A rollicking account of a paralyzed Gen Xer coming of age in the oft-times sordid Hollywood rock scene of the 1980’s
And so, back to the real world to witness years fly by from a seated position. Pops’ newest house had a pool in the backyard, which my therapists thought was great. By simultaneously providing buoyancy and resistance, pool therapy is the best exercise for gimp fucks like me. In theory, one could float, swim, goof around, and pee while gaining strength, flexibility, and balance. I bugged and begged daily to go swimming. But Pops’ fear of water kept me out of that beckoning, beautiful blue kidney-shaped body of water. I could never conjure words to convey what a bummer that shit was.
My “independent with assist” meant Pops helped me to transfer, and clearly did not pay attention when we worked on the correct technique during my rehab. Instead, I was grabbed around the rib cage and then yank-lift-twisted to be hurled toward the target, leaving ribs and/or shoulders aching. Within days, I quit requesting assistance whenever I needed in/out or on/off. I got myself in a bind a few times, and had to summon help, but my stubbornness allowed me to gain more strength and functionality during the first few weeks at home than I made the entire seven months at Rancho. I became fully independent within three weeks of my hospital discharge. Suck it.
It takes a quadriplegic way longer to perform even the simplest of tasks. If I’m out of bed within fifteen minutes after my eyes open, that is lightning quick. Then a shit, shower, and shave takes at least an hour. Sometimes, when it looks like I’m struggling, it is only because I am. But stubborn me’s default is to deny needing help. At times, I’ve found myself in frustrating situations, unable to complete the relatively simple task at hand. When a perceptive passerby notices my dilemma and asks, “Do you need help?” reflexively I will answer, “No thank you.” Then, as they continue on their way, I beat myself up a little – “Yes, Raz, you really do need help.” Most of the time, the mere thought that someone is going to insist on lending a hand will give me that psycho-boost needed to get it done on my own.
I had the option of waiting until after summer vacation to begin school at Estancia High, but chose to get out of that fucking jail of a house for at least part of the day. It was too late in the semester to receive credit, so my attendance was for socialization, integration, and a few other pedagogic buzzwords. I was so eager for school that I’d be early and waiting at the end of our driveway for the bus. I had the bus all to myself, and my regular driver was pretty cool. We’d smoke Marlboros and bullshit on the way, and one day he asked how I ended up in the chair. When I told him that I broke my fucking neck, he said, “But you can still move your leg. You’re lucky.”
I said, “I don’t feel lucky. I’m just not as unlucky as I might have been.” But the more I thought about it, I came to realize that bad luck is luck, too.
I wasn’t able to push my wheelchair very far, or fast, but there was a very sweet, Hawaiian-looking cutie pie that would chauffer me around campus. At lunch, she’d roll me out behind the gym, to where the stoner kids hung out smoking cigarettes while boomboxes cranked out KMET, KLOS, or cassettes of AC/DC, Van Halen, Skynyrd, ZZ Top, plus, of course, Sabbath and Zeppelin. The going-to-a-new-school experience was far different than any I had before crippling myself. The stoners at Estancia were super cool, and immediately took me in like a long-lost friend. Whenever they went out onto the field, they’d pop a wheelie and push me along to join the crowd. That was a big help, because a wheelchair’s tiny front casters get stuck in grass, ruts, or whatever lay ahead, making lawns nearly impossible to navigate solo.
No more shop class for me, but I’d bet nowadays disabled kids get accommodated in shop with a student helper to construct the project for them. Can the “special needs” student then point at their wooden lamp and say, “Look what I built”? I still had PE, and for the first time, I liked it. Coach and me were on the same page, gung ho and raring to get me in better shape. A few years earlier, one of his football players had broken their neck in a car wreck, motivating Coach to study up on adapted exercise. Even though the equipment was lacking and time was short, the man was always available to help make sure I got a decent workout.
About a month after leaving Rancho, I rolled up to the passenger-side door of the 57 Chevy, removed my footrests, grabbed the top of the window frame, and pulled. There I stood, holding onto the Chevy’s door, while Pops stared like he had seen a ghost. I was pretty excited myself, and twisted my hips to direct my butt toward the car seat and then landed with a bounce. I smiled while pointing toward the sliding board Pops held. “Guess we won’t be needing that.”
