Disabled vs. Differently-abled

For years I’ve heard the term differently-abled used instead of disabled to describe a person with a major physical affliction. And to be truthful, I always thought it was more of that PC crap we are supposed to politely parrot while in front of groups of people. While I may have some small sympathy for some PC stuff, this particular term always struck me as non-sense. I guess my attitude could be summed up as, if you’re in a damn wheel chair, then by God at least be realistic about your affliction.

Well, I discovered the other night, completely by accident, that I was wrong. Let me tell you how.

I ride the bus to and from work a lot. Most of you who read this, have some idea that this is the case. The bus lends one to interact much more with their fellow commuters, and I must say I enjoy the experience much more than riding home in my own little sterile cubicle called a car.

Thursday evening was no different. I worked a long day (10 hours) and was coming home late. Later than normal. I chatted with a nice young girl while waiting for the bus. The bus was late, and as usually the case when it is late to this stop, it was packed full of people. The girl and I were still having a conversation, so we got on, and stopped only a little ways in. Normally I sit down all the way to the back of the bus, especially when I have my skateboard (which I did not on this particular evening), but because the bus was crammed full or people, the actual walk-way to the back was too full to even try. So we leaned into the others there, and continued to talk.

For those of you who have not ridden a Metro Bus in LA, the front most seats are transverse seats, meaning they run the length of the bus. After a few of these seats, the seats turn crosswise, and become the usual seats you’ve seen on almost every bus. The front transverse seats serve two purposes; they make it easier for the elderly and handicapped to get off and on the bus, and they can be easily moved aside to make room for a wheelchair.

Well on this night, there happened to be a wheelchair on the bus, with a young lady seated in it. Since the bus was packed, the young lady from the bus stop and I ended up having our conversation almost right on top of the girl in the wheelchair. after a few stops, the conversation was starting to get comments from others on the bus. This is part and parcel of having a conversation in a public situation like a bus. It is one of the few places I know of, where public input is more normal for all but the most private of conversations. So it wasn’t a surprise when others joined in. What was a surprise was when the girl in the wheelchair joined in. She was so sharp, and so interesting, that I ended up talking to her more than anyone else.

The found out the girl in the chair (although to be fair, she would probably prefer the term woman, I just use the term girl to denote she was young enough to be my daughter) was named Jane, and it turned out Jane and I are practically next-door neighbors. She’s an old hand on the bus, so we quickly started talking about other topics. I soon found out that Jane was working on her PhD in Ecology (which I in artfully mistook for Econ. at one point), was bright, vivacious, funny, sad, and just plain good company. Though I road with her on two buses, and one train, including all the elevators and such one need use with a chair (which I normally eschew) I never once got the feeling she was sorry for herself, or thought of herself as anything different than “abled.”

And in every real sense she was just as able as myself. Sure she couldn’t ride a skateboard  (most people cannot ride a skateboard), but she could motor in that chair of hers like you could not believe. She was calm and confident with it, maneuvering it around with a kind of sloppy grace, exactly like the way a buddy of mine (Clark) drives his car.

She never talked about herself negatively, which is rare for any girl. I never once got the feeling that she hung around with the disabled kids. In fact, with the exception of one story about someone she knew, she never once brought up other disabled people. What she did do was tell story after story of roommates, and friends, cooking meals, eating with her hands, living in an apartment, until I got the impression she lived her life very much like every able person lives their lives, just a little lower, and a heck of a lot faster.

When we got off the train, I asked her a few questions about her chair. She proudly spun it around, and showed me some of it features. Later when we were walking back from the last bus, she moved so fast, that my normally fast walk was far too slow to keep up. The entire block I got the distinct impression she was having to wait for the slow kid to catch up!

When she talked, she was very animated, using her whole body at times, craning her neck, twisting her arms, the whole works. I assume this had something to do with her affliction, but I also noticed that at times she would, in mid conversation, use one arm to hold down the other because it was moving too much. She never called attentions to this, nor apologized, or was in any way self-effacing or embarrassed about her motion. Good for her. In fact, I spent the better part of an hour and  a half talking with her, and she never once mentioned why she was in her chair, which is one of the first things most people will tell you.

