Sunday, April 3, 2016

Ward of the State

This happened back in the days when I still used the cripple dial-a-ride bus service, which seems like it was in the in the mid to late Pleistocene, give or take an epoch or two. Yep, I decided a long time ago that one of my top goals in life was to never ever again ride that goddam miserable cripple dial-a-ride bus service and so far I’ve managed to live that dream. But that’s a long and harrowing story for another day.

On this particular day, it was sunny and warm. I had a lunch date downtown with a friend. I boarded the dial-a-ride bus. Another guy in a wheelchair was already on board. He was a black guy about my age. He was bundled in a black hoodie, his hands stuck down deep in the pockets. He said hello and he called me by my name. I must have looked startled or bewildered or something to that effect because he said, “Don’t you remember me?” I had to make a split-second decision. Do I pretend I remember him and hope for a clue to emerge that would help me really remember? Or do I just fess up?

I fessed. So he told me his name. I will give him a Smart Ass Cripple alias to protect the innocent. “I’m Archbishop Desmond Tutu,” he said.

Wow! I remembered Archbishop Desmond Tutu very well. Long ago, we were both inmates at the state-operated boarding school for cripples, which I affectionately refer to as the Sam Houston Institute of Technology (SHIT). But I never would’ve guessed it was him because he didn’t look anything like he did back then. I didn’t hang out with Archbishop Desmond Tutu at SHIT. He one of those ward of the state kids. They were of a caste that was mysterious and unsettling to me. They never went home on weekends or holidays or anything. They never had visitors. I knew not what sort of solemn ritual kids were put though to officially make them wards of the state, but I pictured it to be a dead man walking sort of procession culminating in the kid being branded on the chest with the letter W. Some of the other inmates called these kids "awards" of the state. That seemed like it involved an even stranger ritual, where the kid is handed over to the state with great fanfare, like the grand prize on a bizarre game show. I wondered what would become of wards of the state once they were too old to be wards. I figured they were probably whisked off to a home for old wards, never to be heard from again.

But here we were years later, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and I. We exchanged pleasantries. He asked what I was up to. Not much, I said. Writing. I asked what he was up to. Not much, he said. Living on the south side. Hanging out, looking for a job.

We arrived at my destination. I exited the cripple bus. I bade Archbishop Desmond Tutu Godspeed. He bade me Godspeed back.

I had lunch with my friend. And a fine lunch it was. And then I took time to just take in the day. I rolled leisurely up Dearborn Street toward Madison. About 20 yards ahead, I saw a crippled panhandler on the corner. Holy shit! It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu! I froze in my tracks. My first instinct was to quickly run hide behind the nearest pillar before he saw me. What should I do? Roll right past him and pretend I didn’t see him? No! That’s rude! Roll right up to him and offer to put him in touch with resources that can help him get off the street? Oh hell no! That’s even ruder! He’s not a fucking heroin addict! Give him money? No, he might be insulted! Don’t give him money? No, he might be insulted! I was so torn and confused!

So I retreated. I went back to Monroe Street, crossed Dearborn there and proceeded toward Madison on the opposite side of the street from where Archbishop Desmond Tutu was panhandling. I managed to successfully avoid him, just like back at the cripple school.

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