My nephew is getting married today, and I’ve been thinking a lot about just when we become grownups and when we become those capable adults that make lives for ourselves in this crazy old world. 

As the time for Joe’s wedding comes around, and the weather starts to bite us with her change from late summer to ripe autumn, I’m thinking about a man I first encountered on a cold fall day in downtown Detroit around the turn of the millennium.

The man had no feet. I usually found him parked in his wheelchair with a cup held out at various spots along my route from the Windsor/Detroit tunnel to my office just on the other side of Detroit’s Greektown. What struck me about the man was his matter-of-factness, which I found strangely comforting. In fact, if you chose not to look at him, as most of us tend to do on walking by the homeless, he would withdraw the cup without bothering you.

If you did look at him, you were probably surprised at the look with which he held you – as if you were old elementary school pals. His face was dried into a map of crevices from his mostly outdoors existence, but when I really looked at him for the first time, I found a man about the same age as me. Mostly it was his eyes that still held me; they had the boldness of an old boyfriend.

His hair had formed into long dreadlocks and I couldn’t help but think of the filth and neglect that sustained those graceful, long ropes. That hair was sexy, I thought, in the odd man I’d see in the street walking to an office or playing in a band.

One day, not unlike most days during that time, I almost walk by the man with no feet as I emerge from the corner store with a carton of milk for our daily tea. I give the man the change left over from my purchase and before I can take any more steps, he holds me up with a commanding “Wait!” He drops a handful of coins into my hands, saying that he’s got enough money for a meal. Before I can even think about the layers of dirt that are coating his hands, he’s listing out the items he needs me to purchase for him inside the store.  (A store not equipped for homeless, or wheelchairs or men with no feet.)  

The man with no feet commissions me to go back into the store and purchase him some fried chicken, as many pieces as I can get with that pile of coin. Taken aback, less by his boldness than his matter-of-fact demeanour, I follow his bid and return to the store, orders trailing behind: “Don’t forget bread! And a Mountain Dew!” Inside, giving my strongest looks to the clerk behind the bullet-proof barrier (it’s downtown Detroit, remember) who is looking at me with equally stern suspicion, I pay for the order with my nickles and dimes, and I add on as much food as I can with my allotted budget. Back outside I return the meal and the bits of leftover change to the footless owner, and I linger for the slightest instant; me in my offic-y splendour.

I can tell you I didn’t pity the man with no feet that day.  I saw in him a fellow human who showed dignity and capability as he made his way through his world the best he could.  Qualities I needed to see in myself just then.  And now, in my nephew Joe as he gets married and starts a new life on this Thanksgiving weekend in 2009.

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another bus story

11 September 2009

So I’m riding home on that short, middle leg of my journey.  It’s always a pleasant place to be at seven o’clock because the ride ahead is neighbourhoody and fast.  I can’t be the only one who thinks so because the drivers are usually pleasant on this route too.

Before that though, we pull up to a stop beside three supermarkets, and at first it seems no one is getting on until the driver lowers the “kneeling bus.”  I expect an older lady with a shopping cart but realise a full thirty seconds later it’s two fellas climbing on; one guy leading the other blind guy.

As they make their way up the step, the blind man is saying “thank you, thanks so much, thanks very much, thank you…” to the other guy.  He sounds like Dustin Hoffman being the Rain Man.  They slowly get on and pay, all the while the blind/rain man is saying “thank you, thanks very much, thanks…”  After thanking the driver for the transfer slip, the man automatically moves to the first seat to the driver’s right.  The first of the seats reserved for disabled people.  The seat where sight impaired people always sit.   The one in which, when it becomes apparent that a disabled, or old, or encumbered person is boarding, you automatically vacate.

Today though, there is  couple sitting in that seat and the one next to it, and they just sit there, sort of stunned, and sort of giggling, as the blind guy, thanking everyone and the guy helping him, makes his way to the handicapped persons’ seat area.  He goes to sit down in the first seat, and I watch astonished as the couple just sits there.  Sitting in the guy’s lap and realising someone is present, the blind guy adjusts himself and sits  in the girl’s lap.  The girl and guy just sit there and giggle. 

I want to holler at them from back where I am, “YO!  IT’S A BLIND GUY!  GET UP!”  “IT’S THE ONLY SEAT HE CAN ‘SEE!’”  Eventually blind guy is on to them and gropes his way across the aisle to another seat, with help from the other guy who helped him board.  When blind guy is seated, other guy moves to the back of the bus and we realise he was a stranger helping a blind, ever thankful, stranger. 

I can’t help it.  I keep looking at the couple; who are still giggling, nervous and sheepish.  And I think what a shame that nobody ever taught them to give up a seat for a blind guy.    

And I hope they don’t always have to sit in the seats they’re sitting in.