Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007
This excerpt from Allen Rucker’s The Best Seat in the House (HarperCollins) is taken from sections of chapter three, “Dignity Takes a Holiday.”
After waking up one morning and realizing he’s become paralyzed, Rucker spends several months in the hospital. In this excerpt, he has come home and is trying to figure out the way life works in his new existence. Among other things, he learns about a whole new world of humiliation - he’s now inhabiting a place where dignity is constantly on the verge of being “exposed and demolished.” As he tells it: “Unless you’re homeless, a stage three alcoholic, or Jimmy Swaggart caught with your pants down, most of us rarely experience full-blown shame. It’s a terrifying state.”
Read Larry Smith’s interview with Allen Rucker here.
NOW I WAS HOME, and it felt pretty damn good. A neighbor built a ramp up the back steps, and my wife Ann-Marie fixed up a hospital room away from the hospital on the ground floor of the house. A cavalcade of teachers from my son Max’s school showed up daily with the best homemade food imaginable. One night it was tortilla soup or homemade enchiladas, the next night, fried chicken and pecan pie. But this went on for only a few days, and I felt an acute loss when it stopped. The party was over. Now it was back to my mother-in-law’s meatloaf and boiled potatoes.
I stayed in that modest ten-by-twelve-foot room for the next three years and got sick of it toward the end, but compared to the sterility of the hospital, it was the Ritz. I had every time-wasting electronic gadget I’d ever need and even a swimming pool out back to slide into whenever I felt so bold. The room got the best morning light of any room in the house and I could even peak out the window and see who was coming up the walk to visit me. If I didn’t want to encounter a visitor, I would be “sleeping.”
I felt a bit like a wild animal that had been captured, hospitalized and rehabilitated and was now going through the gradual process of being re-introduced to its native surroundings. I knew I wasn’t quite ready to bound back into the outback of human society. I was a little weak from six weeks in a hospital bed, but that really wasn’t the problem. The problem was psychological. I was embarrassed, ashamed, and scared. I had been stripped of my dignity.
This problem of dignity is something that began during my hospital stay, but it didn’t really hit me until I returned to the civilian world. Surrounded by stroke victims, you don’t really measure yourself against normal, intact people. I was well-aware of my physical infirmity, but this decline of self-worth sneaked up on me. Lost dignity is not something most of us think about before we lose it. We don’t want people staring at our mismatched socks at our sister’s wedding or some huffy Parisian waiter laughing at our pathetic attempt to order “boeuf” in high school French, but unless you’re homeless, a stage three alcoholic, or Jimmy Swaggart caught with your pants down, most of us rarely experience full-blown shame. It’s a terrifying state.
I doubt if I’m alone in fearing, deeply, the prospect of having my dignity snatched away in broad daylight. It probably dates back to the first grade and the bone-chilling prospect of looking down and seeing that somewhere between the drinking fountain and the fire drill, I’d had an “accident” and the next class was show-and-tell. Soon the principal would be announcing this mishap on the PA system. “Attention, all students, the Rucker boy has thoroughly soiled his britches and no one should point at him in class. Laugh all you want, but no pointing.”
Martin Mull, coming of age in North Ridgeville, Ohio, actually had this experience and later reenacted the moment for an HBO special that was broadcast from his hometown. The piece was called “Stealing Home.” Martin was about ten, playing in a hotly contested Little League baseball game on a late summer afternoon. He was on third base, the last chance for his team to tie the game in the last half of the last inning. The batter was a klutzy non-athlete named Lefty who was inexplicably batting right-handed, so things didn’t look good. Martin’s only shot at baseball immortality was to brazenly steal home.
Unfortunately, the excitement was too much for young Lou Brock in training, and he peed all over himself, a yellow current trickling down his leg like the Ohio River during flood season. Smart boy that he was, Mull figured he’d steal home anyway, cover his embarrassment with the dirt of the slide, and be hoisted on the shoulders of his teammates for tying the game, his lapse of bladder control never revealed. He took off down the line; the pitcher saw him in plenty of time and tossed the ball home. Pee-boy was out by a mile. The game was over, his reputation as the go-to guy was in tatters, and when he stood up as the game’s loser, the dirt and urine had turned into a conspicuous mud sculpture from his waist to his knees.
