how do i live with myself?

The title of this post is not just a question – it’s a constant argument that I have in my head every day.

For example: can I reconcile the fact that I refuse to get a handicapped tag for my car but insist on pre-boarding every flight I take? Welcome to the inconsistencies of an idle mind and the torment it inflicts on me.

1. the handicapped tag

In New York City, there’s a special kind of handicapped parking tag that gives you near-Diplomat status, permitting you to leave your vehicle almost anywhere. This is the Holy Grail of handicapped passes. You attach it to your rear-view mirror and park with virtual impunity. You could drive your car into the Museum of National History’s lobby and leave it there without getting a ticket if you possessed this magical piece of plastic. When the SWAT Team burst into the lobby to neutralize you, you’d simply point at the tag with a meek, “forgive-me” smile, and receive profuse apologies along with instructions to make sure to see the refurbished Blue Whale Room (NYC’s SWAT Team loves The Museum of Natural History, or so I imagine).

Where I live on Long Island, parking spaces aren’t quite so precious as they are in the five Boroughs. But in a mall-crazed culture like the one I unfortunately inhabit, the opportunity to park within 40 yards of an entrance versus three times that distance has a magical allure. (Particularly between Black Friday and Christmas Eve.) Friends and family members have implored me to secure this little piece of car-mounted Nirvana for their benefit if not my own.

Even so, I’ve never had a handicapped tag for my car and have no plans to ever get one unless I suffer something more debilitating than limb loss. This traces all the way back to the earliest stages of my life as an amputee. As I’ve detailed countless times before in these e-pages, my entire early rehabilitation consisted (and a good portion of my current life consists) of denying the rather obvious fact that my left leg went the way of the Dodo. To wit:

Psychologist: You are aware, David, that doctors had to amputate your left leg in 1996, right?

David: [Flabbergasted.] What?!? You must be joking!

Psychologist: [Carefully – this is part of a delicate process.] No, I’m afraid I’m not, David. It’s important that you accept the fact that you are an amputee, a person with limb loss, an individual with a handicap.

David: Well . . . [Sardonically] I’m afraid it’s you who doesn’t understand, Sigmund. You see, I look down and at the bottom of my blue jeans I see two shoes peeking out. A person without a leg would also be without a shoe, no? Or, to be more specific, a person without a leg would be without the foot that fits inside the shoe. Ergo, the existence of shoe #2 proves the existence of leg #2. [Sits back, arms crossed defensively across chest.]

Psychologist: My name isn’t Sigmund. I’ve asked you not to call me that before. But turning back to the matter at hand, I feel compelled to point out that an examination of your actual medical records would reveal the absence of your left leg. You are sans knee and foot. What you see below your pant cuff and what fills the space between your now-abruptly-ending femur and the floor is a facsimile of a limb, a replacement that is merely an imitation of what you were born with lo those many years ago.

David: My apologies. I shouldn’t have called you Sigmund.  Carl, you can use your fancy degree and schooling to try to trick me into believing what you say, but I’ll have none of it. The aforementioned shoe isn’t empty – it has a foot in it. and the space below my femur contains a knee that bends back and forth. I walked into your office today and I’ll walk out of it when we’re finished here. (Which, if you insist on continuing this conversation, will be sooner rather than later.) Are you conducting some type of experiment here that I’m not privy to? Do you have IRB approval? The facts show that I’m not an amputee, and I find this whole line of analysis by you annoying at best, and borderline insane at worst. Perhaps I should be shrinking you, and not the other way around.

Psychologist: My name isn’t Carl, either. I’m not even a Jungian.

David: So sorry, B.F. What does “B.F.” stand for, anyway?

Psychologist: I”m afraid we’re going to end this session early, David. But I’ll insist on payment in full nevertheless.

(I imagine that this is what my psychologist, whose actual name (I further imagine) would be Noah Dorfman, would have said to me if I had ever deigned to see a psychologist for the psychic trauma resulting from my accident. I further fantasize that my responses would be as witty as those described above. Sadly, however, I’m much more clever in an imaginary world than the one in which I actually live. And even in my imaginary session, I’m not original enough to somehow avoid paying Dr. Dorfman’s bill.)

