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The Jobs Issue

Frenching The Disabled

My job until recently consisted of washing, feeding, and caring for various teenagers with physical and mental disabilities.
Κείμενο Kenny Taylor

Photo by James Kendi

My job until recently consisted of washing, feeding, and caring for various teenagers with physical and mental disabilities. I worked at a state-owned facility that doubled as a school and residence for kids whose parents either couldn't handle their needs or no longer wanted them around. This particular facility was built in the 1950s and looked like a big old hospital. The kids slept in rooms with three beds separated by white curtains. Everyone had some kind of physical disability, sometimes mental, too, and most of them cruised about in electric wheelchairs. A few used manual chairs, and although many could walk with the aid of crutches, they weren't encouraged to, for safety and insurance reasons. I was basically the lowest form of employee at the school. I was an "aide." Maybe the cleaning people were lower down than me, but I know for a fact that they made more money than I did. I just did what I was told for the most part. After a brief training period I was assigned to help three 15-year-old boys get washed and dressed in the morning. One of the kids was called Frenchy, and he could do everything for himself, though I was not informed of this. His arms shook a lot when he moved them, so I took out a shirt and tried to help him put it on. When I did this he slapped at my hands and said, "Get off of me, nigga!" I'm not black and neither was he. One of the other kids, Dominic, needed help getting on the toilet and wiping his ass. Frenchy laughed at me because I forgot to put on a rubber glove when I first wiped Dominic's ass and therefore got a gob of his shit on my hand. This was unpleasant. Dominic was also very overweight, so when I tried to lift him to his chair we got nowhere and fell over onto the floor. This caused a big racket and Edith, an older woman who sort of ran the show, came in and said, "What the hell is going on in here?" Frenchy kept laughing and Dominic laughed too, even though he was on top of me and bleeding from a cut on his chin. Pedro, the third kid in the room, was still in bed looking at the wall. Eventually, with Edith's help, I got them up and on their way. Edith explained to me that I shouldn't ever try to lift a student by myself. The school was equipped with lifts and pulleys for all of that and it was a big insurance hazard for me to try to do it alone. I soon learned that insurance dictated everything around there. Since most of the other aides were either old women or recent immigrants who spoke halting English, the kids at the school became friendly with me. This was both good and bad. I got to hang out and shoot the shit with them sometimes, but I was also the one they called over whenever they need to take a big diarrhea or vomit into a bucket. Pedro's parents were migrant workers from El Salvador. He had no legs and only tiny little arms, sort of like fins. He thought this happened because of the pesticides in the fields where his mom worked while she was pregnant with him. He couldn't reach his mouth so I had to feed him his meals. He painted elaborate drawings with a fine-tipped brush that he held in his mouth. Pedro used to live with a group of nuns, but they didn't like his devotion to heavy metal music so they sent him away. That's what he said. He told me he used to smoke a lot of weed back home and he was dying for a toke. The word among the students was that I smoked "mad trees." I told him I didn't know what he was talking about. Wintertime was a big pain in the ass there. It took about an hour to get each kid bundled up enough to go outside and then when they did, they wiped out on the ice and snapped their fragile bones. It happened several times. This one kid, Reggie, had a very big head, like twice as big as a normal head, but he had a little body and no muscles at all. He could hardly move. We just carted him around on a wheely-bed with his head strapped down. He was fairly easy to take outside, though, because we just threw a blanket over him. Except one day I went out with him and it was snowing and I saw that he was smiling because of the big snowflakes, so we went out to the parking lot to get a better view. As we were going down the ramp I hit a patch of ice and slipped and fell and let go of Reggie in his rolling bed. He coasted out into the middle of the parking lot and flipped over onto a snowbank. It was a true disaster, because he used a big respirator to help him breathe and I wasn't even supposed to have him more than 50 feet from the building even if it was nice out (insurance regulation). I ran over to Reggie and lifted him back into his bed and strapped his head back down and brushed all the snow off him and bundled him up as best I could. His eyes were freaking out, but he didn't scream because he was "nonvocal." It occured to me that I could just take him inside and dry him off and no one would even know what happened. He didn't appear to be cut or anything. But then I noticed