After the gathering doom and deluge of Friday, Saturday's pale blue spans triumphantly over my neighborhood. Although the cold raises a smattering of goosebumps down my shoulders, I blissfully paddle around the house in my pajamas, feeling the sweet pull of the spring air as I step onto the porch to retrieve the morning paper. The sound of the news carrier's engine awakened me at 5:30, and I lay in the freshness of the day, beneath the steep pitch of my bungalow's roof, listening to the sounds of the sleeping house.
Last evening, I attended the opening reception at the new location of an artists' cooperative and gallery with which I have an affiliation. Compared with the VALA Gallery's former location, the facility it now occupies in Mission is palatial. Its founder and one of its artists-in-residence is my friend Penny Thieme, and the little I am able to do to support her is small repayment for the gift of her presence in my life and that of my son. Penny has struggled to establish the Gallery as a legitimate artspace, competing with the well-funded commercial enterprises in Kansas City's Crossroads district. Though many of the attendees at the reception last evening had direct connections with the featured artist, or with Penny or others connected to the Gallery, we did see new and unfamiliar faces, and the event received nods in the monthly listings for First Friday events in our community.
Elsewhere in Kansas City, poets gather to set a world record for poetry reading. I greet the endeavor by Prospero's Bookstore with mixed emotions. I hold a long-standing grudge with the place. The establishment's owners chose to move it from a perfectly respectable flat-surface storefront to its present, three-story non-accessible location some years ago, at a time when I struggled to overcome a worsening disability and the ravages resulting from my little pedestrian-car incident. Prior to its move, I had regularly haunted its aisles. As an addicted reader and inveterate purchaser of used books, I resented the wholesale ruination of one of my cherished Saturday morning occupations, especially as Brookside's Bloomsday Books moved downtown shortly after Prospero's relocated so that I was simultaneously stripped of two of my favorite Saturday pursuits.
The first time I stepped into Prospero's non-accessible facility, shock rippled through my body. It is not just a multi-story facility. It is doggedly obstacle-ridden; its downward stairs are steep, metal and open, sharply dropping to a lower region characterized by the sloping concrete floors of a turn-of-the-century basement. I complained to the city, the supposed watch-dog of all things ADA in the public realm, but the city would not act, due to the age of the building and the economic infeasibility of the requisite accommodations. The response of the store's owners gave little solace: They assured the city that a list of all of the books shelved in their basement could be reviewed by any customer, and the desired book fetched by store employees.
I am used to such solutions. Perhaps those who do not face the reality of encounter with insurmountable physical challenges consider that offering assistance suffices. It does not. Nor does the cold march of print on a page even weakly substitute for running one's hand down the length of a book's spine and across the crisp edges of its page. I don't choose books by their titles. I choose them by the flow of their words and the music of their language. I am a book-lover; I am a writer, and a reader, and a relentless pursuer of lyrically constructed paragraphs the content of which is sometimes irrelevant. A list of titles sits in front of me with cold impertinence, while a span of books snuggled together on dusty shelves draws me as surely as the pungent smell of the simmering fix entices a junkie.
The aim of accommodation should be to provide a level playing field: My experience should be parallel to that of an able-bodied person. If an able-bodied person can gleefully browse the dusty environs of the paperback fiction section, so, too, should I be able to do so. My inability to safely navigate stairs should not diminish my shopping pleasure.
But practical realities prevailed. Prospero's did not have to meaningfully accommodate. My choice, then, came down to this: Browse their selections by list, and choose a book that the salesperson retrieved -- or cease to patronize their store. I chose the latter.
Last spring, though, I wandered 39th Street in search of divertissement after a quiet, solo lunch at my favorite bistro, Rm. 39. With the warmth of its luscious fare and hot Earl Grey in my belly, I broke the boycott, and stepped across the threshold of Prospero's for the first time in several years.
I cannot satisfactorily explain the convergence of place, time, and temperament that results in the unfurling of a turning point. Fragments of mood, and portent, and personality assemble in a mosaic of momentum and open a path; I set my foot upon it, and take a gingerly step, and the path invites forward motion. The sworls of life's avenue beckon; the swaying branches of the old, learned trees lining the road draw me onward.
Perversely, on that April day last year, I sought a certain mystery book which, if it existed in their inventory, would be on the slanting-floor-to-floor-joist-
I found a book, not the book that I had sought but a randomly chosen one that I later realized I had already read. I returned to the first floor to purchase it, and the man who had assisted me did so again, smiling with a gentleness that could not be met with vile response; inclining his head, just barely nodding, he told me that he had a friend in Oregon who liked the author of the book that I was buying. He's looking for a few from this series, I was told; and I admitted to owning several of the titles that his friend sought. We exchanged e-mail addresses, and I exited, finding myself back on the sidewalk, before I even had a chance to complain about the inconvenience of the store's facility.
For the rest of 2009 and into 2010, I developed a friendship with the man from Oregon. I learned of his own literary preferences; read his poetry; ate bagels and lox in his kitchen, shared coffee, and lunch, and laughter with him. Still, I resisted patronizing Prospero's, at which, it developed, my friend is actually a volunteer. He occasionally retrieved a volume for me; he would take my list and scan their inventory; and from time to time, I would venture into the place just to meet him before breakfast, or lunch, or some other pleasurable activity on which he and I planned to embark. I could not engage in any meaningful truce with Prospero's itself: I maintained my boycott of one, unknown though it might be to the owners. I had taken a stand, and my line-in-the-sand had been drawn to serve my own moral outrage.
