Frankie’s Sticks, Man

If you saw me now, you’d think that I time-warped back to 1983.

Getting here wasn’t as hard as one might think. The fact is, a powerchair is my best friend in crowds, where it works almost as well as a snowplow, ushering people out of my way. Maybe even drunks at a rock concert have empathy for a guy seated in a wheelchair among a standing-only crowd, or maybe the look in my eyes – that I’m not stopping for anyone, that my 300-pound powerchair could break toes and ankles – appeals to their common sense; but, for whatever reason, I can always work my way through the most obnoxious of crowds.

And, that’s what my buddy, Dave, and I did tonight, making our way to the front row, center stage of this concert.

Now, this isn’t a big concert venue, but a club room, where there’s nothing between the audience and the band. The stage, in fact, is barely over a foot-and-a-half high, and I’m right against it, looking up at the lead singer of Quiet Riot, who’s still decked in purple spandex, a bad wig, and gaudy jewelry after twenty-five years without a hit, looking like this gig is at least fifteen years past his fitness level, as judged by his pouring sweat and labored dance movements.

At some point, a guy warned us that the flashback-frenzied crowd might surge forward, pressing us against the stage. However, with my reinforced-steel legrests touching the stage, and my push canes protruding behind me, ready to impale the crowd, no one’s pushing me anywhere.

Indeed, my game plan is working. See, in 2007, there’s nothing less cool than going to the concert of a hair band from the ’80s, whose members and fans are frozen in time, unable to see that a 1979 Trans Am isn’t the chic magnet that it once was. Yet, in 2007, there’s nothing more entertaining than going to the concert of a hair band from the ’80s, whose members and fans are frozen in time, where the skinny guy to my left – mullet, graying beard, skin-tight T-shirt, bandannas tied together as a belt – is playing air guitar and drums like he’s part of the band, and the 40-something mom to my right, with teased-up hair, hasn’t stop jumping up and down with her fist in the air since the band started playing two hours ago. Of course, the woman directly behind me – a seemingly over-erogenous DMV clerk – keeps leaning over me, trying to grab the lead singer’s crotch, and even he gives her disgusted looks, pulling away each time she gets lucky.

“In ’92, I talked to Frankie, the drummer!” Mr. Mullet yells in my ear. “Dude, I live for these shows.”

And, I believe him. But, I can’t stop laughing long enough to get as excited as he is. Sure, it’s terrific that this is a highlight in the lives of those around me. But, how any 40-year-old can think that playing air guitar at hair band concert, decades past the era, is cool, is beyond me. Maybe I’m turning old and boring, but in my circles, being able to trade stocks on your PDA while you’re vacationing on a beach in the Bahamas is cool; popping a cassette tape into the dash of your Gremlin on the way to the Quiet Riot concert is uncool.

“Dude, no one’s ever come close to their genius!” Mr. Mullet yells to me.

“Dude, do you live with your mom?” I yell back.

“Yeah, but I’m moving in with my girl!” he replies, pointing to the middle aged, pear-shaped woman next to him, poured into her black velvet top and faded jeans, screaming every cheesy lyric.

I look over my shoulder, to Dave, who’s notably out of place, wearing a fatherly sweater and slacks, unable to change since someone offered us free, last-minute tickets at work late in the day, and he’s chuckling at the whole scene, too. I look back to the stage, and read the song list taped to the floor, noting that the band is playing the last song on the list – and, I’m glad, as it must be close to midnight, and two hours of being stuck in the worst of 1983 is plenty for me.

The drummer just hit the last few beats, and the singer is thanking the crowd. I’m looking around, seeing if the packed crowd is going to immediately rush for the exits, but now I see that the crowd is freaking out again. It’s the drummer coming toward me, and everyone’s reaching toward him. He kneels down, and hands me his drum sticks, but due to my poor coordination, I can’t grab them, so he gingerly sets them on my lap.

“Thanks, man!” I yell, giving him the thumbs up sign.

