READ THE VERSIONS by RAY AGUILERA and BOB FEINSTEIN.

 

ONE

"Your hand's all messed up!" Bob said as we shook hands at the airport. Surprised by his announcement blurted out so publicly, I remembered we had often had rudely cordial talk like that over the phone.

I was just grateful there were no problems picking him up. The previous day in Denver Bob was assured repeatedly by the reservations people that there'd be no problem having someone meet him at the gate. He disembarked in Denver to find no one there to escort him. Fortunately, a flight attendant volunteered to help. Bob is blind.

Since I work for the airline Bob was flying, a co-worker and I made sure we got a special note attached to his electronic ticket guaranteeing he'd be met at the gate in San Francisco the following day. Earlier he was told there was a request in place for his whole trip, but when we looked it up there was none. I know from experience that that's what is liable to happen FWD (Flying While Disabled).

Since I work only a mile from the terminal, I told Bob to call when he disembarked and I'd pick him up at curbside. Nervous, he called me four times after getting off the plane. "Yes, Bob, I'm on my way," I answered each time. Fifteen minutes later I was relieved to find him with his airline escort on a bench at the curb. I loaded his one piece of luggage into my car, got him settled in the front seat and breathed a sigh of relief. Step One was over.

A polio gimp myself, I worried about being able to help Bob if we ran into a situation I couldn't manage physically. Never before had I had such close contact with someone blind; the weight of responsibility felt heavy. Events could turn on a dime for either of us at any time. Thank God for cell phones. Bob chattered on in the car as I released the stress furrows in my forehead and we drove the short distance into San Francisco.

Bob repeated his request for help getting unpacked and oriented to his motel room. I understood his need for reassurance. I'm often the same way in new situations, especially with new people. It's not that I don't trust them, it's just that I've been let down by a lot of unmet promises. Bob and I had spent a lot of time talking about our abilities to meet each other's needs. We just couldn't be sure things would work out until we tried.

Beck's Motor Inn is central to my neighborhood, to the other Bob's, and to the Castro district, ideal for all. The motel office turned out to have three high but shallow steps with no handrail, the top step flush with the door, making an awkward situation for me, using a cane in my right hand, guiding Bob with my left, and still needing to hold the door open while we both stepped up and into the office. The two staff people inside made no move to help.

Lulu, the manager, didn't have a clue from the get-go, even though Bob had mentioned his blindness when making his reservation. She shoved a registration form at him without telling him it was there. I took the form and filled it out while Bob asked, "Is my room on the first floor?"

"You didn't request that," she answered.

"Yes I did, I remember asking."

"Well, I don't have a room on the first floor. I have one on the third and there's an elevator. If you still want to move tomorrow we can do that."

The irritation in Bob's voice and my eyes was evident, but Lulu just stood there wordlessly, outstretched hand holding Bob's credit card. I let the card linger in the air before I took it from her and said loudly while glaring at Lulu, "Bob, here's your credit card." I'm quick to anger at that kind treatment when it happens to someone else; less quick when it happens to me.

TWO

We left the office clumsily, our comfort zone for guiding still elusive, to fetch Bob's luggage on our way to the elevator. He was totally disoriented from all the turns, and I realized being on the first floor was not merely a convenience, it was a safety issue should there be a fire. "Lulu," I thought to myself, "You are such a stupid woman!"

I used my knowledge of how careful I need to be when walking to verbalize for Bob each turn and step. It was stressful to care for my own safety while at the same time being mindful of his. I hoped things would get easier as we became more comfortable with each other.

By the time we got to his room, I needed to sit down, but Bob wanted to be guided and get himself settled. The room was small and cramped, so I stayed put and gave him instructions.

"To your left," I'd say. "Oops, too far. Now, back up," and so it went until his clothes were unpacked and put away. But then he wanted to move them, but still seemed as lost as ever in the room.

