It's warm for late November. I'm rolling down Seventh Avenue enjoying the mild sun on my face and letting the autumn breeze play with my hair. I may not go bareheaded again until next spring. It will be hats and hoods and scarfs and earmuffs in the months to come. Grateful for this last taste of fair weather, I smile looking up at the pale blue sky.
As I cross 23rd Street I notice a man picking something out of the garbage at the corner. He looks old but is probably in his fifties, his gray hair is shoulder length and in desperate need of a shampoo; his clothes, drab and tattered, hang on his long, bony and very erect body with a strange kind of flair. He carefully pulls out of the garbage can a closed styrofoam container of the kind used in fast food restaurants. With long elegant fingers he brushes the dirt off and gently opens it. He seems pleased with the contents for he smiles as he closes the container again and, holding it in both hands, starts walking up 7th Avenue.
It's at that moment that he notices I'm looking at him. Without realizing it, I have stopped to watch him. Now, embarrassed, I give my wheels a few strong pushes to make a quick getaway. But it's too late - our eyes have met. His are astonishingly blue and clear, in sharp contrast with the deeply lined face which probably has not seen soap and water for months. Another turn of my wheels and I leave him behind, as we head in opposite directions.
Homeless, I'm sure. Lucky the weather is still good. When the temperature drops below freezing, when the snow comes, I find myself wondering, what will this man do? Where will he sleep? On a cot in a city shelter? Or on a bench in the subway? Will he stand on an endless line to get some hot soup at a church? I can't help but wonder what the circumstances of this man's life have been that have led to his rummaging in garbage cans, looking for edible refuse. Is bad luck or bad judgment to blame? I should have at least given him a dollar, I now reproach myself. But I had felt so embarrassed that I had to get away from his clear blue eyes. Besides, he wasn't begging, just helping himself to someone's leftovers.
"Hey, wait, miss!" I hear a male voice calling behind me. I know that if I stop and turn around, I will be facing those clear blue eyes. Don't ask how I know, I just do. I keep turning my wheels at a steady pace, as if I don't hear him, or don't think it's me he's after. I should have given him a dollar, I tell myself again. Obviously he's following me, because he wants money. Without stopping, with my left hand still on the wheel, I unzip with my right hand the pouch that's tied around my waist.
The action slows me down just enough for him to catch up with me. Before I can get a dollar out of my wallet, his hand is in front of my face. I throw my head back, caught by surprise. There is a dollar bill in his hand. "Here, miss!" he says waving the dollar, almost brushing my cheek with it.
"Nooo!" My voice is so loud it startles us both.
He pulls away for a moment, then he tries again to hand me the dollar. "Take it," he says, bending down so I have to look at his face, "I wanna give it to you."
I have never seen such blue eyes. "I don't need it," I say, "you keep it." And I push on my wheels as hard as I can to get away from him. A few strong turns and I've left him behind.
"Are you sure?" he yells after me.
I don't realize how fast I'm going until I notice the alarmed looks on the faces of people trying to get out of my way. Because my arms are moving in rhythm with my racing heartbeat, slowing down is a real effort.
Why am I so shaken up? It's not like this kind of thing has never happened to me before. Believe me, it's not that unusual for strangers on the street to offer disabled people money. We all have amusing stories to tell of coins dropped in our Starbucks lattes and dollar bills stuffed in the fashionable bags hanging on the backs of our fancy wheelchairs. Thirty some years of fighting for equal rights have earned us ramps and relay and anti-discrimination laws. But stereotypes are hard to eradicate. That of the disabled person as beggar is still alive, and ready to kick in when we least expect it.
Why am I so shaken up? Is it because I realize that I had been stereotyping him just as he was stereotyping me? I had been feeling sorry for him, picturing his life as sad and difficult. I had been ready to hand him a dollar... Is it because I realize that I do not have the luxury of feeling pity for anyone? For no matter how unfortunate I may imagine their plight to be, they are imagining mine to be much worse?
I'm still turning the wheels of my chair with exaggerated energy. Calm down, I tell myself, take some deep breaths. And I stop at the corner of 20th even though the light hasn't turned red yet. I look up at the pale autumn sky trying to feel good again about this last taste of fair weather. But I keep seeing that lined face, those clear blue eyes.