Wino on a Bench

By Mark E. Smith

I know better than to answer a question with a question because it’s a sure sign of guilt to those trained on how to spot a liar. But, I couldn’t stop myself from replying to the cop, “Do I look like I’ve been drinking?” – namely because I really wanted to know if I looked like I’d been drinking?

This predicament started with the Brightree party at Medtrade, the semi-annual trade show for home medical equipment. Friends of mine were going to the big Brightree software company bash, and I’d gotten to know Dave Cormack, Brightree’s CEO, a bit, so I was on the party list. And, I rolled into the party with a splash – the only person using a wheelchair – and I immediately landed on the dance floor with Dave and countless lovely women, dancing the night away to a live band.

By 10:00pm or so, I’d had my fun for the night, and headed back to my hotel via the then-empty streets of downtown Atlanta. Now, Atlanta’s downtown is pretty safe, but sketchy characters pop-up from time to time, so I was on guard – full speed ahead – racing back to my hotel, alone in my power wheelchair. And, I was well on my way, no cars or creeps, when I made it to the main intersection crossing that separates downtown from Centennial Park, me from my hotel.

As I reached the intersection, cruising on the sidewalk with the direction of traffic, I caught the green light, and crossed the street, high-tailing it up, into the park, which allows through-traffic. But, there was no traffic; just me, racing up the dark sidewalk. And, then the flashing lights hit me, followed by an amplified voice on a loud speaker: “Stop where you are!”

You have to be freakin’ kidding me, I thought. I’m being pulled over, on the sidewalk, in my power chair, by a cop? Really?

So, I stopped, and the cop stopped beside me at the curb, and got out of his car – lights still flashing.

“Do you know why I’m stopping you?” he asked, walking up to me.

“No,” I replied, turning my wheelchair toward him.

“You illegally crossed that intersection,” he said, eyeing me up and down.

“No,” I said. “I crossed in the crosswalk, on a green light, with the direction of traffic.”

“But, the pedestrian sign was red,” he said.

“I didn’t see a pedestrian sign, but I clearly followed the light,” I replied.

“Where are you coming from?” he asked, pulling out his note pad.

“The Tabernacle,” I replied. “I’m in town for a sort of wheelchair trade show, and one of the companies had a party tonight.”

He wrote something on his pad, then asked, “Have you been drinking?”

“Do I look like I’ve been drinking?” I asked.

Surely, I now realize that it was the worst possible answer that I could have given the cop. But, it was my sincere thought in the moment, where I really wanted to know if I looked like I’d been drinking? Was my tie crooked? Had I weaved while driving my power wheelchair up the sidewalk? And, with my cerebral palsy, how could the cop, a stranger, know if I’d been drinking, anyway? My speech is always slurred, and I always look… well… drunk. I mean, sure, my wheelchair gives me away as disabled, but take away the wheelchair and set me on a park bench, and my posture, movements, and speech instantly appear every bit of a wino. Drunk? Cerebral palsy? Who’s to know? How could the cop know?

Then, in an instant, my instinctive curiosity turned to rational thought, and the devil on my shoulder said, You basically just told the cop you’re drunk – idiot!

But, I wasn’t drunk, and lucky for me, the cop actually laughed at my reply. Close one – dodged. I crossed on a green light, I rode on the sidewalk, and I wasn’t drunk. Winning!

“Where are you heading?” he asked.

“The Embassy Suites,” I replied. “My hotel.”

“Well, from now on, make sure that you follow the pedestrian signs,” he said.

“Absolutely,” I replied.

The cop walked back to his car, I headed toward my hotel, and he slowly followed me with his lights on for a block – presumably still looking for signs if I had cerebral palsy or was a wino.