By the time we parted I was a bit awestruck. Here was a girl who was equal to anyone you could mention, and she knew it. You might not know it, until you started talking with her, but once you did, boy it wasn’t hard to figure out. She was in every was just as able as you and I. The few ways she differs were obviously unimportant in the grand scheme of things, very much like a person with glasses doesn’t think they are disabled because they have to wear corrective lenses. She is not disabled, as she is just as able as you or I. She is just differently abled.

Just the two of us

I saw a man get on the bus today. He was younger, maybe 30, had long straight jet black hair (a wig?), and was dressed in all black. Black leather jacket, black gloves with the finger tips cut off, black jeans, sunglasses. His skin was pale, almost white, and he had on black lipstick.

This alone was unusual enough, but to make things weirder he got on the bus holding a doll under one arm. A big doll, more like half a mannequin. My first thought was that he was holding a ventriloquist dummy, for it was about that size and shape, but a closer look made me think differently. The doll was dressed exactly like the man; black leather jacket, black shirt, long straight jet black hair, and the very same black lipstick. Except for the size, and the fact the doll hand no legs, or really anything below the waist, they were almost exactly alike. Well that and the fact that the doll was female.

He got on and sat down near the front, on one of the bench seats that run the length of the bus. As soon as he sat, he placed his doll on his leg, or his lap, and turned her face towards him. Then he put his arms around her, pulled his head in close, and proceeded to talk to her. They were far enough away that I couldn’t hear anything, but it looked for all the world like two young lovers whispering secrets to each other, so enraptured with each others company, faces just scant inches apart, that they were oblivious to their fellow travelers around them.

Except only one of them was human.

The other people on the bus reacted strongly. One lady, looking for all the world like a Jewish grandmother (a common sighting in that area) tut-tuted in disgust, and got off at the very next stop. Others were similarly transfixed. Me, I couldn’t tell if this was some sort of act (and if so, why try to impress people riding a bus), a sort of bizarre performance art, or if I was looking into layers and layers of delusional psychosis; so deep, and so dark that the man could not tell where his personality ended, and where his companion’s began.

The image of those too huddled together was very disturbing. It bothers me even still.

The Disposessed

We had a few days of light rain early this week. Perfect for the garden which is just starting to take off. Then after that we had three days of cooler Santa Ana’s blowing through. The Santa Ana winds blow of the deserts north of us, and are terribly drying. They also profoundly effect the mood of the people around here. On the bus, people are less courteous, and more hunkered down, drawn inward. At night this is doubly so. I don’t know why, it is something about the really dry conditions, mixed with the huge gusts of wind. Wherever the cause, it makes public transportation less fun a people are less likely to talk with strangers (one of my favorite reason to ride the bus), and more likely to be sullen or angry.

For the mentally ill, however, the Santa Ana’s are almost like a punishment from God.  They not only have to deal with everyone else being far less understanding, they also have to deal with their own issues, which are exacerbated by the mood of others. Think of them as the canary in the coal mine when it comes to the mood of a group; they cannot help by be drastically effected by it, like a radio stuck with the volume on high, and can only be tuned to one station. For them it is literally maddening.

So on Thursday night, rolling home somewhat later (8:00-9:00), I met a charming lady from Miami who was here to take a single class on psychiatry to fulfill all her requirements for her MD. She was talking about being a Pediatric Doc, a job see seemed suited for.

Alas for her, she was staying in a hotel in downtown Hollywood, a part of town full of the mentally ill, drawn as they can be to the tourist areas. She had already had one experience when a gentleman had made untoward advances, and didn’t understand polite rebuffs, which had scared her some. Rightfully so as it is very difficult to deal with someone who projects their sexuality onto you, and does not understand they are actually acting like an ass. The mentally ill usually have just as much hormones as you or I, so when they see a person they think is sexy, they will react, only their reactions will often be totally inappropriate, because they view sex through the smashed up lens of mental illness. So a man night think he os being appropriately “sexy” towards a woman be offering to take off his shirt to show off his muscles, and ignore the fact that he is an absolute stranger, and the woman he is afflicted with has a look of horror on her face. And believe me when I say this, his was a mild reaction.

