Today is Columbus Day--except not here. California doesn't celebrate Columbus Day. Which I understand, but even after all these years it still feels weird that the kids have school today … and in fact, have no days off in all of October!
Anyway, here's the next installment of my manuscript …
In sixth grade, when I turn eleven, I vent my frustrations on a good friend named Gary. Gary and I like to play Ironside, or at least I do. He's always Mark because, well, he's Black. (Guess whom I play?) On the show, Mark is the street-smart dude who drives the chief everywhere and helps him at home while attending police school. I actually like Mark better than the other supporting characters, so Gary has a position of honor. I don't think of it as racial stereotyping. In fact, secretly I wish I were Black. I like the psychedelic clothes and fluid manner of talking and walking. The outsider status resonates, too.
I have a new motorized wheelchair—my first—which is too heavy to get up the school steps, but at home I love to zoom around, especially fun in my building's labyrinthine basement. Gary and I play there after school, staying clear of the housekeepers who do laundry and the maintenance workers' office as we explore the myriad dark passages and commodious storage lockers, pretending we're on a mystery investigation. It's taken me a while to get an electric wheelchair. They've been mass-produced since 1956, when Everest and Jennings rolled the first one out of its California factories, improving upon designs putatively sketched by George Westinghouse in the late-nineteenth century and British engineers during the first World War, then perfected in the early 50s by a Canadian inventor named George Klein, primarily for World War II vets—demonstrating the connection between war and disability progress. The first E & J power chairs were notoriously slow, but in the early-70s they become the vehicle of choice for active quadriplegics—brandished by Ed Roberts and his trendsetting crew in Berkeley. The only reason I didn't have one before is Dr. Spiro feared it'd make me lazy, make me not use my arms and build strength. Now we know I can't build up my muscles, so he finally wrote the prescription.
The first day I get the motorized wheelchair home I chase Alec all around the apartment. I'm not a good driver yet and keep crashing, leaving tell-tale gray scratches on the white walls.
One afternoon at school, Gary spills paint on a picture I'm drawing. Maybe it was an accident. Maybe he had a good reason. The unforgivable point is his bravado about my defenselessness. "How are you going to get me?" he taunts.
I'll make him sorry for that. I can't fight him physically, but I have other powers. Remember? Words and sympathy are my raw tools.
I look around the classroom. Everyone's gone to P.E. I'm excused and Gary is too, to keep me company. If he resents being my companion, he never says so.
Slowly, silently, I start dumping books and papers and pencils out of my small desk. I have just enough arm strength to reach in and move things out. Gradually, one by one, I cover the entire floor within a two-food radius of where I'm sitting. Some of the papers sail even farther—which I was counting on. Gary watches in disbelief.
When the other kids and Ray, our teacher, return, I don't have to say a word. Someone immediately notices the shambles and demands to know what happened. "Gary threw my stuff all over the floor," I allege.
Gary stares in shocked betrayal, tears welling in his eyes. "No I didn't."
Our teacher doesn't say a word. He's in a spot. Accuse the handicapped boy or the Black boy? I feel no recriminations. I am ... proud. I've mastered the perks of disability.
A girl in our class says, "How could Ben throw so far?" And I know I've won. Never mind that in trying to prove I'm not helpless I've actually reinforced the opposite—made people think Gary took advantage of me.
Even after Ray asks the class to help clean up, I stay mum. This new course I'm on—aggressive, spiteful—satisfies my insecurities. If Gary had gotten in big trouble, perhaps I would've broken. I would've relented. He doesn't, which may mean our teacher suspects. Doesn't matter. Gary's an innocent victim of my need to flex, but I figure you have to be tough to survive in a sometimes unfriendly world.
All goes smoothly for a time. Then, a year later, when I'm twelve . . .