Mr. Mullet to my left, and Teased-Hair Tammi to my right, look simultaneously elated and disappointed by my score, and I feel guilty, instinctively thinking that I should give the sticks away to the crowd. After all, I’m here in mockery, with no regard for Quiet Riot as musical icons, thinking that the whole scene is a Saturday Night Live skit that I rolled into. Yet, those around me have seemingly invested their entire lives in this band and scene, presumably passing on any sort of cultural growth over the last twenty-five years – that is, their receiving concert drum sticks from the drummer of Quiet Riot might be like getting blessed by the Pope, a forever link to hair band immortality. But, then, here I am, a sucker-bet, all but guaranteed to get the sticks, with the well-meaning drummer likely thinking that I, as guy in a wheelchair, have had it rough in life, that it’s probably my last wish to be in the front row of a Quiet Riot concert, that receiving the drum sticks will be a golden gift. Is it my fault that I’m a tough racket to beat at a hair band concert when it comes to societal projections of sympathy toward those with disabilities?

“I’ve waited my whole life for this,” I yell to Mr. Mullet.

“Right on,” he replies, patting me on the back. “Now, you’ve got Frankie’s sticks, man!”

I turn to Dave, and he leans toward me. “How much do you think these will sell for on Ebay?” I ask.

Dave laughs, and adds, “This whole thing is just wrong.”

Screaming At The TV

Drop into my master bedroom suite on any given night, and the scene is predictable: I’m sitting at my computer desk, with my back to our TV, listening intermittently to the fluffy, feel-good shows that my wife watches from bed as I write my latest late-night ramblings and correspondences.

On this night, I’m on cue, with my wheelchair wheels pressed into their usual ruts worn into the plush, grey carpeting in front of my desk, and my wife is into the first few minutes of one of her favorite prime-time shows. As I spin my chair around, heading to the kitchen to sneak a cupcake, I see wheelchairs rolling across the TV screen.

“Oh, cool, wheelchairs,” I say, pulling up within inches of our entertainment cabinet, practically pressing my noise against the flat-screen television. “What’s this?”

“Joan of Arcadia,” my wife says.

“Cool, look, they’re playing wheelchair basketball,” I say, pointing at the screen as if it wasn’t entirely obvious. “There’s a Colours chair, and a Top-End, and a bunch of Quickies.”

I look at my wife, and her perturbed stare back at me suggests that she’s far less enthralled by the wheelchairs on TV than I am. If I’m a dog chasing its tale, she’s the wise cat watching me act like a fool. I look back to the TV, and see a guy in a Quickie GPV trying to coax a guy in a Quickie 2 to play basketball with the rest of the team.

“Hey, that guy in the GPV has stroller handles on his chair,” I shout, fingering his chair on the screen. “No one plays basketball with stroller handles – what the hell kind of blasphemy is this?”

“Stop,” my wife says, striving to break my fixation on the everyday wheelchairs racing back and forth across the basketball court.

“What the hell – look, that other guy has drop-in T-arms on his chair. No one plays basketball with T-arms,” I say, watching the guy with the Quickie 2 and T-arms roll off the court. “Good, go home and get a real basketball chair….”

The TV shuts off, and I look at my wife holding the remote control.

“Hey, I was watching that!” I shout, frustrated that she pulled the plug on my wheelchair watching and whining.

“Go away,” she’s says.

“Turn it back on,” I say.

“No,” she says. “Every time you see wheelchairs on TV, you end up yelling at the TV.”

“…Because they’re always wrong,” I say. “They never use the right types of chairs.”

“It’s a TV show, they’re actors – the guy in the Quickie walks during some of the fantasy scenes, he’s not really disabled,” she says.

“So, at least get the chairs right,” I insist. “Show me realistic wheelchair applications and I’m fine. Show me stroller handles and T-arms on a basketball court, and I’ll flip out every time.”

“Go away,” she says.

“I’m going,” I say, turning toward the hallway. “But, there better not be stroller handles and T-arms on the basketball court when I get back.”

