Sunday, October 1, 2017

What would Bill do?

For a while, ABC ran a program called “What Would You Do?” The show presented difficult situations and asked members of the audience to think about what they would have done if they were in that situation.  At least two scenarios portrayed on the program addressed issues that dwarfs often face, the use of the word midget and the problem of strangers taking our picture.  A few weeks ago, a friend of mine and a good friend for many in the dwarfism community passed away.  Among many other things, he will be remembered for posting long Facebook anecdotes about bizarre situations he’d wind up in and how he navigated through those situations.  The uniqueness of the situation sometimes played off of how people responded to Bill’s dwarfism. In the wake of his death, I think about Bill a lot. I especially think about him when I am in the middle of an unexpected situation. I wonder, “What would Bill do?” 

Last Tuesday evening, I was on my way home.  It was around eight o’clock, later than I typically go home.  The eight o’clock crowd on the train is different than the five o’clock.  At rush hour, the train is crowded and people typically keep to themselves, punching their phones for 20 minutes or so.  Though on Tuesday night the train wasn’t crowded, I wasn’t sitting.  I was standing in the open space near the door, away from the two rows of seats that faced each other across a single aisle. It was easier to stand. I had my bicycle with me.  About halfway through my train ride, a passenger seated in the first or second seat from where I stood leaned forward and stretched to his left, then turned to me.  

“Hey,” he said, getting my attention.  “Are you familiar with Game of Thrones?”

I looked at the man and nodded.  “Yes,” I said.

The man was silent for a moment. He had a smile on his face and it looked as if he was trying to contain a burst of laughter.   “You know where this is going, right?” 

I smiled and nodded. “Yes,” I said again. 

Perhaps worried that he’d embarrass himself, or embarrass me, the man didn’t say anything more until he left the train a few stops later.  He smiled, shook his head, and leaned back in his seat.  Later, at his stop, he smiled again, let out a whimper of a laugh, mumbled something like, “Game of Thrones, man!” then walked out the train doors. 

When I was young, growing up, the most popular references to little people were The Wizard of Oz and Fantasy Island.  From the across the street, from across a room, or to my face, strangers would chant, “The plane, the plane!” or “Follow the Yellow Brick Road.”  Both Herve Villechaize and the actors that portrayed the Munchkins deserve recognition and credit for their work within a culture that most have stigmatized dwarfs as least twice as much as we are stigmatized today.  But when I was young, I wanted to fight back against anyone that associated me, just because I was a little person, with dwarfs that appeared in popular culture.  

With Peter Dinklage, it’s different. I was in my 30’s when Dinklage rose to fame.  By that time, I’d found my place within dwarfism. No longer did I try to change myself in order to fit in. Instead, I tried to do what I could to change the world.  Long before Season 1 of Game of Thrones, strangers approached me about the Station Agent, Dinklage’s first starring role.  At least once, I was mistaken for Peter Dinklage.  Unlike how I felt about the Munchkins and Tattoo, I was proud of the dwarfism bond I shared with Dinklage.  Partially it was because I was older and growing more mature. But Dinklage changed the landscape of popular culture for dwarfs.  He wasn’t alone but he was the most popular of the Little People Actors who were portraying characters not defined by their dwarfism. 

Last week, on the train, when the stranger asked, “You know where this is going, right?” I wanted to say, and in hindsight I should have said, “You are damn right I know where this is going, and I like it!” But I didn’t. I kept quiet. Perhaps out of fear of where the conversation may have gone from there; perhaps based on the principle that no matter the reason why, I shouldn’t humor someone that approaches me simply because of my dwarfism.  The more I think back about that evening, and what I didn’t do, and what I should have done, the more I wonder, ‘What would Bill Bradford have done?”