I was trying to gauge the Russian mall-public’s reaction to me, a handicapper wheelchairing into their perfect watercolor shopping mall. Would they look away in horror, treat me with disdain, pity me, fear me? I was too low to the ground to get a good read, but Zaitchik said that many of the mall-trolls were openly gawking at me. Some even stopped and stared. Kids were the worst, openly pointing straight at me, although some grownups were just as bad. I spotted several couples in which one would nervously tug on the other to get a look at me.
That didn’t surprise me. But then, Alex noticed another type who stared openly at me—chicks. Young, cute chicks, to be precise. They weren’t looking at me with disgust or pity. It was more like unhindered curiosity, with a hint of desire. Even the bright red blanket I draped over my legs to give me sort of Cancer Boy look didn’t bother them: these chicks were checking me out. They were digging a cripple! What the hell was going on?
According to the people at Perspektiva, Russians have a laundry list of negative stereotypes they associate with the handicapped. Disabled people don’t have sex; they can’t go to school, work, drive cars or do anything even remotely active in their lives. Basically, if you’re disabled, you’re expected to live differently and separately from normal society. Most importantly, most people assume that if you’re crippled, you’re a heap of miserable emotions.
Probably because I didn’t have the sickly pallor of a typical handicapped person in this country, and instead looked healthy wheeling around, drinking a venti Latte from Starbucks, the girls’ expectations were pleasantly upended, and that happy surprise eventually morphed, as most things do here, into sexual desire. Being wheelchair-bound also made me eccentric, which Russian girls tend to like—maybe I was a kind of mystic with special powers? Or more to the point, how much cash did I have to make me so happy? Whatever glow my Nadezhda was giving off, it worked magic on the girls.
On the way back, we tried to catch one of Moscow’s new handicapped-accessible buses by waiting at a bus stop on Leningradsky Prospekt. After two hours, we gave up on it and took a cheat-taxi home.
I didn’t get to test the bus myself, but I did talk to some handicapped people who have, and they had nothing but praise for it. As a journalist, it’s no fun reporting when things are working and improving, but the new buses clearly are a huge step forward, even if there are only a handful of them in the entire city.
For dinner, I had my girlfriend wheel me over to Yakitoria, which is like the Jack In the Box of Russia’s crap low-end sushi scene, with restaurants all over Moscow and beyond. It was a hit with the first wave of emerging Putin-era middle class Muscovites, and it’s still a hit with ever-lower and younger segments of that middle-class. I’ve avoided Yakitoria like the plague, so I had no idea what to expect when I got there. Would they face control me? Could they seat me, or were all their chairs and tables bolted to the floor? Would patrons point and stare at me, or throw shit at me, or take their photos with me?
Just as my girlfriend was helping to push me up to the restaurant door, a drunken middle-aged man accosted me, and forced me to take from him a 50 ruble donation.
I thought it was because the guy was drunk, but in fact it was the first in a series of heart-warming moments, of Muscovites going out of their way to help me and make me feel comfortable, something I didn’t expect. The okhranik at the door, who was dressed more like a geisha than a samurai, helped my girlfriend push me up a few stairs to get to the restaurant’s front double doors, where a waitress quickly scrambled to remove a chair from a table nearest to the door so I could maneuver inside. The place was busy but no one seemed to take much notice of me. Apart from a few giggles coming from two drunk bydlo women sitting across for me, everyone else treated me with the utmost consideration, and without the usual shame, fear and turning away you get in America.