I was sitting at my desk
at work when a coworker asked me to join her for a cup of coffee.
Desperately in need of a break, I agreed. We strolled down Telegraph
Avenue and ducked into a café. Given that both of our respective
love lives were in states of flux, I settled into my chair looking
forward to some juicy gossip.
I should mention that my friend
Alana uses an electric wheelchair with a ventilator strapped to
the back. Anywhere else in the world she might be a remarkable sight,
but cruising the streets of Berkeley, she appears remarkably ordinary.
That simple fact, that a gimp like me and his big-ass-chair-drivin'
friend can walk down the street without attracting much attention,
is one of the things that I love about living here.
On this particular afternoon,
however, I wasn't thinking about crip politics; I was just happy
to be spending some time bullshitting with a dear friend. I began
detailing the latest developments (and sadly, non-developments)
in my love life. Alana offered her usual sage advice, then chimed
in with her own considerable efforts in love and lust. She was regaling
me with tales of meeting her latest potential love interest, just
getting to the good part, when I noticed, out of the corner of my
eye, a woman standing over our table. "UmmI just wanted to
let the two of you know that I think this is really great"
she began. "I think it's so important that you are getting out in
Immediately, my internal Smartass
hijacked my brain: She was only an ignorant person making a stupid
comment, but all I could see were Christopher Reeve and Jerry Lewis
walking in, arm-in-arm, to say hello. Wanting to prevent a nasty
comment from escaping my lips, I turned to Alana for help, but she
wore the same "What the fuck?!" expression on her face that I felt
on mine. Looking up at the woman, I recognized the misty-eyed gaze
of blind crip-adoration and my mind flashed back to other times
I had been on the receiving end of similarly misguided idolatry.
Once, while riding the F-Market
streetcar in San Francisco, a middle-aged guy in a business suit
leaned over and commended me for my bravery: "Wow. You've got a
lot of courage, kid. I don't know if I could live like that." His
admiration did not translate into offering me his seat, as I stood
clutching the handle above my head, struggling for balance while
the streetcar shook and lurched down Market Street. Not that I would
have taken it anyway. Better to risk Death by Muni than take the
guy's pity seat.
I looked the woman in the eye,
and was showered with that all-too-familiar gaze once more. She
didn't have to say anything; her eyes told me everything I needed
to know. To her, my friend and I were brave, courageous and (goddamn
I hate this word) inspirational.
We were the poor little cripples, who, through infinite inner reserves
of character and saintliness, were standing up and showing the world
what brave and admirable creatures we were. Dare I burst her bubble
of inspiration by pointing out that we were, in actuality, bored,
underpaid social services workers, seizing a few precious moments
to bitch about our jobs and our unfulfilled sex lives?
I had a brother," the woman droned
on. "He had Down's. We realized early on how important it was to
take him out. To make sure that he got out sometimes. Right up until
the end, we made sure that he got out in public." Her weird tone
set my evil brain into cynical overdrive: What, exactly, did she
mean by "take him out," and did it have anything to do with "the
end." No, no, no. I kicked my brain: "Drop the Tarantino script
or you'll send us both to Hell."
I wanted to say was "Gee lady, you're fucking great, but why should
I care? And why do you feel the need to tell a couple of strangers
how wonderful you are for treating your brother like a human being?"
Instead, I only nodded, stupefied by her bizarre monologue. I turned
to Alana again for help, but she was grinning at me with her "I
can't believe this is happening" look.
Our admirer was still at it, yammering
on about how wonderful and important it was that we were out in
public view. That way, people could see us, and see how "normal"
we were. You'd think we had escaped from somewhere, were engaging
in some noble form of social protest. Then I realized that from
her perspective we were being noble
and virtuous. Me, I was just trying to enjoy a cool drink and cooler
company. But damn it, there we had to go and be inspirational to
She finally finished her sermon
about how wonderful and inspiring she found us, and went to the
counter to order her drink. I turned to Alana. "That was really
hard. I was this close to saying something shitty." My friend, well
aware of my tendencies toward smart-assery, just grinned. "You know,"
she said, "no matter how many times I get weird comments from people,
it always sort of freaks me out. Were we supposed to respond? Say
"I don't know," I said, laughing
at the ridiculousness of the situation. If being a crip has taught
me anything, it's taught me that a sense of humor is crucial. "If
she comes back, I want to talk to her," Alana said, eyes gleaming
with wicked resolve. "I want to know why she felt the need to come
over here and say that. Does she think that will make us happy,
because someone thinks we're brave? Are we supposed to know that
she's cool, that she "gets it?"
We never did get answers to any
of our questions. The woman picked up her latte at the end of the
counter and headed upstairs to the second floor of the café, where,
I noticed, she sat down with a direct sight line to our table. She
seemed to forget the newspaper she held in her hand as she gazed
down at us with a mixture of awe and admiration.
about this episode, I can't help but wonder about that woman. She
never came back to our table. Alana never got to play Velma to my
Fred in a game of Scooby Doo detective. What did she want from us?
How were we supposed to respond? Does she realize that her comments
were strange at best; patronizing and offensive at worst?
We weren't doing anything out
of the ordinary, just trying to enjoy some all-too-scarce time hanging
out. Yet, to this woman, we were utterly remarkable. It makes me
sad that, despite all the strides disabled people are making, we're
still seen as admirable, just for being. Even in Berkeley, some
people still find our presence noteworthy. I can't speak for anyone
else, but as someone who always gets remembered as "the crippled
guy," I would be perfectly happy to be anonymous and unremarkable,
just for once.
All my life, (nondisabled) people
have been amazed, inspired, and filled with admiration at my very
existence. Are any of those emotions real, or are they the polite
code words for what people really feel: fear, pity, dread and shame
at the fact that they can hear themselves thinking, "Oh, god, I
hope I never end up like that."
I don't need to be anyone's poster-boy.
I don't want to inspire anybody, unless I actually do something
great. In fact, amongst my crippled cronies, the word inspire has
come to be something of an epithet. If one of my friends needs a
good poke in the ribs, I can just insert a faux-heartfelt, "Yeah,
and you're so inspiring to me today". Then we laugh.
The question is: why
are we laughing? Is it because that tired gag is funny, or is it
because we're so goddamn sick of being special and admirable and
courageous and ... inspirational
that we have to laugh to keep from thinking about how much further
we all have to go?
© 2000 Ray Aguilera
Aguilera is a writer and uppity crip. He lives in Oakland, CA.
BENT: A Journal of CripGay