Fear of flying?
No. Nothing like that.
But like a lot of my crip friends, I find travel a challenge, a
not very appealing prospecta downright pain in the butt, in
fact. Destination reached, I usually discover ample rewards, but
not until about twenty-four hours after touchdown does my crankiness
abate, as anyone who travels with me will attest (warning: do not
apply for this position). Crankiness isn't the word for it, really.
I fall into a deeply foul mood where nothing pleases me. As I get
older (and creakier), I grow crankier.
Apart from the obvious
physical stress, I'm convinced that my travel-induced depression
results from the psychic distress of venturing into unfamiliar territory.
At home I contain the stress pretty easily, since on most days I
frequent the same limited range of shops and restaurants and parks
and other familiar haunts where people know me and, I imagine, have
grown accustomed to my appearance, my compromised and well-worn
methods of negotiating particular clumsy entrances, high curbs,
steep sidewalks, busy intersections . . . and curious looks.
Put me in a new environment,
however, and I become new visual material for a host of people to
wonder about. Not only that, my hard-won and limited self confidence
dissolves as I negotiate hotel lobbies lined with full-length mirrors
and other random reminders of what I don't care to be reminded of.
"Strategize," I hear
you thinking. "Find a way around these problems." OK. How about
humor? Let me try a lighthearted retelling of my latest trip to
see if I can make it any funnier in the telling than it was in the
living. If I can make it funny enough, maybe I can remember the
humor and, next time, apply it beforehand, a kind of comic prophylaxis.
But you'll need to bear with me. Humor is not my strong suit. I
just don't have the light touch. What do you expect from a guy whose
favorite director is Ingmar Bergman?
So here's the story.
It was a simple trip. Really uncomplicated. I'm going to Minneapolis
with a few friends, to a conference. Figuring some improved travel
gear might be helpful, I think immediately of shoes, and how I can't
retie 'em if the laces come undone once I've got my legs on. Have
you noticed the trendy new suede slip-ons with big-ass rubber-lug
soles that everybody and his cute younger brother are wearing? Way
too trendy for me. But I steel myself and buy a pair. One half-size
smaller so they won't slip off. And to be super-responsible about
things, I give them a road test the day before I leave. They look
. . . cool. Hmmm. Maybe I
look . . . cool.
In Minneapolis I stride
off the plane with a new spring in my step, start to climb the inclined
jetway and . . . step right out of the left shoe. There's something
about that wooden foot and that trendy new shoe and the angle of
that ramp. They just refuse to cohabit. I attract the attention
of a flight attendant who sizes up the situation right off (just
how many guys with wooden feet has she seen step out of trendy shoes
this week, I wonder?) and bends down to offer help. Why is getting
it back on so difficult, seeing how easily it slipped off? I ponder
this question as I try to fend off embarrassment by offering, helpfully,
"Oh don't worry about breaking the back of the shoe if you have
to." "I'm worried," she answers, "about breaking my nails."
By the time I catch up
with my friends, stepping gingerly to avoid a repeat performance
of the shoe pirouette, I'm in a lather, but I figure I won't have
time for embarrassment if I keep moving, just keep moving.
We discover there's a
van waiting for us in the airport parking lot. One of those high
vans. One of those very high vansdesigned for the easy ascent
of basketball stars and mountain goats. In the middle of the parking
lot there is no curb that might serve as a step up. The driver has
neglected to bring a step stool. The driver, full of "Ja, sure,
you betcha" Minneapolis bonhomie, seems unaware that a step-stool
is a standard-issue accessory. So what's a crip to do? Make a fuss?
Demand his rights under the ADA? And wait an hour for a replacement
What I do is decline
inept driver assistance, try out several methods of entry, all involving
contortions that I imagine look excruciatingly clumsy, then fasten
on a method that preserves most of my now worthless dignity while,
in the process, wrenching my shoulder. Several of my abled friends
have almost as much trouble. Does this fact console me? Not one
At the hotel, the clerk
confesses there's been a mixup; the "only two-bed room still available
is an accessible room and will that be acceptable, Sir?" I've never
booked an accessible room because I don't need
an accessible room, but her smile tells me that she can see I'm
a crip, so this mistake must be for the best. How can I argue with
that implied logic? When we get to the room the friend I'm rooming
with opens the closet because he needs to hang the wrinkles out
of his pants. My friend stands 6'5". The closet rod is fixed about
three feet from the floor. We collapse with laughter. Accessibility
can be funny, if not fun.
