I did a demonstration on New Year's Eve in front of a party thrown by a progressive Westside organization with a great name--Alliance for Survival--and little to show for it except the annual party. I have been asking its head (and possibly only member) not to keep throwing this bash year after year in an inaccessible church.
I first requested this ten or more years ago, when I also asked the church's minister to do the same. This is a politically important church: its longtime minister (and more recently its administrator) were both on the Santa Monica City Council and were also mayors. It has been a key focus for the renter rights political machine that dominated the City Council for many years; it has sustained attacks by business interests across the country who call it a threat to private property rights.
I had mixed emotions about criticizing this church. I figured such stands of its leaders did not make fundraising from fat cats easy, and making this old church accessible would not be easy or cheap. On the other hand, I felt no such doubts about the Alliance for Survival and its head, Jerry Rubin. I considered him a hypocrite, not a progressive of any merit. He had no such problems; he was not stuck with an old building on a hill. He could have made the New Year's bash accessible at any time simply by staging it in a wheelchair-accessible location. But he chose not to -- possibly for Left political reasons.
A while ago Rubin had come to me and asked for support to stop the yuppifying of what is called the last poor people's beach, an oceanside district of Los Angeles called Venice. He claimed that business interests intended to brick the current cheap asphalt paved beachside walk to make it more attractive to yuppies and to invite expensive developments and high rentals. He said such a bumpy brick paving would be bad for wheelchair users.
I agreed, but did not join his crusade because I knew from his refusal to make his own annual party wheelchair accessible that he did not give a damn about the disabled. He wanted to use me for his cause, without even a quid pro quo. He did not understand that I could not worry about these grand people's park schemes when he would not let my people even near his festivity. Hell, I thought: if they put even one McDonald's on that stretch of beach, that would mean that I had at least one place to go to the bathroom and eat at tables designed to accept wheelchairs, whereas, as it was, with those wonderful democratic mom'n'pop small businesses, I had nowhere to urinate for miles in Venice. Our worldviews -- his erect from above hairy legs that he nearly always displayed fully below his short shorts, and mine from two or three feet below, with my legs permanently folded into a wheelchair -- were quite different, and he, I was sure, was set on using and then abusing my worldview.
I'd printed about a hundred leaflets right before the demonstration and we handed them out. I had called Gerri, a formerly homeless woman whom I'd helped get off the streets, and asked her if she wanted to join in. All she would say was that she would meet me in front of the church at the beginning of the party. That worried me.
When I got there, a little late as usual, Gerri had already arrived. I quickly saw I had reason to worry. Though I'd been the one to tell her about the party, though she was wearing clothes I recently bought her, though she was in a sports wheelchair that I loaned her until she could arrange to get another from MediCal, though her subsidized apartment did not come from any of the agencies for disabled or homeless people but from my work, and though I had managed to have her re-established as a client with the state Dept. of Rehab -- despite all these things, she nearly let them carry her up the stairs into the party. Rubin had told her that Ron Kovic, a Left idol, would be there.
Kovic never hesitated a moment to be carried in anywhere in his sport wheelchair. For decades, he'd made being carried onto stages and speakers' platforms part of his "look at what a mess war has made of me" anti-war act. It was very unlikely that he was really scheduled to come, since he now lived in a distant city, but the promise of his appearance served to undermine Gerri's resolve even more.
When I was in the peace movement against the Persian War, I had raised $400 in cash and a carpenter had volunteered to build a portable ramp for their portable stage -- but it had never been built. Kovic had never objected to being lifted onto this platform. Having to be lifted made his "mothers, would you want your son to come back from the war like me, a cripple?" line even more touching. And he used that line in every speech I ever heard him make.
The '60s radical Paul Krassner, editor and publisher of The Realist (for which I also write), was scheduled to be the entertainment. He passed us on his entrance to the party, with many misgivings and words, but passed us nevertheless.
When I heard the announcement for the party on the only Lefty station in town, and that Krassner would do his satirical political commentary, I, just like Gerri, wanted so badly to go that I forgot for a moment that it would again be inaccessible and that therefore I couldn't go. Once reality and my memory came alive, I got mad.
I saw myself as part of the progressive community, yet not treated as such by my fellow progressives because, God forbid, I was in a wheelchair. Would these people pouring past us into the party have continued up the stairs if a notice on the church pillar had announced, "No Jews or homosexuals allowed past this point"? But then, allowing Jews and homosexuals (able-bodied ones, anyway) into the party wouldn't cost any money or require the inconvenience of moving the party elsewhere.