"You sure don't get around as well as the blind on TV do," I quipped, hoping he could sense my smile. He did and then asked me to get him a plastic cup. Halfway out of my chair, I realized he was closer to it than I was. "Bob, take two steps out of the bathroom and turn left. You'll find the cups on top of the small refrigerator." The pain in my back made me realize I had exceeded the limit for being on my feet. I told myself that walking was now over for the day. Bob complied with my instructions, my resentment was averted, and Bob didn't seem to mind at all.

Soon afterwards, Gimp Bob walked the long block from his house to Beck's. Almost as soon as he got there, Blind Bob asked if could feel Gimp Bob's "bad arm." I'd told him earlier that Bob's right arm was shorter than most people's and ended with a residual thumb and knuckles kind of fused together. Blind Bob was apprehensive about asking Gimp Bob if he could touch his arm. I encouraged him to ask, and then I asked him if he would take out his glass eyes and let me see what the sockets looked like.

"Oh no, you don't want to do that. It's gross. My mother always said so."

"Look," I said sternly, "you want to feel my polio legs and I've said yes to that. If we can't do that with each other then who can we do it with?"

Blind Bob went into the bathroom and removed his eyes and put them into plastic cups. He walked out of the bathroom with a big smile on his face, eyelids wide open.

With an air of exaggerated disappointment I said, "They don't look bad at all. They look kind of like two tiny anuses. The tissue is just glazed over with a membrane that looks like what you'd find on a steak. Shucks, I'm not grossed out at all."

So, when Gimp Bob easily gave his permission, Blind Bob reached out and felt his arm.

"Oh my, that's not nearly as bad as I thought it would be," he said, looking as if he'd tasted a sour pickle for the first time. "It's not bad at all," he added with a delayed smile.

We laughed and then the three of us sat and schmoozed a while, enjoying our first person-to-person encounter after years of talking over the phone. Blind Bob remarked that he was a bit hungry—I later found out that he was always hungry—and we decided on Café Flore, at the end of the same long block. Remembering my resolve to not exhaust myself, I decided to drive the short distance home, get my wheelchair and then wheel to the café. Gimp Bob led Blind Bob to the café with Michael the Gimp following soon after; is that a fairytale or what?

THREE

I was not happy about the choice of Café Flore. A California laid-back kind of place, it made me uncomfortable having to stand and read the chalkboard menu where orders are placed and then negotiate a room crowded with chairs, people, backpacks, and dogs scattered haphazardly all over the place. Then, carrying utensils, napkins, and a beverage I had to walk across an uneven plank floor in my gimpy unsteady gait, hoping I wouldn't trip or be tripped by preoccupied customers. It was always an ordeal I tried to avoid.

At the time of Bob's visit I had started learning how to navigate in my new electric wheelchair and meeting at Café Flore seemed like one more complication. I agreed because I wanted to be congenial, and because, sooner or later, I needed to learn how to "drive" in difficult places; well, sooner or later had just arrived. Besides, I needed to trust whom I was with. I knew that if something didn't work for me, my friends would understand and be helpful. I found them seated next to the café's garden gate with a place left at the table for me to roll into. It couldn't have been easier.

Ordering food, however, was still more than I was up to, so I declined all exhortations to eat. But soon Blind Bob was asking Gimp Bob to get another cup of tea and to get something for me as well, which he graciously did. I felt uneasy about letting someone else serve me when I should have done it for myself. I've never resolved how to handle situations like this, when, reluctant to feel self-conscious publicly, I let others do what I'm not willing to do for myself. The result is always discomfort.

I remarked to Blind Bob, "I feel like a real cripple in this place." The able-bodied crowd was young, good-looking, and in some cases eager to connect with each other. They were lively, energetic and enjoyed being in each other's company. I felt alienated, as I always do in such places.