Wheel And Deal

It’s proved interesting working consumer mobility tradeshows over the years, where I’ve noticed that consumers fall into fairly clear patterns of intentions. There are those who attend shows knowing exactly the wheelchair they want, eager to explore it in detail with a manufacturer’s representative, with a depth that they may not find at their local provider. Then, there are those who know they will need a new wheelchair in the near future, attending shows to window shop, where they can view almost all wheelchairs in one place, trying products, collecting brochures, and heading home to contemplate what they’ve seen.

Still, there’s a third profile, one exceptionally uncommon, but seen at every consumer show that I’ve worked: The gentleman who’s shopping for a new wheelchair, convinced that the process is identical to haggling a deal for a new car.

“There are a lot of great chairs here – why should I bother considering yours?” he asks, rolling up to me in my booth.

“I suppose I could give you many reasons,” I say. “But, I believe that products should speak for themselves. What type of chair are you interested in? I’ll be glad to show you what we offer.”

“Oh, I know what kind of chair I want,” he says, glancing around my booth. “And, I know what I’m willing to pay.”

“Are you looking to replace your current chair?” I ask, studying his chair, noting its product class and signs of wear, determining which products in our booth might be of interest to his needs.

“Yes, but nothing fancy – I know how all you guys up-sell,” he says. “I’m not getting suckered into all the bells and whistles.”

“How about a horn,” I say, reaching over, beeping the horn on a scooter next to me, smiling. Beep, beep, beep.

But, he doesn’t laugh or smile.

“Well, we have our newer models over here,” I say, maneuvering my chair, rolling toward the line of powerchairs of varying sizes and applications.

“Don’t you have last year’s model?” he asks. “A past model year should be cheaper.”

“Actually, powerchairs don’t go by model years like cars,” I say. “But, we have models to fit many funding levels.”

“OK, let’s cut to the chase,” he says. “Show me the one you can give me the best deal on if I buy it today.”

“We don’t actually sell powerchairs,” I say. “We’re the manufacturer. To purchase a powerchair, consumers go through a dealer. And, there are dealers here at the show. But, we’re here to educate consumers, reviewing products with them, answering any questions they may have.”

“So, you’re telling me that if I offered you a million bucks for that chair, you wouldn’t sell it to me,” he says, pointing at one of our smallest powerchairs.

“For a million bucks, I’d sell you that chair, my own chair, and that lady’s chair over there,” I say.

And, he finally smiles.

“But, in all seriousness, we don’t sell directly to consumers,” I say.

“Alright, show me what you’ve got,” he says.

I pull out of the line a powerchair of similar size and seating to his current chair, and he transfers into it. He spins in a circle, crosses the booth, squeezes the padded armrests, and rolls up beside me.

“I like it,” he says, leaning closer to me. ”Zero down, $319 per month?”

“Do you have a trade-in?” I reply, and we both laugh.

One Night Only

I have no idea what time it is, but it’s late – maybe eleven or midnight? But, because we’re strolling back to our hotel on the night of MedTrade’s big parties, Atlanta’s downtown sidewalks are still busy. Block after block, people have been congratulating me on my performance, as if I’m the real deal.

“You were awesome tonight!” a woman shouts to me as we wait to cross a main drag. “I was one of the women security pulled off the stage when you were up there – that was me!”

This all started a few hours ago, harmlessly enough. Every year, my company throws a provider appreciation party one night during MedTrade. First and foremost, the annual party is a terrific opportunity to socialize with the providers we work with throughout the year, an inspired occasion to get to know those who we strive to support. Secondly, many of us have spent a lot of time leading up to the tradeshow, preparing details and products, then once at the show, we work very long hours, so the party is an opportunity to relax a bit, and get to know providers and co-workers while enjoying great food and music.

Somewhere along the line this year, however, I decided I should get up on stage and sing karaoke with the live house band, reckoning that would be one heck of a good time, for me and the huge crowd.