“How long have you been able to do that?” he asked.
I had never even tried to stand up before that day. Apparently, using my left leg to push myself backward – an integral part of how I propelled my wheelchair – strengthened my quad muscle. The stronger left leg, combined with my right leg spasm locking that leg straight whenever I put weight on it, and shazam – me stand. First time was the charm.
Folks love devices that I most often view as cumbersome and useless, so I rejected most of them the Rancho therapists tried to saddle me with. Pops was the tinkerer, wannabe-inventor type, and at times came up with some handy stuff. But mostly it was a bunch of rough outcomes. He’d see me struggling and, wanting to invent a better mousetrap, ask, “What if I rigged a _______?”
I’d usually tell him something like, “I wouldn’t use it, too much trouble for both of us.”
I tried shooting down his plan of getting a handicap van, but that did not deter him from scoring a 1976 Dodge van. Never mind that there was no lift, or that I needed to duck my head due to the low ceiling, Pops merely removed the rooftop with a grinder wheel attached to his drill. Over the cutout opening, he installed a junkyard-find fiberglass bubbletop shell that wasn’t quite long enough, and then painted it with some house paint from the shed. It looked funky, and was just tall enough to catch overhangs at fast-food drive-thrus. He built two narrow ramps, so short that the unreasonable incline delivered quite a thrill, and took much effort while entering and exiting the vehicle. With his jerry-rigged chair anchor system, it took a good twenty minutes to hit the road, and another twenty at the destination.
My step mom Jonelle had been kicked to the curb so that Barbara, the cocktail waitress from Hawaii, could shack up with Pops. Within hours of coming home from Rancho, I realized Barbara was a psychotic bitch. Like a light switch flipping, she went from sweet friend at my hospital bedside to beyond-unreasonable, power-mad wannabe authority figure. She might have stood a better chance of receiving even an ounce of respect had she not previously regaled me with stories of her pot smoking, drinking, snorting coke, and all the cocks she and her sorority sisters had eagerly feasted upon during her wild Chico State days. To put it mildly, we started off on the wrong paralyzed foot. I was so puzzled by her new persona that I eventually became fed up enough to ask, “Why do you got to be such a bitch?”
The next morning, she casually said to Pops, “You know what Raz called me last night?”
I hoped that honesty might lessen the severity of Pops’ wrath, so I blurted out, “I called her a bitch.” Even though his bitch was a bitch, Pops became enraged and delivered a whap-didley backhand right to my kisser.
Three months after being discharged from Rancho, I returned for “Spinal Injury Clinic.” My team checked to see if I was in good health, adapting to the world, and what kind of supplies were needed. I excitedly reported my achieving full independence and, the best news of all, being able to stand up. I fully believed, with all my improvements, that they’d readmit me, get me some leg braces, teach me to walk, and, most importantly of all, get me the fuck out of Pops’ place. My history of missing therapy and disregarding doctors’ orders were still fresh in their minds, so no one gave a rat’s ass about me rehabbing even a minute more.
Disheartened, I said goodbye and rolled my ass to the canteen and scored a pack of Marlboros, a hot dog, and a bag of cheese popcorn. While enjoying my comfort food, I met a mid-twenties paraplegic, who told me he’d been in a wheelchair for five years. It seemed like an eternity, and I told him as much. He agreed, but became quite animated, explaining the most current research as he dug a folded Xeroxed article from his pocket to show me the study results. Apparently, a cure for spinal injury was just around the corner. If the “promising trials” moved forward at their current pace, a cure was “possible” in the next couple of years. I was happier than a pig dancing in sweet, savory shit that I wouldn’t be spending five years paralyzed!
When school let out on the last day, I dreaded going home to spend a long, dreary summer with no escape.
By then, my cute Hawaiian friend frequently sat side-saddle on my lap whenever we hung out behind the gym. She only lived about a block and a half from me, and even though I liked her a lot, I never tried to contact her outside school. I had no idea what to do, because before Viagra, sex was hit or miss for me. Prior to my injury, if I had a sweetie who dug me like her, I would have tried spending as much alone time with her as the father would tolerate. I dreaded the thought of Pops or Barbara getting anywhere near her, and I didn’t have a car or any prospect of independent travel, so all I got was a pleasant memory of her sweetness, helpfulness, and cute smile.
