Monday, February 28, 2011

The Super Terrifying Grandma Vanelli

When we were kids growing up in our clean, safe neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago, the one thing that could always make us scatter in fright was the sudden appearance of Grandma Vanelli.

The Vanellis lived at the far end of the block. Sometimes Grandma Vanelli wandered out. Grandma Vanelli was a terrifying sight, wearing her babushka scarf, coarse knit sweater and faded flowery house dress. She looked like she was 300 years old, but when you’re 10 everybody over 60 looks like they’re 300 years old.

Grandma Vanelli never said a word. She walked around with her index fingers in her ears, like she was trying to muffle an excruciating din. That’s what made her so scary. She walked as slow as the mummies in those mummy movies. But if she came too close we dropped everything and fled because if Grandma Vanelli ever caught up to us she might do something horrible. She might…………well………I don’t know…………………………like maybe she might……………stand there next to us with her index fingers in her ears…………or something horrible like that!

Since then a ton of different people have come into my life for the purpose of wiping my butt. Recently, just for the hell of it, I started making a list in my head of the number of people I have employed over the last 30 years or so to lift me out of bed and onto to crapper and so on. I gave up counting at 34. A guy came up to me at an anti-war protest once and swore he used to work for me. I don’t remember. (And the wages of all my workers have been paid by our tax dollars. So chew on that, you selfish tea baggers!)

Of all these assistants, Chris has been with me by far the longest at 11 years and counting. We’ve traveled all over the country, to Canada and Germany.

A few years back, one of his younger cousins in New York was diagnosed with a tumor on her spine. “The doctors were afraid if they removed it she could end up permanently physically disabled from the neck down,” he says. The family rallied around her. If she needed anything, anything at all, they said they would be there for her. “She got flowers, candies,” Chris says.

Chris called her and wished her well too. But he couldn’t help wondering why no one ever sent him flowers and candy. About 15 years earlier, Chris went to see a doctor at a mental health clinic. “I went because I became rapidly depressed. I remember crying spells. I would get disgusted with myself because I would just cry. Horrible nightmares.” He was given a diagnosis of atypical psychosis and clinical depression. “I was very glad that I got told there was something wrong because I knew it was not ordinary.” But there were never any I'm-there-for-you calls from family. No one sent flowers. Everyone just tried to ignore it.

Chris isn’t surprised by the attitude. “When you’re mentally ill, people think you should just suffer in a room of needles and pins. You deserve it.”

His diagnosis has fluctuated from schizophrenia to post-traumatic stress disorder and various hybrids. The point is, through trial and error he’s found the right mix of meds and regimens to keep him moving forward and enjoying life. As an assistant, sometimes he gets deeply distracted and sidetracked. Sometimes he gets confused and has to be reminded how to do things he’s done several times before. But he’s easygoing and dead-on reliable. More than once he’s bailed my ass out when another assistant didn’t show up and left me stranded in bed.

I offered to give Chris a Smart Ass Cripple Alias for this story so as not to out him. I even offered to give him a noble alias, such as Nobel Prize Physics Laureate Zhores I. Alferov. But Chris insisted I use his real name. “I have no shame in being mentally ill.”

He sure as hell is right about our attitude when it comes to mental illness. We often act like a bunch of 10 year olds running away from Grandma Vanelli. Test it out. Try calling a florist and saying, “I need a nice pick-me-up bouquet for a friend who’s been diagnosed with a spinal tumor.” They’ll get on it right away. But then call and say, “I need a nice pick-me-up bouquet for a friend who’s been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.” They’ll think it’s a prank call. Or go to your local cozy little Hallmark store and say “I’m looking for a card for a friend who’s been in bed all week with the flu.” They’ll have rows and rows of cards expressing the perfect sentiment I’m sure. But then say “Now I’m looking for a card for a friend who’s been in bed all week with post-traumatic stress disorder.” They’ll probably call security.

There’s a word for this attitude. Actually, there are two words for it. It’s fucked up.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Smart Ass as a Verb


I wish I had a blimp!

I listen to the rabid right wingers like John Boehner on the radio and television and after about 30 seconds I get so riled that’s what I have to say to myself to calm myself down! Dammit! Someday soon I’m gonna get a blimp!

We smart asses need to organize and give these types a pie in the face, early and often. Civilization is counting on us. Wherever we see pompous bullies flashing their diamond-studded fangs, it is our sworn duty as smart asses to bust their balls. This is our reason for being.

