Ralph Strzalkowski: The ballad of a blocked bathroom


Published: Monday, March 11, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 7, 2013 at 11:12 p.m.

‘(Expletive) you, I hope you're disabled forever” said one of the two girls who decided to lounge in the wheelchair-accessible cabin, after I told them that I was waiting for a really long time and this was the only bathroom at the restaurant I could access.

Poor thing. She didn't know that I have no perspective at all of ever not being in a wheelchair and that I'm fine with it, as long as there were places and bathrooms I could use. And here I was — about to write off a Tuesday night as mostly uneventful.

Drinks with a few friends I bumped into at the bar, strangers telling me of their latest great idea that will revolutionize the world and everybody so eager to get me a beverage. It's Tuesday night at The Top: a lot of familiar faces and a bit of a weekly tradition for me. And a fun night, for the most part.

People blocking the wheelchair accessible bathroom is not a new thing. And I'm trying to be considerate. After all, we've all had a couple of drinks. I usually say: “Look, I've been waiting for a long time, this is the only place I can go and the regular men's/ladies' room has been free for a while, if I could go there I would.”

Most of the time, people get embarrassed. Some just frankly say it was free, so I got in. But never before had I gotten as much attitude from someone as I did that Tuesday night. I always try to use the restroom before I head home, otherwise I may be in trouble. I don't drive, I don't take the bus or walk.

I wheel home. That is a whole upper body workout. As you move around, your muscles get tense and you feel a lot of pressure on your bladder. Quite frankly at that point you hope you make it home in time. I always try to visit the restroom before I leave. I do it way before the establishment closes, because with all the transferring from and to my wheelchair I never know how much time I may need and I hate being rushed.

Yet, I was sitting in front of the cabin for a while now, waiting for the person inside it to leave. I've heard voices. I figured she was on her cellphone, clueless that a person was waiting outside. Laughing, screaming — they made me wait quite a while. Sounded like a party. “A private textroom,” as the doorman often calls it.

Finally the door opened, but instead of one girl I saw two young, bleached blonde women. If I had to guess, college age, possibly in some sorority. It was clear that with their drinks and laughs they were not in need of a toilet at all, they just wanted some privacy.

“For future reference — just use the regular ladies' room.”

“This is the ladies room” one of them said.

“No it's not — it's across the hall,” I explained.

“You know, I'm disabled too,” one of them continued, “I have a plaque and everything.”

“Well, do you need grab bars?” I asked, because this is the only bathroom in the place that has them.

“Yes I do,” she said, all the time standing straight and walking just fine.

And even had she had any kind of condition at all, wheelchair accessible bathrooms are not like disability parking spaces. It's not about who needs it more or who is certified as with a disability. She has the option of using any toilet of her choice.

I would if I could, but I'm not physically able to. I can't walk and I can't stand without something to lean on. It's not because I feel special for having a disability. She left me with her final remark and I guess she won't be bothered by her conduct at all.

I doubt she will even remember. She walked on steadily towards the bar, an amazing task given all the alcohol she consumed. I was not able to use the restroom as the bar was closing. As I was leaving people were saying I should have had the last word, the last remark, something like, “I will always be in a wheelchair, but you will always be a ...”

Alcohol makes it hard to think on your feet. I was mostly amazed how vile and mean people get to excuse their own conduct. As I was on my way home I thought of a million good comebacks. But I'm glad I didn't say anything.

A street musician who I always meet on the corner asked me as usual how my day was and I told him this story. “It's her mother,” he summed it up. “This was the best she could do, raising her daughter.” And I couldn't help but smile.

Ralph Strzalkowski lives in Gainesville.

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