Inadequacy

By Mark E. Smith

Often, those in-the-know in the wheelchair industry – clinicians and such – ignore my entirety, and hyper-focus on the shaft of my joystick, transfixed by its abnormalities. They’re bold enough to ask me why it’s so short, without a big knob? They stare at it, sometimes pinch it between their fingers, roll it around, and it makes me uncomfortable – violated. I tell them that it’s been that way since I was a child, that it’s easy for me to grasp, that due to my cerebral palsy, a big knob would be too cumbersome. But, they never seem to agree, all but mocking my physicality, insisting that I should have a big knob above all else. Apparently, somehow, if I just had a big knob, it would make them feel better – inside.

Wanna Watch Me Get Dressed?

By Mark E. Smith

Come on, someone’s said it to you. Maybe it was a friend, a colleague, or a love interest. And, admit it, you took it as a compliment.

Me, not so much. See, whenever anyone’s said it to me, I’ve struggled not to laugh, finding the sentiment genuinely funny, no matter how sincere the person has been when saying it: You know, Mark, I really don’t see you as disabled….

“Really, what part of this equation don’t you get?” I always want to retort, looking down at my body. ”…Never play the board game Clue because you’re the worst detective, ever!”

I’m a guy, with spastic cerebral palsy, who uses a power wheelchair – and, somehow one doesn’t see me as disabled. Really? It would be like me, at a “gentleman’s club,” saying to the dancer, You know, I really don’t see you as a stripper. …I mean, sure, you’re on stage, nude, accepting money from strange men; but, really, I don’t see you as a stripper – more like, say, a school teacher or an anthropologist.

Really, people don’t see me as disabled?

Look, I get the sentiment behind the statement – that the individual sees me as more than my exterior – but if that’s true, it should be self-evident in our interaction, not needing to be said. And, when someone says, You know, I really don’t see you as disabled, isn’t that really a paradoxical statement that says that they do see us as disabled? After all if one truly doesn’t see one’s disability, then the statement would never be made in the first place because the disability wouldn’t exist within one’s perception (call it a philosophical predication, if you wish).

Of course, I always want to turn the tables on the statement. Imagine if I was alone with a buddy, watching football on television, and I turned, looked my buddy in the eyes, and I said with a soft, sincere voice, You know, Frank, I really don’t see you as a man…. How long do you suppose it would take Frank to jump up from the sofa?

Or, how well do you suppose returning the sentiment to a love interest would fly? We’re cuddled up in bed, her supple hand on my cheek, and she whispers, “There’s something that I really want you to know – I really don’t see you as disabled….”

And, I begin kissing her neck passionately, and I reply in an breath-heavy voice, “And, there’s something that I really need you to know, I truly don’t see you as female….”

A lot of these Inspector Clouseaus are similarly – and, yet, completely contradictory – clueless as to how those of us with disabilities accomplish everyday tasks, as if it’s the Eighth Wonder of the World. Someone (who doesn’t really see me as disabled, of course), asked me how does one without arms or legs eat?

“With his or her mouth,” I answered.

“No, like how does he or she get the food to his or her mouth?” my friend asked.

“Levitation-based mind control,” I replied without blinking. “Floating freakin’ burritos – that’s what one eats when one has no arms or legs!”

Again, really? As adults, we’re somehow not smart enough to figure out that those who are quadruple amputees devise ways to eat – really? And, what gets me to no end is when those with disabilities, themselves, are the ones asking the most absurd questions. Logic tells me that because I’ve figured out how to live independently with a disability, so have many others with disabilities – therefore, there’s no mystery whatsoever in my mind how people get by in life, no matter one’s condition.

Yet, some with disabilities can’t seem to catch on to the concept that we all adapt and create pretty darn basic everyday living skills. One of the most common questions that I get asked by others with disabilities is, How do you get dressed? Really? Out of all of one’s problem solving skills, the one equation that’s unsolvable is how do I get dressed? …I always want to answer the question by asking, Well, how do you get dressed? Then, when they tell me the obvious – that they get dressed like everyone else! – I want to blow their minds with how I get dressed:

I had to rule out getting dressed standing up because I can’t stand up. So, because I can’t stand up in order to get dressed, I alternate between using high-class call girls (whom are strikingly reliable), and little people. Now, I know that using little people to get dressed may conjure up Santa’s elves stereotypes, but as long as I’m in a committed relationship with a woman of short stature – who so happens to be extremely attractive – it’s totally OK. However, when I can’t afford high-class call girls, or I’m not in a relationship with an extremely attractive woman of short stature, I have to opt for my last resort: I put on my pants, socks, and shoes while I’m on my bed, then I transfer into my wheelchair and put on my shirt. Does that answer your question, Detective Colombo?

