Sticks and stones
may break my bones,
but names will
never hurt me
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 busjust about
anywhereand 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.
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.
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
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 proprietyan 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."
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!
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 meI 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!"
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
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