The man looks like some kind of supervisor of the security guard, a skinny dude who hovers about. The supervisor is on the phone, talking animatedly, laughing regularly, gesturing with his hands. He looks at me more than once, but just in passing, it seems.
He can’t avoid seeing me, really – for I stand there in front of him, waiting for a lady I know in the building. He does not offer me his chair. Not that I am suggesting I want it, nor that he’s a young man to my greying, aging self. But I did go through knee surgery three weeks ago, I am wearing a knee brace, I am using a walker. In full view of the man, I came clumping up to where I have been standing for at least 10 minutes now. Truly, I don’t need to sit, but let’s put it this way: I am somewhat amazed that he sees me as I am and does not get up.
A few days earlier, a few of us went to watch the Hollywood film Hidden Figures at a local multiplex. Afterward, our designated driver walked off into the cavernous parking lot to fetch her car, while the rest of us waited for her at the designated pickup point. There were two benches there. One was empty this evening; the other had a young couple sitting on it. Seeing me and my walker clumping up, woman and man both rose and offered me their seats, even though there was the other bench I could have sat on, even though there was space for me on their bench even with them on it. I declined, but I was grateful.
And, of course, I have them on my mind while standing near the supervisor.
Life in the big city with a walker: if someone ever writes a book, I might have some contributions to make.
Bad news for a bad knee
A twisting injury in 2015, particularly seen in the context of years of wear and tear from tennis, running and basketball, did not really respond to months of exercise and pills. Through most of last year, my right knee felt a little weak and unreliable, occasionally painful. (And I wasn’t able to play tennis). Last December, my orthopaedist finally advised surgery to repair my torn anterior cruciate ligament. That happened in mid-February. Since then, I have been on a walker. At home a fair amount, but also wending my way, walker-aided, to physiotherapy sessions.
And in many ways, it has been an eye-opening experience, giving me a new appreciation for things certain others around me must feel every day, for other things we see every day. Bad, good and indifferent.
Hidden Figures happened two days after I returned from the hospital. We asked for a wheelchair and my son zipped me through the milling crowds, nearly all the way to my front-row (so I wouldn’t have to bend the knee) neck-ache seat. Once seated, I wondered what I would do during the national anthem. My wife thought I should stay seated to make a statement, while I could, on behalf of disabled folks who cannot easily stand. But let me be honest: I didn’t feel equal to taking on the wrath of self-righteous folks who define their nationalism by looking for others to point fingers at and abuse. So I struggled painfully to my feet and sang the anthem.
The next day, I tweeted this to my vast sea of followers. That brought me this response, offered here without comment:
When the film ended, another young couple came up as they saw me struggling painfully to my feet again. What they said, offered without comment again, was this: “Can we help you down the stairs?”
Then there have been the times I have had to cross streets. Once I had to wait while several cars zoomed past. Not one even slowed down, let alone stopped, to let me cross. When I finally saw a large enough gap, I started across – only to find that I had underestimated an onrushing BMW’s speed. He didn’t slow down either. I made it across by the width of my walker. I am not making this up.
Another time I got halfway across and had to wait there, cars streaming past on both sides of me. A grey Honda swerved to get by, the lady in its passenger seat actually smiling up at me. I am not making this up either.
But then a policeman directing traffic nearby came running over, held up his hand to stop the cars (if not the Honda and the smiling lady), grabbed my elbow and helped me across.
Bad and good, good and bad. Yes indeed, these weeks have opened my eyes to what my handicapped and disabled fellow citizens must deal with every day.
Yet there’s more still. In just walking around in my present state, I now see more clearly than ever the state of some of our public spaces. Again with no comment, let me just list some of what I mean:
- Almost no stretch of pavement is smooth, or free of rubble and holes, dirt and assorted garbage.
- Almost no stretch of road is smooth, or free of rubble and holes, dirt and assorted garbage.
- Pavements are frequently dug up; or if the road they skirt is dug up, the rubble is dumped on the pavement.
- If such digging happens – as right now, all over my neighbourhood – I am forced to walk on the road, dodging incessant heavy traffic. With a walker, that is, shall we say, a challenge.
- When whatever work has occasioned the digging is complete, the pavement is never, but never, restored to its original state (which may not have been much good anyway). You can count on piles of stones or paver blocks or sand to stay there for weeks and months.
- Stretches of pavement end at driveways or intersections. There’s invariably a drop there, sometimes as much as a foot. Negotiating those with a walker, I now understand fully why an 83-year-old lady with weak knees whom I know prefers walking on the road, taking her chances with the unrelenting traffic.
- Dog shit everywhere. Pet owners appear to believe it is below their pay grade to scoop the poop. Enough said.
- So as they negotiate our streets, I suspect disabled citizens see it most clearly: Swachh Bharat is a slogan, no more.
Finally, two neighbours have walked right past me twice each, without asking what the matter is. But if you can put that down to brain fades, there are also the two total strangers who have stopped to ask what the matter is with me.
To them, I wish I had said: “Nothing, except that I wish we had more like you.”