Wednesday, May 30, 2007

I'm in heaven when you smile

The VW BeetleWhen we first went out in the Beetle, I realised to my horror that people noticed the car. I hadn’t really considered this beforehand; I know it’s a funky little car, but I didn’t think it was particularly noticeable. But actually we've not passed another one on the road in six weeks. And alas, people look. My heart sank.

I have quite enough of being noticed, thank you. No, please don't look over here.

People do notice me when I am out and about. The shape of my presence is different; I am going to catch your eye. Not your problem. I get so used to being noticed because of the wheelchair that whenever people look at me, it feels like it is because of that. Even when I'm not using the wheelchair.

Baby Alexander SmilingBut then I realised something else about the Beetle. People notice the car. People look at the car. And then, almost every time, people smile at the car. They smile! Almost every time!

What a funky little car, I suppose they must be thinking. It is uncomplicated, whatever it is. Unlike me.

People don't automatically respond to me with a smile.

Naturally, I get more smiles if I smile a lot myself. And I do smile a lot because that's what you do when you meet someone's eyes. And I like being smiled at. Do you get the feeling I'm not about to break into a bad poem about smiling? Not worth applying my skills to; smiling has already inspired a wealth of fantastically bad poems, and every one of them rhymning smile with while.

Baby Alexander SmilingBut I really do appreciate it.

Smiling is never patronising. You might be smiling at the poor pathetic wheelchair woman as you might smile at a child, but I'm not to know that. You’re already looking at me, for crying out loud, what else are you going to do? Stare at me? Avert your gaze in embarrassment?

The latter is a very common and upsetting response. Because it doesn’t feel to me like you merely found yourself looking and didn’t want to be rude. It feels like you are embarrassed by the very sight of me. Like you are blanking me out because my appearance makes you uncomfortable. It looks like disgust. Which perhaps it is.

Baby Alexander SmilingJust a few of these and I get a tight knot just under my ribs. I get pissed off. Unreasonably, deeply pissed off. I start speaking your thoughts out loud; "How embarrassing!" I declare, to make you all the more so.

No, that's not nice. It isn't fair either. The mistake is a split-second barely-conscious decision, and I must have done it myself. I try not to. I try to look every charity collector or homeless person in the eye and smile, even when I have nothing to give them, even when it often means saying as much out loud, which is embarrassing.

But a smile, even from a stranger, can untangle that knot completely; Alka-Seltzer for the soul. It is that powerful, a physical relief, especially when on those days when the world seems full of scowlers and starers. Staring is less troublesome, because I convince myself that nobody ever knows they're doing it. It looks like you are just staring into space and I happen to occupy that space. Because nobody could possibly be that rude, could they?

Baby Alexander SmilingSo anyway, it's a novelty to be noticed in an uncomplicated way. And I love riding in the Beetle for its effect on people. Whenever we are the first in the queue at a level crossing (which we are, very often; we have to cross the track between Norwich and Cambridge to get anywhere), I sit and wave at the train. I reckon I can get six or seven smiles for every carriage that passes.

And last week, I was sat in a carpark in Thetford and a small group of passing Portuguese school children broke into song about the Beetle; something about a buggy bug. Now that's a novelty indeed.


Cusp said...

There's a few bells ringing here! A) I have two unusual cars. One is smiled at with affection ---the VDub Camper --- and the other is laughed at --- my Rascal Camper(a ridiculous miniature camper that looks like a tea trolley on wheels).

I don't care I love them both because I don't want to have or be like everyone else and if either of my modes of transport gives someone a lift for the day (sorry for the pun...I meant of the emotional kind) then the day's a bit brighter for someone.

As for the other kind of smiling, well that's interesting. I dont get looked at for my disablement because no-one can see it. Sometimes I wish they could.. they might appreciate how bad I feel from time to time. They might offer assistance, support.

On the other hand, when our son was born he was born with problems with his sight and as a result had to wear specs. Have you ever tried taking a 6 weeks old baby with an adorable face, but who wears specs, out into the street or on public transport. I could never believe the comments: patronising; 'Doesn't he look sweet !'
daft; 'Does he *have* to wear those, then ?' ..No we thought it would be amusing !
curious and slightly rude; 'Whats' the matter with him then ?'

Takes all sorts to make a world....... next time I'm up your way or you're down this way I'll look out for your V Dub and smile and wave.

You've got a real cutey of a littl'un haven't you ;-)

Mary said...

Blimey. Not everyone can say "my car makes schoolchildren burst into song".

And lookitdem lickle toothypegs!!!

Philip. said...

I've got to say how cool the Beetle is!


Anonymous said...

You could really embarrass AJ by getting a goldfish bowl for the back window. Of course, you'd have to mount at window height so the fish could see the horizon and avoid getting car sick, and you'd have to open the windows a little when you parked, and probably leave the radio on.

I'll probably dream of smiling baby goldfishes tonight.


Maddy said...

I tell you truly, I would not be smiling at you. Well, I might manage a curve of the lips in your direction but as for revealing the teeth in a huge friendly chance - wouldn't like to scare you witless with a view of the braces, not a pretty sight on someone as ancient as myself.
Otherwise, I think you're right, a Beetle always brings a smile.

Anonymous said...

I completely relate-this is an AWESOME post! I have a similar feeling when I'm out with my service dog-she's adorable and people's stares often focus more on her than me-it seems to decrease the disgust and although the OVERLY enthusiastic happiness as if they have never seen another dog before can sometimes be annoying-it still generally feels much better than the scowls. I recently gave a presentation where I spoke about the cumulative effect of those averted gazes and scowls and my audience (AB Ph.D. students) were stunned-as in they were in disbelief of this reality for strange to me because I have no memories of NOT being stared at so I can't imagine NOT understanding!
Thanks for your awesome writing!
~Kara Sheridan
fellow disabled blogger at "If the World Had Wheels"

Katie said...

A small boy carrying a pizza walked into a lamppost while staring at me the other day.

Ha Ha.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks folks. :-)

Cusp; spent so long trying to picture a tea trolley that I had to go google a Rascal Camper and um, yes I see what you mean. I too shall be on the lookout. :-)

I get the impression, from the stories folks tell, that what people think is okay to say reaches a whole new level when you have a visably disabled child.

Mary and Philip - it is very cool.

Bunnyman - excellent suggestion. Yet something tells me there might be some practical obstacle there... I can't think what exactly, it seems a perfectly sensible plan in principle, I just have this nagging doubt about the practicality of having a goldfish bowl suspended in the back window of a moving vehicle....

McEwen - in all my days, I have never seen a truly unattractive smile. Not a sincere one, anyway. So smile away, even with your braces! :-D

Kara - thank you. :-)

Katie - Excellent. :-)