…Well, in good conscience, maybe I need to stop that part of the story, and go back a tad farther in my retelling of the evening to explain exactly how I even got to the epiphany that I should get on stage in front of a huge club of people and put on the rock and roll show of my lifetime….

Somewhere along the line, I asked a bartender for an empty glass, a straw, an energy drink, and a double-shot of Jack Daniels. Not only had I never had an energy drink, I never had Jack Daniels, either – and by the looks on my friends’ faces, I concluded that no one had ever combined the two, no less. Indeed, my college chemistry was somewhat limited, but I knew enough to instruct my friend how to place the double shot in the glass, then add double that amount of energy drink, and then with a constant draw on the straw, I took it down in one breath. It burned like kerosene going down, but, surprisingly, it had no affect on me whatsoever – that is, until I felt compelled to get on stage with the band, and rock the house as no other.

“Brian,” I yelled to my co-worker and travel partner over the loud music in the packed club, “we have to get me on stage with the band.”

Brian chuckled and smiled at me, appearing skeptical but tempted to go along with this for the ride.

“Really – I’m serious,” I yelled. “Let’s get me on stage with the band – I’ll rock the house.”

We made our way through the crowd to the side of the stage, to the woman who was handling the band’s play list.

“I’m Mark Smith, with Pride,” I yelled into her ear, pointing to the company T-shirt I was wearing. “Can you squeeze me in quickly to do a song?”

I was trying to play two trump cards – the usual move-the-guy-in-the-wheelchair-to-the-front-of-the-line card, and the I’m-related-to-the-host card. I figured that she couldn’t say no to getting me on stage in short order.

“The band’s going on break till 9:20,” she yelled. “But, I’ll put you on the list for then.”

I thanked her, and realized that a wheelchair, a position in a company, and a self-invented cocktail is really all you need to become a rock star – what an easy gig.

Brian and I headed out toward the lobby to plot my performance coming up in half an hour.

“We have to spread the word,” I told Brian. “Let’s get everyone.”

Brian went upstairs in the club, and I stayed downstairs by the lobby, both of us spreading the word that I was going on stage at 9:20 – a performance not to be missed. And, word spread like wild fire, people pouring into the downstairs club room.

Close to show time, I rolled up toward the stage, everyone patting me on my back as I squeezed through the crowd, and security moved the front-row barricade, allowing me to the side of the stage, where there was a ramp. Off to the side, in the dark, I waited in the wings, ready to rock the house.

“Mark Smith,” the MC announced, and the crowd cheered.

I rolled on stage, looking out to the crowd of cheering people, a guitarist to my right and left, a drummer behind me, colored lights shinning down. I took the microphone from the MC, and was ready to roll.

“I’m Mark Smith with Pride,” I shouted. “I’m in my Q6000, and I’m on the highway to Hell!”

The band immediately went into playing the AC/DC’s classic, Highway to Hell, and the crowd went nuts.

With the mic in hand, fist in the air, I went into the lyrics.

Living easy, living free
Season ticket on a one-way ride
Asking nothing, leave me be
Taking everything in my stride….
…I’m on the highway to hell….
No stop signs, speed limit
Nobody’s gonna slow me down
Like a wheel, gonna spin it
Nobody’s gonna mess me round….
…I’m on the highway to hell….

Women were jumping on stage, and being removed by security. The crowd was pulsating up and down in sync with the beat, fists were pumping in the air. And, I was a man possessed, screaming the lyrics, working the mic, and playing to the crowd – my rock-n-roll attitude in full affect. At the guitar solo, the guitarist came up to me, leaning back with his guitar in play, rockin’ to each other, a scene from any great rock show. On queue, I went back into the lyrics, and the crowd was shouting along.

Make no mistake, I was up there, with the crowd in a frenzy, my stage antics in full affect, and the band blazing, living life at 300 miles per hour, with a wheelchair, and cerebral palsy, and an understanding that there’s nothing more liberating than simply enjoying every moment as you are, in your own skin, for the world to see.