You get the point. We are all–from the heights of Courtney Love to the depths of Jerry Springer’s next guest–only one small faux pas away from deep humiliation. We seem to have a genetic imperative not to blubber in public, not to moon the audience on national television, not to shout “You really like me,” not to get so drunk you take a leak in a potted plant, not to sheepishly back down from a fistfight that you started, and a thousand other acts of dignity exposed and demolished.
YOU CAN ONLY SIT AROUND a ten-by-twelve room for so long, no matter how shaky and self-conscious you are, so I started taking short treks into the social habitat I had once known so well. I tried to keep the outings short and sweet–a Super Bowl party here, a cheap Italian restaurant there–but I still felt alien and out of place. Maybe the best way to describe it is that you feel like the only black guy at the all-white Kiwanis Club meeting. You’ve been invited to join the club and help out with the upcoming paper drive, but you’re a curiosity–a little intimidating, even scary, to some; awkward to be around for others. Everybody is walking on egg shells not to offend you. They all want you to know that they think you’re perfectly normal. The black Kiwanian finds himself in a lot of overly friendly conversations about pro football, Mike Tyson, and “real” Southern barbeque. The guy in the wheelchair finds himself in a lot of overly friendly conversations about Christopher Reeve, driving with hand controls, the unfairness of life, and hospital food.
The continuum of response, I soon learned, went from people who are kind to you to people who are way too kind. On my first trip to the supermarket, a nice old man approached me and handed me a lollipop, just to “put a smile on my face.” He left without giving anyone else a lollipop, so I knew I was special.
My most abrupt encounter with the overly kind came a few months later. I had gotten a writing job with the meta-magicians Penn and Teller in Las Vegas; this was really stepping out into the untamed human jungle. I set out on a Sunday morning to grab a cup of coffee at the local Starbucks. Las Vegas, at least physically, is the most user-friendly place on earth for handicapped people. Every hotel and hot spot, having been built in the last two weeks or so, is replete with ramps, hand rails, elevators, escalators, you name it. Plus, Las Vegas caters to older Americans in wheelchairs who are bored with the grandkids and ready to blow their pension on a roll of the dice. There are special blackjack tables, slots, and other games designed especially for people in wheelchairs. They love crips in Vegas.
Anyway, I tooled up to this Starbucks on a bright Sunday morning, and there was a line out to the sidewalk. The night before, there had been a big concert by the now-defunct music group, Phish–a laid back, Grateful Dead-style dope-rock band with a dedicated following of young, chemically altered Phish-heads. One of those heads, no doubt stoned and awake since the Thursday before, stumbled up behind me, took one look at my chair, and went into action. He grabbed the chair handles, started pushing people out of the way, and maneuvered me right up to the front of the line. There, he announced to the world that he was buying me a cup of coffee for “everything this guy did for us in Nam, man. This guy, man, I mean, he took a bullet or something, you know….” His speech dribbled off incoherently, but everyone got the point. To him, I was a war hero. I fit the picture: I was in the right age group for Vietnam, was dressed like someone on a government pension, and had the wheelchair to back up my Purple Heart. I tried to tell him otherwise, but he wasn’t listening. He was probably hallucinating his own rendition of the sappy Lee Greenwood anthem, “I’m Proud to Be an American.”
I awkwardly extricated myself from this jam by convincing the guy that “Man, I don’t take handouts, man, I always buy my own coffee, man, it’s a thing with me, you with me, bro?” He could dig where I was coming from and left me alone. However misguided, this addled patriot gave me a good idea: go down the Army-Navy store, pick out some camouflage gear, put a red-white-and-blue schmata on my head, and I’d never have to pay for a Starbucks again.
Buy the book here .