We need to launch a smart ass revolution! And the best way to launch a smart ass revolution is to launch our own smart ass blimp. Because blimps are one of the most effective ways of getting the attention of the American public. One day about 50 year ago, some guy said in an advertising brainstorming session, “Hey, how about if we get a blimp with our corporate logo on the side and fly it all over the country?” And after the others laughed like hyenas the guy probably said, “Fine! Screw you guys. I’m gonna go talk to Good Year!”

And now look at all the corporate blimps competing for atmospheric advertising space. You ain’t worth squat if you don’t have your own blimp.

The official smart ass blimp will have the official smart ass logo on the side: the skunk.

The skunk will be the symbol of the smart ass revolution. Everyone is terrified of the skunk. The skunk is as ferocious and physically intimidating as a bunny rabbit but everybody runs the other way when they see a skunk. Because unlike the bunny rabbit or anything else in the animal kingdom, the skunk fights back by hurling stink bombs. So the skunk is the ultimate symbol of effective nonviolent dissent.

And there’s nothing tight ass dictators fear more than comedians. We don’t read about it in the history books, but no doubt there have been plenty of smart ass political prisoner martyrs who dared to have the balls to make fun of their despots: “Hey, how many Kim Jong-Ils does it take to screw in a light bulb?” And before she/he can even get to the punch line, the smart ass is dragged off to that infamous wing of the prison torture chamber that’s specially designed to break the spirits of wisenheimers.

The bigger the despot the smaller their sense of humor. There’s a direct correlation. If you aspire to be the Supreme Royal Hot Shit, in order to believe your own hype you must have no sense of humor at all. So whenever a smart ass hurls a stink bomb their way like a water balloon, we are striking a blow for truth and freedom.

You can judge the health of a democracy by the vitality of its smart asses. Where smart asses are free to roam, the marketplace of ideas is bustling.

I hope our smart ass blimp inspires all who see it to look within. We all have at least a little smart ass inside of us, an inner skunk bursting to break free from the tyranny of politeness. Our blimp might inspire millions to repress that smart ass no more! It’s a joyous feeling of liberation. And from there we can organize the first annual Million Smart Ass March. We’ll descend upon the Capitol under our proud flag: a plain white banner with a smirking, crippled skunk farting out a mushroom cloud.

We’ll know our revolution has really taken hold when smart ass is routinely used as a verb. Whenever a self-righteous autocrat gets splattered by one of our humanizing stink bombs, they’ll say, “Oh shit! I’ve been smart assed!”

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What Beasts Lurk?

I’m coming home at night. There’s a skittering in the dark. It’s a skittering dog. A dog on the loose. No leash, no human anywhere. A cocker-spaniel-sized dog. But the dog’s wearing a bandit mask.

A raccoon! I freeze! In the immediate background are the lights, the neon of downtown Chicago. In the foreground, a raccoon closing in.

The raccoon darts to the left and disappears under a parked car. But I still freeze. They say raccoons are ornery, nasty. If I move it might pounce. Can my motorized wheelchair outrun an agitated raccoon? The front door of my building is only 10 feet away. Do I creep forward with caution or go full throttle?

I opt for top speed and make it to the warmth of my lobby without objection from the raccoon. I’m safe but damage has been done. There’s a permanent psychological scar. This time it was just a raccoon but what will it be next time? A coyote? A couple summers ago at the Quiznos in downtown Chicago, just a few blocks from my home, a coyote walked in. It was hot so the Quiznos' door was open and the coyote pranced in and plopped down in the beverage cooler to escape the heat. The animal control people took it away and they told the press they remove coyotes from the city about 15 times a year.

People spot coyotes in the city all the time. So what happens if I turn the corner someday and there’s a coyote? A low, slow target like me makes for a quick and easy lunch for an urban coyote on the go. Maybe my wheelchair can outrun a raccoon, but what about a coyote?

The only way I might ever feel safe on the streets again is if I carry around a rubber alligator at all times. I visited a corporate headquarters once. It was a pristine, tranquil, gated suburban compound with a placid pond as its centerpiece. But every year the serenity was shattered by flocks of migrating geese who loved to frolic on the pond and shit on the cars. The corporate hierarchy faced a dilemma. How could they satisfy the growing clamor for un-shat-upon cars while avoiding the public relations nightmare that would inevitably accompany a goose massacre? Somehow they discovered rubber alligators that serve as scarecrows for geese. They put rubber alligators on the pond and the geese stayed away.

