prize league of extroverts, he worked conspicuousness into his act.
I recall someone’s account of Ed’s entrance at an important meeting. A foundation? A state agency? He headed one of the latter, ultimately. In any case, the meeting was already under way when Ed rolled in late…again, not a low-profile sight, being a tall man tilted back in a large wheelchair, doubtless followed by one or more attendants. All eyes turned…well, that goes without saying. But eyes do have a way of turning back, but not this time. With the meeting in progress, Ed asked his attendants to open a bag of potato chips. The room filled with the sound of crisps cracking in Ed’s mouth.
And why? I can only say that any number of currents run through this moment. Attention grabbing, perhaps with a strategic end in mind. At the same time, something like counter-phobic behavior…having overdosed on a life of being stared at, make them stare some more. Or a certain amount of manipulative relishing of one’s minority status…go ahead, just dare to judge, criticize, let alone tell me to stop chewing…I am the big macher now. All of this seems possible, and I would have to be Ed to know the real answer. And since he is dead, this is both problematical and largely undesirable. So there we are, the disabled person acutely aware of being looked at, openly harnessing this phenomenon. And apparently way beyond caring.
Have I not acquired some of Ed’s state myself? At this point, I want to know that I can handle the world. In the 1970s, otherwise known as the Decade of Looking for Work, I applied for a job as junior news writer at a San Francisco television station. I turned up for the interview and the news director hustled me into a cramped, frenetic open office. The latter occurring only in retrospect, and entirely in my mind, for I, of course, hustle nowhere. In reality, I limped and lurched through a tight slalom of desks and noise, until the director found an open spot, motioned for me to sit. He stared at me as though wondering why I was there. The job, I explained. No job, he said, eyes hard and fixed. Sorry, I said, not quite getting it. I had phoned him, chatted briefly about his writer position. And here I was. Which was the problem. I was who I was, doubtless sitting rather cockeyed, trying to hold my paralyzed spastic hand still on my lap…and somehow it wouldn’t do.
Around the same time, my old friend Monica was in town and invited me to meet her husband. We had a good evening, or so I thought. Later she told me that I had made Barry most uncomfortable. I wanted to ask what I had done wrong, but this was unnecessary. She was explaining reality. Barry was all about success, she said, and life’s faltering imperfections disturbed him. A job and a friend, both with news of rejection. A message I had a hard time absorbing in that era. And yet, that was the era, the only era, when I got the truth. Somehow, at age 64, I have become a big boy. Now I want to know the truth, because I’m curious, because I can take it…and perhaps because I have something to do.