Now, the woman on the corner is still going on and on about how I rocked the house. And, she leans in and hugs me, and my chair moves, suddenly powered.

“You ran over my foot,” she says smiling, stepping back.

I glance at the crowd around us.

“No, honey, you hit my joystick,” I quickly reply.

The crowd bursts into laughter, and I realize that there was something left to interpretation of my reply.

“If you know what I mean,” I say, winking at her, spinning my chair around, heading back to the hotel with my friends, a ruckus rock star for one night only.

Stories In My Pocket

Several times per week, I make the trip from my office near one end of my company’s building, down the back utility hall, clear to the other end of the building, a city block’s length, to our shipping department. I often need to ship an object that’s small enough to fit in my shirt pocket, but more valuable to its recipient than anything purchased on Rodeo Drive, all but irreplaceable: A wheelchair component that someone needs to get his or life back in motion, where such a seemingly mundane piece of metal, or plastic, or wire means the difference between passing finals in college or not taking them, enjoying a vacation or being confined to a hotel room, arriving to work on time or getting laid off, or being mobile to join family in the backyard or being stuck in bed – the difference between truly thriving or merely existing.

I’m reminded of the gentleman who flew from Minnesota to Maui, for the honeymoon he and his wife skipped decades before because of the accident that left him a quadriplegic just weeks prior to their original wedding date. As they rolled him off of the airplane in Maui via an aisle chair, approaching his powerchair on the tarmac of paradise in March, he immediately noticed a glaring omission: The goal-post joystick knob that he needed to drive his powerchair was gone. The difference between independence and dependence on the trip of a lifetime came down to a formed piece of plastic that fit in a shirt pocket, that cost less than a couple of Starbuck coffees to get it to the user within 48 hours, restoring his ability to stroll the walks of Kaanapali Beach with his wife for the following 11 days.

Indeed, some stories tell more cinematic than others, but there’s no difference among them, where the woman who can’t use her powerchair in her house because the joystick cable broke by catching on a doorknob isn’t any less impacted by not having a vital wheelchair component than the young lady set to march in the Rose Parade, who’s puppy got a hold of her charger cord, preventing her from charging her powerchair days before the big event. When life is on hold, there’s no hierarchy, just need. Like loosing the key to one’s house, suddenly not having among the most common wheelchair components can strip one of the aspects of life needed the most.

Sometimes I pause for a moment in our shipping department, watching boxes of many shapes and sizes flowing down they conveyor line, knowing that other wheelchair manufacturers serve similar needs, where the cumulative stories are endless, where I wish I could follow each package out the door, to where somewhere in transit, the seemingly mundane parts in boxes transform into invaluable keys that open lives.

Playing The Wheelchair Waiting Game

Here we are racing toward fall, the time of the year when the mobility industry debuts many of the new products for the coming year. For some, this is an exciting time, getting a glimpse of what, ideally, is another step in the evolution of mobility products. However, others view this time of year with great skepticism, unconvinced by any new products, unwilling to venture into so-called unproven realms. Indeed, the consumer debate between old and new is clear: Is a new mobility product something to obtain, delivering increased liberation, or should it be avoided, too much of a risk, possibly compromising one’s mobility with unforeseen issues?

The intent of new products is basic, to provide advantages over existing products. Maybe a new product performs better than previous models? Maybe a new product offers comfort beyond competing models? Maybe a new product offers a more cost-effective package than others? Or, maybe a new product offers all of these advantages over current models, with a cool new aesthetic added, as well. Who wouldn’t want a better performing, more comfortable, less expensive, sharper looking mobility product?

Still, with these many advances may come unknowns. Was the new product adequately tested prior to release to prove out any “bugs?” Is there appropriate manufacturer and dealer support for the new product? And, will the new product interface with aftermarket technology, such as seating, vehicle securement systems, and so on? Most certainly one wouldn’t want to place one’s mobility in an unproven product, with questionable support, and poor integration toward existing technology.

The question then becomes, do the potential rewards of purchasing a newly-introduced mobility product outweigh the potential risks of owning a product with an unknown track record?

