For over 25 years I have gone almost everywhere with my cocobolo wood cane that my mother gave me to replace the standard issue Walgreen’s cane that had no character that I hastily bought the day before my wife and I were off to Paris. My right knee had swollen badly after a steroid injection that was supposed to dial back the pain so I could walk when in Paris.
If I was going to spend the rest of my life accompanied by a cane, I should, according to my stylish LA mother, at least have one with artistic definition, panache, and “character” that she was convinced would enhance my physical visage even as the Behcet’s disease mindlessly assaulted me with rapacious, nay, vicious glee.
It was immediately apparent that toting my cane around with me in the Loop, on the subway and in airports was a thing of silent questioning and occasional poorly disguised approbation by those who would first look at me, then the cane I was carrying and not using to walk. “What,” the silent appraisal seemed to say, “are you doing with that cane; you’re certainly healthy enough not to need that.”
I hasten to add that I’m more than a little aware of the possibility of projection on my part. It is a possibility that I’ve attended to more than once, the possibility that people who appraise me in this matter are not critical but curious. I’m aware that the old critical “voice” I acquired in my youth might well be the operative motivation in this.
I’m quite aware that, in psychoanalytic parlance, I’m engaged in something known as psychic equivalence: to wit; what I think is equivalent with reality.
This is a regression on my part to a very early way of being in the world while trying to learn the difference between what is in my mind and what is out there beyond me in someone else’s mind, which may be very different than what is in mine. This is a developmental step we all need to make if we are to be able to distinguish our thoughts and feelings from those of others.
This equivalence is a way to externalize the disquieting voice in me that doesn’t yet believe-after all these years-that I really do suffer from grinding pain. In other words, I may be attributing the wheedling voice in me to those who pass me in the streets.
Come with me a quarter of a century into the present day. I am in my mid sixties once again working in Chicago as I did the 25 years ago. There is no mistaking me for a man in his 40s. I am now “elderly” and a cane for a man of my age isn’t surprising.
There is more to this story. For the 1st time in over 20 years I am able to work once again, even if only part-time. I have not had use for a Winter coat since leaving New York in ’03 to spend the next 10 years in the unreal balmy weather in LA and San Francisco.
Back here in the cold climate of Chicago I had to improvise on a long winter coat. Out of the back of our packed front hall closet I retrieved a 35 year old duster still in good condition with it’s length below my knees, flaps and hidden pockets and a black leather collar. With this distinctive coat that is now quite rare but still fashionable, I wear a black leather baseball style cap.
Walking to and from the subway stations with my bag slung over my shoulder, coat and cap topped off with me striding down the sidewalk with my carved wood cane in my right hand that I look rather like a dashing, newly minted senior citizen. I may be getting on in years but I’m still Stylin’ I reply when I can.
When coming and going from work dressed like this I do get my share of “looks” from other denizens of the Loop. I find that other pedestrians openly survey me as they close down on me from the opposite direction. They look first at my face, then coat and hat followed by a sometimes furtive but lingering look at my cane: the one instrument not on me, but held by me in case of need, or for some, a feeble attempt by me to raise concern and pity.
As these circumstances happened more & more I began to notice that after surveying my cane these polite people looked again at my face as if trying to come to some sort of conclusion about me and my motivations in this very brief, fleeting encounter with my rather, I’m told, striking presence. I say striking since a number of young African American men and older women compliment me on my coat &/or my “look.”
But what am I to make of this rather frequent fleeting appraisal of me as I make my way to and from the Red Line, to and from work I can finally do again? I don’t want to leave the impression that these brief encounters only happen in Winter. I get them year round, but admittedly, more often in the cold months, where I must be honest, I am more covered and “incognito” than I and others are during the warmest months.
Living in a large city it’s a common daily occurrence to come across differently abled persons. It seems a human quality to look furtively at the persons who exhibit “diabledness” and to look away before the person who embodies that difference can look back in humor, anger or righteous indignation at being deemed nothing more than a type, an “other” who can, &, most often, should be ignored.
I think that our brothers and sisters who negotiate the world from the sitting position in variously tricked out wheelchairs are the ones who attract the most frequent furtive glances. I think our comrades in the seating position are the easiest for the healthy to somehow look down on if not comprehend; those who glide by on wheels and are given a measure of deference by the among us.
I think that what is connoted is varied. To wit: there but for the grace of god…can they really have wheelchair access whenever they need it…I wonder what forces combined to put them in that chair…what is it like to always have to look up to others when in conversation.
In short, those of us who display our “disabledness” through the contraptions that allow us mobility and some sense of “living in the world” move us unsteadily through that world as societies “other.”
We are needed, not for our individual attributes and consciousness, but for our ability to embody a trope, a meme, an idea that can be accepted within limits or rejected out of hand depending on how much empathy has been inculcated in the observer.
As outliers/others we seem to be societal benchmarks for the dividing line between those upright and able and those “otherwise.” In many ways we become a starting point for the able among us to gauge what it would be to move them into our world, a world which they despise as a world not just otherness, but a world of reduction. A world or body not bargained for nor easily imagined and easily discarded.
When I get that look, the look that begins with my face then bends quickly to the cane in my right hand and back to my face I know a judgement was in hasty production. Certainly a judgement about me, for example: he’s not crippled, what’s he doing with that cane? Or maybe they see me descend the stairs into the subterranean transit system.
A descent for which I do not use my cane. Ubiquitous observers see me take up my waiting position on the platform and see me twirl my cane in my right hand before dropping the rubber tipped end of it to the anonymous platform.
That link between platform and cane that life thrumming through my hand as a 95th Street bound train heaves into view, a leviathan who for just a few moments sings my song, our song whose jagged notes like jagged breath floats above the Leviathan’s staccato wash, a wash that sings to no one, but whose melody is heard only by the chosen few, the few who must stand still to listen long after the behemoth has lurched away and away…after which the hand and arm I lean on, the ones that let me live upright, if only for a time, clasp around my heart, the heart of all differently abled who your gaze can not but linger long enough to form a recognition.
I get it.
I can walk walk most of the time for hours without the need for my cane. I can not stand, for example, at a Loop intersection where I have to stand and wait my turn. I immediately employ my cane onto which I, like others, lean, to reduce the pressure on my spine and the quickly assembled crashing pain.
No one sees my anguished drama at every stop light, on every platform waiting on trains, standing…standing in an ever deeper pool of pain while others watching me, yes watching me as they come to whatever conclusions they can muster from their brief encounter with a stylishly dressed man who surely must be hiding something, right? Why else doesn’t he use that cane all the time?
I refuse to explain myself, to explain why a seemingly robust, well dressed man uses his cane intermittently while looking like an otherwise sturdy elderly man.
In many ways I have encountered the same suspicious “looks” when I displayed my handicapped card on the windshield shield of my car. Once a cop actually followed me into a grocery store to enquire about my disability. The same happens when I carry my cane. There is no end of suspicion however wrongly assumed.
I may not look like the average differently abled person, but looks deceive just as our prejudices deceive.
All I ask, as many of us would be happy to be asked, is that the able bodied ask with humility, with a certain trepidation, a notion that your suspicions might be prejudiced and depraved.
Approach me. Ask in genuine interest, get to know me and more importantly, come to know my cane and its role in the lives of so many, so many in need of support for which they never wanted.
I won’t be offended. We won’t be offended, we’ll be grateful.