Half a Life
By: Stephen M. Chapot and his brother Hank
While on holiday in Europe, I traveled to London with my brother John for a little site-seeing.To learn the layout of the city would be no small triumph for me as I had little experience with traveling. Leaving the hotel was a bit intimidating because it seemed as if I would be run down by a taxi or lorrie at every intersection. Being an uninitiated Yank, I was always looking in the wrong direction at the crossings.
One evening, I found myself out in the street without hat or gloves, mapless, aimless and depressed in the cold London fog. After another unmemorable dinner and a return to our hotel room, I knew I had to get out for air. John and I were in the middle of another one of our arguments about our lives together and our lives apart. I wondered if he cared if I lived or died and he was offended that I would even ask. Did a terminal illness make me unique, was the experience impossible to communicate? How did his fear of death and loss compare to my pain at the potential loss of life? Questions became quagmire in a matter of minutes. Neither of us could claim objectivity and were both too pigheaded to give the other sympathy. After all, we were both cut from the same cloth, so to speak. My cancer riddled legs were burning and I couldn't sit a moment longer, so it was down to the street and out in the fog I went.
I knew only one route and that was down to the east toward our tube stop, Charing Cross, I think. I had to pay attention to the buildings and neon landmarks that I passed so I would not become lost. I felt so alone and misunderstood, a stranger to my family, and this city, walking wounded with my disease.
I shuffled past large silent hotels and restaurants with immobile waiters, waiting for patrons that may never come.There were few cars or taxis and no pedestrians. Only fog, cool and wet on my skin, polishing the streets darkly. I would walk in one direction until my head cleared, and then return to our hotel. All that awaited me was another sweaty night of little sleep.
I stood at a crossing for a moment to get my bearings. The cancer was screaming as if I balanced on two burning deadwood posts. I was truly amazed that I lived with the chronic pain and yet here I was, still walking.
Coming out of my self-pity for a moment, I heard a soft, repetative sound off in the fog encased darkness. It was the sound of rubber tires on wet pavement. A small squat shadow moved toward me on the sidewalk opposite the crossing I faced; a small young man in a wheelchair. He did a wheelie and paused to wait for the green light. He did not move, just stared quietly at me as I slowly lumbered across the street. His head and shoulders sagged and his hands remained folded across his lap. His legs were cocked to the left and he wore gloves with the fingers cut off, a dull sweater and a widbreaker. Like me, he wore no hat and his scraggly hair dripped with fogwater, framing a sweet but dark bearded face. He stared at me intently as I approached his side of the street and stepped up to the curb.
"Eh guv" he called out, "how's about a push?" He smiled and suddenly looked very young. I learned later that he was twenty-three. I stopped and smiled back but thought to myself, great, just what I need, somebody in worse shape than me, asking for help.
"where ya goin, guv?"he asked.
"Well," I replied " I'm not going anywhere actually, I'm just wandering around discovering your lovely little town."
His voice quickened, "Ya, well, gimme a push down to the tube stop, I'm goin' 'ta meet me mates and this time 'a night me arms get bloody tired."
"Sure" I said "I'd be happy to. I've got all the time in the world." The irony of the statement made me wince but he didn't seem to notice. I pushed off and finished with "I've got no special plans. Which way? Gauche?, a droit?" but he didn't understand, just pointed straight ahead. "Down tha' way " he mumbled. I was surprised at the strength required to get him off the curb and him across the empty traffic lanes. Perhaps I was sicker than even I had thought.
I wanted to chat but was afraid I might lose control of the chair. I wanted something from him, to ask a few questions. Had he been in this chair for his whole life?
He started right in, "Me names Robert, but you can call me Robbie." I responded, "my name is Steve Chapot" "sounds French but yer from the states, I"ll reckon." He spoke without turning his head, and I had to lean close to better hear his words through his thick accent. "Which part?" he asked. "Califirnia" I said.
" Ah, The golden west coast" he nodded with obvious approval.
"I was born right here in London and I ain't never been anywhere's else. Me Mum just could'nt 'andle me problems so she dumped me on me drunken ol' man when I was eight wit' me little brother who was six. But me brother ain't got the spina-bifida like I does."' I lives on the dole like 'alf the folks in this country, but I'd work if someone'd hire me. I spends me time ridin' 'round the streets. Last night i got 'ome at sunrise. I musta done twenty kilometers," he spoke proudly. "I was sure fagged when I got home."
