By Therí A. Pickens
“I love myself when I am laughing…and then again when I am looking mean and impressive.” – Zora Neale Hurston
I know it sounds like a decidedly un-pc joke, but we were all in a room together: the chronically ill and a person with Parkinson’s. The occasion wasn’t about disability, either. One of the things I loved was the way our jokes could free flow from us about us. “How could your brother try to take a picture? You know I can’t stay still.” Pointed looks at the stairs and then laughter followed by “I’m a, I’m a diva.” We were generating the humor, not out of a desire to get in front of anyone’s poor taste. It was because it was funny. Yes, disability and impairments can be funny.
Both the social institutions that prevent access (disability) and the body’s limitations (impairment) have a certain degree of humor. This isn’t really about taste because you know, as Tim Gunn will tell you, “À chacun son goût” (“To each his/her/zie own” or “There’s no accounting for taste”). It is about finding the incongruity between was is and what could be, enjoying the moments when it is not too frustrating to laugh, and accepting when comedy and anger exist simultaneously. I clearly have no prescriptions as humor is generally situational and varies depending on your emotional proximity to the person and their emotional proximity to any given moment. Yet, in that room there was opportunity for humor in all its forms: sardonic and dry wit, sarcastic zing, ironic twist, slapstick kick, and puns on the sly. The menu was vast, and we feasted.
The next day… I got on the train. There was a couple with a toddler and their stroller in the disabled persons section. Rather than move, they stayed put forcing me to ride in the aisle of the train nine dangerous minutes to their stop. It was not only physically dangerous for me but I wasn’t quite sure what might come out of my mouth. I said nothing. Once I finally got into my seat, a woman came near me and asked me to move my things so she could sit down. I said “No. I have a disability and I need access to my belongings.” She asked me if I had two tickets, and I repeated myself. She went on to pester me, even pointing to my chair to say “You could sit right there.” I told her, “I am no longer having this conversation with you.” She put her hand on her hips and mimicked me and said, “We’ll see what the conductor says.” (Those who know me personally know that it took more than several notions to stay cordial and pleasant.)
The conductor arrived, and she explained the situation. At first, the conductor simply said, “She’s right” and moved on. The woman even emphasized that she had graciously offered to place my things on the floor so she could sit down. The conductor took advantage of his teachable moment and explained the ADA to her and why she couldn’t have the seat. “But, she doesn’t have two tickets?! This isn’t how it is on airplanes,” she sputters. “This is how it is on the railroad,” he didn’t miss a beat. He offered to put her in another available seat and she reluctantly followed him, muttering, “Don’t you just love regulations?” Indeed. They make me mean and impressive. And, like Zora, I love myself all over again.
Here lies the comi-tragic of disability. Someday, that train story will be funny. In fact, I will probably laugh about it tonight with my close friends and that circle might extend a little later when I use it as an anecdote for a conference paper. In the moment, it is a reminder of how privilege and inequality and entitlement connive in the mundane. It is also a beautiful reminder that Nikki Giovanni was right to thank Pullman porters in her poem, “Train Rides” and “Rosa Parks.” Their legacy lives. Injustice often exists side by side with the richest laughter. They may very well be two sides of the same coin, but I prefer not to flip silver. I want to teeter on the edge with crutches.
Therí A. Pickens is an assistant professor of English at Bates College and a contributing writer for Black Studies @ SIUE.