It is far better to be physically disabled than mentally, at least people treat you better if they can see some physical disability or at least infer one. I discovered this truism exactly four years ago today, when I was in some God awful town in Essex, that spiritual home of Thatcherism.
I walk with a stick, but for some reason I did not have one with me that night. To make matters worse, I had not then received any physiotherapy so my feet looked as if they were welded to my ankles and I walked with my arms outstretched on either side to balance myself. I didn't only walk like a duck, I must have looked like one, especially with the air of super concentration on my face as I tried to walk without falling over.
The fellow I was visiting loaded me into his car and we went to an Indian restaurant. The place was half full, with most tables by the door already occupied so I had to waddle as best I could about twenty paces or so to the first unoccupied spot.
I can still remember the look of horror on the people's faces as they saw this apparition staggering past them:
Oh my God, it's a mong! What the fuck are they doing letting mongs out at night? Is the mong gonna sit near me? What if he starts dribbling? Strewth, I don't pay my taxes for this!
Nothing happened of course, much to the relief of the assembled diners, and in the fullness of time we paid our bill and I was helped back into the car.
A few days later and I was in London with a walking stick to hand. Another friend and I went to another Indian restaurant, with the main difference here being that this eating house was not as open plan as the first, so I really had to struggle to get past the line of tables to an empty one. Come to think of it I did almost fall once and a young athletic fellow dived out of his seat to grab me. The difference, however, was in the attitude of the diners, as reflected in their faces, all thanks to my walking stick:
Oh, look, that poor man can hardly walk, but isn't he brave to get about like that? So young to need a stick, he can't be more than 50, and he walks like my grandfather.Gosh it could happen to anyone, couldn't it? Bless.
The only real difference at work between those two restaurants was my walking stick. The lack of one at the first place led people to believe that the local nutter had walked in with his carer. A few days later a walking stick led people to correctly conclude that I have physical problems rather than mental ones.
More importantly, in London with my stick I received nothing but courtesy and empathy from the people whereas just a few days earlier the vibes given out were a mixture of distaste and worry that I might upset everyone's digestion.
I suppose you are expecting a rousing conclusion, but I don't have one to offer you. I just know that since the 30 December 2009 I have never gone out without my walking stick. Never again do I want to see the looks of outright hostility that I saw that night.