his respirator was making funny noises and the tube had snow in it. "Oh, fuck," I said, and we trotted off down to the hospital ward. I dropped Reggie off real quickly, saying, "He's got water in his tube" and leaving without any more explanation. Reggie turned out to be OK, but he was afraid of me after that. He wouldn't let me take him anywhere. Some of the girls there were kind of cute. A couple of the teenage ones with spina bifida had pretty faces and seemed like maybe they were flirting when we talked. Spina bifida is a condition where your spinal cord isn't fully developed and you have a normal-size torso but your legs are small and floppy and you can't feel anything below the waist. Even with those little legs, this one girl, Lizzie, looked pretty to me. She knew how to dress right, in tight pants and tank tops, and she had strong arms from wheeling herself around. She had a mischievous smile, too. Lizzie asked me to sit with her and Tamara at lunch one day so I brought Pedro over and we all ate together. It was sloppy joes for lunch, which is probably the dumbest thing you could possibly feed people with disabilities. Everyone gets the sauce all over the place. I had to wipe Pedro's face every three seconds. Lizzie was just eating a salad, though. "Pedro told me you like to smoke good weed," she said. "No, no, I don't," I said. "You smoke bad weed then?" said Tamara. Pedro laughed and coughed up his mouthful of sloppy joe. I cleaned him up. "If I did smoke," I said, "I'd smoke the good stuff." The girls liked that and they giggled, and all through lunch I thought about what it would be like to have sex with Lizzie. It'd be wrong, I knew. The insurance company would freak out. But I imagined she might like it. Would she even feel it? Dominic called me over and when I arrived he whispered into my ear, "I've got to take a shit. Real bad." We hurried to the bathroom but we didn't make it in time. There was sloppy joe diarrhea everywhere. My rubber gloves offered little protection and I needed a shower when it was done. In the springtime the kids got horny and the boys tried to sneak out of their rooms and visit the girls. This was not allowed––a major insurance violation. Frenchy was a prime offender and I spent my evening shifts chasing him and his wheelchair around the hallways with a flashlight. He took a shine to Lizzie, a development I had mixed feelings about. I was jealous, but I also wanted to hear the details if anything happened. One night an ambulance showed up and they loaded little Reggie inside. He'd stopped breathing and his aide couldn't get the respirator back on track. I caught a glimpse of Reggie's face as they lifted him in and it didn't look good. His skin was a lime-green color. It wasn't right at all. When I got back to the room Frenchy was gone, so I headed over to Lizzie and Tamara's room to find him. But Lizzie was still there. It was Tamara who was gone. She went with Frenchy, said Lizzie. Together we went looking for them, but they were in none of the usual makeout spots in the gym, the library, or the cafeteria. "Let's just leave them alone," said Lizzie. "I can't do that," I said. We went back to the boys' room, hoping that Frenchy had returned, but he hadn't. Dominic was snoring like a pig but Pedro couldn't sleep. He saw Reggie leave and thought he was already dead. I got Pedro out of bed and the three of us—me, Lizzie, and Pedro—went out to the parking lot to get some air. These kids didn't get outside enough. They never got to see stars. We sat on the grass next to my car and listened to the radio at a low volume. Pedro picked the station––heavy metal, of course. After a while I opened up my glove compartment and found my bag of weed. I rolled a small joint and the three of us smoked it together. Lizzie and Pedro sucked it down with such fervor that I hardly got a toke in. Pedro fell asleep in his chair and Lizzie put her hand on my knee. I leaned toward her and her tongue plunged into my mouth. She had the strongest tongue I've ever felt. It felt like she was trying to clean my teeth or something. I think Pedro was awake and watching us. The insurance company wasn't going to like this at all. I got up and turned off the radio. I began to wheel Pedro back to the dormitory and Lizzie said, "Oh, come on." "You come on," I said. We all went back. Frenchy didn't return to the room until early in the morning, just as my shift was ending. "I don't want to know about it," I said to him, and then I stumbled out into the dawn to drive myself home. I tried to sleep during the day. Edith called me up in the afternoon and said she wanted to see me. I went in early even though my shift didn't start until after dinner. Edith took me into the TV room and asked me to sit down. "You're fired," she said. "Really?" "Yes, really." She didn't even want to go into it with me. "Just go home," she said. I didn't know who got me in trouble for what, or if it was just the culmination of my assorted misdeeds, but it doesn't really matter. I applied for a job at another facility two weeks later. When they ran the required background check, my record came up clean and they hired me on the spot.