After Gimp Bob excused himself to go home, Bob asked if I'd take him to the market across the street for some snacks. With my wheelchair it was easy to say Yes, but before we could leave, Bob needed the men's room and I had no memory of where it was. After carefully practicing avoidance earlier, I now had to go inside. A busboy answered my question by pointing to a small narrow hallway, up two or three steps and said, "Way in the back." Seeing my frown, one of the cooks thought I was asking for myself and apologized for the lack of access, but then called over aother busboy when I said it was my friend who needed help.

I could have guided Bob myself by simply getting out of the wheelchair, but people are incredulous when they see me get up and walk, so once again my self-consciousness prevailed. When Bob returned, the cook came out from behind the counter and chatted us up a bit. I was grateful for her friendliness. Then we excused ourselves and the two little piggies left to go to market.

We had to cross Market Street, the main street that divides the city east-west, it's four car lanes and two bike lanes wide, difficult to cross in the time allotted. Bob hadn't yet been guided by my wheelchair. Time for another deep breath.

"Bob, how fast can you walk holding onto my chair?"

"Gee, I'm not sure. What's the pavement like?

"It's pretty smooth except where the trolley lines are embedded in the street; you'd trip over them before you found them. Plus, it's busy—lots of people crossing. They fill up the curbcut without looking to see if someone needs to be in it, so that'll slow us down as well. And traffic can be merciless when the light changes. It's rush hour."

"Don't go too fast, I could trip. Remember, I'm kinda slow!"

"I know, but I'm going to try to go as fast as I can while keeping you in mind. Yell for me to slow down if you need to. Let's go! Now!"

The light changed, but it took a few more seconds for drivers to run the yellow light and then off we went.

"You OK, Bob?"

Breathless, he grunted "Yeh!"

The light changed to amber. We were only halfway across.

"Speed up! The light's changing," I shouted above the din.

The only curb cut on the far side faced the other crossing at ninety degrees and was filled with people waiting their turn to cross. I started yelling at them to move so we could get out of the traffic. They were slow to react, the light changed, cars were already in the intersection, and more cars were turning directly into our path while we waited for the curb cut to clear. (Is Darwin right, I wondered?)

"Get out of the way," I shouted. People did, but if looks could kill . . .

"Ooohh! That was a challenge!" I panted as we came to a safe stop on the sidewalk.

We hugged the buildings as we continued toward the market, only a few doors down the street. Bob was unaware that his cane was sticking out almost horizontally; it poked bushes, scratched along store windows, and hit the knees of people standing in doorways. I stopped.

"Bob, give me your cane. It's sticking out and hitting things." What a pair we must have been.

"I should have thought to bring the other cane, it collapses."

"Next time." I added, as we turned into the market.

Crammed with displays of upscale food, the store was . . . crowded. "My friend here needs to be guided through the store," I said to the cashier. "OK," she answered, "wait right here and I'll have someone assist him."

"Bob, I'm moving out of the way. Stay put, I'll be a short distance away." Soon a cute young Mexican boy came out from behind the counter, saw me and assumed I was the one needing help.

"No," I said. "Not me," and pointed to Bob, "He's right there."

The young man turned, looked perplexed and turned back to me with a questioning expression that would have said, had he said it, "Where the hell are you talking about?"

"Bob, call the man over," I said, raising my voice. Not sure what was going on, Bob remained silent. The young man approached but did not realize Bob was blind.

"He needs to be guided through the store," I added with irritation. Taking Bob's hand, the clerk started leading him away like a mother does a child.

Bob's vulnerability and passivity annoyed me, but I instantly thought of my own passivity less than fifteen minutes earlier. Sometimes we just don't have the wherewithal to act in our own best interest. God, I thought, how vulnerable he is, the simplest things can turn complex in the blink of an eye. In my own way, I'm often that vulnerable too and I really hate it.

I turned my wheelchair to explore the store. Within ten feet I was brought to a halt by more floor displays and the aisle grew even narrower. A man wanted to pass but couldn't. His scowl said to me, Cripples can be such a pain in the ass!

"This is one store I won't be coming back to," I grumbled as we left. Exhausted and bone weary in my seat, I didn't resent having the chair that night; it was my only comfort and my only way home.