In other words, I couldn’t think of anything more reality-shaking than submitting to the amputee equivalent of a scarlet letter. I wouldn’t be the Hyster Prynne of the limb-loss world. Affix a tag with a wheelchair on it to my rear-view mirror? I would spray paint “cripple!” on my car in a brilliant neon hue before falling from grace in this way.

My Denial Stance became more nuanced the more control I gained over my prosthesis. The  fact that I could walk and walk well with titanium, carbon fiber and hydraulics  became a badge of honor, something to flaunt. And as I grew into that mindset, I began to couch the decision in more selfless terms. (See, Ego: dangers.)

When I attended the countless cocktail parties that a person of my standing must appear at – WARNING: this is a total fabrication; I attend between zero and two cocktail parties in my neighborhood per year, but it’s a better story described this way – I would wave my brandy snifter suavely through the air, adjust my monocle, and humbly admit, “Muffy, my dear, of course I would invite you to go shopping with me, but I fear that your hopes of me parking my Triumph 2000 Roadster closer to the entrance because of my previous misfortune are grossly misplaced. [Dramatic pause to maximize import of the forthcoming statement.] You see, darling, there are other people less fortunate than I, less fortunate than you, and less fortunate than all of us here in the Gatsby mansion. And so, if you choose to come with me, you will have to brave the distances that Everyman – and I use that term to cover both genders in this instance; please don’t use this as an opportunity to tell me again why you believe women should have the right to vote – as I said, that Everyman must traverse to acquire the material goods required to live a civilized existence.” [Incline head graciously to accept the “good on you’s” and “Well said, Sport’s” that flow from the well-heeled listeners.]

The fact that I’ve injected myself (poorly) into one of the greatest pieces of 20th century literature is grounds for permanent revocation of my U.S. Blogging License. (“You don’t have a Blogging License,” you say? In this economy, don’t be so sure. The Government is always looking for new revenue sources. Please also note the reference to a car that didn’t exist until roughly 30 years after Gatsby took place. I’m too lazy to even get my time periods right.)  But even more noxious than this literary travesty is the fact that my “others need it more than me” position encourages listeners to shake their heads in approval, tell me how admirable I am, and remind me what a positive message I send by choosing to reject a benefit that’s rightfully mine.

Note, however, that doesn’t stop me from doing it.

2. the pre-board

With my monocled, parking-space ethos so firmly entrenched, you would think that I would refuse the pre-boarding process that airlines make available to infants and the infirm. But I don’t. As soon as the attendant announces that pre-boarding is open, I’m elbowing my way through the line of people waiting to shuffle onto the plane, cutting every poor soul off and claiming that increasingly-valuable overhead storage space as my own.

Some gate agents look quizzically at me as I come up and gently remind me, “This is pre-boarding.” To which I pull up my pant leg to reveal my prosthesis, stumble dramatically, and fall in a heap over my luggage, screaming in pain and decrying the injustice of a boarding process that would doubt the legitimacy of my needs. (Not true at all, but more interesting than reality.) Alternatively (i.e., in the real world), I simply smile and say, “I have a prosthetic leg” just loudly enough so that the agent can hear me, but too quietly for other  passengers to glean any information about why I’m getting on the plane before them.

This decision then leads to the Moment of Awkwardness: the gate agent knows that I’m “disabled”, but none of the other anxious passengers looking at this completely-healthy-looking jackass – they are all staring at me, right? I am the center of the universe, aren’t I? – has any clue why I’m entitled to get on the plane before them. This is especially true because I can generally walk down a jetway at the same speed or faster than your average biped.

So what does a man of my principles and strong moral fiber do? What any self-respecting cripple would: I walk much more slowly than normal and pretend to limp ever-so slightly – just enough so that the onlookers see that I’ve got some kind of lower limb malady, but certainly nothing so serious as limb loss. (Need to maintain that whole “I’m-not-an-amputee” illusion at the same time I gain its benefit.) As soon as I get far enough down the jetway to be sure that no one (a) can see me, or (b) cares any longer about my existence, I break into a normal gait and happily store my luggage, claim my seat, and adjust the airflow of my little fan before the next person gets within 10 feet of me.

Having read 1 and 2, you should appropriately be asking the following question: “What the [expletive deleted]?”

