My Evening in a Wheelchair

July 2, 2008 at 9:59 am (der Fuß)

Disguising oneself as the Other can yield useful information about the world.  It used to be a big thing in the 1980s for a newsanchor to dress up like a homeless person and do an expose on how the homeless are treated on the streets of New York City.  Tyra Banks and Amy Sedaris have both donned fat suits to call attention to fat hatred.  Eddie Murphy slathered on some PanCake and learned that “white people give each other stuff.”  (Okay, that was a comedy sketch for SNL….)  Last night I spent a couple hours wheeling myself around the grocery store.  It was enlightening and frustrating.

What did I learn?

First of all, the parking lot is a dangerous place.  In the wheelchair, I am significantly shorter than my statuesque 5’4″, which means I am invisible to anyone driving an SUV.  Given that many shoppers in this particular mall don’t know the difference between a parking lot and a highway, wheeling myself to the front door was like playing a life-and-death version of Frogger.  Not fun.

I mentioned that I am invisible, and yet I am simultaneously conspicuous.  Children stopped and stared.  Now, there have been times when I was the lone black person in an entire supermarket (hello, Avalon, NJ!); so being gawked at by children is nothing new to me.  But now I was eye-to-eye with the little buggers.  And I could see them trying to figure out what was wrong with me. 

The white children eyed me silently as their caregivers ushered them away.  The non-white kids were more relaxed.  As my mom and I headed down the cleaning aisle, we encountered a small black family.  The mother told her son to move aside so I could pass.   When I rolled by them, her three year old held up his hand for a high five, which I happily gave him.  The older boy asked me what happened to my foot.  I explained that I was in a car accident and broke it.  He then inquired whether it hurt and whether I’d called the police.  Later, in the ice cream aisle, a Latina about 8 years old said, “Excuse me,” to get into the freezer in front of me.  She was the ONLY person in the store to do so. 

Things I found obnoxious when I was ambulatory are amplified in my wheelchair bound state.  I speak here of loud cell phone conversations.  One woman practically chased me past the salad dressings, her voice shrill in my ear, talking about the standardized testing in her school district.  I could not wheel away fast enough.  Finally, I stopped dead and exclaimed, “Jesus Christ in Heaven!”   The woman was right behind me, close enough to push my chair if she wanted to.  Really?  Would she have followed me that closely if I had been walking?

Yeah, personal space?  In the wheelchair I had none.  People cut me off with their carts, zoomed past me only to stop short right in front of me, decided that they had to reach their arms in front of my nose to get some cottage cheese.   At one point I was caught in a traffic jam in front of one of the aisles and a crotchety old man yelled at me to move it along, like the wheelchair was imbued with the magical power to travel through solid matter.  

In the bread aisle, two biddies pushed their cart directly at me in some Aged vs. Handicapped game of supermarket chicken.  Yeah, I blinked.  I wasn’t gracious about it either.  I said to my mother, “They’re old.  They don’t have long on this earth.  I’ll let them get their food first.”

I managed to get everything on my list.  Of course, the handicapped checkout lane (only one) was closed.   I suppose, if I’d been alone, that I would’ve called the manager.  But my mom was with me so she dealt with the cashier.

So, in general, going to the grocery in a wheelchair is a pain in the ass.  Will I do it again?  Hell yes, until I am strong enough to walk unaided.  First of all, when I asked my family members to do my grocery shopping for me, there was far too much editorializing of my shopping list for my comfort.  (Sometimes my mother “decides” I don’t need a candy bar, or that I don’t really want the item that’s on sale.  I’ve ended up with some expensive but un-fun groceries).   And perhaps my repeated presence will help educate the folks at my local supermarket not to be such dicks all the time.   Hope springs eternal.

Another small triumph: last night I crutched (as opposed to wheeled) into my apartment building for the first time since the week of the accident. 



  1. Eric Lee said,

    Nice site. There�s some good information on here. I�ll be checking back regularly.

  2. ashyknees said,

    It’s interesting how the wheelchair can bring out the best and the worst in others. I wonder if it’s worth it for you to get one of those safety orange flags for the chair.

  3. zantimisfit said,

    To expand on Ashy’s suggestion, you should not only get an orange flag but also some decals and bumper stickers and a horn.

    The grocery store is its own weird little culture. It’s difficult fight the throngs there when you are able bodied. I encounter all those things you mention every time I go. Just use the wheelchair like a tank and ram through all those people. It’s the code of the supermarket.

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