Weather here being perverse,
my friend Michael and I decided to seize the moment and celebrate
one of those days that confirms the wisdom of living in San FranciscoMediterranean
light, perfect temperature, no fogby going to lunch.
Michael enjoyed rolling to my
neighborhood in his new power chair, an option that's begun to open
up the world for him a bit in the face of reduced mobility brought
on by the complications of post-polio. Here in the Castro finding
a gay-friendly restaurant is no issue, but finding a totally accessible
one takes some thought. In light of the weather we chose a nearby
place that offers a few sidewalk tables. If all of them were taken,
Michael reassured me, he could leave his chair outside and manage
the single step at the door.
Without even glancing at the entrance
we nabbed the last outdoor table and settled in to watch the passing
boys (who proved, to our satisfaction, that this was warm enough
to be a shirts-optional day). Before we'd had a chance to read our
menus the owner bustled over. Fixing her attention on Michael and
his chair she pointed to the door and announced with satisfaction,
"We're putting in a ramp!"
Sure enough, there, in progress,
was a fresh pour of concrete leading up to where that troublesome
step had been. She was so friendly, forthcoming, and eager that
it was only later I learned she and Michael were not the old buddies
I had assumed they were. I figured we were her first post-ramp crip
customers and she was bubbling over with satisfaction at her implementation
of the restaurant's long-delayed social conscience.
Happy to participate in such a
display of neighborhood good feeling (it's my neighborhood and I'm
possessive about it) I asked why the sudden improvement. After all,
I'd been giving them my business without complaint for eight years.
Oh, she announced, without missing a beat and with a disarming laugh,
"Somebody sued us!"
Turns out that the "somebody"
was "some nasty guy who's been wandering around this part of town
making trouble for people over the ADA. It's a racket." It never
became clear to us just who this individual was or what his game
might have been, altruistic, self-serving or some typically human
mixture of both. "Too bad you had to be sued," I offered, intending
a little bit of commiseration combined with more than a little edge
"Oh, we'd been meaning to
get around to it for years," she burbled, still overcome with
her own good humor. "Uh-huh," I heard Michael mutter under his breath.
Looking up and down the street
I took in the familiar collection of small businesses, all of them
independently owned (no franchises or chain stores in sight), all
occupying buildings "old or older," some accessible, some not. Directly
across the street, for example, the Castro's most famous café (popular
more for its patio than its food) offers a lopsided disability balance
sheet comprised of an accessible entrance, inconveniently bolted-to-the-floor
tables, and a woefully inaccessible bathroom, making me wonder with
what consistency our local ADA vigilante had chosen his targets.
The more I wondered the more I
realized that my sympathies were shifting dangerously in the direction
of my neighborhood's small-business owners. The whole thing was
making me queasy. Thank God for Michael's clear-headedness. When
we talked about it later he made a few points that helped me to
sort out my own ambivalence. "Look," he said, "the owner was schmoozing
with us (with wheelchair me in particular) because she wanted
us to give her an 'Atta Girl.' She wanted praise for easy virtue.
And you were ready to give it to her. Which made me feel very much
alone, by the way."
When I argued that his take on
the incident sounded pretty unsympathetic, Michael replied "Unsympathetic
to whom? C'mon, you've got to remember there's a difference between
doing the right thing and doing the nice thing. She was coerced
into doing the right thing and then she wanted to 'make nice' about
Hard lessons these, full of implications
for crip theory and practice. Let's look at the instrument of change
one again, our unnamed access vigilante. What were his motives?
We don't know, but on reflection we can see that by introducing
the question of personal gain (did he profit from his suits against
property owners?) the restaurant owner made it easier for us to
attack the ethics of the activist instead of questioning her own
actions, where the real issue lay.
Maybe the method for achieving
this particular goal was less than ideal, but let's not forget that
in the larger battle for accessibility the forces of the status
quo will be more than satisfied if we continue to fault our own
methods instead of concentrating on our needs and rights. That's
one easy way for the issues to get lost. Why was it so easy to get
sidetracked in this circumstance? OK, why was it so easy for me
to get sidetracked? Because I, like so many of us, am eager to be
accepted by a society that is practiced at rejecting our very selves,
much less our attempts at equality.
In an earlier struggle, queers
("homosexuals" then) needed to "behave themselves," or believed
they did, in order to get a leg up in the struggle for equal treatment.
Please, no flaunting, no flaming, no kissing in public. Even worse,
in the interest of acceptance we often found it convenient to deny
our effeminate and later our transsexual brothers and sisters. The
parallels are easy. In those days nobody liked an uppity faggot.
Today nobody likes an uppity crip we assumeand we're usually
In our desire to be accepted we
are far too often quietly grateful for what others choose to bestow
on us instead of acting, sometimes noisily, for what we know we
need, for our rights. As we grapple individually with each separate
disability and accessibility issue we face emotional discomfort
and exhaustion. On and on it goes, and far too often it seems easier
to go along to get along.
As the two of us struggled to
integrate facts and feelings that day it was Michael who had the
last word. "Did your grandmother used to tell you that the road
to Hell is paved with good intentions?" he asked.
"She sure did," I answered.
"Well remember this," he
said. "The road to hell is not paved with curb cuts."
© 2004 BENT
Photo by Mark McBeth, IDEA | MONGER
Bob Guter has been
a bilateral amputee since the age of six as the result of multiple
birth defects. With John R. Killacky he edited "Queer Crips:
Disabled Gay Men and their Stories (Haworth
Press), winner of a 2004 Lambda Literary Award. He lives in
San Francisco where he publishes and edits BENT.