Friday, May 14, 2010

the guy in the wheelchair

When I first moved to Nashville in 1988, it was to attend grad school at Vanderbilt. For those first two years in Nashville, my now-ex and I lived in an apartment in Lewis House, a nondescript dormitory on the south side of Vanderbilt's campus. At the time, Lewis House was all grad student housing, whereas its twin across the commons, Morgan House, and all the smaller, cooler-looking buildings strewn around the commons were homes to the overprivileged (i.e., Vandy undergraduates, or as I quickly dubbed them, VandyKids™).

Anyway, one of our fellow Lewis House residents was a young man who was confined to a wheelchair. I never knew his name or story. He looked very fit and muscular, so I always wondered if he had only recently suffered an injury that put him in the wheelchair. He was not an amputee; both of his legs were present and accounted for.

In fact, the only thing I discovered about him during that first year at Vanderbilt was that you couldn't please the guy. Our only interactions were passing each other coming and going at the elevators and exterior doors of the building. The first time I encountered him, I held the door open for him. He swiveled his head toward me, looked me in the eye, and absolutely glowered at me.

"OK," I thought, "so he doesn't want any help with the door. He wants to do things for himself. That's cool."

So next time we ran into each other at the building's exit, I didn't hold the door open for him.

The result? He swiveled his head toward me, looked me in the eye, and absolutely glowered at me.

So what was I supposed to do? For the rest of that year (he wasn't around the second year I spent at the dorm), I defaulted to leaving him be and gave him as wide a berth as possible in an attempt to avoid another soul-scorching stare from the guy.

Even 22 years later, part of me is still angry at this guy, which worries me about myself. I mean, I get his anger, as much as I can. If I was in a wheelchair, particularly if I was young, good-looking, and athletic, and whatever put me in the chair had just happened, or hell, if it happened to fat fortysomething me tomorrow, I could well be angry at everyone and everything in my path. So yeah, guy was pissed, and understandably so.

But all I wanted from him was to know what to do. Hold the door open? I'm cool with that. Let him get it for himself? I'm cool with that too. But he needed to pick one, damn it!

See, I'm still mad. What I really ought to be taking away is that I'm fortunate that I can amble around on my own two legs and don't have to live my life burdened by a head full of trouble that I visit upon strangers and friends alike.

Instead, I'm still fixed in time at that door 22 years ago, flabbergasted that the guy in the wheelchair won't tell me what I need to do - or not do - to help him, even though the answer was almost certainly "nothing."