This is not my normal Note. It’s a little more personal. This is a true story. It was published on Facebook right after it happened and on my other blog (the blog which must not be named) a week or so ago. Someone stumbled on it there and asked me why I did not post it here. I don’t know. Even now I am a little nervous. Maybe because it feels so different from my other posts on this blog. On this site I try to talk about universal experiences and this one is, well, personal.
So, I had a moment today that that is worth talking about because it’s worth thinking about. I had an unexpected conversation. A heartbreaking conversation. A conversation that cost me four dollars, some change, a little of my time, oh, and an Atkins bar.
As I was pulling out of a gas station this morning a man in his early to mid-twenties, obviously homeless, stepped in front of my car. He didn’t look at me or act threatening, he just stood there blocking my way and reading a thick paperback book with the cover torn off.
I rolled down my window and asked, in as sunny a tone as I could muster (being that I was late now and inconvenienced by this… self absorbed stranger), “you gonna move buddy?”
He didn’t look up. He just said with a practiced tone, “it’s a toll… a toll way! It’s ten bucks.”
Oh no, you don’t get to do that when I’m late, I thought. In the same sunny voice as before I replied, “ooooor I could call the cops?”
He looked up now. More toward me than at me; he didn’t make eye contact, but there was a “challenged animal” look on his face. In a highly agitated way he stabbed his finger at the ground, about 30 inches from his foot opposite my car. “See the sidewalk? See! I’m not on it. I’m in the parking lot. I’m not obstructing traffic. This is private property [the Convenience Store] can trespass me, but not you! You can’t. You can’t.” He looked back at his book with purpose. His voice was still filled with stress but aiming for matter-of-fact he said, “and if you hit me with your car it’s vehicular assault. You have intent, a thought, a Mens, and an act, an Actus, together, both, both together.”
At that moment I looked and saw him again, now in a very different light. I asked, “where did you go to law school?”
That set him off. It was obviously a familiar question, but never before a sincere question. “I DID! I DID GO TO LAW SCHOOL ASSHOLE!”
The sunny voice was not working so I switched to an as soothing as possible voice. “I know you did.” He was not having it. He snorted. He paced around a little in a tight circle, never giving way enough space for me to pull around. I tried again this time going for matter-of-fact. “I was not asking like that. I’m asking seriously. Where did go?”
So he told me the name of the school, then made it clear, “and I graduated!”
I said, “I got accepted there, but I ended up going law school at Northeastern.”
He collected himself by focusing back on his book, took a breath and asked me, “Did you like it?”
Remember, this whole conversation is happening through the open window of my car, with him pacing in front of the hood.
“Did I like law school?” I asked.
“Yeah, did you like it?”
I didn’t have to think hard for an answer. “Yes, I did.” And it’s the truth, I did. It was a time when everything at home and school had to run with organized precision, everyone pulled together and my full time job was thinking about the law. I loved it.
There was something in his voice and face that told me that law school was a good memory for him as well. Maybe the last good memory.
“Did, did, doooo you like being a lawyer?”
“I do, very much.”
“I didn’t pass the Bar,” it was a statement both blunt and confessional. “I try, I tried, I wanted to.” The young man sniffed and his pacing slowed to more of a swaying shuffle. “I would have liked being a lawyer, but, you know I liked other things, I guess, I guess I liked other things… other things, more.” He turned his gaze and fixed it on his book.
The pain of that statement haunts me. Of course I’m a human so the word DRUGS clicked on in big neon lettering in my head. Then I gave myself a heartbeat to think. The drugs were no doubt part of it, the signs were all there so that was obvious. But, I don’t think that he was talking about the drugs, at least not in the way I had instantly interpreted it. I think the drugs were not the original demon. The drugs, I think, were the demon he invited, the demon he chose-to fight the demon he already had. Maybe, the thing he “liked more” was escaping the terrors in his head by making the demon already living there do battle the demon of drugs, while he, unnoticed by them both, could slip off for a brief bit of oblivion.
I told him the truth. I really do like being a lawyer. I work with people who are Deaf, and it’s tough work for very little reward. My wife says I have an absolute lock on a community of people who can’t afford to pay me. I tend to win, but there is not much money in winning a case under the Americans with Disabilities Act. More than that, unlike physical access which deals in permanent structural changes like ramps and widening doorways, the accommodations I fight for are creatures of the moment.
An interpreter is not fixture. The interpreter is not there anytime the person who is Deaf needs one. Even if a doctor or lawyer or other professional agrees to provide an interpreter this time, they may not next time. So I tend to fight the same battles, sometimes with the same doctors and lawyers and bankers that I already fought three times before.
The Defendants I face can understand paying for a ramp, it’s a one time expense and helps more customers to access their business. But its different with people who are Deaf, it’s not a single expense and it’s just this one person and, they are paying for this one person to have access to them. Not just the business, they are paying so somene can have access to their very selves. “I’m not paying so someone I don’t want to talk to can talk to me,” they Think. Often they are wrong, but always seem to think they have a better defense the next time.
