Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A man with no fingers

The State of Colorado has a process by which employees can request and use a state-owned motor vehicle. I go through this process several times every year (pretty much every time I have to go anywhere besides the office because I don't own a car). Recently, they began to tear down the old parking structure, in the basement of which was kept the entire state motor pool fleet. So they had to relocate some of the cars to the new parking garage and the older, less-requested cars got moved to where they keep all the old police cars in the way north part of town.

Several weeks ago, I needed a state car for my first two trainings and the popularity of the motor pool is such that one must request cars way ahead of time in order to have one when one needs one (otherwise, one must rent a car (which is also paid for by the state, but more annoying)). My first two training dates weren't set until about 3 weeks beforehand, at which time I went in to request cars for all the days I'd need them and was told the downtown office didn't have any cars for those first two dates. So I had to reserve older, crappier cars from the northern campus. And in order to pick up said cars, instead of walking a couple of blocks to the new parking garage, I had to take an awesome city bus for over a half hour and then walk a few blocks.

The first time I rode the bus to get a car, I sat down next to a smallish Mexican or Central American man. He looked a little down, but it took me a few minutes to notice that he didn't have any fingers. Well, that's not true. He had a thumb and some nubs on one hand and two fingers and a thumb on the other. Every minute or so, he would fidget with his finger stubs in what looked like a newly-developed nervous habit, as his hands still had angry red scars.

After a while, he started to make basic small talk - he asked if I knew Spanish (un poquito, I answered); he told me he wanted to learn better English. He was on his way to a physical therapist appointment, he told me, and was going to be fitted for prostheses. "Two month ago" was the response when I asked when he lost his fingers. "I have accident at work and now I no can work." I silently wondered how long he'd been in the States, whether his work was compensating him fairly for his obviously life-changing injuries and losses. Some life insurance pays cash money for the loss of fingers and toes and arms and legs, but how likely is an immigrant, legal or no, to have life insurance? And if he was illegal, would his company pay workman's comp?

"I no like the bus," he said, "but I no can drive neither. Too scared." I didn't blame him; if I lost most of my fingers I think I'd have a hard time being comfortable operating a car at first, too. And it was pretty obvious he was used to doing manual labor; I think he had worked in some sort of factory and had a major industrial accident. Truly, he couldn't do that kind of work anymore- and I hoped that somehow, someone would pay for him to be retrained or get some kind of occupational therapy or something. There are disabled service centers, I'm sure, that could help, but I didn't know how to tell him in words he would understand. "You know a school where I can learn English good?" he asked me, and I mentioned the only one I knew about for sure. "Oh yeah, I know that one," he said.

After a while, there wasn't much left to say. I could tell he was ogling me, and it was a very weird sensation; I didn't want to ignore him or make him feel that I was shunning his lack of digits, but at the same time I didn't want him staring at my boobs or looking down my shirt. Soon it was my turn to get off the bus and I told him goodbye and I walked in the cold to get my crappy state car and drove home.

The next week, I took the same bus to get another state car. I was on the bus at a totally different time, but the same guy was right there, fidgiting with his stubs. I didn't sit next to him.

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