I had made no plans to publicize our little demonstration, still having mixed emotions about the whole thing and still believing that the Left really wanted to do the just thing and needed only a little kick. But out of the clear sky a Unitarian minister who himself was intending to attend the party volunteered to call the press. He called the local paper and, at my urging, the City News Service, too (a sort of Associated Press for L.A.). And wonder of wonders, a reporter arrived within about twenty minutes with not one but two press cards hanging from her neck. Later, the reporter called me for a photo shoot in front of the Church.
A week later, a half-page story appeared, focusing not on Rubin and his organization but on the church. Most of the space was taken up by a large photo of me and the current minister posing in front of the church.
I suppose most able-bodied readers will conclude that here is a bitter angry cripple demanding immediate expenditures of large amounts of money from good people trying to do the right thing, forgetting that laws requiring access to non-religious events in churches has been the law of the land for a long time. That's the way it usually goes. Nevertheless, changes often occur shortly after a news story about an inaccessible building -- even when the press slants the story against our demands.
Sometimes the changes occur because of embarrassment, sometimes from being caught breaking the law. At the photo shoot, the tall, youngish woman minister inadvertently helped communicate the message of condescension. Slippery smooth flak catchers who know the politically correct ropes always crouch down to people in wheelchairs, showing their democratic spirit. With this woman, I had no choice but to look way up at her. No one had briefed her on the smart thing to do. I sort of liked her.
I wanna go to the party," Gerri kept whining, semi-seriously, as we sat outside the church on New Year's Eve. I promised her that we would have our own little party.
Later that night, trying to keep that promise, I hauled Gerri and her manual wheelchair behind my power chair up and down the nearby yuppie Main Street restaurant row in a quest for a place to have our New Year's blast. There wasn't a place that I could afford, the cheapest item on all of the posted restaurant menus being a pasta for $17.50. This was the world that the Santa Monica "progressives" had created since they'd fixed rents for their supporters many years ago. They'd ossified into the rent control party, and overlooked the fact that they had failed (possibly intentionally once in office) in stopping the upper yuppification of the city. Many of the beneficiaries of that rent control law were now holed up in their bargain apartments complaining about too many homeless people in the street, forgetting that what had created their protected status was their claim many years before that if rents went up they would be homeless.
At last, a handsome couple who had just left one of those expensive restaurants gave us their doggy bags. We ate mussels and scallops in Thai sauce and green and white pasta with dried plums while sitting in the brightly lit entryway of a closed, coldly modern expensive clothing store. The mussel shells served as our cutlery. We ate. We were the recently homeless and the maybe about to be homeless, yet we were being treated as the currently homeless. People in wheelchairs out on the street on New Year's Eve unaccompanied by able bodied people must be homeless.
They were nearly right.
Why didn't we reject the free leftovers and shatter the stereotype of the crippled beggar? Because we were both profoundly short of funds. Though we weren't begging, our available income was probably less than successful beggars. The truth is that some stereotypes come close to the truth. If we were to reject free food when we needed it at that moment, that would be creating a false stereotype, that of the successful crip, to replace a more accurate stereotype, the poor crip.
Maybe I was wrong in accepting the food. An hour later, I had heartburn. My stomach was not used to those fatty, rich scallops. Maybe it was God's little punishment. Gerri showed no ill effects, so maybe it was just my aging stomach that couldn't take it.
Gerri suggested we visit Georgia, the 72-year-old lady still living in her wheelchair on the streets. She lived on the 3rd St. Promenade, another entertainment and restaurant street a mile or so away. With my power wheelchair I pushed and pulled Gerri over the dreadfully bumpy, cracked and dark sidewalks (sometimes without curb cuts at the corner for wheelchairs, sometimes the sidewalks disappearing altogether) that lay between us and Georgia. We got there just a little after the car horns and shouting told us it was 1997.
Two able-bodied women in their late forties or fifties kissed me along the way. I tried to kiss one on the cheek, but she, vaguely smelling of perfume and alcohol, suddenly twisted her neck and kissed me right on the lips. I wondered how many other ladies of a certain age were ready to take the plunge with me. After all I was still rather handsome in a craggy, paunchy way and stood five-foot-ten if someone cared to unfold me.
My only real satisfaction of the night came when I was talking to Georgia and Gerri as the crowds poured around us. We talked long into the night. As the crowd thinned, Gerri called the paratransit dispatcher to order a ride. We waited.
I don't blame Gerri for wanting to go to the party, but, if she had (and had left me alone outside the church on New Year's Eve) I think it would not be beyond me to have suicidal thoughts. I had spent Thanksgiving alone. I am still eating the frozen turkey left over from my lonely turkey dinner. So when I had to practically beg her to stick with me, to stay with the cause and not allow them to carry her into the party as we sat in our wheelchairs outside the church on New Year's Eve, I could not have felt lower.
