Mickey Rooney, Disability, and the Good Old Five & Dime

I don’t remember the movie where this occurs and I’m too tired to look it up, but a group of young white teenagers who are impossibly wholesome are down in the dumps when one of them leaps to his feet and says, “I know, let’s put on a show!” I suspect this is a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney scene but as I say, I’m worn out and frankly “googling” is a pain in the ass when you’re blind and use screen reading software. It takes ten times longer to suss a thing out. “Let’s put on a show,” is what social psychologists are always preaching: become a volunteer, join a church, just get out more.

I suspect even Mickey Rooney would agree it’s hard to feel useful or agreeable if no one wants to put on a show. In today’s version Rooney would leap to his feet, make his suggestion, and everyone would be looking at his or her phone in collective silence.

Here’s the thing. If you’re visibly disabled you’re always putting on a show. You leave your house with your wheel chair or your guide dog and there it is! The play’s the thing. You’re the bit actor in a centuries old play called “A Long Day’s Journey Into Normalcy” and your part is to stand for deviance and abjection even as you manifest a hundred competencies and social dexterities. And of course you’re often the sole proprietor of this production. You work amongst non-disabled people, ride the bus with them, etc. And yes, it’s really true, you’re the off Broadway diversion du jour.

Some days I’m really unable to play the role and prefer to stay at home.

You have to laugh. Poor normals. Addicted to imagined perfections that have already beaded them and which, if allowed to fester in the noggin will lead to ever increasing despair. The normals who will spend their adult lives desperately trying to stave off har loss, neck wattles, acid reflux, widow’s humps, corns, callouses, hangnails, all while hoping to be mistaken for a tv star. At least a cripple is a solid deviant and the advantage is ours. There ain’t no normal everyone’s got hammer toes.

Let’s put on a show.

You’re the guy with a dog riding the old wooden escalators in Macy’s Department Store, while a hundred people stare. “I feel like I have a fried egg glued to my forehead,” I once said to my wife as we were navigating an airport. “You do,” she said. You can count on your spouse. When I think more deeply about this I think in terms of history. I belong to the first generation of public disabled. We’re not in the institutions. The laws of the land welcome us. Of course I’ll be stared at. 100 years from now, when everyone will have wild looking quasi-electronic rubberized appendages attached to their bodies this era will seem like ancient history. I hope for that.

Meanwhile one walks about. You’re clearing the road for others who may follow. I often think about the business of clearing. I’m not just asserting a right to inhabit public space for the disabled but for all my brothers and sisters who are still outsiders.

I took to whispering into my guide dog’s ear: “What’s an outsider?” Perhaps being a pack animal she knew, but she only said: “It’s something in the past.”

Dogs eat grass, just to know what’s in it. They eat the past. A lesson. Get over yourself.
And you do for a minute. You imagine you’ve eaten the grass; the here and now has fallen; you can taste a pure democracy. But the here and now is like rain at the windows, just persistent enough to haul you back from utopia. You’re in the Seven-Eleven again, being stared at by absolutely everyone. “What’s that man doing?” says a child to its mother. “Shush,” says the mother. “No Mommy! What’s that man?” “Shush,” she says, “Or there’s no birthday for you!”
You’re innocent. You are standing beside a rack of Twinkies and Hohos, just trying to figure out where the coffee is located, and now you’re the un-indicted co-conspirator behind the ruination of some kid’s birthday, all because you entered the damn store.

“You’ve entered the damn store” became my personal tag line. My father who served in World War II used to say, “You’re in the Army now, you’re not behind the plough….” His way of saying you’re screwed and just get over it.

In Macy’s I was once followed by a store detective. I was walking just to walk. Working my dog around mannequins and racks of clothing, mostly because it was something to do and it was a good exercise for the dog, and you know, what the hell. Sam Spade was about ten feet behind me wherever I went. What’s an outsider? He’s whatever they say he is. He doesn’t look like the other crayfish. Let’s eat him.

Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

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