To answer this question, one must begin by considering the nature of new products. Rarely is a new product entirely new, as they are usually an evolution of technology, building upon the proven and familiar. Specifically in the mobility market, electronics, for example, have a decades-old lineage, where the latest-and-greatest powerchair or scooter controllers aren’t of a technology that is entirely a technological shift or introduction, but rather an improvement and expansion of existing technology (similar to the evolution of personal computers, where we’ve seen a stepping-stone approach toward improvements, ensuring reliability while still consistently advancing technology). The unknowns, therefore, of new technology may not be as profound as one might believe, containing improvements on existing technology to offer both enhanced performance and reliability.

Similarly, a new model doesn’t usually mean unknown product support, and, as a new model, may actually promise more reliability and better support than prior models. Responsible manufacturers, learn and grow over time, improving processes and skills; in this way, a new model may have more knowledge and talent designed into it, ensuring that any enhancements fostered by previous models are automatically placed into new products – put simply, new products often begin where prior products left off, fostering the best of the best.

With some research and understanding, then, the perceived risks of purchasing a new model may not be a risk at all. In fact, purchasing newly-introduced product may prove more sound than remaining with one’s favorite product, making a great product genre even greater — which is the foremost reason one should purchase a new product, to obtain enhanced levels of mobility beyond the present.

Ultimately, there are few areas of life that are more important than one’s mobility. It is true that there is a sense of security in one’s time-proven mobility product. Nevertheless, with life-enhancing technology always evolving, one shouldn’t let the known mobility of today prevent the pursuit of newly-enhanced mobility tomorrow.

Crazy Talk

When I was six years old, I told my great-grandmother that, more than anything, I wanted new powerchair.

“That’s crazy talk,” she said, standing up from the couch where we both sat, pointing her finger at me. “A little boy should want a bike, not a wheelchair – you shouldn’t want something that you need like a wheelchair.”

While my great-grandmother’s frankness may have been well-meant, it certainly wasn’t accurate in my case, where a new powerchair was number one on my list, ahead of a bike or a room full of toys. What I knew even at that young age was that a new powerchair meant liberation, where improved mobility would take me beyond the present physical limitations of being all but housebound. For me, at that moment, a new powerchair certainly promised the freedom to go outside, away from Great-Granny’s old-world lectures.

As Great-Granny and my parents learned, when it came to my getting a new wheelchair, I was anything but patient, where I tossed and turned at night while waiting the three or four months that it took in those days to get a new powerchair. Time crept by, where I couldn’t think about anything else besides getting my new wheelchair. In school, I’d look out the window at a grassy hill, imagining my new powerchair taking me to the top. At home, I studied the brochure of my forthcoming wheelchair night after night till the pages were crumpled and torn from so much handling. And, during all times in-between, all I thought of was my new wheelchair, envisioning how it would handle in every environment I entered. After all, I wasn’t just getting a new wheelchair; I was hopefully getting a new way of life.

And, I was never disappointed. I remember getting my first powerchair, it taking me across the room like a magic carpet ride. I remember getting my second powerchair that had larger batteries than the first, so that I could stay outside playing longer after school. And, I remember getting my third, fourth, and fifth powerchairs, where painted colors, high-speed motors, and contoured seating propelled me ever farther. With each evolution of technology, each new wheelchair, my life changed, where I could go places previously inaccessible, where I could better interact with my peers in such ways as keeping up with them on their bikes, where the silver-on-black racing stripes and fast speeds made me feel more like a hot-rodder than the only disabled kid in my school. New wheelchairs weren’t simply part of life-long disability, they were tools of inspiration.

Today, I’m touched when a consumer asks me to track the order of his or her new wheelchair, wanting to know when it’s built, when it will ship, when it will arrive at the provider – that is, when it will take him or her across the room like a magic carpet ride. I can feel users’ excitement – I live the excitement – as I, too, can’t wait to see where their new wheelchairs take them.