So maybe if I menacingly shake a rubber alligator it might scare away a coyote. Or maybe it might provoke the coyote because I tried to insult its intelligence and make matters worse. Because it wasn’t long before the geese got wise to the corporate trickery and they rode the backs of the rubber alligators and shit on the cars with renewed vigor.

But even if a rubber alligator would terrify away a coyote, would it even faze a cougar? Because a couple years ago Chicago police shot and killed a 150-pound cougar that was prowling around outside a neighborhood elementary school. What happens if a slow-moving cripple like me encounters a cougar? I suppose I could find some tips on the internet on how to scare away a cougar but I won’t bother to look it up for the same reason I don’t bother to listen when flight attendants give emergency evacuation instructions. It’s all moot because if I’m on a plane and the pilot announces “Ladies and gentlemen we’re having some trouble with….” as soon as I hear that I’ll freak out and die of a heart attack right there on the spot. Even if the sentence turns out to be “Ladies and gentlemen we’re having some trouble with the latrine,” it’ll be too late. I’ll already be dead. If you ever see the headline PLANE LANDS SAFELY, MAN DIES ANYWAY you’ll know it’s me.

The same applies to cougars. If I ever find myself face to face with a cougar, I’ll instantly freak out and die.

Spring is coming, but all the joy is missing from the anticipation. When the glaciers recede I’ll be free to roam the city again. But since my raccoon confrontation I’ll always be wary of what other beasts lurk. There’s nowhere to hide, not even in Quiznos.

Life is hard when you’re both a cripple and an incurable chickenshit like me.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Beware my Joystick

I am a house of cards. I may look steady and sturdy and ready for business. But I am a delicately balanced, perilously perched creature. It’s easy to upset my fragile equilibrium. Approach me the wrong way and somebody might get hurt.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) almost found this out the hard way. He has no idea how close he came. He approached me wrong and disturbed my equilibrium and he nearly paid the price. He was working the crowd at a political rally. He grabbed my right hand in his hefty paws and shook it. Now normally when someone reaches to shake my hand alarm bells blare in my head because I drive my motorized wheelchair with my right hand and the joystick that moves my chair is right there. Two scenarios are likely: 1) The shaker puts their hand on my joystick and my chair goes flying 2) The shaker releases my hand and my hand drops like a dead bird onto my joystick and my chair goes flying. (As part of my morning routine, the person assisting me positions my wrist on the precise spot on my wheelchair armrest from which I can operate my joystick. If something dislodges my hand from that exact spot—a sharp bump or dip in the pavement, a strong gust of wind, a surprise handshake—I may not have the wrist strength to move my hand back. So wherever my hand lands it lies.)

When I see a handshake coming, I quickly push the button behind the joy stick that shuts off the wheelchair power. But if it’s a hit and run handshake like Harkin’s was, I don’t always get to the button in time.
Harkin dropped my hand on my joystick. A joystick does not think for itself. It does what it’s told to do without regard for ridiculousness or danger. It’s like a sycophant, a codependent, a blue-collar republican or a computer. A joystick sends the chair in whatever direction the hand pushes the joystick, even if it’s off a cliff. (Case in point: My quad friend Susan was acting in a play. Every performance, she and another character danced. One night the other character leapt onto her lap. His leg landed on her joystick. They both drove off the edge of the stage. The show stopped. The paramedics came. Susan broke her leg.)

Harkin dropped my hand on my joystick and my chair shot off to the left, away from him. But had I shot to the right I would have rammed his shin and taken his legs out from under him. And he may well have landed on my lap and the two of us may have barreled through the streets of D.C. for miles on a runaway wheelchair, upending fruit carts and scattering flocks of tourists. And I would be writing this from Guantanamo.

And then there’s those grabby little kids. Someday I’m going to flatten one of them too. I can see those kids coming. They’re almost always boys and about age two or three, just old enough to run around like maniacs, grabbing everything in sight. They’ve got that fiendish little grabby-ass look in their eyes. They love to grab joy sticks. Someday I won’t get to the power button in time and one of those kids will become a statistic.

Someday someone will hug me and it will end in tragedy too. The alarms also blare when I see a hug coming at me because the hugger will inevitably lean against the joystick and send us both careening on a demolition derby ride. If you must hug me, approach me from the left. There’s no joystick there.

The woman who knows best how terrifying it is to approach me wrong is the nurse who took my blood pressure once. I thought the wheelchair power was off but it wasn’t and she snagged my joystick with the stethoscope. And when my wheelchair lurched forward she bolted from her chair and backed away. But she had my joystick snagged good so wherever she ran in a frantic attempt to escape, I involuntarily followed. She screamed because suddenly this crazed cripple was chasing her around the tiny exam room at full speed, ricocheting like a pinball. The wild chase ended abruptly when I slammed into an exam table. When she took my blood pressure it was something like 300 over 200.