I wondered out loud, "isn't it dangerous for you to be out at night, alone and all? In this chair. no less? How would you get around this mixed up city, anyway?" i was impressed and added, "there does'nt seem to be much handicapped access in dear old London." His voice dropped a few degrees and suddenly grew as cold as the night. " We don't like that word, 'handicap" in me circle. None of us is beggars and we don't hold out our caps in our 'ands, guv." I was stunned , but he went on easily, chuckled softly and said, " ya, it is hard to get around, but I hates the telly, and ain't got a job or nothin', so I just tours the streets and hangs out wi' me mates." He then told me about what a nightmare lorries and trams were and how often he was nearly squashed and how he'd been mugged more than once.
"Now, if I 'ad a big dog wi' me, then I'd fear no man, no way. But I ain't sure I could care fer one if I 'ad 'im." He looked at me with a piercing gaze, cocked sideways. 'Ey, yer from the states, ya ever seen one of 'em pit bulls?" thars the dog fer me, ya, a pit bull, noone'd bother wi' me if I 'ad one a them.eh? I seen em on the telly, they attacks on command! Ya that'd be the dog fer me."
We got into a long and I must say amusing chat about the pitbull mania that had been in the press lately, he asked about children getting bit for just being friendly and about dogcatchers being mauled when they came to impound the animals from hostile owners. His enthusiasm was amazing and a little scary. I just about exhausted every anecdote I could remember but he enjoyed it immensly, laughing at my crackpot American humor with delight and saying, "Death and money, death and money, that's America, nothin but death and money." "And taxes" I muttered.
I told him, "you could never really trust one of those dogs but that it was the owners who really made them vicious. He insisted that he knew they had been bred for it, and in England, for that matter. He went on, claiming that the yanks were hoarding the best of the breed and sending their rejects to the U.K. I had to give him a complete description of the American breed. He really wanted to know he could handle one. An American one, too. "English breeds ain't no good, they got bad hearts and slobber all over ya."
After I had run out of pitbull stories, he asked me about the well publicized tourist shootings in Florida that had stolen headlines from pitbulls in recent weeks.
We came to a crossing and I wasn't sure how to get him down the stone curb. He was quicker than I would ever imagine and with a flick of his left arm, was down and half way across the street before I caught up with him. I wondered where we were going and where the hell was my hotel, anyway? I followed, because I had become intrigued with this guy who had been in a wheelchair all his life. I might be in one soon and perhaps could learn a few tricks.
A brilliant light pierced the darkness as we rounded the next corner. Ahead stood the Charring Cross station. Nearly deserted at this time of night, there were a few people about. A dark-skinned sweeper pushed his way across the shiny floor. The station was grey, what seemed to be the national color of England. Grey faces, grey stone, Grey lives?
Buses lined up in front. Below level, there was the ominous third rail. The waiting area had cement ceilings not more than eight feet high, punctured every few feet by cold neon lights that gave everything a dead bluewhite glow. The station occupants looked very much the worse for war. A knot of drunks, a few sleepers, and a variety of 'gimps', as Robbie called them, hanging out. They were Robbies friends, they all knew each other, and they acted like any bistro crowd might act.Their congregation had been meeting for years. There were no late night travellers, only this collection of travellers not waiting for any train.
Robbie docked his chair at a scarred and badly painted post, set his breaks and peered around the place. A few people came by and greeted him as he sat, and I tried my best to blend in, but I stood out like a sore knuckle. Robbie nodded back, all the while shuffling an old deck of cards in his hands. A rough old drunk slopped up and guzzled somethind in Robbies face like, "I'm sorry fer ya in that chair and all, wha' happened to ya, God bless ya." Robbie, such a talker before,didn't even look up, he had heard it all before. I had long since stopped hoping that someone would say something magic to me that would change my condition. Robbie was way ahead of me on that one. Spina bifida, I wondered if these were the first words that he had ever learned. As familiar as his own name.
