THE CAFE LADY

Ray Aguilera

A few weeks ago
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. "Umm—I 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 the world."

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."

What 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 someone.

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 'Thank you?'"

"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.

*  *  *

Thinking 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

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Ray Aguilera is a writer and uppity crip. He lives in Oakland, CA.

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/November 2000