July 2004

 

The Road To Hell

 

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 Francisco—Mediterranean light, perfect temperature, no fog—by 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 of irony.

"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 it."

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 assume—and we're usually right.

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

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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.