Don't Mind Me,
I'm Just One of
Jerry's KidsSometimes we forget that Jerry Lewis started his career fifty years ago in a nightclub in New Jersey by acting like what we used to call a "retardee." He would cross his eyes, gallump about, drooling, give his straight man Dean Martin a big wet kiss (on the mouth). I even remember him falling off the stage and clambering back up the steps, acting like a regular gooney-bird. It was very funny.
In his work for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, it is no accident that "Jerry's Kids" sometimes move about not unlike the comedian of yore. The Merck Manual defines "Muscular Dystrophies and other Myopathies" as "muscle weakness causing waddling gait, toe-walking, lordosis, frequent falls, and difficulty in standing up and climbing stairs." Sounds just like the Jerry Lewis I remember from back then. He is, in more ways than not, one of his beloved kids.
And, like a kid, Jerry is always getting in a fix. Not long ago, while being interviewed on the "CBS Sunday Show," he said
I'm telling you about a child in trouble. If it's pity, we'll get money. I'm giving you the facts. Pity. You don't want to be pitied because your are a cripple in a wheelchair, stay in your house.
As usual, it raised a few hackles among the militant disabled but, in truth, I suspect he's right. We disabled will always evoke pity. And if we want to get away from it, we damn well better stay at home.
Yesterday I was at the Piggly-Wiggly and I got the security guard to download my wheelchair from the car to the pavement. As he helped me get in, he said, "I'm just hopin' that my friend won't be using one of these things the rest of his life." I asked him what he meant and he said, "Got in a wreck last week. Drunk driver. They cut his legs off here (motioning across his thighs). I just hope he won't be in one of these things the rest of his life."
I of course agreed with him. I told him that life was tough --- but with luck, his friend wouldn't have to be stuck in a wheelchair the rest of his life. Like some people I knew.
That kind of stuff used to drive me up the wall. Here I am, trying to slip through life without anyone knowing that I'm a hopeless cripple and people are forever and a day be patting me on the head, telling me that God will never give me something I can't handle. Then, five will get you ten, they'll start in on one of their friends or relations who are "in the same place you're in." Fights, terrible falls, cancer, car wrecks, diabetes, amputation, hunting accidents, stroke --- I've heard them all.
I'd be a fool not to see pity in their words. But I would also be a fool not to accept their words with, God help me, a touch of forgiveness. It used to drive me bananas, this cut-
off- at- the- knees stuff, but something has mellowed me. Security Guard is reaching out in the only way he knows how. He means no harm. His pity is part and parcel of me and my life and my wheelchair and, I would guess, everything else having to do with life in world around us.
Despite my disabled brothers' and sisters' outright loathing for Jerry Lewis, he's probably right. He's playing the Pity Card, in spades, and it works. Those little kids, the young and the innocent --- cut down in the bloom of life. They've been given a something that should never have been. They have learned at age five or ten or fifteen what it is like to be seventy or eighty or ninety years of age.
As a result of the work of Jerry Lewis, the MDA is one of the richest foundations in this country. Last year, they took in over $150,000,000. That's a hundred and fifty million smackers in cold, hard cash. Their total assets are close to $200,000,000. Their director is paid $350,000, their expenses are somewhat out of hand, but they spend $15,000,000 a year on research, and another $40,000,000 that goes to grants, allocations, and assistance to individuals.
Lewis knows the vocabulary, just like I do. Just like me, he's been around. He has to look no further than New Mobility, the hottest magazine in the disabled world, to see the word "cripple." The pages are peppered with it --- along with "gimp," and "crip" and, every now and again, from the likes of shameless writers like me, "basket-case."
We don't call ourselves "disabled" with our fellow crips. We wouldn't be caught dead saying "differently abled." The word of choice is "crippled" --- and it's an ancient and honorable word. The Rev. W. W. Skeat, of etymological fame, tells us it comes from the Anglo-Saxon word creopan --- to creep.
I guess that the only people who are going to shy away from it are all those proper folk who like to complain about people like Jerry and me and the kids who just think it's another commonplace word that's honest and true.--- L. W. Milam
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This article appeared, in slightly different form, at salon.com
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