May
2002

HIGH
ANXIETY

 

Fear of flying?
No. Nothing like that.
But like a lot of my crip friends, I find travel a challenge, a not very appealing prospect—a 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 vans—designed 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 van?

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 bit.

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 meanwhile—trying not to embarrass me, I figure—but 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 ahead—on the return trip, through airport security. Security personnel have been professionalized, we've been told. Standards raised, conduct and skills impeccable. Right.

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 you—YOU—will 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?

Bob Guter
Editor


Bob Guter 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

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