The wins, like I said, are regular but the gains are incremental-almost glacial. It’s frustrating. But it’s mostly frustrating because I fight for my Clients each day, in the context of a world that is structured around hearing and sound, and presumes that if you can’t access it that way that’s your own problem. Indifference and indignity toward people who are Deaf is just woven into the pattern of, everything. It’s there in a thousand upon a thousand little roadblocks and unaviodable sharp edges that the hearing world never sees, and most people would not care (believe me I know for a fact) even if the barbs were pointed out to them. I am not Deaf, so I can’t really understand as a person who lives the experience. If worked every day for 100 years I would never even be able to identify all these embedded shibboleths, because I can’t truly see them, they don’t actually grab at me or cut at me. So why do I care?
I just do.
My mother says I was born this way. If there has to be a reason then it’s my Clients… my Clients get up every morning, and again and again navigate a world that is, was, and always will be, till the end of time-amen! fundamentally unfair to them. I will NEVER understand what that is like. I will never know for myself. So, in the end I cannot be the guy who fixes all this.
So. Why? If I can’t even understand it or fix it, why try? Because this is the thing that is needed from me. I am not saying the Deaf NEED ME; my Clients were fighting against discrimination before I was here, they will fight after I’m gone. It’s not about pity or a savior complex. I am saying what I do, it’s needed. Right now, I can do what’s needed, so I do. And it’s worth my 100 years of work if there is one less blade to cut or stone to stumble over in the weave of the fabric of this unfair world when I’m done. If that is true, that one thing, whatever it is, is fixed, then I can die knowing that I did what I could as often as I could, and did what was needed to make the unfairness a little less fundamental.
Big ideas for a Tuesday morning, and also-here was J.D.* to think about, standing there, blocking my way. He is nothing like the Clients I serve, but, he rasied all those big questions for me because he is so different but he also knows the fatigue of pushing daily though a world that is set against you in a way that I never will.
J.D. stood in front of my car and looked at me and saw me doing the thing he had worked for, the thing he wanted to do, but did not have any hope of actually doing, because the demons, both resident and guest, stole that all away. While you read this, wherever he is, he is blinking against the glare of the abiding and fundamental unfairness of his world. Because he is not just pushing through the fabric around him.
Today J.D. pushed by standing in front of cars and charging tolls to strangers. But as he pushed the deeper levels of all that is unfair pulled back at him, and clawed and scratched from behind his own eyes. His primary battle is on two fronts, the fabric of discrimination constructed by the indifference of people around him; and his own personal unfairness, the unfairness that lives in his head; all day everyday and all night every night.
Of course, I wanted to fix that too. I couldn’t fix it. I can’t fix it. It’s not mine to fix. But, I wanted to fix it… And now, I was late for something I could fix. I had to go. I was supposed to go fight for the thing I could fix ten minutes ago; seven minutes before I even met J.D. So I said, “Hey J.D. I’ve got to go, will you take four dollars for the toll? Because four dollars is what I got.”
He looked up from the book, eyes near me but not exactly at me. “Five dollars. I’ll take five dollars.”
“I’ve got four aaaand?” I scrambled around for a second, “an Atkins bar.”
He made a face. “Is that a protein bar? Like the chewy kind of protein bar?”
(I’m with him on that one, those are gross) “Yeah it’s a protein bar, but it’s not chewy, it’s actually pretty good.”
He smiled, but was looking at his book again so the smile was not because he liked the idea of a non-chewy protein bar. He smiled, and then he counter offered. He didn’t beg. He countered. “Five dollars and the Bar…five aaaand the Bar. Last Best Offer.”
There it was. Suddenly, he was telling me what he needed from me. What he needed, at that moment was to not to beg but to negotiate like he learned in law school. Like a peer. He set out his terms and was working toward a settlement.
So we negotiated. “Four dollars and forty, one, two… forty-four is my top end of my authority to bargain. Four forty-four and the Bar is as high as I can go.” For a moment I wondered what him “walking away from the table” would look like, because I think he was contemplating that move.
I pushed to save the negotiated agreement in front of us. “Let me propose this, will you take four dollars and forty-four cents and the Bar, as full ‘accord and satisfaction’ for the toll, as a professional courtesy to me-J.D. to J.D.”
That caught him off guard and he had to think on it for a minute. I could see it cross his mind that I might be making fun of him, but he dismissed it, and he said, “I’m a J.D., professional courtesy J.D to J.D., professional, p-professional courtesy (he said these words very slowly) because I’m a J.D. I am a J.D. Because, I am one too. Ok.”
He walked to my window and I gave him four dollars and the change in bills and coins, and the Atkins Bar. He looked at his settlement and then, with a little anger in his voice snapped, “I don’t need your help!”
“Yep, I didn’t offer any.” I assured him.
He look at me and really made eye contact for the first time in all of our interaction. He said, “ok. Good. Now you know.”
I replied, “Now I know. Be carefully out there J.D.”
He slapped the palm of his hand softly on the roof of my car a few times and said, “yep, yep always am. Go. Go be a lawyer.” And waived me away, turned and walked toward the sidewalk saying, “go be a lawyer, go out there and be a lawyer.”
I don’t think he was talking to me there at the end.
My heart hurts. Because of who I am, I cycle though this conversation over and over and think “should I have done more?” Then I remember what he told me, “I don’t need your help.” Unfortunately, I could not have made him take my help. I could not force him, I don’t have that power. Luckily I guess, I don’t have that power.
* Juris Doctorate is the degree issued by Law Schools. J.D.