3. the explanation

Sadly, sometimes the truth disappoints. Like the masked magician who appeared on TV several years ago to reveal the secrets behind some of the most famous tricks – did anyone else notice that virtually all of them involved having incredibly flexible female assistants who, once in the box, could avoid the swords being pushed towards them with relative ease? – I have no startling revelation to justify my seemingly contradictory attitudes, no overarching philosophy that unites these positions into a greater Truth.

It makes me uncomfortable to think about clambering out of my vehicle and walking without a hitch into a store that’s 25 feet away when, frankly, any excuse to walk more is probably a good thing. In addition, parking with the huddled masses allows me to maintain the illusion that I’m not really handicapped, which still plays a significant role in how I relate to the world. Finally, getting a handicapped tag for my car gives me a benefit that I’ve never truly needed – it has just never been a big deal to walk from a parking lot into a building because I’ve always been able to cover those distances. So I don’t claim it as part of my package of inalienable disability rights.

On the other hand, sitting at an airport gate is a miserable, soul-sucking experience. My only goal, from the moment I leave my house until I land at my destination, is to get done with everything as quickly as humanly possible. Standing amidst the rest of my fellow cattle waiting to board a plane is one in a series of uncomfortable, obnoxious weigh stations that I must stop at if I want to get to the other side of the country in less than a week. The faster I can get away from everyone and into my seat, the better. At least once I’m there, I’m, at worst, uncomfortably close to only two other people (middle seat), as opposed to the plague-carrying, deoderant-averse, overly-conversational masses that pen me in at the gate. In addition, moving from the gate to the plane gives me the illusion of progress – I’m now one step closer to my final destination than I was before. (Only 150 yards closer, but still.)

Claiming my right to an early entrance under these scarcely human conditions seems not only appropriate, but fundamentally just. I can’t name even three things about flying that make me happy. From TSA scrutiny to lousy food to passengers who recline their seats with a force and suddenness that suggest their primary motive is to destroy the electronics of the hapless soul behind them, very little good happens in airports or on planes. Indeed, any experience that’s defined as an unqualified success simply because you haven’t died doing it – like flying from New York to California – is damning with faint praise. And so, in that world, I claim the only advantage my limb loss gives me: the right to move from the Sixth Circle of Hell (the gate) to the Seventh (a giant, flying metal tube).

If that’s disappointing to all of you who were hoping for some philosophical revelation, I apologize. But at least it’s the truth.

4 thoughts on “how do i live with myself?

  1. Just a quick correction–the “magic” parking permit is a laminated Special Vehicle Parking Permit, approximately 5″x9″, issued by the New York City DOT to permanently disabled people. It goes on the dashboard. It allows you to park in No Standing Authorized Vehicles Only spaces, No Parking (during certain hours) spots, and in Truck Loading zones. And you don’t need to feed the meter. It has been invaluable to me. Before my accident I used public transportation or walked everywhere (native New Yorker that I am). But those subway steps are really hard on me now.

  2. Ah – I knew one of my New York readers would come through and more accurately describe the permit. By the way, if I lived in NYC and had a car, I would DEFINITELY have tried to secure myself one of these, psychic damage be damned.

    Thanks for the clarification. And have you tried to park in the Museum of Natural History lobby? Just for kicks?

  3. Funny read, thanks. I have a placard but like you often park wherever I like with the exception of narrow spots. I then opt for the wider “disabled” spots simply because I need to open my door fully to get in and out of the car. Some spots don’t allow this.

  4. If an arm amputee had chronically overused shoulders and elbows and no way to get access to any disability parking option, then still that person would have to swing doors open all the way to load / unload stuff – and “all the way” could mean wicked things if parking lots (non-disabled ones) were very narrow otherwise. THEN all kinds of strange things could happen, with cars, metal, doors. But I doubt any self respecting arm amputee would ever park like that, or, in the remote instance that happened, open their doors, leave alone opening them wide and if THEN these doors would do weird stuff to other cars that would never see the light of a blog, Definitely not. God forbid, no. Good, then, that these things never happen 🙂 Besides, I read we are not disabled anyway. A person with an inconvenience, maybe, but not disabled. That helps to make other practical problems disappear, too.

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