Boredom led to me running up a long-distance phone bill. Pops was so pissed at me for talking forty-two bucks’ worth, that I was no longer allowed to call Ma. Being stuck around the house all day drove me bonkers. I was a kid who loved to roam, but instead spent long hours sitting at the end of our driveway, soaking up sun or chatting with random passersby. When everyone was gone, I’d still call Ma to bitch and moan about Pops and Barbara. I’d also call my Rancho friends. Mark’s dad Vic had taken Fredo in, and they lived in Oregon. Imagine Pops’ surprise when he received a $175 long-distance bill. Imagine my surprise when Ma agreed to let me move in with her.
During the ride to Ma’s, Pops said, “You can change your name if you want.” He had named me after his father, so I understood it to mean he was choosing his bitch over blood, and inviting me to leave the family. Once he drove off, I figured I’d never see him again until right before the pine box slammed shut.
Even though Ma’s place sat atop a massive amount of stairs, friends with cars would often lug me down and ride me around. I actually got out far more often than at Pops’ place. But I mostly sat up there playing Atari games or looking out the bay window at traffic passing along Beverly Glen below. At least we had cable TV and killer tunes, and pot smoking wasn’t banned.
Ma’s little Kodak 110 camera got overworked whenever there was a special occasion or the cats did something particularly cute. The exposed film cartridges would then pile up until all the rolls went to Thrifty’s at the same time to be developed. It became a fun family event whenever we got our snapshots back. With no “photo-tagging” or other embedded data, we’d sit around the living room trying to recall the when or where to write info on the back of the picture. One evening, while sorting through twenty rolls’ worth, Joe smirked while holding a photo up for me to see. “Look, this one’s way old.”
It was a few days after the one-year anniversary of my accident. Yet there I stood, frozen in time alongside Joe in the same living room wearing our finest polyester dress-up clothes. I wasn’t bummed. Well, maybe slightly. Occasionally I’m asked if I ever dream of myself walking. I do, but remain aware that my wheelchair exists. It’s hard to explain, so I’ll spare you the five hundred words. I will say that some of my favorite dreams are those where I am skateboarding, because the two things that I miss most are skateboarding, and doggystyle. But not in that order!
When I checked in with my spinal-brothers up in Oregon and Mark found out that I lived in an architecturally undesirable location, he invited me to move in with his family. A few weeks later, we met up at Rancho Hospital and I hitched a ride north with him. We made pretty good time, arriving about twelve hours after leaving Downey, CA. I looked out the van’s window in complete awe at Oregon’s spectacular towering pines painting the landscape shades of green and brown, their aroma filling the nostrils with the forest’s siren song to seek out a trail and explore the wild. Or was that some killer pot we were toking?
Mark’s house was a two-story on a wooded lot in the Gresham section of Portland, with a ramp that rose from a spot beside the garage and wrapped around the house to a second-story deck. The upstairs dining room’s bay window showcased a spectacular panoramic view of Mount St. Helens, about eighty miles away. A year and a half earlier, they sat in that very dining room, watching a mountain blow its top while fiery ash and smoke rapidly turned day to night. The living areas were like a duplex connected by a stairwell. Vic had the upstairs portion, where Fredo and I shared a room. But most of our waking hours were spent downstairs, hanging with the guys in Mark’s domain, or in the two-car garage converted into living quarters for Steve and Keith, Mark’s attendants.
Portland’s local AOR (album-oriented rock) station, KGON, was lightyears better than any L.A. station, and played tons of great metal in between the overplaying of “Back in Black” and “Fair Warning.” Steve and Mark owned powerful stereos, and had a friendly rivalry as to who could amass the largest LP collection. They ended up with multiple AC/DC, Van Halen, Ozzy, Priest, Scorps, Maiden, April Wine, and so much more to choose from. Once, while listening to Judas Priest, Steve became enraged when I mentioned Rob Halford’s alternative lifestyle. Steve just could not comprehend how such a macho dude – the epitome of toughness and manliness – could be gay.