OK, so maybe I’d better keep my retorts to myself. As absurd as the comments and questions are – You know, I really don’t see you as disabled or How does one with no arms or legs eat? – those uttering such words ultimately mean well. And, my giving any response besides, Thank you – that means a lot to me, or my seriously explaining how those of us with disabilities live independently, would almost certainly turn a well-intended moment into a creepy one really fast, sort of like sitting on the porch of a house in the country, on a warm moonlit night, and saying, You know, Malissa, I really don’t really see you as my cousin – wanna watch me get dressed?

I’m Going to Eat Your Heart

By Mark E. Smith

One couldn’t say that I have an anger management problem by any stretch. In fact, I’m among the easiest-going, happy-go-lucky guys around – very little ruffles my feathers. But, that doesn’t mean that I’m not fearless – arguably to an absurd point – where I won’t grab a guy by the shirt who’s being a jerk in public, welcoming a little scrap with another dude when called for.

I’m sure that my brother helped instill fearless bravado in me when we were growing up. After all, it makes no intrinsic sense for me, as a guy with cerebral palsy, using a power wheelchair, to be the one guy in a scene to grab a jerk by the collar, pull him into my spit-firing, vein-bulging face, and tell him in words that I can’t use here that if he doesn’t settle down, I’m going to rip off his limbs and eat his heart while it’s still beating. See, my brother and I are six days less than a year apart, and we were raised very much like twins, right down to always having the same clothes and toys. In a psychoanalytic way looking back, I think that we were both always trying to distinguish ourselves from each other – and that included via never-ending brotherly brawls.

For better or for worse, it never seemed to matter that I had cerebral palsy and my brother didn’t – when we fought, we really fought. In no mixing terms, we beat the heck out of each other, both playing on our strengths, as well as the other’s vulnerabilities. He knew that he could punch me and run, and as long as I couldn’t catch him, he would win, leaving me with a black eye, busted lip, or such. Yet, I knew that if I got my hands on him, he wasn’t getting away – I’d throw my good, strong right arm around his neck, and try to choke the life out of him. I know that child psychologists frown upon sibling rivalries nowadays – and I don’t tolerate such violence among the kids in my own family, where I’m always reprimanding my two nephews for antagonizing each other – but, when my brother and I were kids, duking it out seemed par for the course.

As adults, my brother and I laugh about it all now, and joke about how inherently bold it made both of us. After all, in my brother’s case, if he’s beat-up a kid with cerebral palsy, that’s probably not a guy scared of punching just about anyone. And, in my case, as a kid with cerebral palsy raised to give and take punches, an absurd fearless toward fist-to-cuffs has stuck with me, as well. In fact, my buddy, Jeff, and I inadvertently ended up in the front row of a concert not too long ago, and when the drunk idiots around us started going nuts, bumping into me, I started swinging. Jeff seemed a bit concerned at first, but once I grabbed and punched a few people – and the crowd figured out to stay away from this guy in a power wheelchair – Jeff seemed a bit reassured that I wasn’t going to get us killed. I suppose people figured that if I was crazy enough to be in a mosh pit in a wheelchair, swinging on people, they should probably just stay away from me.

Now, my brother and I are both successful in our careers, with kids of our own – living as wholesome, law-abiding, God-fearing citizens – and neither one of us are the types hanging out at country-n-western bars looking for fist fights (beyond my inadvertently ending up in a mosh pit, that is). However, my one short fuse relates to jerks in public, especially those disrespecting women – and I’ve become bolder in my reactions since raising my daughter. I have zero tolerance for guys disrespecting women in public – guys gawking, making inappropriate comments, or such – and I have no qualms about straightening out the situation in real time.