Many "Gimps" hung out at the station. One man, on one leg, walk-stepped past us and tossed off a hello to my new friend. Robbie had many friends here, one entered in a flash and almost laid rubber as he swiveled to face us. His name was Hans, handsome, strong featured and neat as a pin. Hans had massive shoulders and arms and tiny legs clothed in a pair of child's sweatpants. He wore a little boy's running shoes.
Robbies eyes glowed. He turned to introduce us proudly, "Hans is one of the top wheelchair champs in England. E's got the medals to show it, don't ya Hans? This blokes been in long distance races in France, Rome, you name it, e's been there." Hans nodded and looked around the station. He had georgeous eyes but only gave me short glances, he seemed to prefer to look around. Hans chatted a bit, and then departed, as quickly as he had arrived.
I asked Robbie about his life. And he began slowly, with a touch of emotion rising in his voice."Me father an' the Social worker 'ad me convinced in my youth that me mind was gonna be the way out a me dilemma 'You are a smart kid, they says, you can do anything you want, you just have to apply yourself.' Says they,' study hard. They hadn't thought about how 'ard it is ta get into a four hundred year old school in a wooden chair." Their stories had worked on him for a while, he knew that he was smarter than the average bloke. As for getting somewhere, he had come to believe that it was all a lie, that they had only wanted to protect him from the inevitability of life in a closed society like England. Funny thing was, he said,"they hated my situation more than I ever did."
His real sadness came through when he started to talk about love, and he was very honest about it. "Theres a 'Bird' across the hall from me in me buildin', she's a chair person, too. Whole building full a 'gimps'. "I kinda likes 'er. She's real educated, but she's a real snob. Wheels by me with only a nod an' won't even gimme the time a day. Looks down her nose at me. Ya know, I'd like t' get t' know 'er, kinda seems like a lost cause, though." He looked at me sheepishly and whispered softly, "I needs yer 'elp, Guv, I gots t' use tho loo an' empty me bag." I had seen enough shit to not shy away from his request, it was so heartfelt and trusting. "Sure, I said just tell me what you need me to do." We wheeled into the toilets. The place reeked of wormwood scrubs, as Robbie called it, and the scent couldn't mask the sorry state of this all too public place. I got him to the door of the stall, and with a sort of a reverse heimlich maneuver, got him situated. A young guy cruising the 'tea-room', stared at us for a moment. I gave him my best shit eatin' grin. He left in a hurry.
Robbie called out that he was done, and after we got him fixed up right, it was back to our spot by the post . For a time, we just checked out the station in silence. Silent, trusting and comfortable. We hung out together.
I decided I ought to tell him about myself, tell him my 'secret'.
Slowly I began to speak. "You know Robbie, you and I have more in common than you might realize. You see I'm disabled too." Robbie looked at me puzzled, but said nothing. I knew that I had to go on, in fact I very much wanted to tell him.
"You see, I have AIDS. for the past few years, and I'm getting sicker every day." He opened, and then closed his mouth, and opened it again, and said, "Jesus Christ, whatcha doin muckin' round here for?. Shouldn't ya be in bed or somthin'?" But he caught himself on that one. He'd heard it before. I saw recognition in his face. I said " I want to travel before I die, and even though it hurts me a lot to walk, I'm glad you brought me down here." Robbie said, "Ya, we got the AIDS 'ere in England, but in the states, you got it real bad, eh?' I answered,"yes, the water is rising so fast that were going to need wings to stay above it. My only consolation is that I may get my wings sooner than everybody else."
Robbie said "don't that mean that yer gonna die an 'orrible death?" My only reply, "what death isn't?"
He didn't argue, just looked off into the night station. I had given him a piece of my burden now and couldn't take it back. I worried I might have upset him for some selfish reason of my own, and thought I should get going. I left him the name of the hotel, but didn't think he would call. I didn't know if I had done the right thing, after all.
I began to take my leave with a soft "goodbye friend", and as I walked away Robbie called out, "Ey Guv, ya know what me an' me mates says?"
I turned to look at him, looking straight into the face of terrible wisdom.
"We says, half a life be better than no life 't 'all."
I loved him at that moment. As I walked back to my hotel, I was lifted by my new pair of wings.