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Two people you can ignore, and one that you can’t

August 1, 2011

Worshipping the queen bee

Social order is a subtle, nuanced dance.

Everyone knows his rank; we seldom need reminders. We move in silent code, like worker bees that never challenge the queen.

For example, we all know that there are people we simply do not have to talk to. Ignoring them is not rude. It’s just the way it is. We didn’t make the rules; we just follow them.

Nowadays, that group includes those who are disabled either physically or mentally, and those whose social standing is so utterly distanced from our own, that to communicate would embarrass us both.

Person One: Invisible Me

When I was in college, a massive snowstorm brought the city’s bus system to an early-morning halt.

This I discovered only after trudging out to the bus stop. Because I had an exam that morning, I decided to hitchhike in.

The first vehicle to stop was a small service-club sponsored Easter Seals bus. The affable driver told me that the storm had cancelled his usual stops. He would not be picking up the handicapped children he normally transported to schools and therapy sessions.

I took the first available seat: a small wheelchair just inside the passenger area.

We hadn’t got far when the bus stopped again, this time for a guy in his 30s, also stranded by the cancelled busses. He was hoping to make it to work on time, at one of the factories north of my college. He settled in at the top of the steps, just in front of me.

I greeted the newcomer, making some comment about the weather. He didn’t seem to hear me; he just glanced at the wheelchair with a sad smile, and spoke to the driver.

Figuring he couldn’t hear me, I spoke a little louder, asking him about his work. Same thing. Sad, quick smile, no eye contact. As I tried to get a conversation going, I caught our driver’s sly smile in the rearview mirror. Hmm… he’s looking at the wheelchair.

The View From Down Here

It is an odd feeling, to realize that someone is ignoring you because they think you are handicapped.

Sit in a wheelchair and you’re someone to be pitied, not someone you talk with. Not someone you look in the eye. Not a person, with something to say.

I felt diminished. I felt frustrated. I felt angry.

I also felt shame, because I knew I had done the same thing myself. There had been times I’d walked right by someone with a mental or physical impairment, couldn’t be bothered to listen to someone with palsy or a thick tongue, knowing it is perfectly acceptable to ignore them.

The driver and I shared extra-large smiles as he pulled over to let me off near the college. My fellow passenger stared gape-mouthed as I stood, thanked the driver profusely, and bounded with unnecessary verve into the snowy street.

I resisted the urge to yell, “Hallelujah, I am healed!” as I went.

Person Two: Crazy Train

Crazy homeless people are near the top of the list of those we need not speak to, or acknowledge in any way.

When I lived in the West End of Toronto, I managed to join a community garden. Having an allotment garden usually carries a certain cachet. People wait on lists for years, for the most high-profile gardens.

Mine was not one of those.

Abutting a train track, the garden stood on contaminated land, so each plot had to be carefully constructed aboveground and filled with clean soil. Further, to secure city approval the community members in charge had agreed to share the garden with a transitional housing building next door.

Can’t We Just Get Along?

This was an avante-garde government project created especially for “street-involved, at-risk adults with substance issues” who had “survived the mental health system” and were gaining independent living skills in a “supportive environment.”

In plain language: crazy street people lived next door, and half the garden was their domain. The building residents’ plots were at the rear of the garden, closer to the tracks. The so-called “community” gardeners had their plots at the front.

By the time my membership was approved late in the season, every “community” plot was spoken for. The chronically disorganized community garden organizer gave me two options: I could build my own garden plot at the front, out of railroad ties and soil from somewhere, or use an existing plot at the back of the garden, which had gone unclaimed by the building residents.

I didn’t mind taking a plot at the rear. After all, there was no official difference between the two sides. Also, I’d be under the watchful eye of the residents’ crusty head gardener, Ed.

No one messed with Ed. He and another resident, a bipolar transexual named Maryanne, spent every free moment in the back garden, which was reassuring for me. I hovered over my first garden like a mother cat.

Getting to Know You

Often it was just the three of us back there by the tracks — me learning how to dig up potatoes, Maryanne getting reminders to take her meds, both of us taking orders from Ed.

On the other side of the garden, the “community” gardeners were proving difficult to engage with. They’d show up sporadically, grab whatever was ripe, yank out a few weeds, then vanish.

One afternoon, I saw two women tending their well-established, showcase garden plot, in the top corner of the “community” section.

Aha. This was my chance to integrate into the community garden milieu. Under the pretense of fetching a hose, I strode up from the back, introduced myself and inquired about their wild bergamot plant, which smelled amazing after a rainshower.

Was it my imagination, or did they jump when I first spoke? Anxious glances between them. While one busied herself with examining individual leaves, the other spoke to me slowly and loudly.

“Yes, our garden is pretty. We have many plants. We will leave soon.”