My friend's gentle countenance became an integral part of my life's tapestry. He shared our table at Christmas; rang in the New Year with us; listened as I fretted over my son's Calculus grade. When I rejoiced, he rejoiced; when I bemoaned, he gently sympathized, urging me to analyze the situation and recognize its solution. And then, last month, my friend announced that he had decided to return to Eugene, and I faced a hard reality: His life consists of much more than merely serving as my satellite.
The shock startled me. How self-absorbed I had been, assuming his contentment; taking for granted that this sweet soul took sufficient satisfaction from living in his studio apartment, surrounded by his towering bookshelves; meeting the friends of his friends; waiting on his regular customers and later describing their idiosyncrasies over tea with me or one of the other people into whose lives he has come in the two years that he has lived in Kansas City. In the seventh decade of his life, could serving as adjunct to others' existences be enough? Stuck in the Midwest, far from his children, far from streets with which he has an easy intimacy, whose shops met his steps for so many years that the contours of their floors match the angle of his gait -- could he possibly be happy?
Last Sunday, my friend headlined Prospero's poetry reading. He invited me to attend the first public reading of his work, and I accepted. I asked others to join me. I haven't gone to a poetry reading for decades, and looked forward to the event. I put aside my trepidation, my disgust with the store's seemingly indifferent owners, for the sole purpose of pleasing someone who has become an integral part of my life.
When the phone rang Sunday morning, I recognized my friend's number and greeted him with an inquiry as to the presence of Lepidoptera in his stomach. I am so sorry to have to tell you this, came his reply. Sorry, shocked and disgusted. But the poetry reading is upstairs -- up a very steep and nearly impossible flight of stairs. I never thought of that.
So there it was, at last. My reckoning. What end would I serve -- the making of a social statement, or the honoring of someone who has become infinitely dear to me, in the very brief time that I have been gifted with his daily presence in my life? Did I honor my allegiance to those who cannot climb, or do I forsake our solidarity by climbing to the second floor, disrespecting my unity with those more impaired than me?
This might strike some as a ridiculous contemplation. Insignificant, even. But for me, declining to patronize establishments which persons of more profound disability cannot even choose to enter or disdain symbolizes my unity with my disabled brothers and sisters. I am neither fish nor fowl: I can walk, though with difficulty, and pain, and struggle. I can occupy a second-floor bedroom, though my child worries because I do, and my longtime friend and co-worker shook his head with astonishment when I decided to take over my son's bedroom upon his decampment to college. But while I am semi-able-bodied, still, I understand the stark realities of handicap, and I have long thrown my allegiance to the camp of the physically challenged.
On Sunday, at the appointed hour, I retrieved my companion for the evening at her home and drove to Prospero's. My friend met us on the sidewalk, and I could see his nervousness, in the cant of his head and the slight tremble of the hand he placed on my arm as he bent to kiss my cheek. Are you sure you want to do this, he said, unwittingly speaking the exact words that my brother Stephen had whispered to me as we walked down the aisle towards the preacher and my first husband in a country church on the side of a mountain in the Arkansas Ozarks. Yes, I am, I had said to Steve, and so I said, now, to Mark Alan Zorn, my able-bodied Jewish poet friend from the Bronx by way of Oregon.
I climbed the stairs, with Mark and my friend Paula ahead of me. I do not do well if I am first; the eyes of followers inspires a quickening of my trepidation and a stiffening of my limbs. They flanked the top of the steep stairs and guided my last step. Their smiles rewarded me, and warmed me as I gazed around the room. Large, and open, reaching into the unfettered rafters of the old building, the space mirrored many in which I heard poetry in decades past -- rough, expansive, unfinished, unhampered by pretense, or drywall, or ceiling tiles.
As I absorbed the room in which I found myself, a figure strode towards our group. I'm so glad you could come, the man said, urging me into the expanse of an outreached arm. Thus did I encounter my nemesis -- the store's co-owner, Will Leatham, on whose unwitting shoulders I had, for no small measure of time, heaped my disgust at the inadequacy of Prospero's and the dogged refusal of its management to recognize the injustice of its shortcomings.
I had resolved to detest him. Worse, I suppose -- I had decided to treat him with condescending coldness. I recognized that open hostility would disrespect my friend to whom the hour belonged. But I wore my dimmest smile and intended to resist expanding to true friendliness. I steeled myself, cold within my rigid body, while those who had come with me moved towards the circle of chairs and Mark hovered on the periphery of the encounter.
Will Leatham's quiet voice penetrated my indignation. I am really sorry about the stairs, he told me. We're trying to figure out how we can make this place better for everybody. We just don't have room downstairs for a function like this, or money to put in an elevator. He steered me a ways into the large upper floor, gesturing towards one corner. That's the logical place for an elevator, but structurally, we found out we can't cut into that area. But we're working on the problem; we'll come up with something. I really appreciate your coming; I know it means a lot to Mark.
Some of his words were spoken at the outset; some, after Mark's reading, on the first break. I wanted to disbelieve him. Even now, I can't say whether he spoke from sincerity or as a pre-emptive strike to my outrage. But at the time, I felt he wanted to be believed, and that his desire for me to feel more at ease arose from a genuine desire for my comfort, and for the friend of his associate to feel welcome.
A week has passed. Now I open my Saturday paper and see a picture of that same man holding his small son to a microphone as part of Prospero's attempt to set a world's record for continuous poetry reading. As I write, Mark Zorn is preparing to take the microphone at Prospero's for his twenty minutes of fame, and as soon as these musing are proofed and sent, I will open the live streaming and listen to him. My world has turned, and the sun has risen, and its gentle light has shifted the shadows.