I’m leaving a hibachi place in Paramus, NJ when I see a Mercedes SUV swing into a handicapped spot. Two well-dressed parents with three equally bespoke children walk out of the car and into the restaurant. The adults are slim and in shape and none of the children have a disability as far as I can see. After they’re out of sight I walk over to their truck and see a blue handicap placard hanging from the rear view mirror. Now I’m pissed.
“Did you see that?” I say to my friend. “They’re all fine but they parked in a handicapped spot.”
“That drives me insane.”
“They probably have the handicapped thing for when they drive around an elderly parent. “
“But the parent isn’t with them now.”
“Maybe we should key their car,” my friend says with a grin.
“Would serve them right,” I say. “But it’s not worth the bother.”
“Probably video cameras watching anyway.”
Now before you freak out over me contemplating vandalizing a car, you have to understand the utter hatred I have for people who misuse handicapped parking. When I was thirty I lived in a small neighborhood where parking was scare. The reason for the paucity of automotive berths was because all the homes on my street were two families with grown children. So every driveway was filled with three or four cars. One had six. Because my apartment didn’t have dedicated parking I had to find a space on the street. But since the area was so congested I usually ended parking two or three blocks away. I could have dealt with that – if my neighbors weren’t such shits.
Five homes on my block had handicapped parking spaces in front of them. And in the four years I lived among them I never saw anyone with a handicap get into those cars. The bottom line is these residents always wanted to have a parking space in front of their homes so they fraudulently applied for a handicapped spot. I suspect somebody paid someone off at city hall. And if you think I’m being cynical the mayor of that town was indicted for corruption and the city government was almost taken over by the state.
My godfather, a Catholic priest, never liked the word handicapped. “What is this golf?” he’d cry. “They’re cripples! Jesus called them cripples! What’s wrong with that word?” And you can be sure he didn’t like the term “differently-abled” either. Now Ted was born in the 1930’s and was a child of his age so don’t be to hard on him. If he was around today I think he would have had no problem with the words “disabled” or “disability.” But he knew language was a powerful thing and that people would exploit the word “handicapped” at the expense of the needy. And for him “cripple” meant someone who really, really needed that parking spot.
But what counts as a disability in our day and age? I have known and worked with seriously disabled people during my lifetime – people who had lost limbs from accidents, disease and war. These people needed handicapped spots. And you know what? I knew a guy who was in a wheelchair who never used them. “Those are for people who can’t get around,” he said. He was one tough cookie. Handicapped spots are for the frail elderly, people with serious medical conditions, and those with major ambulation problems. They’re not for five healthy people to get a good parking spot on a Friday night.
I have no reason to doubt that the owner of that Mercedes got a handicapped placard because someone he drives around needs it – an old parent, disabled child – whatever. But when that person’s not in the car you can’t use the spot! And the last time I checked that’s the law.
I know people will get pissed when they read this, probably because they have or know someone who struggles with a disability that’s not immediately obvious. I’m always willing to give people the benefit of the doubt – but not to two healthy parents who use cynically use their handicap sticker to score a good parking spot. And what’s the lesson they’re teaching their children? That you should take whatever you can get? That the rules don’t apply to you?
Now I’m sure if I talked to those parents they’d be as nice as pie. Fuck nice. Nice is overrated. Nice is very often a lie. We’ve all been stabbed in the back, exploited, and robbed by people who look “nice.” Con artists are often “nice.” Nice is easy. Decency is hard. Over the years I’ve run into people who weren’t exactly nice but were decent. Even though they appeared unpleasant at first they would do the right thing, very often at expense to themselves. Nice and decent are light years apart. Nice is just smiling and showing a minimum of social graces. Sure it helps make life go a bit smoother, but decency would do far, far more. How many times have we run into a nice person who was monstrous underneath? What did Shakespeare say? “One may smile and smile and be a villain?” Watch out for those people.
A short while ago an eighteen-year-old boy committed suicide because his roommate and another student video streamed him having a sexual encounter with another man in his dorm room. I’m sure the neighbors and friends of those two voyeurs would describe them as “nice” kids. Maybe they are – but they sure as hell aren’t decent. A person with a moral sense would have never have done such a thing. Those kids had no such sense. Now I don’t think they could have known that boy would kill himself, but that’s not the point. They should have never have done what they did in the first place. But somewhere they learned that everything’s on the table to be exploited, the rules don’t apply to you, get what you can, everything’s for the taking and who cares who gets hurt? Someone taught them that.
Parents and caregivers are the ones who instill a moral code. We teach children to do the right thing by example and, as every parent has told me, their children watch them like hawks. We all falter and screw up, myself included, but some parents will blame the fact they are unable to provide such lessons because they have three jobs, latch-key kids and are fighting against media influences too powerful to counter. That’s a cop out. All the moral lessons I learned occurred in seconds – a Scoutmaster telling me to not pick on the weak, my mom chastising me when I had done wrong, my Dad telling me to open a door for an old lady and my godfather’s tenderness with the sick, dying and confused. I can roll up all those lessons about human decency into two hours worth of time. Morality is taught in moments – not in textbooks.
The parents in that SUV had such a moment. And they failed.