So as we were traveling on the bus, and she was telling me this story, I related to her how I used to teach special ed, and had spent several years surrounded by the mentally ill with what I like to call a hair trigger temper. I had run into mentally ill people on the bus, in fact quite often, but they never really bothered me.

I need to take a side track here, for just a moment, to describe for most of you some of the realities of this town. LA is a wonderful place. The weather is so nice that I often call it paradise; a term not without some tongue-in- cheek, mind you, but it’s not a bad term all in all. This means, among other things, that a lot of people drift here. They come because the weather is nice, or they come because they have a dream (usually to be an actor or musician) or maybe they come just to get away from the small town where they grew up and everyone knows them. Regardless of why they come, lots of people come here. Lots. Now if you couple this with the fact that a certain percentage of the population will always have mental illness, you understand that LA gets its share of the mentally ill, and then some. For instance, if you are mentally ill, and the people in your home town know (often is it all but impossible to hide mental illness), then you will have twice as many reasons to leave where you are, and try to make a “fresh start” somewhere else. That somewhere else is very often LA, the town that practically built itself as a fresh start.

One other thing. At night, living on the streets, a place many people who run out of money end up, is not all that safe. There are some who prey upon the street people, and take pleasure in hurting them. In fact we just had a case where a man was sentenced to death for pouring gasoline on a bumm, and lighting him on fire, killing him. So if you are mentally ill, and cannot hold down a job, guess where you end up at night? Well very often, the bus. You see some of the Metro lines (Metro is the name of our city wide transportation service) are 24 hour lines, meaning they run a constant 24 hours. If you can afford a bus pass, or have one as a part of a county mental health program, then the bus is a great place to be. It is warm, dry, reasonably safe, and if you can deal with the bumping, rolling, and sterile lighting, a place to rest, maybe even sleep. Most bus riders don’t know this because the crazies are smart enough to not get on until after the normal riders, commuters, students and such, have gone home, say 8:00 o’clock or so. I discovered this little trick by accident. I have a client which I get to by bus, and I often work late at that office. If just so happens, one of the two lines (the 217) that make up a significant portion of my route, is a 24 hours bus. This is how I discovered where the mentally ill often spend their evenings, because they would ride alnog with me on my way home from work.

So back to my story. This nice MD student and I were talking, and I was telling her how to deal with the mentally ill, while rolling on a late night bus, during a Santa Ana. In the midst of this, and elderly gentleman sits down next to me. By this time the topic had switched to something else, and the lady and I were conversing in opposite seats in the back of the bus. The bus was quite crowded, so having someone sit next to me was a given. Suddenly this man seated next to me stared yelling at another rider, also, we discovered, someone with mental illness. The two exchanged rants, and the man next to me got more and more agitated. I realized what was going on, having spent some time around the mentally ill, and having a slight mental illness myself. Since the bus is considered a “safe” place for someone thus afflicted, they will often “act out” or get more upset on it then they will out in the open Very much like the may most mentally ill will not act out until they are home, or around people they trust. (which is not so fun if you are in the later category, let me tell you). So these two guys were in a bizarre way, protecting their territory.

So this guy seated next to me, turns to me, and starts in on a rant, and it was pure stream of consciousness stuff; raw, unfiltered junk poured through his mouth, straight from his Id, literally without a thought at all. I don’t remember all of what he said, but this will give you an idea, “Those guys want to turn our shoes into jello, and all for a cup of donuts. That’s why the doctors are trying to close the hospital.” He went on like that for 2-3 paragraphs, each equally senseless. A classic example of a psychotic. As he talked he grew more and more agitated, until he was standing and yelling loudly to the entire bus. Chaotic ramblings and violent mood swings do not make for good company, let me tell you.

Fortunately, the man got off at the next stop, yelling at the driver to open the back door as he belatedly realized he was too agitated for the bus, and needed to get off.The sad thing is, I know he was trying to tell me, or us, something. Something terribly important to him. Alas, the lens of mental illness was so distorted for him that his very thoughts were a mangled heap of chaotic jumps and starts. He was clinically incoherent.

