How to stand on your own two feet, even if your legs don't work

How to stand on your own two feet, even if your legs don't work

October 6th, 2013 by Joan Garrett McClane in Local Regional News

Sidney McDonald takes tickets during his shift at the downtown Carmike Cinema location in Chattanooga. A lifelong Chattanooga resident, McDonald says he loves his job and the people he gets to interact with at work.

Photo by Maura Friedman/Times Free Press.

Sidney McDonald had grown accustomed to lurching forward, blue and white braces strapped to his legs to keep them from buckling. But for 13 years, his legs haven't carried him at all.

Now he sits.

He sits when he works, straining to tear tickets at the cinema, straining to save the torn halves, repeating step-by-step directions to the 3-D theater or the bathroom, sometimes so precisely that he gets a few dollars as a tip.

"Welcome to Carmike Cinema," he says to the tourists that come in from the streets downtown.

"Hey, what's up? Welcome to the movies," he says to the regulars.

He can't work the cash register or pump the butter onto popcorn or fill a cup full of ice-cold soda. So he gives what he can, a lightning-strike smile and insight, his humble perspective on films, sometimes life.

He won't lie about the value of a movie. He'll tell you if it's a lost two hours or a memory made. His ratings are delivered with the confidence of a critic, even though he has been just a ticket taker for 12 years.

"He's always right," says Rodney Moore, who runs the projector and is a longtime friend.

Recently Sidney ranked "The Family" a 7.5. It's about the Mafia, a plus.

"Riddick" got a 6.5 for "black-hole-type action," he says.

"Blue Jasmine?" He hasn't watched that, yet. He heard it "deals with a bunch of rich people."

"The Butler" got his highest marks, 8.5, because it deals with the '60s, the times he was born into, he says.

At home he watches older movies for context, to further his knowledge of the industry. He and his brother, Kenneth, have never been able to afford an extensive DVD collection, so the walls are lined, floor to ceiling, with VHS tapes. They were recorded from television or movie rentals over the years.

Right now, "Lord of the Rings" is looping. He rates it a 10.

He's been watching it for a month straight. The nine-hour trilogy puts him to sleep, wakes him up and is an old friend in the hours between.

"It just takes me to a fantasy land for a minute," he says. "Everyone trying to get this one little ring. People be dying for this one little bitty thing."

Many who come to the movies don't remember his name. They just know Sidney as the black guy in the wheelchair who tears tickets every Sunday. They like his jokes. They call him a resilient spirit. They feel both sympathetic and called awake.

If he can work, they can work. If he can smile, they can smile.

But spend a little time, get past the nicety of casual conversation and you'll find a man who's been trying to move faster than his body ever allowed.

His grandmother, Ruby Harris, who was a laundry worker at McCallie School, raised him and his brother after his mother died of alcohol poisoning in Chattanooga when he was 5 years old. Their house was full of bullet holes and love, he said.

She had just a seventh-grade education, yet she taught him some of the most valuable lessons he has ever learned. Don't think about what you don't have, lean on the good Lord, surprise people.

•••

Cerebral palsy steals movement before birth and robs more and more with age. Sidney's mind was left intact, unlike some with the disorder, but his reflexes were exaggerated. His limbs were floppy and his posture distorted. Sometimes his legs swelled with liquid and hung like weights.

People always expected him to slobber on himself, he says. They didn't expect him to be on the high school honor roll or get a job or feed himself.

But his grandmother told him he would.

"You learn to deal with it or it's going to deal with you," she told him.

So he went to work, first at the Boys Club for $3.35 an hour. Then he left his grandmother's house for the first time to go to Smyrna for a thing called "vocational rehab," to the school where other disabled children growing into adults were taught to live without the help of caregivers.

There he practiced working fast with his hands and following orders. He broke the rules and got into a driving class, but the instructors said he would never learn to drive.

When he got back, he started college classes at Chattanooga State so that one day he could run his own business and take care of his grandmother. She didn't want him to use his wheelchair so much then, but he wanted to go fast.

He worked at a hosiery mill until it went out of business, and all the while he saved. He promised his grandmother he would buy her a house one day, and on Sept. 23, 1992, he did.

"The biggest smile on her face was when we got that house," he says. "By the grace of God we got it."

It was a three-room, peach-colored house on Hickory Street with a wheelchair ramp. He still remembers the phone number of the landline.

To pay the mortgage, he worked at Target as a greeter. He memorized the whole floor plan of the store so he could help everyone find their laundry detergent or baby bottle lids.

One month he was named the spirit winner for store 368 in Brainerd. His smile was contagious even then.

Those were the perfect years, he says. They lived there on Hickory Street together, he and his grandmother, for a decade.

When she died in 2003, he said, he didn't have the heart or the money to keep up the house alone.

•••

That's what brought him to the movies, to the cramped apartment at Patten Towers and to reruns of "Lord of the Rings."

Still his mind moves faster than his body. He uses strong arms to wheel over rickety pavement to get to work, although not always on time.

He's still a student at Chattanooga State, now in his 20th year of study. He has missed a couple of semesters of late, one after surgery laid him up, the next after the May 28 fire in the basement at Patten Towers left him homeless. He lived in hotels for weeks.

When he moved back into Patten Towers and had to change apartments he delayed classes again because a nice man from the mayor's office, Jeff Cannon, met him and said he wanted to get him a job with the city, maybe as a greeter, Sidney said.

Cannon even left a note under his door one day.

Sidney waited anxiously for the call.

He believed it could usher in his next golden years, after losing his grandmother. He believed it could move him a step closer to having the money to finish school, to being taken seriously. One day, he says, he wants to teach and run his own business.

"I only have two semesters left of school, then I can go to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. It's right there in my vision. But every time I get ready to do something ... " he trails off.

"I do get impatient. I know I have a lot of skills," he said. "I've got all this knowledge, and I am waiting, waiting, waiting."

So many people with disabilities bury their desires, talk themselves down from what they want, he says. But the same drive born into a man who walks is born into those who can't, he insists.

"It kills me," he says. "Say what you got to say ... But they don't speak up like I do ... They say, 'I'm scared. Someone might hurt my feelings.'"

Doug York has cerebral palsy like Sidney. The two met in elementary school. Doug worked at Walmart for 16 years and now rings the bell for the Salvation Army around the holidays. He and Sidney eat lunch together every now and then and Sidney talks about his plans. They feed off each other's energy. Doug calls Sidney an inspiration.

Sidney told him about the possibility of working for the city. He promised Doug that he would put in a good word for him.

Both of them should keep striving, even if their lives have been a series of dreams rerouted down the long way, Sidney says.

When you can't walk, you roll. When you can't live a movie, you watch them. When you can't work five days, you work one.

"I should be in an office," Sidney said. "There is nothing wrong with my mind. It's just my legs."

On Wednesday the phone rang. It was Jeff Cannon from the mayor's office.

As confident as Sidney seems, he says he didn't think Jeff would call.

He doesn't even know what job he will do if he finally is hired. He doesn't even care.

This is the biggest opportunity he's ever received, he says.

His grandmother wouldn't have been surprised.

Contact staff writer Joan McClane at 423-757-6601 or jmcclane@timesfreepress.com.