It took years of being in a wheelchair before I could be truly amazed by what it could do, and what I could do with it. On a winter night in Chicago, after a light snow, I rolled across a clean stretch of pavement and felt the smooth frictionless glide of the icy surface. I made a tight turn and chanced to look around and back from where I had just come. The street lamp cast soft icicle rainbows that arched over and highlighted the white surface with burst of color. Tracing out from where I sat I saw two beautiful lines etched in the snow. They began as parallel and curved, then they crossed in an effortless knot at the place where my wheelchair turned to look back. My chair had made those lines. The knot was the signature of every turn I had ever made, revealed by the wintry template of newly fallen snow. It was the first time I dared to believe that a wheelchair could make something, or even be associated with something that beautiful.
I float through forests of pedestrians on the sidewalks of New York, Chicago. A wheelchair presses its advantage on the pavement, streetsmart, good with cargo, fast and smooth. While walking measures out landmarks in running shoe bounces or high heel castanets, rolling glimpses a city in pans and dolly shots . . . a pedestrian movie with a soundtrack of breathing. The spaces in the pedestrian traffic are liquid passageways that open and close. I weave my way through the people as sunlight passes through a crowd of sky divers on its way to the ground. I live in the blank spaces between the business suits and the gridlock.
On America’s pavement there is a rough coexistence between wheels and legs. Between intersections, battles are lost and won every minute of every day. Scores are calculated, rules are kept and broken. It’s a finesse game of bowling where speed and precision rule, but the object on this contest is never to knock down any pins. Points are acquired for continuous motion, for never having to say excuse me, for weaving from sidewalk to road and back without stopping for a light. Points are lost for causing elderly people to jump, and for running over anyone’s feet. The only way to shoot a strike is to roll from point A to point B at top speed without stopping. There are at least two ways to shoot a gutter ball. You lose if you scare someone so badly that they fall down, or if someone asks if you need a push or tries to push you. This is the worst of all.
These days, more than just wheelchairs roll down the alley. Wheels are everywhere. Whether they be other wheelchairs, stroller wheels, or Rollerblades, a whole civilization inhabits the pedestrian strip. Vendors throw their nets and homeless beggars cast their palms into the current.The river yields only with difficulty. There is no simple fitting of a wheelchair into the pedestrian world. The ramped curb cuts built for wheelchairs are now clogged with mothers and governesses pushing carriages. People stand in the curb ramps, sucked intuitively to the lowest point in the channel of traffic. They yield only when a chair comes straight toward them, and only then at the last minute.
It is quite difficult to get a mother with a stroller to yield a wheelchair ramp, but it can be done. Often, approaching with speed alone from the front can move the stroller back or to the side. But scaring the mother is strictly forbidden. From behind, when a stroller is present all you can do is leap the curb or say excuse me. Leaping the curb acknowledges that the ramp is shared territory. Some chairs always need the ramps, and have no option. The real pavement hogs are the Rollerbladers. They weave in and out between the people where I once rolled unchallenged. They always seek the strip of pavement at the center of a road, the smooth pavement fillet road engineers call the crown. In the manifesto of crips, four wheels good, eight wheels bad. Some wheels are more equal than others.
In Chicago, on Michigan Avenue, there is a wide sidewalk on the west side of the street. From the Chicago river to Lake Shore Drive the sidewalk descends steeply at one point. It is ramped on the west side on virtually every block. During 1987 I lived in an apartment at the bottom of that hill and worked in an office at the top. Rolling to work every morning was a character-building, hand-over-hand, rope climb. Coming home in the evening was flat-out, downhill, and effortless.
Though I rolled in rhythm and wove my way with precision, the presence of a wheelchair in the crowd never seemed as natural to the crowd as it did to me. Where I saw beauty and grace gliding down, others, particularly those walking toward me, saw terror, collisions and serious injury. Going up, where I saw a bracing physical challenge, others saw pain and suffering. On the uphill leg the pedestrian comment was, “Here, let me push.” The downhill caption was, “Hey, watch out! You’re going to get a speeding ticket.” Up and down the sidewalk hill in Chicago I imagined that there was a way of rolling in the chair between fast and coasting and slow climbing where people would not be compelled to remark either that I needed a push or a speeding ticket. I took the unwanted closed captioning as a physical challenge. Somewhere between fast and slow, between deliberate and headlong was this mythical point of no comment.
On the streets every day as I reach a cruising speed virtually anyone in my path will say, “Excuse me,” or “Watch out,” to the person next to them. Mothers who see me look around for their wandering toddlers, and scream, “Look out!” The child runs to Mommy and stares fearfully as I go by. It always seems odd to hear it, yet to dwell on it seems neurotic too. I can steer. I truly can negotiate my way down the street. But the impulse of pedestrians is to imagine collisions, to presume that there is something wrong. The people who’d rather be safe than sorry, without realizing, erect walls of chilly exclusion as I pass. I cannot control the impression that my physical shape and presence is foreign.
When I described this to an African-American friend of mine he responded with a knowing nod. “It’s like the power locks. And the toddler grabbing.” When he walks down the streets in a white neighborhood he can hear the power locks click. He can see the mothers grab the children. Perhaps it’s all very innocent and tiny. Yet it delivers and unmistakable message: "You’re in the wrong place. I always wondered if I looked too angry or too . . . something. But it was just that I was there.”
Rolling isn’t as different from walking as you might imagine. The speed at which I travel is a function of rhythm. Inside my paralyzed soul the pendulum of walking still swings. Beat . . . Beat . . . Step . . . Step . . . A wheelchair with standard 20-inch wheels requires a stroke in cut time. Step . . . Step . . .Step . . . becomes
Roll Roll Roll Roll RollRollRollRollRollRollRoll Roll Roll Roll.
Because I still feel the old rhythms of walking, I have large, bicycle-sized wheels on my chair and small diameter hand rims for pushing. They slow down my stroke and flatten out the rhythm of rolling. They also allow me to go faster, but with large-diameter wheels the beat of rolling is that same centered rhythm of walking, at a speed about twice as fast as a normal walking pace.
Roll . . . Roll . . . Roll . . . Push . . . Push . . . Glide . . .
Rhythm is something that must be felt. Rhythm breaks down the menacing foreign threat of wheelchairs into the fluid motion of rolling, which anyone can see if they look. There are places where the rhythm comes through to everyone. The joggers and tourists on the wide paved trail along Lake Michigan in Chicago would watch me roll toward them, in some places for half a mile as I made my way from the hill at the Shedd Aquarium to where the path curves around Lake Point Tower. To them what I was doing looked like fun. A runner might catch the rhythm of my arms and at that exact moment we would be racing. Two runner’s steps to each rolling push of mine. The adrenaline would surge in each of us. We would pace each other for a while and either an uphill grade would slow me down and the runner would pull ahead, or a downhill would allow me to surge forward. If we were on the flats, it was a joyous battle of physical wills. I might pass the runner or the runner might pass me. In each case, the rhythms of forward motion, legs and spokes, were intertwined.
From John Hockenberry, Moving Violations, War Zones, Wheelchairs,
and Declarations of Independence. New York: Hyperion, 1995.