FOUR

During the next couple of days, Bob busied himself visiting with other friends, and on Saturday making a trip to Alcatraz guided by Ray and his lover, Michael-Not-A-Gimp. A day later I threw a Sunday potluck brunch, pacing myself on Saturday, hoping I could get everything done before exhaustion took over. The crowd was congenial, Bob seemed to have a nice time, and I received enough compliments about my chicken to believe it might really have tasted good. Bob enjoyed the attention and I believe that all his friends, including me, were pleased to give him that. It was a win-win for everyone. Thinking about that afternoon weeks later, I realized it was possible to have a supportive male Gay-Crip community after all.

On Monday I took a vacation day to drive us around the city and to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area just across the Golden Gate Bridge. Before starting off we had lunch at the Cove Café in the heart of the Castro, where Bob asked for his food to be cut into pieces. I was amazed at the waiter when he brought out the order and announced, "Everything's been cut up. The sausages are on the right side of the plate, the scrambled eggs are in the middle, and the toast is on the left. Jelly is on the table to your right." He then handed Bob a fork with the handle held outward for Bob to grasp easily. God is in the details, I thought, as I marveled at that moment.

Afterwards we drove slowly through Chinatown. I'd hoped to find the narrow streets filled with the clamor of people shopping and the smell of Chinese restaurants to bring Bob sensory pleasure, but the streets were neither crowded nor noisy, and there was not a pot-sticker to be smelled. What a wash-out. We drove down Lombard Street, the "crookedest street in the world," but that was a wash-out as well. For dramatic effect I speeded over the crest of some of the steepest streets I knew; instead of reacting to the thrill, Blind Bob kept dozing off. I must be boring him to tears, I thought, but he claimed he always feel asleep in moving cars.

Eventually we found ourselves in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area touring a World War II bunker built to defend against Japanese attack. As I guided Bob around for him to touch the bunkers, he often pushed his arm into my ribs. I found it hard to maintain my balance. I was apprehensive about telling him, but remembered our agreement to support each other within our limits. He immediately understood and amended how he walked with me.

A short time later we met two boys, eight and eleven, who graciously offered to show Bob around the bunkers. I was wary of them because when we arrived they stared at us intently, almost rudely, but to our surprise they demonstrated unusual awareness and sensitivity to Bob's needs and safety. Later, Bob and I sat at the beach and asked passersby if we could pet the dogs they were playing with.

Soon we needed to head back to the city to meet two more friends of Bob's. They were late, but they were two charming women, easy to forgive because they were a delight to be with. They spoke French with Bob but made a point of explaining things to me in English. Bob beamed with pleasure. Though touched by their thoughtfulness, I was fading fast, worn out physically as well as mentally and emotionally from having to be focused and mindful for such an extended time. The delayed effect of polio soon had me in its grasp and I begged off joining them for dinner. Besides, they were going back to Café Flore and I just needed to go home.

The following night was Bob's last. We met Ray for dinner at the Baghdad Café, but this time God was not in the details. In fact She was nowhere on the premises: the waitress brought Bob's order to the table without telling him it was there or where she put it. Later, heading back to the motel, I decided to roll down the street making circles around Ray and Bob, herding them like sheep, a bit of fun with my wheelchair and no doubt perplexing to people on the street. "Can cripples have fun?" they must have been asking themselves.

That night ended Bob's visit, long in anticipation, short in the reality. Our friendship had grown deeper and now we know that we can be there for each other as best we can. Bob's visit left me much to ponder about blindness, disability, passivity, limits, generosity, vulnerability, trust and most of all—friendship. Bob left town without feeling my legs; there'll be time to do that when he returns.

Text © 2003 Michael Perreault
Photo montage/title design © 2003 Idea | Monger

 

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Michael Perreault last wrote for BENT in September . His work is featured in "Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and Their Stories," edited by Bob Guter and John R. Killacky, Haworth Press, November 2003.


 

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/November 2003