Allen Rucker is the author of eight books, most of them written since he was paralyzed by transverse myelitis 10 years ago. He’s written three tomes on the HBO series The Sopranos alone, including the No. 1 New York Times bestselling The Sopranos Family Cookbook. Other works include The History of White People in America (with Martin Mull) and Redneck Woman (with Gretchen Wilson).
In his hilarious new memoir, Best Seat in the House, he chronicles his transition from negotiating the world on two feet, to running over it on four wheels. In this excerpt, he plays detective. Like the three bears, who track down the blonde sleeping in their bed, he explores who’s really parking in those blue spaces at the mall.
As much as people try to avoid you, or accost you, in public, and as much as you try to go about your business without undue hassles, there are inevitable confrontations that demand you do something besides nod like a cluck and keep wheeling. Many of those confrontations involve parking. No one seems to resent the extra-wide toilet stalls with handrails for the handicapped. The nonimpaired tend to use them with impunity. And you don’t hear a lot of grumbling about the special handicapped section in the last row at the movie theater, since no one wants to sit back there anyway. But the convenience of handicapped parking strikes many as rank favoritism, which of course it is. That little parking placard (blue in California) just reeks of “I’m special and you’re not.” Ironically, what was created as a badge of immobility has become a badge of privilege, not a good thing in mythically classless America.
“Yeah, right” is the blunt response of many hurried drivers. There are many ways this can get expressed. One is to blithely park the minivan in the handicapped space right in front of the Super Store, knowing that your chances of getting caught are probably no worse than your chances of getting caught with your dog off the leash. This is expensive risk-taking. In the city of Los Angeles, for instance, the parking patrol writes about 30,000 citations a year for violations of handicapped parking spaces. And the fine can be pricey, from $330 in LA to much more elsewhere. In the city of Glendale, adjacent to LA, the fine is $1,200. Did you save that much time?
It’s best for scofflaws to display some kind of placard, even an out-of-date one. The cops don’t look that closely. You could steal one from an unlocked car, or better yet, buy a fake placard from the underground placard trade. According to one source, there are approximately 400,000 valid placards in use in Los Angeles, and twice as many fake ones in circulation. The word on the street is that you can buy them at flea markets or any place where fake Rolex watches and Chinese-made Gucci handbags are sold. The going rate in LA is about $25 a pop. (Prices may vary in your area.) At that rate, you can give the placards out as presents at the office Christmas party.
Don’t tell me this is a petty public concern. When you can market 800,000 fake anything in a city like this, that’s a lucrative racket. Someone out there is getting rich off the crippled people.
Not that it’s very hard to get an official placard from the DMV and save your $25. Generally, all it takes is a letter from your doctor, the same doctor who gave you a prescription for Valium because “life” was making you nervous. Play your cards right and you can get a placard because you have a trick knee. I began to take close note of who had these placards, and my early research indicated that an inordinate number of people, with no visible disability or impairment, displayed one proudly. Maybe the sign really belonged to an invalid at home—though this would still be a clear parking violation. Or maybe the driver had a heart condition, or some other perfectly legitimate, albeit invisible health problem, such as lung disease, low vision, or diabetes, that necessitated the convenience. Far be it from me to cast aspersions because someone who seems a little too healthy has just taken the only available handicapped parking spot in three square miles, and was last seen running at full speed into the department store white sale. This person very well might be willing to die of late-stage emphysema just to get the last duvet at 50 percent off. You never can tell.
Occasionally someone crosses the line in the handicapped parking wars and you have to defend your territory. It can get ugly out there. I read about a disabled man in Florida, who was arrested after brandishing a sword during a flap with another disabled man over a parking space. He must have just seen Braveheart. The strangest incident of this kind, in my experience, occurred after I had learned to drive with hand controls, and just after I had gotten out of the hospital for one of my many weeklong infection-related trips. I was feeling perky and wanted to buy a book, so I drove down to the local mall. All the handicapped spots were filled. Remember: There are 1.2 million real and fake placards in LA and probably 314 actual spots. In one space, I noticed, was a big, blowsy lady in a fuchsia-colored hot-pants ensemble circa 1976, who seemed to be moving shoe boxes from the backseat of her Toyota to the trunk in anticipation of leaving. So I pulled up and politely asked, “Are you about to leave?”
She turned in a huff and stared me down. “Do I look like I’m about to leave? ’Cause I’m here to tell you, I ain’t leaving. You can write down my license plate if you want, but I ain’t leaving.” She then got back into her car and turned the radio up to the kick-out-the-jams level, no doubt to drown out the incessant chirping of insects like me. I got the clear message that I wasn’t the first crabby placard waver to inquire about that space.
I toured the lot, looking for another space and plotting my next move. I pulled up beside her again and politely pointed out that she was in a disabled spot and had no placard. “See, I’m paralyzed, you see,” I said, “and need to be close to that elevator, because, ah, that’s the way things are set up. Are you yourself disabled?” (I was clearly goading her at this point.)
She again turned like a charging bull, raising her arms high and wide. “Do I look like I’m disabled?” she shouted, doing a 360-degree turn like a whacked-out runway model. She said it three times, as if I were hard of hearing. “then you’re breaking the law,” I said. At this point, she glared at me like I was a dead man, gave me the finger, turned the radio up even louder, and went back to shuffling shoe boxes from seat to trunk.
Luckily, another car pulled out of a disabled spot nearby and I pulled in. I figured this was the end of my encounter with the brazen trespasser nee hit woman. Still, I was so freaked out by her volatility that I tried to wheel up to the elevator as inconspicuously as possible, head lowered almost to waist level, to avoid further contact. It didn’t work. As I rolled past, I heard one last verbal uppercut.
“Hey, wheelchair boy, I hope you’re paralyzed because someone kicked the sh*# out of you!!”
That did it. That pissed me off. Steal my parking place, fine. Give me the finger and think I’m deaf, fine. But don’t rejoice in my condition. I rolled upstairs and had the store people call security to check on this woman. I was worried about the next person in a chair; she might decide to kick the sh*# out of him.
An hour later I returned to my car, figuring that the woman was either gone or waiting in the shadows with a tire iron. When the elevator door opened, the scene was like an episode of Cops. Two LAPD cars had blocked her car, still in the same spot, and had Ms. Hot Pants in handcuffs against the wall. Four or five security guys were standing around, rubbernecking. I felt a little guilty, so I asked one of them, “Did I do a good thing or bad thing by calling you in?” “Oh, a good thing,” he said, “That crazy woman wouldn’t budge, and now she and her car are going downtown. I sure wasn’t going to mess with her. Hell, I’m just security.”
When I was safely away, I realized that I wasn’t really mad at this woman. In a way, I admired her take-no-prisoners attitude. She could have been cranked on speed or just nuts, but I’m sure she thought she had a right to that space and screw all the whiny placard elitists who tried to shame her out of it–the special people demanding special treatment. Her life was no doubt pretty crappy, too. Why shouldn’t she get a break now and then?
The above excerpt is reprinted with permission from The Best Seat in the House: How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life by Allen Rucker, copyright 2007 by Allen Rucker and published by HarperCollins. It is available through retail booksellers or at www.harpercollins.com