Sticks and stones
may break my bones,
but names will
never hurt me
-Children's Rhyme

STICKS & STONES

by Chris Hewitt

IF YOU'RE IN A WHEELCHAIR, non-disabled people seem to feel they can come up to you on the street, in the park, on a bus—just about anywhere—and comment about your appearance. It's as if the chair turns the person in it into an invulnerable, insensitive object with no feelings, no reactive normal human qualities.

 

Wordplay/Wordslay            Collage by Robbo ©2000

 

Several times ushers in movie theaters have said to me, "You can't park in the aisle. You're a fire hazard!" Whenever I'm assaulted like this, I am shocked, amused and angered all at once. I always think of a witty riposte minutes, hours or even days later. I might have told the usher, "Well, I may be a flaming queen, but I'm not about to burn the house down!" Of course, anyone who makes a remark like that in the first place is not likely to get the joke. Here in San Francisco I've been the recipient of more rude and obnoxious comments from straight than from gay people. Maybe gay people identify more easily with someone who represents another kind of minority.

On the other hand, I have been harassed most relentlessly by African American school kids and teenagers. One kid, about fifteen, came up to me on Castro Street in the heart of gay San Francisco and said "Do me a favor willya?" "Sure", I replied. "Next Christmas tell Santa I want a new bicycle." I couldn't make sense of this at first. Later I realized he was addressing me as if I were one of the Santa's elves.

MY very appearance on the sidewalk in Manhattan several times reduced a group of black schoolchildren to fits of hysterical falling-down laughter. They giggled con-vulsively, pointed and called out "Look at the midget! Look at the midget! That's the funniest thing I ever saw!" I'm not, strictly speaking, a dwarf or a midget and both words have negative connotations for me and probably for the reader. They both imply freak shows, circuses. They suggest that small people are cute little clowns.

Again, I wish I could think of appropriate replies when I am accosted in this way. I'd like the kids to learn who and what I am, but on a noisy city street it would be hard to explain it to them; it's unlikely that they would even hear me over all their laughter and commotion. White kids, on the contrary, react timidly: They whisper among themselves and point at me. I might hear an occasional "midget" or "dwarf," but nothing more.

Adults can be equally rude. Once I was in line for a movie in Manhattan when a gold-chain-bedecked young man turned to his girlfriend and announced "I don't wanna go ta this movie theaters, it's crawlin' with midgets!" If I had the muscles of a wheelchair basketball player instead of brittle bones I might have answered, "That's right, Motherfucker. We midgets are taking over the world and our first priority is to exterminate big-mouthed assholes like you!"

I didn't, of course, since I can't afford a broken jaw. Usually I just think to myself, "Wait till my friends hear this one!" As proof that rudeness is not limited to any race or social class, I am reminded of the time a dignified-looking elderly man approached me at intermission in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. His balding gray hair and well-tailored suit projected an air of Ivy League propriety—an impression he promptly blew by saying , "Well, you certainly got the short end of the stick, didn't you." I swallowed the urge to answer, "Shut up, baldy."

Though I don't like being patronized or pitied, I prefer it to outright mockery or hostility. One day in Woolworth's, in Berkeley, a little old lady came up to me and said, "Let you out of the asylum for the day, have they dear?" All I could do in response was to stifle a laugh and duck down a side aisle. "That's right, lady," I wish I'd said, "I'll see you there later on!"

A related kind of patronizing involves people talking over your head as if you're not sentient: Once, when I was in college in Birmingham, England and went to the local post office with two friends, the woman behind the counter looked at Sid and Pete, ignoring me totally, and said, "Taking him out for an airing, are you?" as if I were a piece of laundry! We all collapsed in a heap of laughter once we got out onto the sidewalk.

Patronizing can be more than verbal; it can take the form of unwanted assistance. Once I was sitting at the foot of a flight of steps when two guys appeared and without a word picked me up in my chair and carried me to the top. When I had recovered from my amazement I said, "Excuse me, I know you meant well, but I was only waiting for a friend. Would you please carry me back down now?"

I get around in a large motorized chair, about 150 pounds of hardware. Add my weight and the whole package amounts to more than 200 pounds. Sometimes I have had to argue fiercely with a would-be helper. Some men seem to feel their manhood threatened when I say, "It's much too heavy a load for one person. It takes three or four, at least." When a guy answers, "No problem, I'm strong," I want to say, "Listen, dear, I'm sure you go to the gym, but unless you're an Olympic weight lifter, you'll need some help." As a matter of fact I have said versions of this a few times, always causing offense, though once in a while I'm wrong in my estimation. Years ago when the elevator broke in my apartment building, two obese-looking guys insisted they could carry me up a flight of stairs. To my surprise, they did the job of four easily. They turned out to be sumo wrestlers!

One real mystery, at least to me, is what makes people associate disability with panhandling or homelessness. When I lived in Manhattan, I began to think twice about loitering on the sidewalk for a minute or two for fear of having charity forced on me. I've had coins dropped in an empty coffee cup I was holding, and in one memorable incident, a full cup. One time a nun thrust a fistful of bills at me. "The Lord wants you to have this twenty-five dollars." She insisted. For once I came back with a reply that pleased me: "Who am I to argue with the Lord?" Since I happened to be broke at the time and Sister looked implacable, I took the money. I managed to salve my conscience later on by using some of the cash to buy food for a man who really was homeless.

In another crazy Manhattan encounter, I was wheeling down Broadway minding my own business when a man came up to me and said "I'd give you a quarter, but since you're so small, I'll give you a dime!" A second man overheard the remark and confronted the first: "What a terrible thing to say to the poor guy. It's bad enough he's a cripple. You don't have to add insult to misery." They went on arguing fiercely, as folks do in New York, so I left them to get on with it and went about my business.

It is natural, I suppose, to be curious about me—I look very different from most people, even from most other people in wheelchairs. We people with osteogenesis tend to physically resemble one another not only in body but also in facial features. We tend to have large heads, deformed and prominent chest bones, large, delicate and often quite beautiful hands. Because of this similarity in general appearance, I've often been mistaken for someone else. Years ago the movie "Ship of Fools" prompted repeated demands of, "You're Michael Dunn, aren't you?" Later, it was the wondrously talented French Jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani. Coming out of Carnegie Hall once, where I'd just bought tickets for a classical music concert, I was accosted by a woman in a mink coat with, "Oh no, I'm heartbroken! I missed you! I missed your concert!" When I explained that I was merely a relatively unknown poet, she said, "It's wonderful you're a poet though. I just love poetry!"

I wonder if anyone ever approached Michel Petrucciani and offered, "I love your poetry." I guess I'm just not famous enough for any reciprocal mistaken identity. Being a public person for all the wrong reasons is pretty tiring. If I'm going to be instantly recognizable I would like to be recognized for my own accomplishments, not for someone else's. I certainly don't want to be recognized as the Generic Cripple who gets a quarter splashed in his cup of coffee.

© 2000 Chris Hewitt. An earlier version of "Sticks & Stones" appeared in ABLE-TOGETHER magazine.

 

CHRIS HEWITT's poetry, prose, and translations have been published widely. "Sticks & Stones" is part of a memoir-in-progress, titled Brittle Bones. Two other installments have appeared in BENT. Chris Hewitt lives in San Francisco.

Chris Hewitt dedicates
Sticks & Stones
to the memory of his friend
Bill Duane

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/November 2000