Saturday, August 6, 2011

Saturday Musings, 06 August 2011

Good morning,

My neighbor has just tooled down our shared driveway, with a jaunty wave and a few minutes' conversation about a possible joint trip to the Planning Committee meeting in September. A stack of boards straddles her yard, delivered by Home Depot for her contractor husband to build a small deck on the side of our house, similar to one he built for them. Two boys stroll south on my street, their high voices drifting over to me, with the hint of daring of children every where, on the last true weekend of summer before area schools drop like dominoes into autumn.

Patches of brown span our front yard. Behind the house, what I had thought was grass dies under the onslaught of chemicals scattered by my husband. Apparently, the lawn that I enjoyed contained more undesirable vegetation than otherwise, and with September approaching, he plans to sow seeds for a lush spring crop of verdant growth. I look upon it all with a mixture of consternation and wonder. I have never minded what grew there of its own accord, and I shall probably not mind what grows there of his. It's all green.

The weekend hangs between a quiet week of intense work and a search for the perfect receptionist for my suite, and a scheduled trial in which two reasonably good parents will fight for principal residential custody of their thirteen-year-old triplet sons. Having raised one boy to age twenty, I think it likely that they each need some help from the other and I have put out overtures for some type of settlement, but I prepare for the worst while hoping that my feelers will take root in the remaining soil of the wasteland that their marriage has become.

In weeks like these, I wonder, time and time again, why I did not take the easy route. I could have, I suppose, married a neuro-surgeon, had 2.75 children, and lived in a swank suburban sprawling compound. I could have gone to lunch while my toddlers dabbled under the eyes of their nanny. Or I could have exited college into the waiting arms of the Peace Corps, and journeyed to points south, distant undeveloped lands where whatever skills I had as an unenlightened twenty-something might have been exploitable.

I have been asked, often, why I went to law school. I give various answers. My favorite quip involves having chosen law as a potential vocation in which I could write for a living. The truth is somewhat shabbier. I had been in graduate school, and my program lost its funding. The nine enrollees in the non-Masters-track Ph.D. program had received an invitation to finish our dissertations at another university, but at considerably higher and, for me, prohibitive cost. With student loans waiting to be paid if I halted my education, I did what I could do to delay repaying them: I applied to law school.

The state of Missouri, Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, kindly footed the bill. A friend from Kansas City, a Legal Aid Lawyer in the 70's who now graces the bench in Jackson County, encouraged me to investigate that potential. To do so, I made an appointment in the St. Louis City Voc Rehab office, which, if memory serves, occupied grungy space in an otherwise empty office building on Grand.

A receptionist showed me to the counselor's room. He sat behind a government issue putty-colored desk. He did not rise to greet me, which I found odd until he turned to take a binder from a shelf behind him, and I saw that he was sitting in a wheelchair.

I'm Dick Goodwin, he told me. And I'm feeling kind of embarrassed, I replied. He turned his head to one side, studying me quizzically. Why is that? he finally asked.

I gestured. Neither of us misunderstood my point. He drew a breath and nodded. Oh, the chair, he said, in a voice that meant, you idiot woman, Don't you think I know I'm in a wheelchair. He pulled my application towards him, adjusted his glasses, and read in silence for a few minutes. This says you have hereditary spastic paraplegia, he noted, naming the now-debunked diagnosis under which I suffered for half of my life. It was my turn to dip my head, in my own acknowledgement of a statement of obvious fact.

We sat for a few minutes without speaking, Dick Goodwin and I. He scrawled a few lines on the bottom of the pages that I had completed, and made a stray mark on my doctor's report. He grabbed another binder, and pulled a few more forms over to the pile assembled before him, and noted a couple of things on one or two pages, before looking back at me. The state of Missouri considers you moderately to severely disabled, he told me then. We'll pay your tuition at any state university that you care to attend to get a terminal degree that could lead to meaningful professional employment, and we'll give you a monthly stipend towards your living expenses.

It came to nothing more or less than the approval of this man, whose life clearly held more profound challenges than mine. I took his approval form, and exited the office, following his directions to the next phase, which consisted of a series of tests intended to identify fields in which I might be expected to attain some measure of success despite my moderate to severe disability.

Six months later, I started law school in Kansas City. I never saw Dick Goodwin again, but I had contact with him on a regular basis, and in the fall of 1982, when I got a ticket for parking in the handicapped space in front of the law school, despite my state-issued placard, despite my moderate to severe disability, I called upon him for back-up.

He wrote a letter to the Major in the University Police who had backed his ticket-issuing officer. Mr. Goodwin informed Major Garrett that the State of Missouri, Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, would be most happy to ask their attorneys to file a lawsuit against him, the University of Missouri at Kansas City, and anyone else who wrongfully interfered with my lawful right and obvious need to utilize the designated handicapped space. He vaguely hinted at the existence of ample indicia that professors had been allowed to usurp the space without benefit of either hang-tag or disability, which he mildly suggested tinged the incident of issuing me a ticket with a degree of irony that he presumed a jury would not find amusing. He ended his letter by stating that the campus construction worker who had reported me as "not looking disabled enough" to use the space, might consider whether he needed new glasses, or merely suffered from a lack of enlightenment about the law governing provision of accommodations to persons, such as myself, entitled to receive them.

I am not certain if Mr. Goodwin's letter turned the tide, or if the article on the front page of the University News did the trick, or both. One way or the other, the ticket found itself dismissed, and I resumed use of the space, in which I parked, daily, until I graduated in May of the following year.

Yesterday, as I entered the building where my office is located, a client of mine exited. Hello Ms. Corley! he sang, always a cheerful way to be greeted. I smiled, and nodded my head towards a sleek black car parked in one of two designated curb side handicapped spaces without benefit of proper plates or placard. Not yours, I hope? I asked him, and he shook his head. I'm worried about the driver, I remarked. He raised his eyebrows. Driving around blind, he must be, I concluded, and my client laughed. We talked about his case for a few minutes, and parted. I went into the building, and greeted our long-time receptionist, with my daily request that she reconsider going back to school and stay with us instead. She declined, as usual, and my day rolled into its beginning.

Now the morning surrounds me, with its buzzing lawnmowers, the slight drone of a small plane, and the flutter of our American flag in the gentle breeze. This is the last weekend of my son's summer occupancy of our home. I half-suspect that it is also his last summer in Kansas City, for I know he longs to find something exciting to do, in exotic ports, between junior and senior year. In a little while, I will take him to buy shoes, and try to impart a pearl or two of wisdom over a mocha latte. But for now, I will take my moderately to severely disabled body back inside, and make another pot of coffee.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.