Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A story of one-legged men in wheelchairs

Tonight I sat out on my porch swing with my guitar working on a new song the band is learning. I spent almost 3 hours scrubbing the whole porch down -- columns and railings and floor -- last night. I wanted to enjoy it before the city air made it grungy again.

Dusk fell, and I could barely see my lead sheet. As I strummed, I looked up and saw 3 one-legged men in wheelchairs rolling down the sidewalk single file on the other side of the street.

I've been seeing these chair-wheeling men a lot this summer -- some with one leg (each) and some with more. They're usually alone, or sometimes with a non-wheeling male companion. None of them seem to use their hands to move their chairs. They all either walk in their chairs or walk behind them and push.

I don't know where they come from. Maybe the nursing home around the corner? One of the halfway houses? I didn't see them until this summer though. If Melvin were still alive, he would know. He would have somehow talked them into coming up on his porch or mine to share a nip of gut-burning gin and juice.

One evening a few weeks ago my granddaughter Coraline and I were swinging on the porch, and one of the wheelchair men came walking his wheelchair down the sidewalk. He stopped in front of one of the houses across the street -- one that's been empty for several years -- turned to face the house, unzipped his pants and peed on the stairs. Then he pushed his wheelchair on down the street. I considered yelling at him, but it didn't seem like something a toddler should witness -- her grandma yelling at a man in a wheelchair for peeing on the sidewalk. That shit can escalate if you don't know your opponent's level of crazy.

Did I digress? I do that ....

Tonight as I strummed my guitar I watched the 3 one-legged men sit-walk their wheelchairs down the street and stop in front of the very house the other man had peed in front of (obviously he had 2 legs). They rolled to a stop and turned their chairs to face the street, side by side like they were waiting for fireworks.

It was almost dark, so I suspected they couldn't see me across the street on my porch. One of them took a bag off his wheelchair handle and started digging around in it. After a while he lit something with a lighter -- several times. Then he passed it to the guy in the middle, who also lit it a couple of times and then passed it to the third guy. Obviously they were passing a pipe.

They don't let you smoke weed in a nursing home, I would imagine. Even if you are down to only one leg. I wonder how people in nursing homes even get weed.

As they smoked and murmured over there, I started playing "Me and Bobby McGee," very quietly. I didn't think they could hear me, but you can't tell how sound will travel at night. I just like to sit out in the summer night with my guitar, watch the bats dive for mosquitoes, listen to the trains in the distance and the neighbors fighting ... kids playing in the streets.

I played a couple more slow quiet songs -- "Creep" and "Free Fallin'" -- and it seemed they probably were listening as they passed their pipe in silence. One of them had lit a cigarette and was smoking it; I could see the tip flare every so often. I noticed one of the neighborhood cats had stopped to sit for a while and listen.

Sometimes people walked past in twos or threes. The wheelchair men didn't move, nor did they stop smoking their pipe. I stopped playing when the walkers were right in front of me because I wasn't really out there to put on a show, but then as they faded down the street, I took up where I'd left off, playing in the darkness of my porch. Brandi Carlile's "Turpentine," one of my all-time favorite songs ... "Angel from Montgomery" ... "The Book of Love" .... a few more.

Finally, I ran out of songs I wanted to play so I just rocked in the swing and let the crickets take the stage. The cat slipped on down the street. Eventually I came inside, but the wheelchair men were still out there, sitting across the street and probably very stoned given how many times that pipe went around.

A few minutes after I came in, I passed the front door and glanced out. They were gone, back to where they'd come from.

Today after a committee meeting for a big production I'm involved with (more on that later) a few of us stayed behind sipping coffee or beer and talking about old white men, one member's new client, good places to live in the area. I'm going to reveal that I was the oldest person at the table; that information is rarely relevant, yet sometimes is. I'm not sure if it is now, but maybe. It certainly will be in the near future when I write about old white men.

We were down to 4 of us, and none of the other 3 thought my neighborhood sounded like a place they'd like to live. Mo said she gets scared staying in a house by herself. She said she lived in a rough neighborhood in Chicago before, and she ended up almost housebound. The other two agreed they prefer safer, quieter quarters.

I told them almost everything I see and write about in my neighborhood is shit that's happening to other people, not to me, and that I'm rarely scared. I told a couple of Snoop Dog stories, like how he used to stand in the street and not let me pass and the time the SWAT team busted down his door. I realized these stories weren't really making my point that my neighborhood isn't unsafe .... it's just interesting. I said I ride my bike home at 2:00 am and I've always been fine. Their expressions suggested I could expect to be taken away in a straight jacket if I kept it up, so I stopped trying. I didn't even mention Melvin.

After a few seconds of silence, J, who lives in the nice, quiet suburb where I lived for 20 years before I moved into the city, said, "The old lady who lives next door to me sometimes puts a note on my garbage can if I leave it in the driveway an extra day."

We all laughed.

I remembered how bored I was in that nice, quiet suburb. Oh, there were stories there too, but they took place behind closed doors in houses separated by half an acre of putting-green lawn.

Maybe I'm not afraid here because I've  learned I'm far less likely to be hurt by strangers in my environment -- no matter how expensive it is -- than I am by people who claim they love me. It took me a lot of years to accept that, but it's true.

So, I'd rather be here where there are one-legged men in wheelchairs passing a bowl in front of an abandoned house where a woman named Stella used to run an illegal soul-food restaurant. I hear her fried chicken was the best chicken in the city back in the day. Oh, the stories this street could tell.


  1. The nursing home inmates Iused to know got his smoke (or brownies) from visiting friends.

    1. As the baby-boomers get older and older, I'm thinking there might be a gold mine in the nursing home pot market. Brownies, anyone?