Vassar Clements was a kick-ass bluegrass fiddle player. He played with such strength and vigor it’s a wonder his fiddle never burst into flames. And he was versatile as all hell. They called him the father of “hillbilly jazz” because his rich brand of bluegrass often crossed way over into the realm of jazz.
But he sure didn’t know much about cripples. I figured this out shortly after I talked to him backstage after one of his concerts. Cripples are big time backstage crashers. The security goons are quick to unhook the velvet barricades when sad looking cripples come by, especially in a big group. My cripple credentials have gotten me backstage to meet, among others, Jim Croce, Marie Osmond (don’t ask) and Itzhak Perlman.
So if you want to get backstage to meet your favorite performer, fake like you’re a cripple. I went with a pack of friends once to see Arlo Guthrie at Ravinia, this outdoor venue where you can picnic in the grass and listen to live music. So some of my friends picked me up out of my wheelchair and put me on a blanket on the grass. And later on, Loretta Martin takes off with my chair. And the concert ends and the security guys are telling me it’s time to go. I tell them someone took off with my wheelchair but they don’t believe me. I guess they think I’m drunk or something. They’re threatening to call the cops. I’m freaking out. Finally, Loretta returns with my chair, triumphant. She says she used it to get backstage to meet Arlo. She got his autograph on a playing card.
I was with my college roommate, Mike Bachstein, when we crashed backstage to meet Vassar. One of us said something brilliant to him like “nice fiddle” to which he replied “thanks.” Vassar said the fiddle was 400 years old. Then he said, “You want to see it?” And he handed the fiddle to Bachstein. Now Bachstein had cerebral palsy so he was all spastic and shit. And the more that spastic people try to be cool under pressure and not spaz out, the more they spaz out. One time Bachstein’s power wheelchair broke down so the repair shop gave him a loaner. Bachstein had enough trouble driving his own chair straight, let alone a strange chair. So he managed to drive this chair to a building for class and inside there was a charity bake sale set up in the hall so nice and pretty. Bachstein said to himself, “Oh shit. I’ve got to concentrate real hard when I drive past that bake sale so I don’t spaz out and crash into it and wipe the whole thing out!” And when Bachstein drove past the bake sale, he spazzed out and crashed into it and wiped the whole thing out.
That day must’ve roared up in a flashback in Bachstein’s brain when Vassar handed him his priceless fiddle, because his face tightened with terror. I thought sure he would have the mother of all spasms right then and there and launch the fiddle into outer space.
But Bachstein quickly passed the fiddle to me like a hot potato. I tensed up! Now I’m not spastic, but I’m also not graceful. When I was a kid, I was merrily splashing through street puddles after a rain with some walkie friends. I pushed my chair into a puddle that turned out to be about two feet deep. I was submerged up to my knees. If it had been power chair, I might have fried! That’s how I developed my first wheelchair rule of the road: never drive through a puddle if you can’t see the bottom.
I thought sure I’d drop the fiddle and make international headlines: FAMOUS FIDDLER STRANGLES CRIPPLE. So I passed the hot-potato fiddle immediately back to Vassar. He accepted it back, all calm and gentlemanly. He never came to realize the sort of bullet he dodged that night. If he knew the first thing about cripples he would have known you should never pass us your heirloom fiddle. Good thing he didn’t find out the hard way.