"Young man!" I'm standing on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Street and Ninth Avenue North in St. Pete, waiting to cross and find out if the fine folks at Olson Tire & Auto are done working on my truck. It might be somewhere around 11:30 a.m.
At the other end of the block, on the same side of the street, a morbidly obese woman stuffed into a wheelchair calls to someone I hope is anyone but me. I nonchalantly scan. A couple of those bearded, skinny, unwashed guys in baseball caps that you only see buying quarts in convenience stores are leaving the convenience store at my back, quarts in hand. Across Ninth Avenue, an equally thin woman with a tightly lined face warily watches her mother or stepmother or great aunt slowly negotiate the automated entrance to Walgreen's.
No one in the immediate vicinity resembles a young man even half as much as I do.
I make eye contact. The woman beckons with sausage fingers. I glance longingly at Olson Tire & Auto. Then I wander over to see what she wants, wondering why I didn't see or hear her on her way to that particular square of sidewalk. It's like aliens dropped her right there at the edge of the curb while I was woolgathering — "Shh, check this out, let's see what he does."
She waits patiently for me to cover the block between us. Up close, she's anywhere between 45 and 60 years old. Her sweatpants groan and strain. Her wheelchair may have represented the leading edge of medical technology when Carter was President. Once I have arrived, put my hands in my pockets and assumed the proper air of harried, beset expectancy, she says:
"Push me to the bus stop!"
It is not the polite, self-conscious request of your buddy's somewhat disabled Gammy. It is the will of a queen in exile, the demand of an heiress who lost her fortune but not her composure.
Who am I to argue?
So after perusing the shrubbery for giggling prankster extraterrestrials, I grab the wheelchair's worn grips and off we go. The block we're on is shaped like a right triangle, with the bus stop straight down thattaway at the other end of the hypotenuse. I begin pushing in that direction, but my fare grabs the chair's big wheels, stopping us cold.
She indicates an alternate route, the one that outlines the right triangle's two other sides. I'm not a professor of Pythagorean geometry or anything, but I'm pretty sure that way is longer. It also means coming back uphill a bit, while the hypotenuse path is all a gentle downward grade. Plus, her way will take us in front of the aforementioned convenience store, and I can't have those beers n' beards dudes seeing this — it's just not cool.
I look down to register my disagreement. Her gaze is forceful, her decision made.
I lighten up a little over the long trip down to the corner, trying to get back to the place where I was just happy to help somebody who needed it. She's a giant woman, probably some thyroid thing, and she can't walk. I'd be fucking pissed too. If she wants to go this way, so be it, at least I'm getting some exercise I wouldn't otherwise, and ...
The wheelchair stops. She's gripping those great big gray tires again.
We're in front of the convenience store. Her fingers go daintily into a small pocketbook wedged between her right thigh and the chair, and reappear with a dollar, which she waves in my face. The other hand waves at the bodega.
"Get me a bag of Doritos and a peach soda!"
I am awed, poleaxed, flabbergasted. But I take the dollar and head for the double glass doors.
"What?" This is the first word I've said to this woman thus far.
"Did you hear what I want?!"
"A bag of Doritos and a peach soda."
"CHEETOS! I said Cheetos!"
No she didn't, I say to myself as I enter the store, clutching my small victory obsessively. She said Doritos, I heard her, Doritos, she said Doritos.
The bag of Cheetos and bottle of orange-peach soda (they didn't have just peach, and I was spitefully glad) comes to nearly three bucks. Naturally. And outside, the beneficiary of my good nature leers at her bounty, deciding whether or not to be satisfied.
"Humph!" she finally says.
It sounds enough like "Mush!" that I begin once again pushing the chair toward the bus stop, which is now so close I can almost stick out my tongue and taste it. My truck's gotta be ready by now, I'm gonna crank up the air conditioning and smoke the most satisfying cigarette I ever ...
The chair stops again, quite suddenly; I very nearly do a gainer over her head, into that lap like a loveseat.
"The wheel!" screams my charge.
Indeed, the rubber around one of the chair's small front wheels has gone askew. I look at it blankly, wondering how in the world I'm going to pull off what amounts to remounting a tire on a rolling seat occupied by a 300-pound woman who can't get out of it. I lean down and fiddle with it a bit, sure that we're screwed. We're going to have to call the medical-equipment equivalent of Triple A, get a tow or something.
I stand up, look at her, shrug my shoulders.
She humphs again, because obviously I'm an idiot whose only goal for the day was to ruin hers — and gets out of the chair.
It takes a little effort, sure, but she stands up, glaring at me impatiently from a distinctly bipedal position.
"Fix the wheel!"
I fix the wheel.
She gets out of the chair one more time at the end, ostensibly so that I may more easily wrestle it up over the curb at the bus station, but really to prove that I hadn't been hallucinating the first time. I roll her into the stop's protective kiosk, spent, numb, mind completely blown.
"There you go, ma'am," I mumble as I walk away. "Have a nice day."
I turn around. She's going to thank me and everything will have been worth it. It's like Driving Miss Daisy, sort of.
"Yes?" I inquire.
"Give me a dollar for the bus!"
Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].