For every step I took forward, she took one back. So I ended up calling out over their prairie grasses and golden spirea, puzzling over the simple sentence structure and monosyllabic replies. Perhaps she had a brain injury.

Goin’ Right Outta My Head

Stymied in my conversational efforts, I turned back to the back, where Maryanne was dancing half-naked with a hose and Ed sat in the shade having a smoke, grumbling about cross-species fungal attacks.

Obscured by their bergamot, the women may have been unaware that I caught a snatch of furtive conversation as I turned. “You can hardly tell with her,” one stage-whispered. “She doesn’t seem that bad.”

“I know,” came the reply. “She must be almost ready to live on her own.”

How do you explain to someone that you’re not crazy, once they’ve made up their mind? Anything I could say would just make me sound even more insane.

Deflated and labelled, aware now why the community gardener conversations were so rare and so stilted, I told Ed what had happened.

He offered me a smoke, and we watched Maryanne dance.

And One You Can’t Ignore: The Equalizing Worm

Back in the 1970s, I worked as a waitress at a disco on Clifton Hill, in Niagara Falls.

Having graduated college, I was earning a living as best I could and sending resumes from sea to shining sea, in desperate hope of lasting escape.

My more-privileged cohorts from across town spent that summer as their class always have — hanging out and partying until that glorious day when they’d take over their parents’ companies or marry sufficiently well.

Among those privileged few was a girl I had known at school.

“Known” is overstating things. I “knew of” this queen among queen bees. Every popular girl in the Niagara Peninsula wanted to be just like her. She was at the top of her game, and her star had yet to reach its zenith.

Let’s say her name was “Stephanie.”

Of All the Gin-Joints . . .

Stephanie strolled into my disco one evening with her entourage, a gaggle of snooty blondes with the requisite collection of darkly handsome boyfriends in tow.

They sniffed around a bit and decided my workplace wasn’t that bad, for now, in a pinch, since they were slumming anyway.

Stephanie deigned to acknowledge we’d attended the same high school — perhaps to demonstrate her humanitarian side to her beau, the only one at their table to look me in the eye and say, “Please.”

Let’s call him “Ken.”

It’s a sinking feeling, being made to literally cater to former classmates who have always lorded over you. My fellow staffers patted me on the back for the gracious way I was handling things, but it was tough to buck-up.

I believe it was Ken who loosened his tie and decreed the group would stay for a second round, and then another, as the disco filled up and the dance floor came to Saturday night life.

I also believe it was Ken who asked the deejay for some B-52s tunes.

All the Cool Kids Are Doing It

On a hunch, I lurked around the edge of the dance floor. A cheesy disco ball cast flashing patches of red, pink and blue on the clutch of well-lubricated Kens and Stephanies showing off their best dance-class moves.

Then it happened. A dream come true. Number one Ken got down on the floor, writhing around while Stephanie watched, hands-to-face, mouth and eyes wide.

Yes! Ken was doing The Worm, a New Wave dance move never before deliberately executed on Clifton Hill. As each of the Kens followed suit, the Stephanies took several steps back, creating a movie-like gap under the disco ball.

Locals and tourists alike gawked at the spectacle of these fresh-faced frat boys imitating worms on the floor, the B-52s’ iconic synthesized, screeching peels of “Rock Lobster! Die! Die!” drowning out the Stephanies’ pleas.

“What are they doing?” a bewildered coworker asked.

“The Worm,” I said, grinning widely as I made extended eye contact with Stephanie. “And Stephanie will have to say hello to me now, any time I see her, for the rest of her life.”

We nodded at the abject truth: I had seen Stephanie’s boyfriend doing The Worm. Now we were equals.

Related Post: Socialist/Socialite: What’s the Difference?

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 12, 2011 1:04 am

    In nearby Bad Driburg (Germany) there is a Cafe´ run by and for the mentally retarded to better integrate them into society and give them the self-respect of having a job. As a customer you just need to be patient, use simple sentences and NOT change your order.

    I remember one customer exploding and shouting “Are you all stupid here?” So I said “Yes…” and explained the situation to her – which she hadn’t previously known or noticed!

  2. August 3, 2011 10:32 am

    So happy to see you posted again. Love your writing and your irreverent tales. Your story of being invisible on the bus really touched my heart.

  3. August 2, 2011 2:40 am

    Thanks for this post. My husband is in a wheelchair.
    We went into a travel agent’s once. The clerk asked me: “Why does he want to travel when he can’t walk?”

  4. brad permalink
    August 1, 2011 7:34 pm

    It’s the folks that won’t return a conversation that have nothing to tell, because you’ve learned enough from their actions. By the way the only reason I jumped whenever you spoke to me was because I knew you. 🙂

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