When I told him, “That’s all true, but it doesn’t mean Halford ain’t into ass-fucking dudes,” Steve became even more hostile, while insisting I quit lying. I laughed and said, “Gay ain’t a character flaw, buddy.”
I was at the bottom of a five-person pecking order, which felt strange for me. Fredo and I were outsiders, but he got there first. Plus, Mark already liked him way more than me. Steve and Keith grew up with Mark and also worked for him, making fifteen bucks an hour with free room and board. Steve was a big, strong, corn-fed hick that acted alpha. Keith, not so much. Truth is, Mark was in charge. Even though I felt at times he was a bit bossy, it was nothing compared to how I would treat a bunch of freeloaders I held all the cards over. But all in all, Mark was one of the most generous and supportive people I ever had as a friend.
Seeing as Steve and Keith were flush with cash, and Mark was also beyond generous, there were always huge piles of top-notch buds available for all to enjoy. Though Vic imposed a “one joint a day” rule, he worked twelve-hour days and always seemed to walk in just as we were enjoying our daily joint, one bong hit at a time.
Soon after moving in, I smoked hydroponically grown marijuana for the first time. After five hits of some fifty shades of green, intensely dense bud from an ice-filled glass bong, I proceeded to freak out. When the guys realized that I was having a bad trip, they were very calming and supportive. Actually, they constantly fucked with my head, trying to freak me out. Ninety-two hours later, I came down enough to laugh at those fuckers and then snapped a few more hits of that tasty shit.
I would have skipped it altogether, but Vic insisted that Fredo and I attend school. Gresham High became my third school, and second year, of tenth grade. Classrooms were housed in a two-story building, and either there was no elevator, or coincidently all my classes were downstairs. That campus was packed with deliciously beautiful white girls, redheaded, blond, and brunette beauties as far as the mind could see. I began to sense a pattern – being in a wheelchair made transitioning easy. Everyone was friendly, supportive, and welcoming. The teachers also cut us tons of slack, and all the while Fredo and me worked every conceivable angle to extract maximum benefit from all the gimpathy folks had for us. It seemed like we often escaped any scrutiny of misdeeds in the planning stage or during implementation.
Our PE teacher was an ex-Marine Vietnam vet. Even though Coach meant well, me and Fredo cruelly and relentlessly dissed him. He laughed it off and claimed that we belittled others because we had “low self-esteem.” That was the first time I ever heard that catch-all term. Either way – sorry, Sergeant, a belated thanks for your service. You are an American hero and patriot!
Coach went out of his way arranging a twice-weekly swim in the heated, covered pool at nearby Mount Hood Community College. It was my first time in a pool since I broke my fucking neck, and when Coach offered to help me into the water I declined. Instead, I rolled my chair to the edge, swung the footrests out of the way and yelled “Banzai!” When I hit the water, my paralyzed right leg flew up and bashed my knee to nose. Despite folks freaking out, the bleeding stopped pretty quickly and I finally got the message to enter bodies of water with a bit more caution.
Just for shits and giggles, I owned a couple Oregon State Beavers’ jerseys. Because no matter how lewdly it was said, in Oregon no one gets the innuendo of the word “beaver.” Fredo and I worked beaver into seemingly unrelated conversation, while folks wore puzzled expressions as to why we chuckled so. He and I were regionalists, at times smugly laughing about our belief that Portlanders were ten years behind us superior L.A. folk. Fredo often regaled me with his smooth version of a Schoolhouse Rock song: “I’m just a bill. I’m only a bill. I’m just a hill-hill-billy.”
Every morning, we’d sit out under the eaves in front of the garage, waiting for the “special bus” to whisk us off to school. By mid-October, the mornings were becoming quite chilly, and within a few weeks it got downright cold. Low thirties doesn’t feel right to kids who grew up in Southern California. One thing about my arms being so weak, and my inability to move the fingers on my right hand, is less clothing makes mobility far easier. So no matter the temp, I go with T-shirts over bundling up. One day, I woke up to rain, but outside it was ten degrees warmer than the clear morning before. That was awesome, but wet wheels’ slipperiness makes them hard to push. When I woke up wishing for rain, it only increased my longing for Southern California.