Imagine, of you will, that you had no one to look after you, lived with no money on the streets, AND could not communicate a coherent sentence to save your soul. What most people don’t realize is that crazy people usually know they are crazy, and desperately try to not act so. They get embarrassed when they act up in public, and try very hard not to. Alas, time and tides conspire against them. And when they do, man it must really suck to be them. Suck hard.

So after this man left, I did my best to cheer up this poor Med. student. But I have to admit, I was pretty rattled by the experience. So much so that I spent the past few nights, after Trevor had gone to bed, curled up in a book, waiting for the Santa Ana’s to pass so my ego can come out of it’s shell, and I can feel normal again.

Sk8ers convention

On the last segment of my commute home today, I met up with two other guys with longboards. We started talking shop; rolling on the beach, sidewalks viewed as an endless concrete wave, cleaning your bearings, things like that. I was having so much fun it made me mad I had to get off to go home. There was probably 25 years or more between our ages, and we seemed to hit all the major color lines, yet the only thing that mattered was the way of the board.

Dude!

More adventures on the bus

Yesterday was a twofer.

The first wacky encounter was in the morning. A bus was running late, so a bunch of us got n the next bus going the same direction. An elderly gentlemen, looking to be in his mid to late 60s, a regular, sat across from me. However, he was not the only one. The entire bus was packed. About half way through my ride, I noticed that he leaned back kind of funny, and put one hand in his pocket. This while I have a book up to my face, which is a pretty good disguise for people watching. So the guy reaches pretty deep into his pocket, and across the front. Really deep. Uh, oh. He’s not looking for any spare change, this is pocket pool.

Pretty soon his actions became a bit more animated. He was playing first string for all it was worth, and all the while staring off at another passenger.  I looked to where he was staring, and realized he was looking at someone I know. I use the word “know” rather liberally here, as there are perhaps 20 people I come in contact with on a regular basis on the bus or train, and talk to on the odd occasion. This particular lady is Russian (or so I guess based on her accent), near my age or older (guessing from her wrinkles), maroon haired (because there is apparently no ending to maroon hair color), dresses well, and works at the Farmer’s Market which is next to one of my larger clients. She was wearing a yellow tank top, and she has a rather nice figure, so I guess the old guy was getting a little side boob action.  So now I have a dilemma, do I tell her? Do I stop him?

This went on for a few stops, and then the man actually stood up, probably to get a better grip, and proceeded to stare at her, and touch himself.  At this point he had that focused stance one uses when really looking at something intently. You could tell his higher brain functions were gone. He had not a care for the rest of us, or what we thought.

So then the bus stopped at my stop, and I got off after Russian lady.  Only the man got off too (no, not that got off, sheesh). I couldn’t let him follow her, but I also didn’t want to say anything to her. So what I did was drop my plank, and roll up next to the old man. He was looking at Russian lady, but seemed to notice my stare, because he turned to look at me as she crossed the street. Maybe he turned to look because I yelled, “hey”. When I had his attention, I said, “Dude. That is very uncool.” Then I pushed hard, and crossed the street. Now I had caught up with Russian lady, and while the old man was crossing the street, I started talking to her. He had no idea what I was saying, but hopefully he figured it was about him (it wasn’t). This had the desired effect as the man walked past us, and after I was sure he was aways away, I said my goodbyes, and crossed on the next green.

The second event was a little less creepy. On my way home, while waiting for the Orange Line (a fancy name for an articulated bus), a man was walking along and talking very loud.  “Jesus Christ, I am so drunk,” he was saying. That and he went on and on about how great he was. When he noticed me looking at him, he walked over and introduced himself. He was a great guitar player, he assured me, played with every body, and was so famous, if he showed up, any band was glad to let him sit in. Alas, I forgot his name, but I can tell you that he has his own radio show on 88.9 fm, and that he is about 6 foot 3 (I say this because he got very close, as drunks are wont to do, and I was staring straight into his mouth). He had long brown hair, and a cropped beard/mustache, which was long enough to remind me of ZZ Top.

