Smart Ass Cripple's
Little Red Book

Mike Ervin
Mike Ervin is out to topple all your pre-conceptions about the world of the disabled. Forget FDR and Helen Keller and Christopher Reeve and that stiff-upper-lip and bravery-against-all-odds stuff. And "Jerry's Kids."

Especially the latter: If there is anything in the world that gets Ervin's dander up it's the "kids" --- those boys and girls with muscular dystrophy being paraded before hundreds of thousands of strangers as a come-on for gelt. And guilt.

Ervin's on-line blog at

is a scandal. It's also vulgar and obscene. It's also witty, charming, highly literate, and as funny as anything you'll find on the internet.

For instance, Ervin's latest schtick is what he calls "Rent-A-Cripple." He sympathizes with the "verts" (verticals --- what the rest of us call "walkies") who have to wait in line at the local car license bureau. He suggests that friends could get through much more quickly if they took him and his wheelchair along.

    John could get through the DMV in a flash if he hired me to go with him. Because for some reason, whenever I show up there they wave me right on through, right up to the service window. And the frustrated verts corralled in the queue look at me with a combination of resentment and alarm. Half of them seem to think I'm being hustled ahead because I'm a bitter cripple who thinks the whole damn world owes him something. The rest seem to think I'm being hustled ahead because maybe I'm contagious.

In his new book, Ervin gives us a dozen different ways of looking at the disability life. One of his great perorations speaks of his time at "the state boarding school for cripples." (Note his fondness for the C-word: one that antagonizes some, irritates others, and discomfits the world. That's his style.) All this is revealed in the tale of his "independence stick."

Those of us who haven't got many muscles to work with have to rely on alternatives --- what McLuhan called "the extensions of man." These become a part of our bodies even though they are apart.

For us, a car or van is just an oversized wheelchair; a plastic tube shoved down the throat (a "trach") becomes a segment of the windpipe; an "independence stick" is an extension of the arm for those who can't reach up and out and over because the muscles concerned (deltoids, triceps, biceps, rhomboids and serratus) are either out-to-lunch, on vacation, or playing dead.

Ervin is the only author I know who could take something as simple as a stick with a little gummy hook on one end and make a 1,200 word essay about it ... an essay as wicked as it is funny. It's titled "Making Out with Eleanor Roosevelt."

In the first paragraph he lets us see it in detail: "a dowel rod about three feet long and one half inch in diameter. Protruding from the tip was a small brass hook. Covering the hook was a makeshift sleeve of sort translucent-brown rubber that looked like a snippet of catheter tube circa 1969." Not any old rubber tube, right? No, it has to be a "catheter tube." Something extremely familiar to those in the crip biz.

You can visualize it, because Ervin knows how to write simple declarative sentences that could be a credit to Strunk & White. And into this tale of the independence stick comes Eleanor Roosevelt. She's an "African American Girl in a wheelchair." She had "big swooping scoliosis" (curvature of the spine). She was "turned on" by his independence stick.

This is not the Eleanor Roosevelt that you or I remember. Whenever Ervin brings in one of these characters he offers a warning in caps: "SMART ASS CRIPPLE ALIAS ALERT! Once again we will use a pseudonym so as not to out the innocent."

    If it was to become known in the circles of the real "Eleanor Roosevelt" that she was once an inmate in a state cripple boarding school making out with the likes of me, it could do irreparable damage to her personal and professional reputation and maybe even ruin her credit rating.

As you can see, this is not the kind of writing for the faint-hearted, certainly not for those people on the boards of the national MS Foundation, the annual ALS Fund Drive, or the top brass of the Disabled Veterans Alliance.

This is the real thing, for Ervin plays the double bind ... that bind that almost everyone faces with the disabled. Take the title of this book. "Everyone loves a cripple," writes Ervin, "but everyone hates a smart ass."

    You'll want to love Smart Ass Cripple because I'm a cripple and it's un-American not to love a cripple. But you won't be able to love a smart ass cripple because I'm a smart ass and nobody likes a smart ass.

This book will resonate in a dozen different ways for those of us who over the years have lived more or less in the same world as Ervin. There are things that no "vert" can or will ever know.

For instance, there is our terror of being left somewhere, anywhere, without escape. A car stalled on the freeway. A room up the stairs with no exit nor telephone. Stuck in a locked bathroom stall. Such a situation could embarrass or irritate you ... but because you can get about on your own, I would doubt that it has the same impact on you as it does on us.

Like our being in some out-of-the-way place where no one knows you and doesn't know that you have nothing with which to escape: not even the ability to get your voice heard above the traffic --- all the common escape mechanisms that 99% of the world uses to get in and about (and out).

Ervin calls it "Dave Boffo's Existential Hell," named for his friend Danny Martin who once gave Boffo a ride home. "Martin lifted Boffo into the front seat of his car, folded his wheelchair, and tossed it in the back seat." But Martin had a craving for a Dunkin' Donut, stopped, bought one, got back in the car, and choked on the doughnut. "And he kept choking and Boffo freaked because he couldn't just jump up and give Martin the Heimlich or anything like that. Boffo couldn't even move his arms. So this is what went through Boffo's head as he watched Martin choke:"

    Oh great! This is just fucking great! So this is how it ends. Martin turns blue and falls over dead on my lap. And I can't even lift my fucking arms and this place is open 24 hours so nobody will even notice that a car has been parked here for weeks and no one will find us until they smell something funny and trace it back to this car and find us both decomposing!

"Listen here, God," he finally said, "if you insist on Martin dying by choking on a Dunkin' Donut, at least make him fall forward so he lands on the horn."

Nothing for us matches the reality of no-exit brought on by disability. It's a state of what one might think of as constant discomposure ... one that strikes home with all of us out there in the alien world on our crutches, in our wheelchairs, laid back on our gurneys.

"I am a house of cards," reports Ervin. "I may look steady and sturdy and ready for business. But I am a delicately balanced, perilously perched creature. It's easy to upset my fragile equilibrium. Approach me the wrong way and somebody might get hurt."

Once Ervin thought his power wheelchair was turned off and a nurse was taking his blood-pressure and "she snagged my joystick with the stethoscope."

    And when my wheelchair lurched forward she bolted from her chair and backed away. But she had my joystick snagged good so whenever she ran in a frantic attempt to escape, I involuntarily followed. She screamed because suddenly this crazed cripple was chasing her around the tiny exam room at full speed, ricocheting like a pinball.

"I'm a dangerous, volatile man," he concludes. "Congress should require that I be stamped with a surgeon general's warning."

--- L. W. Milam
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