Now that I’m disabled (the result of a 1994 pedestrian car accident) few if anyone asks me what I do for a living. Honestly I always dreaded that question at social gatherings. I was judged by how I earned a paycheck and not for what was in my heart. My pride couldn’t compete with the doctors, bankers, astronauts or architects. Mostly I worked as a secretary, social worker or office temp. I was far from socially desirable even though I was funny, compassionate, athletic and not bad to look at. My experiences as a volunteer in a homeless men’s shelter didn’t compare the multi-million dollar deals on Wall Street. Other people’s social problems didn’t draw much attention at happy hour.
I often wandered down Central Park West peering into the ornate lobbies as attentive door men stood watch outside. I lived in one room roach infested dump. Sometimes at night flecks of peeling paint landed onto my face. Complaining to the superintendent wouldn’t do much good. The landlord lived in Ohio, far from Manhattan, and she didn’t care much for the building or the tenants, just the rent.
Now that I’m disabled my financial condition fell from bad to negative zero. Brain trauma and spinal injuries do not mix with the rigors of employment. I tried but failed to free myself from the shackles of disability through creative writing. Writing is fiercely competitive and after ten years of throwing myself against the big boys and girls I gave up. I don’t have what it takes for the big leagues. So I spend my time volunteering and getting out of my comfort zone. That’s a good thing, even if it doesn’t pay. After the accident I was surprised how people reacted around me when I’m in my scooter. I can’t walk as well as I did. Why won’t they speak to me? Others talk louder even though I’m not hearing impaired. Once in a while, a few feel the need to pray over me. Please don’t. That’s intrusive. If someone else pats me on the head I swear I’ll roll over and beg like my dog Midnight. Years of annoying and uncomfortable experiences taught me to leave my comfort zone.
Take John for example. John and I work out at the same gym. Despite my physical impairments I still keep in shape. John is one of the millions of obese Americans and doesn’t fit in with the cliques of svelte young men and women pumping iron at the gym. I introduced myself and said hello. Losing weight must be a challenge. He said it was. I encouraged him to continue working out regularly and to change his diet, as if he didn’t already know that. Now we say hello whenever is coming along nicely.
I didn’t recognize a Muslim woman wearing a head scarf at the airport where I volunteer. I know many housekeeping staff and greet them on my twice weekly shifts. As a Muslim woman in a foreign country, she probably needed someone to say hello. I decided that person would be me. I told her my name and when I volunteered. She smiled and introduced herself.
Maybe if the car accident never happened I might not be as quick to leave my comfort zone. I am the object of discomfort. I don’t think I should be because I was in a car accident but that’s life. I can’t change people’s feelings. I can only change my own. From that accident I am a better person. Poorer in the pocket but richer in the heart.