Much later, when I get
up to pee, it's not so funny. Legless in the middle of the night
(no, of course I don't sleep with my legs on, are you crazy?!) I
have no trouble hoisting myself up on the john. Ordinarily. But
this, remember, is an . . . accessible room. Designed to make life
easier for us disabled folks. So the toilet is, yes, a high
toilet, designed for the easy ascent of . . . Oh, never mind. Despite
the shoulder wrenched in the van adventure, I manage the hoist.
But I'm not laughing. I'm angry. I consider pissing the floor. I
decide against revenge, and reflect, instead, on the irony of how
easily one man's ADA accommodation becomes another man's barrier.
We're not generic specimens, I want to shout, but here, in the middle
of the night, where do I think I'm directing my anger?
That night I dream repeatedly
of stepping out of my shoes all over the city of Minneapolis.
At breakfast the next
morning I figure I really will be stepping out of my shoes if I
don't do something about it, but as often happens in situations
like this, my forward mechanism has seized up. Locating a shoe store
in a strange city, finding out how to get there, then doing it (Shopping
for Shoes is a minor but only slightly less terrifying subset of
Shopping for Clothes)all of this seems Everest-scaling in
its challenge. Luckily for me, my friend Sharon recognizes what's
happening, accomplishes the research portion in minutes and drags
me out of the hotel with a, "C'mon, let's just get this done."
We have the shoe department
of a celebrated old department store all to ourselves. Finding a
pair of lace-ups is easier than finding the clerk who, emerging
from some inner sanctum, proves to be a frail, Ichabod Crane-like
specimen whose career must date from the store's opening day. Responding
wanly to my standard joke about customers with wooden feet (turning
everything into a joke defuses my anxiety but gets tiresome even
for me), he manages to remove one offending shoe but can't for a
million bucks get one of the new ones on. I make a bold suggestion:
"You wouldn't have something like a . . . shoehorn, I suppose?"
Armed, finally, with
this rarest of implements, he struggles while I pull a muscle in
my left arm trying to make his job easier by holding my leg up and
straight for what feels like a half hour. Still no luck. Sharon's
been making herself scarce meanwhiletrying not to embarrass
me, I figurebut she comes to the rescue now and succeeds easily
where Methuselah failed.
By this time I figure
I've had more than enough fun for a whole barrel of crips. Little
do I know that the best lies aheadon the return trip, through
airport security. Security personnel have been professionalized,
we've been told. Standards raised, conduct and skills impeccable.
Setting off the metal
detector, I find that this particular show is being run by a uniformed
boy and a girl, polite, dull-witted, totally bereft of people skills.
A pair of goofy kids. As Boy Kid runs the wand over my high-tech
left ankle joint I keep reassuring him, whispering, "Prostheses,
you know? Wooden legs. It's OK, wooden legs." I feel like I'm calming
a jittery, high-strung horse. Horses aren't very smart either.
When he reaches my outstretched
short right arm, though, he stops dead and announces loudly, "But
this isn't makin' it go off." "That's right," I tell him, "because
that's a real arm. You know, flesh and blood." He looks dubious,
checks the right ankle, then returns his wand to my right arm with
all the dumbfounded ardor of a dedicated fetishist and repeats,
"It's not goin' off." I try to savor this Monty Python Moment but
I swear I'll kick him if he starts to drool.
You think it's over?
Not so fast. Boy Kid, easily bored with the charms of genuine human
anatomy, next announces sternly, "You'll have to take your shoes
off, sir." I should be flattered: even a crip can be a serious terrorist
suspect, but now, I decide, I really do need to end this charade
by doing the hard thing, asserting myself. "OK," I reply. "I'm happy
to cooperate. But youYOUwill have to take my shoes off,
because I can't."
I get to sit down facing
the metal detector and who's the next passenger through, staring
at the spectacle of me getting practically disassembled in public?
Only the humpiest guy I've seen all morning. This only compounds
my embarrassment. Neither Boy Kid nor Girl Kid turns out to be any
better at getting shoes back on than was my Shoe Store Methuselah.
Once again I make my arcane request: "Shoe . . . horn?
At last an older man
arrives, armed with the fabled instrument itself, elbows the two
goofies out of the way and gets the job done. "I know what a nuisance
prostheses can be," he confides. I size him up shamelessly, trying
to locate the goods. He's a nice guy. He won't leave me dangling
like this in a state of unsated curiosity. He comes to my rescue:
"I have a prosthetic eye."
I guess I was supposed
to be grateful for his camaraderie, but I missed the chance to ask
what, in retrospect, I really wanted to know: Can you smuggle drugs
in the socket? Does Security make you take it out?
has been a bilateral amputee since the age of six as the result
of multiple birth defects. His writing has appeared in The New York
Times, Stagebill, and other publications. He lives in San Francisco.
© 20002 BENT