I don’t remember the airport and I don’t remember the year, but I’ll never forget the poor able-bodied soul who exited the handicapped stall to find a line of five wheelchairs and five attendants all queued up for the wheelchair accessible toilet she’d just usurped.
I happened to be the occupant of Wheelchair No. 4. I want you to know, Able-Bodied Lady, Shamed Usurper of the Handicapped Stall, it was just random, freak chance that cast you in the role. And it was just random freak chance that cast me in the role of Occupant of Wheelchair No. 4. At any given moment, you would be far more likely to find me walking a one-hundred-pound dog than sitting in a wheelchair.
Relapsing/Remitting multiple sclerosis is funny that way. On those rare occasions when MS causes me to use a wheelchair, I tend to feel a little like I’m temping at a part-time job, sitting at someone’s newly vacated desk, expecting to be there just long enough to tide myself over until my real life resumes. That’s because nine point nine times out of ten, I haven’t needed to occupy a wheelchair for any longer than an afternoon.
Oh Able-Bodied Lady, I didn’t meet your eye that day in the airport’s lady’s room. I knew, without looking, that you were absolutely mortified. I was mortified for you. I want you to know that you are not alone.
We handicapped people tend to assume that we, too, have dibs on those double-wide handicapped accessible stalls. Until, of course, we are confronted with a wheelchair. Then we start to see those handicapped accessible stalls as wheelchair accessible stalls, and we immediately lose all feeling of entitlement.
What happened to you also happened to the comedian Josh Blue, whose cerebral palsy has given him ample opportunity to observe the finer points of handicapped etiquette. Josh Blue does not use a wheelchair. Which doesn’t mean he couldn’t make an argument for entitlement to a double-wide stall. Josh’s right arm has a habit of thrashing about wildly at odd times, like a gleeful, evil orchestra conductor, and that one arm alone probably requires all the extra room a wheelchair accessible stall can provide.
Josh Blue probably felt just as mortified as you did when he finished his business in an airport handicapped stall, only to discover he had been holding up five people—a dude in a wheelchair with four attendants. After years as a stand up comic, Josh thinks on his feet. Right on the spot, Josh came up with the perfect line to distract the crowd at the stall door—a line you could have used, Able-Bodied Lady, Shamed Usurper of the Handicapped Stall—to break the tension that long ago day in the lady’s room. I will share those four magic words with you.
Josh Blue, AKA, The Human Vibrator, suddenly felt his spasticity shift into overdrive. He worked it. He announced, “I made a poopie.” And then he ran the hell out of there, fast, like the para-olympic athlete that he is.
Gentle Reader, you might not have the spastic advantages bestowed on Josh Blue by cerebral palsy, but if you take advantage of his strategy, I advise you to run too. And you’d better hope you aren’t seated next to the wheelchair passenger on your flight home. Otherwise, you might be stuck having to maintain the “I made a poopie” level of dialogue until you reach your destination.
Oh Able-Bodied Lady, Shamed Usurper of the Handicapped Stall, be comforted. Know you did this much for the five of us in the wheelchairs: We all had to endure hundreds of strangers observing us in the airport, thinking, “It sucks to be you.” For that one excruciating moment, we all had the uncomfortable luxury of thinking that very same thought…about you. Which was how I learned that I don’t like to think that thought about anyone. It’s never, just never, OK to make that sort of asumption. There is always more to a person’s story than meets the eye.
One day, maybe two days after people made that assumption about me, I was back to walking my one-hundred-pound dog. Able-Bodied Lady, Shamed Usurper of the Handicapped Stall, I, for one, forgive you. If in the future you find yourself in the airport and you desperately need to pee and all the bathroom stalls are occupied, except for the handicapped stall—don’t for a minute hesitate.
Use that stall. Don’t pee your pants…or worse. Ruining your day, or your tracksuit, doesn’t do the rest of us any good. I promise you, five wheelchairs will not line up as you do your business. That couldn’t happen to anyone twice. But if it does…just remember these four magic words: “I made a poopie.”
Lisa McKenzie leads a writing workshop at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is presently completing her novel, Love and Death on Cape Cod.