Here I was, about to be thrown out of my abode of 14 years as a result of jealousy and revenge for devoting time and energy (and nothing else at all unseemly) to getting Gerri off the street and back on track for finishing her degree. I could not turn my back on a woman who had shown up and demonstrated for two days at our anti-telethon demonstration, even though she herself was in a wheelchair and living on the street. I had made money writing about her plight for a national disabilities magazine. I could not just roll away from her, I suppose, the way many other non-disabled journalists would do.
It wasn't her fault that the curse of Job had descended upon me as a result of committing myself to getting her off the street, but I nevertheless felt like the soldier who had deserted the army to prove his loyalty to Carmen and then Carmen spit on him.
I thought of the days when I could turn out dozens of wheelchair-using demonstrators to attack the Hollywood Walk of Fame with sledgehammers, admittedly supplied by me, and disgrace them into at last making that world-famous attraction wheelchair accessible practically overnight. Now I was down to one not-too-sure, just-off-the-streets gal who often says she doesn't yet accept herself as a disabled person. It was sort of like having to rely on Christopher Reeve to picket the Academy Awards ceremony because of the negative stereotypes of the disabled in films, when all he wanted to do was raise money to cure his disability so that he could go back to playing Superman, the ultimate overcomer. Not a very good bet for a protester.
Was it me or was it the times? That "is it my fault?" question had never stopped haunting me since I began to be concerned in my teens about what others thought of me; it has only gotten worse with time. Is this the curse of the cripple, never to be stroked, never rewarded, never to see admiration in the eyes of others, even his fellow cripples, never to be sure of himself? Or is it me?
After great hesitance and great pressure -- even after Paul Krassner asked Gerri if she was doing it because of loyalty to me, as though that would be a pretty sad excuse to do anything -- Gerri had resolved it in her mind and decided to reject the siren's call to let them carry her in. She had concluded that what was going on was an attempt to divide the disabled into smaller and smaller units -- in this case, those in light manual wheelchairs against those in heavy, unliftable power wheelchairs. That was the issue, she decided; not loyalty to me.
I should have been happy. But it did not make me feel much better. I guess I would have better appreciated a mix of loyalty and principle. Or maybe I just needed some personal affection from someone after a disastrous year.
The road to hell is not paved with good intentions. It is paved with those who do good deeds, by both those who are made ashamed by such deeds -- and, too often, the recipients of those good deeds, not wishing to be stigmatized along with the do-gooders. Reaching down while standing on thin ice myself was obviously foolhardy, but isn't it those closest to destitution who understand and sympathize most with the destitute? Logic would have it so, if self-preservation would have it not so.
At last the little white-and-blue drop-floored Dodge minivan arrived and the driver belted Gerri into the space next to him. I was now looking up at her from the street.
"Well, we had a good time tonight, didn't we?" I said to her through the open passenger window.
She rolled her eyes in the air and grimaced.
"Sort of," she said, "but I really wanted to go to that party." Now, separated from me by a steel door and looking down on me, she sounded more serious.
I asked the driver if he could give me a ride back to my van by the church. No, he said, I had not been the one to call in for the van, so I could not get in on the ride, even though I also had a paratransit pass.
As I drove my wheelchair the mile back to my aging van on the deserted streets, I thought, "What a perfect end to the holidays!" Gerri could not get enrolled in paratransit because she did not have an address and she could not pursue the agency from pay phones. I let her use my address so that she could become "approved for service," since the examiners would determine (from my address) that she lived far away from fixed route transportation and therefore needed paratransit. I had arranged to take her to the evaluation at a downtown hospital; when she completely confused the examiners, I'd been called into the meeting to clarify her situation. And now I was the one turned down for a ride by paratransit.
She quietly watched me from above, never thinking to argue with the driver as I'd have done for her.
That seemed to me bitterly ironic.
A couple of days later I called her. She'd really wanted to be at that party, she said; and I'd stopped her. I was a master manipulator, she told me.
No good deed ever goes unpunished. That is the true message of Christmas. Always was, always will be. I guess I'll just have to do better at bobbing and weaving.
Bill Bolt is a freelance writer. He can be contacted by e-mail at BBOLT@PRIMENET.COM.
Back to cover page
Write to The Ragged Edge
Table of Contents
© Copyright 1997 The Ragged Edge
Back to cover page
This Website produced by Cliffwood Organic Works