The angry man was waiting for me as I parked my car in front of my physical therapist’s office building. He was pissed because I had honked at him. He had been having an argument with his teenage son in the crosswalk of a busy thoroughfare, and the kid bolted to the opposite side of the street. The older guy started to follow more slowly, right into oncoming traffic. I tapped my horn. He stood in front of my car, mouthing angry words and waving his arms, forcing traffic to a halt in my lane.
He finally gave up and stepped out of the street. I wasn’t going far, just a few feet to the parking lot of my physical therapist’s building. When he saw where I was going, he stalked after me and stood waiting while I parked in the convenient handicapped parking space and hung my placard with the icon of a wheelchair on the mirror. He was spoiling for a fight, and as the real source of his annoyance had taken to his heels, I would do.
He blocked my path. “Who the hell do think you're honking at?” he demanded.
“It looked like you were about to step into oncoming traffic, so I tried to warn you,” I said as tolerantly as possible. This guy as the hapless father of a rebellious son and I felt no need to put him down for his foolish behavior in the street.
The guy looked frustrated. The argument was not developing satisfactorily. He said the meanest, most irrelevant thing he could think of. “You’re not even disabled! You probably borrowed that placard!”
I replied with the look that used to quell a classroom full of rowdy teenagers, the one that was a study in demonic possession, the change from bland to evil was so startling. He turned and fled.
I don’t know what I would have said to him if he had stayed.
“Not every person with a disability has a wheelchair, regardless of the picture on the placard. I have arthritis in my hips and knees. I have degenerative disc disease. My spine is deformed and without discs, every step on cement hurts. That’s why I have a placard.”
No way was I sharing my medical problems with an asshole. Nor with the rest of the population of San Francisco, some of whom, no doubt, also believed I borrowed the placard. I practice not caring what other people think. One day, I’ll be really good at it.
I went to the doctor yesterday. In the handicapped zone, a guy was sitting in his car. He did not have a placard. I pulled in behind him, assuming he had dropped someone off and was leaving. He didn’t, so I drove up next to him and asked if he was going soon.
“No!” he replied, in a tone that said, “What are you, stupid?”
I was shocked at his rudeness in hogging the parking spot. It showed on my face.
“Do you have a handicapped placard?” he sneered.
“Yes!” My tone implied, “What are you, stupid?”
“Lemme see it!”
I showed him the damn placard, and he had the grace not to question my credentials, but explained that some people pretended to be handicapped. Did that make sense? He didn’t have any right to be there himself.
I hate it. I hate having a disability. I hate having constraints. I hate not being able to do things that I love. I used to lift weights. I used to dance in our Carnaval and Cinco de Mayo parades. I learned to ride horses at 49. There wasn't anything I couldn't do, other than hit a ball with a stick, but I could live with that.
I can’t stand for more than 10 minutes without the possibility of sudden pain so severe that I can’t walk. That means I can’t do my own errands. I was a world-class shopper, but now I can’t wander and look at things in a store. Shopping for groceries with my husband the other day, I got hit by the pain and had to sit on the floor while he went back to the car to fetch my cane. Leaning on the cane, with my husband holding me up, I was able to get out of there.
I don’t go to galleries and museums. I don’t go to anything with a line, unless I know I can find somewhere to sit while someone else holds my place in line. I have yet to try flying, but flying is about standing in line. I pass on most parties, because while my friends have chairs, I don’t want to sit in one waiting for people to come to me. What if they don’t?
I exercised for years and I’m still in good shape, although my torso shows the signs of my spinal deformity in the form of love handles created by the collapse of my lumbar spine. I make myself stand up straight (most of the time), suck in the gut and walk gracefully, if slowly. I try not to bend forward from the waist, the hallmark of a bad spine.
There are still things I can do. They confuse me and make me feel not disabled and, by extension, not deserving of my placard. I can walk for a couple of hours on hiking trails because dirt doesn’t transmit the same shock as concrete. I have no trouble with hills or stairs. I can dance for longer than I can stand because my knees stay bent. I can swim. I can have sex. Now there’s something I don’t want the other drivers to know about. Sex and parking? Nobody deserves that.
Having a bad back is a continual embarrassment. If I’m not collapsing in a store, I’m pissing off somebody who thinks I look fine. I don’t look like someone who has to sit down right now. I have an absurd inner conflict. I try not to look disabled, but sometimes I need concessions. I hate announcing my disability or asking for help. I’m hyper-aware of looking odd because my disability is not obvious. It’s almost a relief when my back gets so bad that I need a cane. “There, see, I have an old lady cane,” I say mentally to those appraising competitors for parking spaces who think I’m cheating with my placard.
The cane is a passport. I’ve learned to appreciate its power to legitimize my parking placard and excuse my gimpy behavior. I got the cane from my aunt years ago when I tore my ACL. My husband and I had a vacation planned and didn’t want to cancel it, so I borrowed the cane and we took a plane to New York.
Flying with a cane is tough. As I was going through airport security, the guard snatched the cane from my hand and sent it down the conveyor belt. As an afterthought, she asked, “You didn’t need that, did you?”
“No,” I mumbled, painfully limping through the metal detector. I didn’t add “it’s a fashion statement” because those guys are cranky.
On the airplane, the attendant again took my cane. “I’ll just put that away for you during the flight,” as though I would have no need to stand between San Francisco and New York. The flight attendant reckoned without my bladder. Halfway through the flight, I got up to use the rest room. On the way back, the seat belt light came on. We hit sudden, horrendous turbulence and the plane bucked like a pissed off horse. The flight attendants fled to their seats and left the drinks tray blocking the aisle between me and my seat. And me without my cane. After the initial shock of pain, I rode out the turmoil on one leg, like a loopy one-legged surfer. Without a cane in my hand, no one realized that I was injured.
That trip was a lesson in the value of the cane for explaining what I’d rather not, heartless airline staff notwithstanding. I was determined to enjoy New York. As a concession to my injured status, we took a lot of cabs, but back then, before I became generally discouraged, I was willing to venture some risky activities. Once we even decided to take the subway. We climbed into a full car. The only seat available was the front bench, the one with the sign that says to let the elderly and disabled have the seat. Sprawled in the middle of it, taking up the whole thing, was a teenager in full thug regalia, a rag knotted around his head and a look of bored and contemptuous abstraction on his face.
Kids don’t scare me. I was a teacher. I scare them. I went up to the kid and said, “Could I slide in next to you?”
He swung his head around and his eyes widened at the cane. He jumped up. “I’m sorry, ma’am. Please, you sit down.” In the years since I have become a government-certified gimp, I have never seen a clearer example of the power of the cane. Folks don’t believe the placard, but they believe the cane.