I’m a dangerous, volatile man. Congress should require that I be stamped with a surgeon general’s warning: Warning. This man is a cripple. Approach with caution. Hugging him or shaking his hand can be hazardous to your health.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


When you’re crippled and you fly on the airlines you give up your wheelchair and they haul you to and from your seat in this thing they call an aisle chair. It’s shaped like the letter L on wheels. It’s only about a foot wide so it will fit through the narrow aisle of the plane. They strap you in like you’re about to be executed. My friend Greg Smith who’s crippled and flies a lot calls it the Hannibal Lecter chair.

When they’re hauling a cripple onto a plane, it looks like two guys delivering a fridge, with the cripple being the fridge. One guy walks backward, pulling the hand truck, while the other pushes from the front, hunched.

They might as well throw you in a wheelbarrow. That’s how comfortable and dignified it feels. So boarding a plane is not for cripples with a low embarrassment threshold. When they drag you past the first class passengers, bound like a captured fugitive, you have to have a large capacity for laughing off being conspicuous.

The last time I flew, while I was being strapped into the aisle chair, I heard the flight attendant behind me talking to Rahnee. The flight attendant said, “It’s a slow life in a fast world, isn’t it?” She said it with a sad tone of head-shaking pity.

She was talking about what a shame it is that it takes me so long to get off a plane. Rahnee just said “hmmm”, or something diplomatically dismissive like that. I felt like saying, “I’m not always this slow. I move as fast as the rest of them when they don’t take my damn wheelchair away.”

But I had something bigger on my mind. I was jazzed, cautiously jazzed, because I felt like I was on the verge of a great discovery. Maybe I had finally figured out a way around paying those fascist bag fees airlines charge.

I come from an economic school called Babushkanomics. I can’t help it. It’s how I was raised. It’s my mother’s Slovak blood. Our proud ancestors are the sturdy Eastern Europeans you see riding the Archer bus in Chicago, wearing a babushka head scarf and pulling along a two-wheeled wire basket just big enough to hold a bag full of groceries.

Those of us with a babushka soul are proud of our frugality. We find great joy in stretching a buck as far as we can. We hate wasting money. We hate being ripped off. We’ll drive 50 blocks out of the way to avoid paying for parking. When I was a kid and we went to ballgames and drive-in movies, my mother smuggled in pop corn and sandwiches. To a disciple of Babushkanomics, the symbol of all that is evil is a Rolex watch: “Wait a minute! You want me to pay three grand for a watch that tells me the same damn time as a Timex?”

I get similarly riled when I see a sign in a bank window that says Totally Free Checking: “Wait a minute! You’re gonna take my money and invest it so you make even more money and not charge me for it? Gee thanks! You should put up a sign that says ‘Open a Checking Account Here and We Won’t Kick You in the Balls.’”

Sullivan likes to give me endless shit about what a cheap ass I am, but he’s got a lot of room to talk. He comes from Bridgeport, the working class, corner tavern, beef stew, Friday night church bingo neighborhood where Babushkanomics originated. When the Bulls won their first championship, Sullivan bought a t-shirt that said NBA Champions 1991. But when the Bulls won their second championship, all Sullivan bought was a black marker. And next to 1991 he drew in a comma and 92.

When they unstrapped me from the aisle chair in the jet way, the flight attendant watched on, still looking sad. I said to her, “Hey you know when the passengers couldn’t fit their bags in the overhead and you took their bags away to check them through? How do you charge them for that?”

“We don’t,” the flight attendant said. “It’s complimentary.”

My face must’ve lit up right then because Rahnee gave me a look, that don’t-you-even-think-about-it look with her downcast eyebrows. She knew exactly what I was thinking: I did it! I beat the system! Now whenever I fly I’m gonna insist on carrying everything on, even if it’s a side of beef! And when it doesn’t fit in the overhead I’ll just say Ooooops and they’ll take it away and check it through for free!

But Rahnee gets embarrassed by my incessant attempts to practice Babushkanomics. When I proudly hand the waitress my two-for-one restaurant coupon, she hides behind the menu. I’ve given up suggesting that we drive around the block once or twice before heading for valet parking.

So for the sake of matrimonial harmony, I won’t be able to put my exciting discovery into action. But you can, my friends! Carry it on and beat the fascists at their own game!