Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Making a Life
Over the last few days, I’ve run into some folks who have reminded me that people come in all sizes, shapes, colors, dispositions, disabilities, and talents.
The first example came to me because I had reserved a rental car to use when my friend, Allison, flew in from Atlanta for a short visit. As I was walking into the Enterprise office to pick it up, I noticed two older women talking in an animated fashion to the agent. One of the women was dressed in African attire while the other was in typical middle-aged western-hemisphere woman garb, AKA the pantsuit. I have to say I was a little annoyed because they were standing in the doorway and didn’t notice I was trying to get through. Pantsuit Woman was talking very loudly while African Lady was mostly looking on in relative docility.
Because I am a natural voyeur, I listened in as the ladies took their places in line ahead of me and talked at length with the rental agent. At that point, I noted that the loud talking Pantsuit Woman had a rather strong accent; one which, I was pretty sure, emanated from an African nation and not Waycross, Georgia. Docile African Lady was still letting Pantsuit Woman do all the loud accented talking. Then I noticed that Pantsuit Woman had a hearing aid and was also gesturing to African Lady in a way that helped me realize they both were deaf, or at least hard of hearing. So, with that information, my brain began cataloging those two human beings: female, old, African, and hearing disabled. At that point,I started thinking about how difficult it must be to live in another country, a country with a different language; furthermore, how difficult it must be to be deaf in another country, a country with a different language; and furthermost, how difficult it must be to be old and deaf in another country, a country with a different language.
It was only after more creepily voyeuristic, albeit flawlessly nonchalant, watching and listening to the ladies that I came to believe that they were a couple. It wasn’t just the clichéd notion of one of them in feminine attire and the other in a pantsuit so much as the way they interacted with each other, like any old married couple. I could be absolutely wrong about the type of relationship they had, but it was definitely close and familiar. So, then I thought: good for them! They had found each other and made a life and lived long enough and well enough to barge in front of me and annoy me at a rental car checkout counter as they hammered out the best deal they could so they could go on with their trip and their life together (whatever that life was).
The second example came a few days later. My daughter, Melissa, and I were walking back from dinner when an older man came tooling down the sidewalk in one of those motorized chair/cart things. Before long, he had engaged us in a conversation which pretty quickly led to the information that he was an Elvis impersonator. After a couple of songs (Hound Dog and Heartbreak Hotel) and more than a modicum of jokes, he offered us his business card, which we, of course, asked him to autograph. In the midst of writing his Elvis on the back of the card, attempting to use his knee as a portable desk, the man suddenly looked up in feigned horror, imploring, “Where’d my leg go?” At that point, we realized he was missing an appendage incredibly vital to anyone who wants or needs to emulate Elvis, the King of Pelvic Gyrations.
Melissa was acquainted with the man, whose real name was Les Small. Known around the neighborhood as Elv-Les, he'd been a general greeter/helper at the local Safeway Store, but she hadn’t seen him since he’d lost his leg. Using the information on his business card, we later looked him up online and read his bio, finding that he'd been an Elvis impersonator for years, even back in the days when he'd worked at his day job as a tree trimmer. His website showed a couple of photos of Elv-Les with what appeared to be a full set of extremities, but said nothing about his current lack of leg.
In thinking back about the two great examples of flourishing personhood I'd recently run into, I was reminded that most people do the best they can in this life with the cards they've been dealt, and that we not only get a life, in many ways, we make a life, which is something I need to remember as I go about making my life.
And so, the next time I don't want to take part in something fun because my feet hurt or my back aches, I'm going to think about Les Small, the one-legged Elvis impersonator, who doesn't let his disability keep him from doing what he loves in the life he's made. And when I want to complain when people mumble over the phone or bemoan the fact that I can no longer negotiate interstate highways like I used to, I'm going to remind myself of African Lady and Pantsuit Woman, who must navigate their lives in a world where they are most likely often misunderstood.
With that, I'm also going to try to remember that life's best lessons are often presented in unusual gift bags, packaging that, at first glance, might disguise the prize inside. Some, I've found, even come with a pretty good rendition of "Heartbreak Hotel."*
You can find out more about Les Small on http://elvisnostalgia.com/