I have no idea if he was a famous guitar player or not. The name didn’t ring any bells (which doesn’t mean much), but I have had experience with someone like him. There is a person I know, a distant relation, who when off his meds, would tell everyone he was the drummer for a famous band. I suspect this man had a similar mental illness. Regardless, for all his size he was relatively harmless, at least to me. I said my good byes, while he sprayed my face with spittle, as drunks are known to do, and left him at the bus station.

Some days, it just doesn’t pay to take the bus.

Terry and Carol

Today I met two very different ladies while riding home from work.

Terry approached me while I was waiting for the bus, just after I got off work.  She asked me if I had any spare change as she needed to ride the bus. Terry is tall, thin, in her mid 40s, and Indian (from the sub-continent of India, not an American aborigine). I asked her how much she needed, and she told me $5. Only it wasn’t just $5, it was “$5 because I need to ride the bus to some place” (I couldn’t understand everything she said over the traffic noise, and her accent). She repeated the need to ride the bus as a litany, very much like a person with a mental illness. I don’t know if she had one or not. I could not tell, which doesn’t mean a lot. The mentally ill are often surprisingly good at masking their handicaps.

So I reached into my wallet and gave her a $5 bill. She was kind of shocked. She thanked me several times, shook my hand, and asked me my name. That’s when I learned her name, and asked her how to spell it.  (A curiosity of mine, since I’m married to a Teri, and there seems to be 20 different ways to spell that name)

Later, when I reached the Red Line (the only subway in LA) I ran across a lady I’ve seen several times before. She has lovely gray hair, in very long dreadlocks, and I’ve always appreciated the way her hair looks. Tonight she was also wearing a shalwar kamiz, which is the traditional dress for Pakistan, and parts of India (from what I understand). I just had to compliment her. One thing led to another, and we ended up talking until I got off the next bus.

Carol teaches music at the Musician Institute, in Hollywood, and is quite well known as a singer. With so much in common, we had a fun time talking. Well at least I did, and she made the motions as if she did (which is all that counts, right?). I’m looking forward to seeing her again, and talking shop. Musicians are so interesting to me anyway, and the smart artistic ones are even better. Carol was all that and more. I’ll bet she a great teacher too. She’s got that mother earth goddess thing down pat. Walks with real gravity, she does.

Luz

I met Luz waiting at the bus stop. She normally didn’t work this late (it was around 7:20) and was curious about the bus schedule. It turned out she is practically a neighbor, living within a couple blocks of our house, so I was able to tell her of the many different routs to get home.

Luz had worked late because her boss, an actress, was in the hospital giving birth to her second child. The nanny for her first child needed to leave early, and so Luz stayed until the grandmother could make it over.

Then Luz started telling me about the household in which she worked.

Luz is one of millions of middle aged Hispanic women one finds in this town. They all speak English to one degree or another, with a Spanish accent, and they all seem to wear a taciturn face in public, and yet are cheerful if spoken to politely. She had gray hair pushing out about an inch into her short red died curls. As I’ve learned from an older neighbor, hair dye is not cheep, and so one often meets 60 somethings who carefully cover up their roots until the next time they can dye their own hair.

Luz told me of the many presents sent to the household to herald the coming of a new baby. She was careful to unwrap them, and place them in the baby’s room to be eventually gone over by her mother. The mother, worried and tired from giving birth had other ideas. “Take the extra gifts, Luz, and place them in a couple of hefty green trash bags. The nanny will take them to the charity tomorrow.”

Luz could simply not understand such extravagance; giving away these gifts, unseen, and unappreciated, was simply more than her frugal upbringing could bare.  She must have told me this story 8 times in the 30 minutes we traveled together. Each time telling me more and more about the household in which she worked, about the money poured out the door each day. “She never shops,” she said. “They bring the groceries to the house each day.” She told me of fresh fruit by the pound being thrown away because it was old, of fresh bagels delivered each morning only to go untouched, of fancy diners, expensive hair cuts (two stylists show up at the house, each is paid over $300, and they are also fed well). She was simply shocked at the huge disparity of wealth between herself and her employer.

