A Troubling Local Encounter
July 21st, 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

I live in a small town in southern Vermont. As most people in town know, there is a man who walks back and forth in front of the post office every day carrying a long scroll of papers. He has been doing so for about five years. He never stops long enough for anyone to read what is on the papers, but words like “Bush” and “Cheney” are clearly visible. For him, it is some form of protest. The papers are laminated and attached end to end. If you laid them out flat, they would probably extend for twenty to thirty feet.

The man doesn’t speak, but he coughs loudly from time to time, and he tends to give people a very wide berth. I have never seen him interact with anyone; he just walks back and forth constantly. Each day, he parks his car in front of the post office, with a sign on the dashboard that says that he is the President of the United States. He appears to be living independently and to be physically healthy.

I often think about this man. I find his continued presence downtown very heartening — an indicator of the level of acceptance in town for people outside the norm. I’ve never seen the police attempt to get him to move on — although I’ve read that, in the past, he would spend days sitting in a phone booth pretending to make calls until the police told him to stop keeping other people from using the phone. I’ve never seen anyone on the sidewalk hassle him — not post office employees, not customers, not pedestrians. From what I’ve seen, people just go about their business and let him be.

He appears to have a mental disability of some kind. I don’t know the nature of his disability or how he feels about his life, but I’ve always been glad that he lives his life out in the open.

On Thursday afternoon, I walked up to the post office to mail a book. It was absolutely sweltering outside. It was one of those days when you feel as though you’re pushing through moisture with every step. I saw the man with the papers on the side street that runs alongside the post office. He crossed the street as soon as he saw me coming. I noticed that for a tall man, he seemed rather timid, as though getting into close proximity with other people would upset him.

After I’d finished my business in the post office, the man was out front, walking back and forth, clearly moving in order to avoid people. I started heading home. After I’d reached the end of the block, a middle-aged guy came up to me with a smile, pointed at the man with the papers, and said, “I’ll give you $20 to run up to him and kiss him.”

I was so taken aback I hardly knew what to say.

The man was inviting me to conspire with him in being a bully. He assumed that I’d agree with him that a mentally disabled man was an object of derision. He thought he’d get me to laugh with him about the idea of harassing the man. In fact, he was willing to pay me to harass him, and he was hoping I’d do it so that other people would see it and have a good laugh.

When these things happen, I always feel paralyzed with disbelief. I absolutely cannot understand why a person would find any of it funny. All I could feel at that moment was the necessity of defending the dignity of the man in front of the post office. So I said, “No. He keeps to himself, and he does no harm to anyone. He’s fine.”

The man looked at me as though he couldn’t quite believe that I would not join him in a good laugh about a disabled guy. And then he walked on.

I found this encounter extremely disturbing, for a number of reasons. It was a reminder of how petty and cruel people can be. It was a reminder that perhaps my little town isn’t as accepting as I thought it was. It was a reminder that perhaps the man at the post office puts up with more abuse that I thought he did.

But there was more. It wasn’t until the next evening that I realized that not only had I been asked to violate someone else’s boundaries, but that my own boundaries had been violated as well. After all, why had a total stranger come up to me and offered to pay me money to kiss someone?

I’ve been reflecting since then on the intersection of gender and disability in this encounter. The man who offered to pay me to bully a visibly disabled person chose me because I’m a woman. It would be hard to imagine him asking a man to go up and kiss another man; the risk of inflaming the average man’s homophobia likely kept him from it. But a woman was a safe target. It seemed perfectly okay to him to ask a woman to kiss someone and to offer to pay good money for it.

But the joke was on him, really. Because my disabilities are generally not apparent unless you spend some time with me, he had no idea that he was talking to a disabled woman. He had no idea that, unlike so many people, I do not fear other disabled people. He had no idea that I do not think it’s funny to make disabled people the butt of a joke. He had no idea that I do not see disabled people as half persons whose feelings I don’t have to bother to consider. He had no idea that I do not think that disabled people lose the right to be left the hell alone on a public street when it’s clear that they want to be left the hell alone on a public street.

It saddens me that all that I take for granted still hasn’t quite made its way into the minds of so many. It saddens me that a grown man wouldn’t know to treat a fellow human being with respect. It saddens me that so many people don’t see harassment and bigotry against people with disabilities in the same light that they see harassment and bigotry against people on the basis of race, ethnicity, or religion. It saddens me that we’re still fighting this fight.

It was a brief moment, on a summer day, in small New England town. But it spoke volumes about how people still look at disability, and it reminded me how very far we have to go.

© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


4 Responses  
  • R Scott writes:
    July 21st, 20127:43 pmat

    I love your article!!! But I don’t think a straight man is homophobic if the don’t like the idea of kissing another man. I feel we over use the word homophobia.

    • Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg writes:
      July 21st, 20128:05 pmat

      Thanks, R. Scott.

      Just to clarify, I don’t think that one man not wanting to kiss another is homophobic. My point was that the man would not have asked another man to do it because, given the amount of homophobia out there, he’d know that he’d be taking a risk; if the man he asked happened to be homophobic, the request might have been met with physical violence. I think he saw a 5’1″ woman as a much safer bet.

  • R Scott writes:
    July 21st, 20128:34 pmat

    Yea your right!!!

  • Ben Stansfield writes:
    July 21st, 201211:37 pmat

    i’ve had similar things (minus the kissing) happen to me over the years, for some of the same reasons. mainly, because my disability, like yours, is not apparent on first meeting. i appear “normal”, friendly (i am), abled and game for harassing or slagging someone strange or different in conversation. also like you, i have a similar reaction. when others expect me to join in the fun in conversation, i either say nothing and change the subject, or depending on context and severity, point out that that human being, the one with the audacity to be strange, different, weird and unconformist, isn’t hurting anybody.a

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