For those who’ve never before encountered me in my writer’s persona, I should describe who, or what I am. How’s that for a small project? In brief, my age is closer to 70 than to 60. I am a creature of initial old age. I used to be a young man, healthy, vital, energetic, involved. But early on something happened. A small, but easily handled, so I thought, disaster befell my very young body while playing high school basketball. As some would say, no biggie, a bit of a setback, but so what, I was young and, yes, as a cliche, I was invulnerable. Not being able to get out of bed without the assistance of a persistent friend, was, I naively thought, was a small bump in my road to adulthood.
One morning a week I have to catch the CTA subway at my elevated station in Lincoln Park on Chicago’s north side. If you’ve ever scene footage of the same in Tokyo, you have an idea how much like a cattle car these trains are. Though there is no one behind we boarding passengers shoving us onto an over filled car, those scenes evoke what it is like to be a passenger/sardine in a hurtling metal box. My station is only about 20 minutes from my destination in the Chicago’s Loop, but it is 20 minutes of a jostling, jolting wrestling match for people like me. The unseen, the fellow passenger you don’t want to talk with.
Why, you may rightfully ask? My cane. Yes, my 30 year old cocobolo wood cane. A thing of beauty, a thing of otherness. A thing of passing interest, but not me, the person on the business end of that cane. I am often not an object of interest at all. I am symbol, a meme, if you will, of something to be, for many, avoided. I am their unsettling fantasy, their bad dream. Afflicted. I am Disabled. I have to rely on that exquisite cocobolo wood my mother bought for me 30 years ago, it is an unsettling calling card. a sign hung around my neck.
I am a harbinger of loss. I am resolved into a singular, Greek Chorus. A chorus who most don’t, and I can’t really blame them, want to see or hear from. I am the glitch in the mirror, the bad penny. I know, I live in the darker regions of that dream.
This is my prolix entry into a recurring experience, an experience that I long ago decided would not lay its border around me, define me, relegate me to insignificance. I am vertical, and for all my brothers and sisters who aren’t I refuse to give into the waif, the of the borderlands, the graying outskirts of empathy. No.
But truth to tell…I’m not always up to the battle.
This morning I caught the Red Line into the Loop. Like others, I squeezed into the smallest cleft in the press of passengers, turned to face the closing door and, left hand clutching my cocobolo resigned myself to a harrowing ride of pain, pain dark and silent to others, but a chorus of complaints marching up and down my ruined spine. Nothing to do, it was what it was. Bear it. I’ve always borne it so I knew I could. Just 20 minutes. 20. Five minutes later we pulled into the North & Clyborn station and several people behind me exited before the press of new passengers climbed aboard.
I seen my chances and I took ‘em, a quote said to have been spoken by the 1st Mayor Daley. I slipped through a vacant space, excused myself as I made my way to stand in front of the two seats designated for the elderly or disabled. As I’m both, I thought my chances of sitting might be good when stepping up I was confronted by 2 very attractive blond haired women. I arranged my body and cane for the coming lurch of the trains acceleration hoping that one or both, seeing my dual eligibility for the designated seats would offer me hers.
Of course, dear reader, you know what happened. Yes, that’s correct…nothing. The woman on my left looked at my cane, then up at me with a blankness I knew only too well. The young beauty on my right buried her face even further into her frayed book pretending that in her concentration, she hadn’t noticed me at all.
As the train lurched into sudden motion, the jagged movement snarled up my spine to explode in my head. I gritted my teeth and tried not to show my vulnerability. As the train’s hurly burly motion assaulted me, I felt a tap on my left hand. Looking down I was met with the smile of a slightly older young woman offering me her seat. Usually, I gracefully accept the proffered relief. But something in my head said nope. I smiled & responded that I’d be okay.
At the next station, the blond on my left got up to move towards the exit. With my howling spine and increasing anger, I did not budge an inch to let her by. I stood still and made her scramble around me and the man on my right. As soon as she moved away, I gratefully sat. The young woman who offered me her seat smiled at me as I settled next to the blond studiously engrossed by her novel. I wanted to bang her about the head and shoulders with my cane. I rather smartly resisted the temptation.
When we arrived at the 1st Loop station all 3 of us got up to leave and I realized with a start that the young lady who offered me her seat was well into a pregnancy. She wanted to give up her seat to me and she was pregnant! I fell in love with her and felt humbled by her previous offer. I thanked her as we left the car.
My point? Those two women sitting comfortably in the designated seats were neither elderly or disabled. They were clearly experienced riders and knew in what seats they were sitting yet ignored me and my obvious discomfort almost as if I simply didn’t exist.
Ordinarily I ask if someone sitting in those seats to give up their comfort for me. I am always met with a kind, if somewhat reluctant response. But more often I am met with studied indifference as if I am an apparition to insubstantial to believe exists.someone who is simply invisible, nothing more than a spooky wraith to be ignored.
What I don’t understand is this: Most often when we show kindness towards others we feel good, like maybe we just deposited a chit in the bank, a chit that might be matched in the future by a kindness shown to us. A small kindness that temporarily lightens the load that we incur as we live longer.
These two women by passed that. They must, I tell my more hopeful self, have felt uneasy or low, possibly unkind. That’s what I tell myself when this happens, but in reality I know they feel nothing of the kind. They feel, in my mind, that they got away with sitting beneath my obvious discomfort. They overcame a slight tinge of guilt and comfortably rode out my presence. For them, a small transit victory.
For me? Not so much. I was treated as invisible. A beautiful cocobolo wood cane often elicits admiration, usually from very young men just starting out in life. I am always pleased to give them a bit of the history of my pal, my upright strong friend. Those young me remind me that I am, indeed, not invisible.
I am me. Right here, right now. I won’t fade away from the uneasy fantasies of those not yet afflicted with disability or on-rushing age. We all, if we’re lucky, live long enough to very often encounter both.
It’s our encounters of empathy and kindness that pulls us out of the ineffable into the the substantial, the body that is seen. The body acknowledged, acknowledged in kindness, respect.
Cliche though it is, what goes around comes….