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Thursday, June 24, 2010

An Anthropological Apology

As I was driving somewhere yesterday, I found myself behind a Dodge Caravan, like any other in color and shape, except for the fact that it was adapted for use by a person with disabilities. Adapted vans are often lower to the ground than their un-adapted counterparts, they have extra body panels and a large bulge underneath the rear bumper to accomodate the ramp's motor components. Also, oftentimes the company that adapts a van will slap its name on the van's ass.
I had almost forgotten all about Michael, until yesterday, when I found myself driving behind an adapted Dodge Caravan. It's amazing how memory leaves you, and then comes back one day, just like that. Because of the car you're driving behind. Just like that.

I had never met anyone with cerebral palsy before I met Michael. I did not know what to expect, and I admit that I was terrified. I didn't know where he was cognitively, I had no idea what his mobility was like. I didn't know if he drooled or if he spoke or if he wrote or if he would start seizing. I wasn't an EMT yet-- I was barely out of college. I had just washed out of the police academy and I was thinking about applying to law school. I needed some income. A friend of mine told me that a young man named Michael was looking for an anthropology tutor. That he had attempted to go off to college six hours away, but physical and emotional setbacks had forced him to return home. He'd had surgeries on his legs and he would not be going back to college-- not yet-- and that he wanted to keep his mind fresh while at home.

And he had C.P.

I didn't even know what that really, really meant.

I was very scared of meeting Michael. I was scared I would say something that would offend his parents, or, worse, him. I was frightened I would stare or trip or make an idiot out of myself. These were the same feelings that used to go through my brain before and during a first date. I arrived at his house at 7:30 one night, for our introductory meeting-- our first date. A young Korean girl, maybe fifteen, answered the door.

Uh-oh, I thought. I just rang the wrong bell. Wonderful.

"Mom!" the Korean girl yelled, "Michael's tutor's here!" Michael's mom and dad quickly appeared in the doorway. Both white.

Ah. Right. She's adopted. Good job there, racist.

They were all smiles. Michael's father craned his neck to get a look at my car: a 2001 white VW Beetle with red, white, and blue stripes and a "53" on the doors and hood-- a very mod Herbie.

"Cool car!" he said, "Michael! Your new tutor drives around in the Love Bug!"

I heard a slurred comment and laughter coming from somewhere in the house.

I followed Michael's parents into the dining room and there at the table was Michael. Black, tousled hair, pale skin, arms and fingers contorted in an almost impossible position, fresh scars on both legs protruding at odd angles from beneath a pair of red track shorts, white tube socks falling down above white sneakers. His wheelchair was a big, black thing with a large, black box on the back of it. There was a joystick that reminded me of the SEGA games I used to play in my friend’s basement when we were young and, well, friends. His wheelchair looked complicated. I was immediately afraid of it. I had seen the Carol Burnett Show sketch where Tim Conway’s power-chair goes berserk on a freshly-waxed studio floor.

Our first meeting was supposed to last half-an-hour. I ended up staying two. Michael was full of questions for me—it was quite a harrowing interview. He wanted to know where I went to elementary school and what I liked to eat, and was particularly interested in what television programs and films I enjoyed. His father was impressed by my Peter Sellers fetish. Michael liked my hankering for eating breakfast meats late at night (I have since outgrown that particular comestible proclivity).

Now, I feel it necessary to explain that I was/am in no way qualified to tutor anybody in the subject of Anthropology. I had taken an anthro course in college, and I did get an “A,” but it was one of those A’s that had no basis in my actual knowledge base of the subject. It had to do with the fact that there were two tests, both open-book, open-notes, and that the professor loved me. He was an elderly man with a wicked sense of humor, and I will one day be an elderly man with a wicked sense of humor, and we, well, clicked. I spent much of the class cracking wise and busting up the professor in the middle of his lectures. On the last day of class, when we would individually come out to the hallway to receive our final grades, I got my “A,” and a hug.

“You are a joy,” he said to me, smiling from ear to ear as he brought me in for my final grade hug. His tweed sport coat smelled like pipe tobacco, newspaper, and grandfather. Maybe like what my grandfather would have smelled like, had he ever hugged me.

“We’re not really interested in an Anthropology tutor,” Michael’s mother said to me as she walked me out. I thought I was being fired.

“We want someone to spark Michael’s interest in communicating with people who aren’t his family, someone who can stimulate him intellectually and just on a basic social level—someone who isn’t mom or his sister, or a caretaker. So come over, watch his anthropology videos with him, talk to him about them, talk to him about whatever. It’ll be great.”

And that’s what I did—for a year—and they paid me. They frequently overpaid me. And it was great. After a while, I even stopped being afraid of Michael’s wheelchair—even when he pressed a button that made it completely stand him up vertically (he was securely strapped in, waist and shoulders) to ease the tension in his body caused by his ataxia. He loved asking me questions about the woman who would become Mrs. Apron. Michael was shocked to learn that she had been living in Pennsylvania for over a year and still had a Rhode Island license plate.

“That’s iweegal!” he would say, his eyes popping wide.

“I know,” I said, “she’s a rebel.”

Every now and then, Michael would cut our sessions short, when the pain got to be too much.

“Ow, ow, ow!” he would shout, “my wegs! My wegs!” And I knew that was my cue to go.

He and I would joke about the poor quality of his anthropology videos (the “Anthropology Today” series, if you’re interested) and the corny theme music. Once or twice, we piled into his adapted Dodge Caravan for the trek to Community College of Philadelphia to take a midterm or a final that he would inevitably bomb, but it didn’t matter. He wasn’t taking the class for credit. He was taking it to keep his mind active. And to keep me sane.

I wish I could say that my story about my relationship with Michael had a happy ending, but it didn’t. After a while, I went to work for Michael’s mother, because I barely passed the LSAT. I got a torrential nosebleed during the essay section-- and you're not allowed to leave the room. It was a godawful mess, and, probably, an omen. So I went to work for Michael's mom, and I ended up hating her, and she ended up laying me off after a year, and Michael and I never spoke again. I always wanted to send him an email, letting him know that what happened between his mother and I at work had nothing to do with how I felt about him, but I knew that she checked his email, and there was just no way for me to contact him without using her as a conduit. Maybe that makes me a selfish baby, or unkind, or cruel, or just plain old stubborn. Probably everything.

Michael: it is you who are a joy. And, as Carol Burnett herself would say, “Thank you for this time together.”


  1. Poor Michael... Imagine having a dragon lady supervising your life.

    And poor Michael, to lose your scintillating conversation and company.

  2. It's never too late to email him. Awkward.. hell yea! But not to late. Enough time has elapsed to just drop a line and say hello.
    Excellent post as usual Mr Apron.


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