It was April 2, 2001 when I started my job in a southern Minneapolis suburb. At no other time in my life can I remember being more nervous. Actually moving to Minneapolis from Michigan wasn’t even as nerve-wracking. I knew what I was in for, making the transition from there to here. I was familiar with the culture of the area in which I’d planned to find an apartment, and was prepared for, even anticipated, the change. But my “new” job was different. Even though I’d come from another store in the same chain and had a good handle on store workings and the basic expectations of someone in my position, I knew the people I’d work with and the patrons of this new environment would be vastly different.
I’m very much a people person I mean, I like people and people like me. But because of my disability, I tend to be shy at first, afraid of what people will think when they initially encounter me. My voice, especially, is a big insecurity as I suffer from an impairment called dysarthria. It’s probably the most prominent aspect of my disability, and certainly the one on which I’m judged the most.
Strangely enough, it wasn’t the customers I was most scared of; I knew they’d be as demanding as the ones I knew from my old store it’d be just a matter of breaking in the regulars. It was my coworkers. I’d hired on at my old store before it opened so the entire staff had pretty much started together and they’d seen and gotten to know my abilities along with everybody else’s. But what were these big-city folk going to think of some handicapped kid trying to fit in to their established workplace? I started with an extremely heavy heart and a swarm of butterflies in my stomach, wondering if I had made the biggest mistake in my life. Would I succeed? Would I make friends like I had back in Michigan? I’d given myself twelve months one year to make it, with the safety net of moving back home.
I really can’t remember how Leslie and I met; the first day kind of blurs in my memory. I only know we met somehow. She cracked some smart-assed remark and I retaliated with, of course, a more intelligent response that was equally witty, and we’ve been completely inseparable ever since. And her best friend, Michele, welcomed me with equal warmth. My disability wasn’t even noted in their eyes, or in the eyes of the other booksellers. They all saw immediately that I knew what I was doing, and that I did it well. For them, no further evidence of my competence was needed. It gave me the confidence and the backup to jump into this highly expectant community and show ’em what I was made of. The entire staff was warm, welcoming, caring, and proved to be a family a support network that would hold me up in times when I needed it. It showed me that people are people wherever you go, and that I need not worry about how I appear to be. I just need to worry about how I am.
Physically speaking, the world of books isn’t the simple job I thought I was going into out of college. When I first applied, I remember thinking: “Working in a bookstore. What an amazingly easy job!” It’s actually very physical work. Even now I come home with legs that throb and feet that are so swollen that I can barely get them out of my shoes. To begin with, I’m literally on my feet for the majority of an eight-hour shift. I walk a good four miles a day within the walls of that store. And books are heavy when you’re dealing with stacks of them by the truckload. I carry piles of books up and down the escalator, sometimes with the aid of a cart, sometimes without. Sliding shelves of books down
to fit one more title in, back and forth, over and over, is hard on the back and the arms.
In many respects, I think of it as a huge jigsaw puzzle one for which I have no guide. Fitting pieces together in hopes that I’ll find a few that actually work; squeezing books onto shelves or displays that are already overstuffed. And there’s another puzzle: it’s having to balance my responsibilities with my abilities. Sometimes my body just won’t do what I want it to, so I have to improvise ways to get my job done with methods that my body can relate to. It’s a challenge, and one that so far I’ve taken head-on, emerging victorious. My work has this dynamic quality of constantly presenting me with new challenges to overcome, causing me to evolve with the job and stretch my abilities, invariably finding out that I can do more than I thought.
A lot of people think that working in a split-level store would be a challenge for me with my limp. It’s not really. I actually do very well with stairs. Yes, we have escalators, but most of us walk up and down them to save time, so it’s just like taking a stairway, albeit a bit shorter. And shorter means less time from top to bottom. Timing is a very crucial thing in my world….
Part Two will be printed in our November issue.