Mom was excited when she came home one day from her job with the federal government. She said a new janitor came in today to empty the office trash cans at the end of the day.
She recognized his face. She recognized it because it was scarred and smeared. She knew he just had to be the kid who attended that segregated elementary school for cripples with me in the 1960s. His name was Kareem Abdul Jabbar (smart ass cripple alias).
Legend had it that when Kareem Abdul Jabbar was a tiny kid, he was sitting in a car as some dumbass adult was smoking a cigarette while pumping gas. A fire broke out and the rest is history.
That was the only reason he was banished to the cripple school- because he has a disfigured face. There was nothing else crippled about him.
My mother said Kareem Abdul Jabbar was a very nice guy, very soft-spoken and mild-mannered. Mom said she felt happy for him that in spite of it all, he had the gumption to land on his feet.
But I wondered if Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s aspiration was to be a janitor on the night shift. Maybe so. But if not, I don’t know if he had much choice. Suppose he showed up at my mom’s office as an executive. A lot of people might’ve been uneasy with that. It’s one thing when a guy with a disfigured face takes out your trash. It’s quite another when you have to take orders from him. And if he was an executive, somebody would have inevitability grumbled about affirmative action. “He only got the job instead of me because of his face! Quotas! Reverse discrimination!” But nobody bitches about affirmative action when you’re a janitor.
And did Kareem Abdul Jabbar also aspire to be soft-spoken and mild-mannered? Again, I don’t know if he had much choice. Suppose he had a bent for flamboyance. Suppose he wore Hawaiian shirts that drew attention to him. Suppose he was opinionated. That would’ve been way too much for some people.
Kareem Abdul Jabbar was the face of the facially disfigured. He was their ambassador, if you will. And with that came tremendous responsibility. Don’t push it. Don’t overstep the unspoken bounds. Don’t blow it or they might not ever give another facially disfigured person a job. Mind your business. Do your job, efficiently and quietly.
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