Luz was also very careful to say she was thankful she had work, and was also careful to not mentioned whom she worked for. She was not angry at her employer, she simply came from a different world in which one never gave away expensive and unused treadmills, let alone pounds of fresh fruit.

And right there in the midst of her angst is the crux of the issue.  It is almost impossible to understand wealth over a certain amount above what one is used to. Just like it is almost impossible to understand that everyone else is not at your level of wealth.

Since I’ve been freelancing, our income as slowly increased. Each additional chunk of money was incrementally larger, but never arrived in one piece, instead it was slipped into the midst of our regular financial chaos. It was like the water level in a fish tank slowly rising, and we fish are almost completely oblivious to its change. That is until we come face to face with a fish from a MUCH larger tank. Then we are dumbfounded at the disparity in size. We know how a 12 gallon tank with three fish works when filled to the top, but are ignorant to the point of naivety when suddenly confronted with a 60 gallon tank.

The last week we were out visiting the in-laws, we got into a discussion about money. It was surprising because Teri or I casually mentioned how much money I make on most days I work. The amount was so different than what her mother or her brother are used to that they were actually shocked.  Neither Teri or I think of ourselves as wealthy. Sure we make money, but we spent it in proportion to its arrival (don’t we all?) and we don’t think of ourselves as “big spenders”. In fact, we are rather thrifty. And yet there was still a financial wall that separated our household from her parent’s or her brother’s. I think this disturbed us as much as it shocked them. We were raised to be egalitarian by nature, and like to view ourselves that way, so being shown that we are actually wealthy is rather hard to fathom. Much like a fish from a 12 gallon tank suddenly confronted with living in a 60 gallon tank. The water is similar enough to seem natural, but the space, well that’s another thing all together.

She came from planet Claire

I had the best on the bus again to day. I was going to work later than usual (which had something to do with working until 3:00 am the day before), when I poped out of the subway station at Hollywood and Highland. That area is packed with tourists, and today was no exception.

While waiting, I noticed a nice looking lady. She was looking at the bus sign, and checking her map. Back and forth, back and forth. After a while, I took pity on her and asked her where she was going. There are several buses that go through that area, and I often ride two of them. It turns out she and I needed to go on the same bus to get to her next stop. We started up a tentative conversation, and then the bus came, so we got on, and continued to talk.

I discovered she was a newly minted Major from the British Army, and helicopter pilot.  She had just finished up something like 9 months of school at Sandhurst, and had a bit of time on her hands. I failed to ask why she was in our neck of the words, LA not being noted for lying close to anything British, possibly because she was so fun to talk with. However, the best part was she was happily married.

I do like to talk to attractive women, a failing I suppose I’ll happily take to the grave, but I do not like to play the field, having found long ago I have no skill for it. Luckily, Claire was married herself, so there was none of that awkwardness. Somewhere in Britain there is a very happy doctor and heli pilot (her husband) as I found Claire to be smart, attractive, interesting, polite, and very well mannered. We talked about flying, having kids, life in the military, and all kinds of things. Really the ride was much too short.

When I got to the office where I was working, I was trying to tell the guys there about my experience. All I could come up with was that I met someone who was  knowledgeable about a topic of study I would gladly pay money to hear. That I got this this same lecture for free, and from a pretty woman, made it all that much the better.

Well met while on the bus

I’ve been so busy with work I have had time to post, but I keep meeting rather interesting people on the bus. Tonight it was a younger man (probably in his early 30s) helping out a much older couple. You could tell from the casual way they were around each other that they were either good friends or family. I liked the way the older couple seemed to fix on the younger man, as if he was the center of their own little world. In return he was protective and thoughtful with them. Always careful to include them in his thoughts (they were traveling a new route), and comforting in the way he led.

It reminded me of on old book called “A Fire In The Belly” about masculinity and manhood. What I got from the book, besides a vague sense that it is okay to be masculine, is that women nuture, but men husband. Husbanding being the male version of nurturing.

It’s always nice to see men husband in public, either with children or the elderly.  It always gives me a sense that things are pretty decent in America if men can still behave well.