Steve had himself a little fourteen-year-old girlfriend who thought herself queen bee whenever she visited. One morning, I was taking my time in the bathroom, and she began harshly ragging me. I yelled through the door, “Quit bitching, I’ll be out in a minute.”
Later that day, at the bottom of the ramp, Steve started pushing me. “I got ya,” he said, sounding all buddy and pal like. But halfway up, we stopped in a blind spot so he could threaten, “I don’t care if you’re in a wheelchair, if you ever call my girlfriend a bitch again, I’ll break your fucking arm.”
In a tough spot and boiling over inside, I kept my cool and apologized, all the while assuring him it would never happen again. He seemed satisfied with my response, but felt it necessary to emphasize his point by letting go of my chair and stepping out of the way. Terrified, I rolled backward ten feet until the side rail stopped me with a thud that almost bounced me from my chair and over the railing.
Fredo was the only one I told about it, and I seriously considered causing grave bodily harm to that punk motherfucker, Steve. Fredo suggested using the old soap-bars-in-a-pillowcase jail trick to get his attention, but I figured that’d just make Steve so angry that he’d beat me to within inches of my life. It was fun to laugh about, but talk was all it was. I was coming to terms with the fact that I could no longer beat downs those who truly deserved tooth realignment.
I’m a straight shooter. Ask me a question and I’ll give an honest answer or opinion, unless of course it could put me in jail. I won’t even lie then, because I have the right to remain silent. With five pothead teenagers living under one roof, there was no way to avoid frequently occurring household havoc. As an entrepreneur, Vic worked long hours, and once home, he’d have preferred to kick back in his recliner, sip a single-malt, and smoke a Cohiba while listening to jazz on his state-of-the-art Bose system. But some days, it was impossible to miss that at least one of us had violated house rules. One morning, Vic came into the garage and yelled, “Who ate my fucking pie? I told you fucking kids not to touch it.”
I had no idea that the pie was off limits, and when I saw the other dudes feasting upon wonderful, fresh strawberry pie, my stoned, sugar-fiend ass helped myself to a gigantic slice. So I told him, “I had a piece, Vic.”
I was the only one that copped to touching his treat, and was the only one to get in trouble. He kicked me out. Vic was a good man who took me into his home and picked up the tab. At the same time, I was a sixteen-year-old prick trying to out-prick the world. He rightly had issues with much of the constant crap I pulled, and at times would energetically let me know of his displeasure. I’d backtalk, and a few times he told me to move out. But a short while later, he’d tell me I was still welcome to live there.
Shortly after he told me to scram due to my pie pilfering, I left a message on Ma’s answering machine. “I got kicked out of here, be there soon.” As I packed my bag, Vic came in and apologized for blowing his stack, telling me that I was still welcome to stay. I’m not a rat, so I didn’t tell him about my real reason: getting away from that prick Steve who needed to die. Plus, I missed L.A., and couldn’t handle Oregon’s cold weather, or having to leave a nickel deposit on a soda can. Vic bought me a ticket, and by late afternoon, I was at the airport awaiting my southbound plane.
So we don’t have to cage-match scramble for a seat, wheelchair passengers are the first to board airplanes.I loaded onto a refrigerator dolly with a seat, footrest, and straps so a couple beefy dudes could lug my dead weight to a seat near the door. A very attractive stewardess stayed to chat while waiting for the others to begin boarding. Back then, many stewardesses were flirty and hot party girls, not the bitter old “flight attendant” hags and queens that make today’s air travel beyond miserable. Being the Saturday before Thanksgiving, she assumed that I was traveling to L.A. to spend time with family. I told her I was fleeing a bad living situation, and hopped the first flight without knowing where I would stay. It bummed her out, but I was being a little over-dramatic in search of sympathy. I also might have forgotten to mention that there were lots of my people in Los Angeles.
Not long after wheels up, I took a drag off my Marlboro and sipped a cocktail, totally mesmerized by the spectacular purplish-red-orange fall sunset glimmering off the Pacific Ocean below. Amongst that hypnotic visual, I pondered, “What next?” I had no money and no clue.
When my new stewardess friend brought me another free drink, she said, “I was thinking, I have a place in the Marina, and if you don’t have anywhere to go, you can stay with me for a few days.”
