the true stories
Way back in the day I was the mailman for the apartment building where Rick Hansen lived. It was on the Trail of Tears and close to the postal station I called home at the time. It wasn't a particularly fancy building by any standards. I had seen Rick wheeling into town after his Man In Motion transit of the world in a wheelchair. All us posties left our work long enough to line the Cambie Bridge route. He was then and remains today an inspiration to millions of people around the world.
I had lots of personal contact packets for him and I tried to bring them up after buzzing his intercom. He always refused and preferred to wheel down to the lobby. I was brought up to try and be helpful to disabled people and to open doors for ladies. It wasn't intended to be patronizing or sympathizing, rather it was considered the right thing to do. The disabled had the rest of that entire day and night after their chance meeting with you to struggle on.
My brief contact with Rick and the few chats we had changed my perspective on this topic though it did not change my natural inclinations nor my upbringing. It simply made me understand the new attitudes being wrought through the world. If we fast-forward to today we see a scenario wherein at my workplace it is forbidden for delivery personnel due to safety concerns to go about with MP3 ear buds, while it is the practice to hire the deaf and the mute as delivery personnel. In effect, it is considered safe today to do deliveries outdoors if one is deaf but it is considered unsafe if one cannot hear.
The mute issue is understandable and logical. With the polyglot make-up of the city it is and always was a matter of chance that the person you need to speak with can speak your language. This is true in any major urban area of the world today. It doesn't matter. The other day I was driving to pick up my wife and all the buses were flashing amber alerts and messages in English to turn on the radio to get the hot news in order to help. I ran through a dozen stations and found only three English speaking ones. These continued playing Lady Gaga and produced no bulletins. My favourite Punjabi and Cantonese stations were the day savers. Between the two I was able to get a make on the rogue vehicle and the license plate number due to my mastery of the numbers one to ten in both tongues.
I digress. After meeting Rick I remember thinking that if I ever got put in his position, I hoped it would be in Texas. I was given a heightened awareness of people in chairs by the whole phenomenon and I started to notice them everywhere. They had been there all along but I think Rick had inspired many to get out more and to get active. That aspect of his work stands tall forever.
One guy lived a quarter mile from Rick. He was wheelchair bound and had the biggest, fanciest rig I had ever seen. It was powered by a massive battery and could float down Broadway faster than I could walk. It had a drink-holder, saddle bags for storage and was stabilized not to tip. There was a big hand-drawn sing hanging around his neck. It read “I AM PARAPLEGIC AND BLIND”
The same sign was affixed to the back of his chair. He had a red flag and a Canucks flag on little poles to round out the adornments to his ride.
I called him Charlie Potatoes. This was because he was a pompous man. He was a muscular fellow and had big brazos covered with tattoos. There were rings and bracelets on both his hands. He had gold necklaces and big ear-rings. He wore a ponytail and had big shiny teeth. Aviator sun-glasses and a ball-cap crowned his head. His building was just off Broadway and he was a regular fixture on the street for a five or six blocks radius.
Many times I had packages for him and he wasn't at all upset if I saved him the hassle of wheeling down to the lobby to claim them. We chatted often and smoked together. He seemed well educated but he could talk street and his overall demeanor was a bit on the shady side. He was like a young Robert De Niro type guy. He always had the finest running shoes money could by. I figured he was nostalgic for the days before his accident. He never offered up the story and I never asked. It wasn't my business. I came to believe over the years that Charlie Potatoes might be a drug trafficker of sorts.
It was the company he kept and the hours he roamed. He was always good to me and ready with a joke or story to lighten up the day. The denizens of the immediate are seemed to have his respect as well. Some days I saw him and Rick on the same day and it gave me a broad perspective of the differently-abled.
One summer day I was picking my way down Broadway and rounding the corner to Charlie's flat. As I came in sight of his apartment door I saw Mr. Potatoes. He was parked on the corner facing across to the other side of Broadway. I greeted him as usual and he snubbed me! I felt a twinge of irritation and kept on past him to the glass door. I was inside perhaps five minutes putting the letters into their boxes. I cooled down and reckoned that everyone has bad days, even Charlie and Rick. I knew I did.
I came out of the building and decided to try and have a smoke with Charlie. I was rolling my smoke a few feet behind his chair and trying to decide what to say to him. I was having trouble because my papers had become soaked with sweat and were sticking together. I finally freed one and smoothed it out in readiness for the plug of Virginia and Kentucky that is my preferred mix.
A piece of plasticized paper hit me in the face and knocked the tobacco out of my grasp. I looked down and saw it was Charlie's sign that hung around his neck. I looked up to see Charlie's chair lurch backward and then clatter onto its side. I nearly got whacked by the red flag on its fiberglass pole. I shifted my gaze a few inches higher and saw Charlie streaking across the four busy lanes of Broadway like a cheetah.
He dodged a half-dozen cars and went twenty yards west to a knot of people. One individual broke free and ran. Charlie had him in four strides and slammed him hard face-down onto the filthy pavement. Be fore I had righted the wheel-chair and rolled my smoke, Mr. Potatoes was back standing in front of me with a cuffed and trembling man in his early thirties. He put the man in the wheelchair and reached into his saddlebag for a walkie-talkie.
“Shit!”, I said after he had called in for the paddy-wagon.
Charlie pulled his shield out from under his tee-shirt and flashed it at me with a grin.
“Six years, Mike. Six years.”
Copyright © 2019 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.