YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

TAKE THREE: Three views of the Southland | AL MARTINEZ

The Other Side of the Street

April 10, 1998|AL MARTINEZ

Just about the time Picabo Street was flying down the slopes of Nagano, Japan, Cleo Smith was trying to cross a busy thoroughfare in Pasadena.

Street was doing 75 miles an hour in her quest for Olympic gold. Smith was just trying to reach the opposite curb before traffic bore down on her.

I know that the Winter Olympics have long since passed, but the moment of contrast has remained with me all these weeks.

Street's display was that of an accomplished athlete, Smith's the struggle of a woman in pain. A birth defect has left her barely able to walk, and a dozen operations have failed to ease her anguish.

Seeing her struggle across Fair Oaks Avenue, her pace a drag and a shuffle, her body twisting to the awkward motion of her gait, I couldn't help but marvel at her persistence.

"What else am I supposed to do?" she said when we spoke later. The pain in her back was intense, but her face revealed none of the suffering. A half-century of agony had taught her to deal with it quietly and with dignity.

Our conversation was brief but long enough for me to ask if she ever cried, if she ever cursed God for her affliction, if she ever envied those without pain.

Her answer was a non sequitur. She said, "Sometimes I dream I'm running."


A friend once said that the world belonged to those who earned it. He was talking about high achievers who fight their way to medals, but I've learned over the years that sometimes the race to win involves no more than walking, and the finish line is no farther away than the other side of the street.

There are many kinds of struggles. Cops struggle to keep the peace, firefighters to save lives, doctors to restore health. Earning a living is a struggle, raising children an even greater struggle.

We get by the best we can, bearing our burdens with as much equanimity of spirit as possible under the circumstances we face.

Cleo Smith (not her real name) has learned to cope with life as a slow dancer in a world that rocks and rolls at a pace beyond her ability to keep up. Pain shadows her hours, involved in every minute of her existence.

There are more than a million disabled people living in Los Angeles County. Many of the handicaps are physical, others emotional. They can't see, they can't hear, they can't move, they can't remember, they can't cope.

No longer willing to face lives as "shut-ins," they have emerged into the midst of us to confront even greater struggles than the ones they already face. They fight for jobs, for ramps, for hiking trails, for education, for access and for entryway into a world which for too long has been denied them.

Cleo Smith tries to live an ordinary life under extraordinary circumstances. She holds a job and maintains an apartment. She reads, listens to music and watches television. Occasionally, she dreams of running.


Pity is a common response to those obviously disabled, but to be defined as pathetic, incomplete figures isn't what most of them want. "Give us access," one of them said to me, "not tears."

The human spirit, faced with adversity, can either die or soar. Supported by today's willingness to allow them in, the disabled offer endless examples of the spirit soaring.

I met a man whose face was burned away and who emerged from a death wish to educate himself and to write. I met a paraplegic who painted with his teeth. I met a woman without legs who did stand-up comedy sitting down.

A man I never met is one I admire for different reasons. He's an alumnus of the Independent Living Center, a nonprofit agency dedicated to restoring lives. He wanted no personal meeting but allowed use of his story.

Brain-damaged in an accident that killed two brothers when he was 4, rejected by his family, homeless in his teens, the man I'll call Robert has not only fought his way back to normal, but devotes his spare time to help those who can't help themselves.

Unable to speak when he joined the center, living his life in corners, today Robert has a steady girlfriend and a job. His recovery was aided in part by that willingness to help, as if he saw in others the broken life that had once been his own. As he helped heal them, he healed himself.

Columns are supposed to have a purpose. I'm not sure what purpose this one serves except to acknowledge those who struggle, who achieve goals of the soul, who simply will not give up.

I keep thinking of Cleo Smith crossing Fair Oaks Avenue and Picabo Street flying down the slopes of Nagano.

Each in her own way won gold that day.

Al Martinez's e-mail address is

Los Angeles Times Articles