I kept my cool, smiled, and said, “That’s very nice of you, thanks.” My day started out ultra shitty, but in the blink of an eye, I became a very happy sixteen-year-old boy looking forward to getting to know a smoking-hot stewardess in ways worthy of Penthouse Forum.
Once off the plane, bags were piled onto my lap as she pushed my shit-eating-grin through the terminal toward the taxi stand. We were about two thirds of our way to the front when I saw my friend Robbie step through the automatic doors and scan the terminal. I hid my head behind the stack of luggage, praying he hadn’t seen me. I had plans.
No use – he walked right up and said, “Hey, Raz, Joe sent me to get you.”
I was bummed, but happy that someone actually cared enough to come get me. We rode to Ma’s in Robbie’s 1970 Subaru van. Picture a double-wide sardine can with wheels, just big enough to throw a baby crib mattress in the back, in case you got a hankering to bang a barely legal midget. The diminutive vehicle was powered by a 360 cc Suzuki motor, and once on the 405, with a tail wind, Robbie pushed that hot-rod past the posted 55 MPH. I looked down to realize that only a thin layer of metal separated me from anything we crashed into.
Even though Ma had often claimed, “bisexuality is the natural state,” I always assumed she was referring to one of her gay male friends who’d occasionally slip her the salami. But within days of returning from Oregon, I realized that she and her “friend,” Robin, were a couple. Mostly because Robin was clearly a carpet-muncher and Ma spent 99 percent of her time at Robin’s place.
Because she was seldom home, the apartment had become a hangout. From noon to well past midnight, there were always several dudes in our living room rocking out, smoking out, and drinking rivers of beer. Enough folks had called our cable company, demanding, “I want my MTV,” that we no longer had to wait up until the wee weekend hours to watch bands on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert or Midnight Special. The M used to stand for music, and our TV was pretty much stuck on the brand-spanking-new channel. Though we mostly kept the sound down, listening to rock cassettes until a video we liked came on, and then we’d crank the TV’s volume. Nowadays, I rarely listen to any of the bands that were music television staples during that period.
When everyone was out and about, I’d watch movies. The Other Side of the Mountain, a true story of skier Jill Kinmont who broke her neck and ended up a quad, left quite an impression on me. One scene in particular – while in rehab, she teases her boyfriend about some exciting news she wants to share. He got all happy, as if expecting Ms. Kinmont to spring from the wheelchair to dance a jig. Instead, she placed her hand over a bowl of potato chips. Then, after a few agonizing seconds of positioning her quad claw to get it just right, she managed to extract a single chip. The boyfriend appeared less than impressed. Big whoop. Wait, I got a bag of Lay’s chips in the kitchen – break time.
While we’re reminiscing about munchies, I’m reminded of a little trick we’d use to score some free grub when short on funds. I’d call Pizza Man to place an order for our place, and then someone else called right back to make another order – enough food for six – for an address about two miles further up the hill. When the delivery guy got to the top of our stairs, I’d take forever to get to the door, and then stall as if maybe someone else there had ordered. While that was going on, a partner in crime was downstairs, liberating all other orders from the delivery vehicle. Feast time.
There was a Navy boy, Tony, who would drop by our party pad whenever he got liberty. He’d usually bring along a bunch of beer, weed money, and cool military stuff that we could make go boom. One night, a bunch were looking out the bay window, waiting for the coming fireball on the street below. And, as usual, I was talking major shit to Tony – might have included commentary on his mother and/or sister’s appetites or aesthetic shortcomings – when he decided a roundhouse kick to the quadriplegic kid’s head was an appropriate response. Joe didn’t do a fucking thing, except tell me, “He warned you to shut up.”
I guarantee you, if the roles were reversed and Joe was my brother sitting in the wheelchair, Tony would have been sent crashing through the bay window so gravity’s magnet could pull his flailing body onto hard concrete below, leaving him in a broken, bloody heap. And I’d be out by now.
By the time Christmas rolled around, I was pestering Ma just about every day to move to a new, street-level place so I could go to school. Or perhaps even flee quickly from a fire. I missed girls, plus really wanted to get my driver’s license, which wasn’t possible without driver’s education or waiting until I turned eighteen. But Ma wouldn’t even consider giving up her fabulously cheap apartment at the top of the stairs.