Naturally, I see all sorts on the Red Line. You’re talking about a city of 4 million, a megalopolis of 17 million, you will most assuredly encounter a mind-numbing cross-section of humanity in your daily travels. The deeper you delve into the bowels of Los Angeles, the more grueling and harsh the environs and wildlife can be. If you drive or frequent upper middle class to upper class areas, you will witness a white-washed version of sanitized humanity populated by homogeneity and wholesome blandness. If you take public transportation or wade on foot through the incapacitated and homeless indigent populations, you will see another side of life not frequently visible on the glittery screen of the LA visitor bureau’s website.
Tonight on the Red Line, boarding somewhere at Hollywood & Western, or maybe Sunset & Vermont, I saw a wheelchair line itself up outside the door’s dark, shaded reflective windows before they stuttered open. Wheelchairs are quite ubiquitous on the Red Line because the Metro system is very “disabled friendly” and it’s the easiest way for handicapped people who can’t drive to traverse the urban areas. When the door opened the wheelchair scooted in very slowly and the occupant was a petrifying sight. I generally feel a sense of pity for people in wheelchairs, but usually they carry themselves like walking people except they are chronically confined to a seated position. Not this man tonight. I’ve never seen such an excruciating display of wheelchaired immobility in my life. He was about 60. He was permanently hunched to his left side in the most distended position imaginable. It was like he was doubled-up in pain, but entirely to one side and he somehow maneuvered the wheelchair by toggling a lever on the left armrest that his hand could barely flick. His right arm and hand were useless. It was the most painful thing to watch. He was bent over so far that his face was hardly visible and the mere exertion on his part required to simply wheel himself into the train and roll to the wheelchair area haphazardly after the train took off was agonizing. I was standing and I tried not to stare but a few glimpses described utter misery to me. His body was distorted skeletal display of frozen limbs. It seemed his natural position was resting and fetal, but his caregivers had somehow shoveled him into the unfriendly 90 degree sitting confines of the wheelchair. His frail body still fought the chair’s boundaried demands in a strangely perverted sense of uncooperative positioning. His face was drawn and slightly aged, wrinkled and red. His light blue eyes bulged and seemed deranged in their neural disobedience. I usually don’t feel bad for strangers. It’s not my style. There is enough fucking suffering to go around in this world. It’s not that I don’t care about human suffering, but there is too much of it and my existence would come to a standstill if I decided to linger in the face of every misfortune I encountered (even my own). But this dude broke my heart. He was so utterly helpless. On his last leg. When you can barely summon the physiological control to steer your own wheelchair, things can’t be looking up. And here he was, in the middle of scumshit L.A., steering himself around while populations of able-bodied and glamorous (exaggeration) people surrounded him. I could sense others on the train doing their best to avoid making eye contact with him for they felt pity and shame for this stranger. He provoked such reactions by his mere presence. I think this is what troubled me the most. Most amusing was this skinny Asian chick who got on at 7th Metro and seemed entirely mystified by his adjacent proneness. She had no idea how to act. If she could have melted into the seat divider, she would have. She looked scared. I don’t mind evoking hate, disgust, apprehension, horror by sight, but I never want to elicit pity. Pity is terrible, I can’t cope with being on the receiving end of it. The guy in the wheelchair was a pity parade. He was in bad shape, and to evoke pity from me, of all people, is telling.
I reflexively thought of all the trite truisms we bark out blindly, like “be thankful for what you have, it could be worse!” No shit. Life is a statistical spectrum of probabilities and most of us can have it worse, or better. I think most people in the civilized world innately realize that they have it OK compared with the rampant misery which scourges most of this planet. When I saw wheelchair guy tonight, my mind instantly sprang into this mindless reaction whereby I reminded myself that “things could be worse.”
So the fuck what? Is this supposed to be consolation? What is it about our frail nature that we need to remind ourselves that the misery we live pales in comparison to the depths that exist “out there.” So? What is this supposed to accomplish or complete in our psyche…knowing that it could be “worse?” What is worse anyways? I, for one, do not believe death is the worst thing you can experience. Death is blankness. There are more active depths of existential torture than this. In 2005 I was in a car accident that left me in a coma for 3 days and I remember nothing. I lived, and now I have this blog to show for it, but if I had died, there would still be blankness. Yes, there are worse hells to endure than death. Like having your body ravaged by illness or injury and being bound uselessly to a wheelchair you can barely drive.
Through this entire episode on the train, my eyes kept focusing on a bracelet tattoo that encircled his right wrist. I couldn’t quite decipher it, but it was old and blurry and probably harked back to days of robust and dangerous youth. Every time I secretly glanced at the man, I couldn’t not look at that tattoo which symbolized the descent that was his life. I wondered what type of young man he had been. Immortal in mind, inking in lifelong symbols of defiance into his skin, but which now smeared into the aged and incapacitated skin of his withered frame? In all great human tragedies, there is a focal point when we look closely enough.
I could not take my eyes off his bracelet tattoo.