Word must have gotten around about my short fuse because I was out with a female friend, and she commented to me that a creepy guy was staring her down. However, before I could turn around and see who it was – and impulsively roll over and pick him up by his shirt – she asked me not to do anything, not wanting a scene. I did as she wished, didn’t move, and continued with our conversation. However, I wondered how she knew that I was the kind of guy who would create such an over-the-top scene, that I wouldn’t have any hesitation about grabbing a guy by the shirt and explaining to him in four-letter words how to act around ladies in public?

A few days later, I asked my friend how she knew that I was immediately ready to roll over and grab the guy by his shirt? She said that she recognized me as the protective type, and when she saw me intuitively go for my power wheelchair’s joystick, ready to spring into action, she knew to talk me down quickly.

I’ve always wondered what has gone through the minds of those few individuals over the years who I’ve confronted regarding their poor behavior? When a well-dressed guy with cerebral palsy, using a power wheelchair, rolls up to you, and says things into your ear that could never be said in a PG-rated movie – adding up to, If you don’t leave right now, I’m going to rip your heart out and eat it as an appetizer – what really goes through your mind? Or, on the few occasions when my words weren’t convincing enough, when I’ve literally picked them up by their shirts, what were they thinking as the weight came off of their feet, as I pulled them over my armrest, into my contorting face?

The real question is, how have I not been beat-up by now? (Heck, I would have beaten myself up by now!) I reckon that the answer is a combination of factors. Firstly, every guy I’ve dealt with was either really drunk, or a slender creep – both of which have been surprisingly easily manhandled. Secondly, I think there’s some shock to having a cartoon-looking guy in a power wheelchair, with cerebral palsy, grab you by your shirt and threaten to eat your heart – why take the chance of second-guessing a guy like me who’s seemingly crazy enough to confront you? Thirdly, my strength and appearance has to freak them out, where I’m strong to begin with, and when I spasm, it’s then unbridled strength (I broke the arm off of a 250 lb. chest press machine, when the weights were maxed-out, simply by spasming), so it has to be unsettling to be tossed around, seemingly uncontrollably, by a guy in a wheelchair going spastic with such force, where I’m breathing like an angry bull, trying to control the both of us. (As cerebral palsy comedian, Josh Blue, puts it, if a guy with cerebral palsy gets mad, someone’s going to get hurt by the palsy punch, and no one’s sure where it comes from or where it’s going, especially the guy with cerebral palsy!)

Nevertheless, there’s always a chance that a guy could start swinging on me – and I’d be fine with that. In my adult life with cerebral palsy, I’ve taken some hard falls, with bell-ringers to the head, so I don’t doubt that I could withstand a close-quarters punch to the head or two. I might even be flattered by the equality of it – at least until the third punch sent me snoozing into Lala Land. But, the goal, much like with my brother when I was a kid, has to be for me to never let it get to the third punch. Again, in theory, like a boxer holding his opponent close, as long as I’ve got my hands on him he’s not going anywhere. And, if he wanted to take me to the ground, a 400 lb. power wheelchair is going with us, and since I’m strapped in, I’m likely not the one it would land on.

Ultimately, though, my absurd, in-your-face antics toward jerks in public are arguably foolproof: No matter how jaded our society, if people see an able-bodied guy trying to fight a guy in a wheelchair in public, some bigger dude is going to knock his lights out for picking on a guy in a wheelchair – there’s still that stigma that you shouldn’t punch a guy in a wheelchair. So, no matter what creeps do in public to tick me off, they’re going to have a tough time winning in the end – which is why I’m always courteous enough to offer them the opportunity to leave before I tear their pulsating, blood-dripping hearts from their chests and eat them (or before they’re torn apart by an angry mob for beating the daylights out of me, a poor, defenseless guy in a wheelchair).