John Hockenberry, author of "Moving Violations," why did you want to write this book?
I wrote this book as a way to, in some sense, clear out my soul and mind of a whole bunch of adventures that were building up, you know, over the period of 19 years--15 to 19 years, which is sort of the period that I was working on this book one way or another--of just being a journalist and being an American who went from walking around normally to rolling around in a wheelchair. And for a long time, it was--you know, it was something I resisted. First of all because I'm, you know, in my 30s, and you know, you just don't associate memoirs with people in their 30s. And then I resisted it because I didn't really want to do a `John went here and John and went there' and you know, wild and crazy adventure book, you know, with no other sort of intrinsic meaning than that.
And when I finally started to put things down, I--I realized that finding the meaning in between the stories was a really interesting process, and the book--writing the book itself was a journey in addition to all the--I mean, there's so many journeys in that book, but it was a journey to figure out `Does it have meaning, or is it just a bunch of random chaos of a kind of crazy guy named John?' And what I discovered in the end that it does and that a lot of our sort of struggles to--to make a mark or to overcome are very American stories that relate to why each of us is a citizen of this country as opposed to any other, and especially learning that in my reporting assignments around the world, you know, being an American is a very special--special responsibility in some ways to the he--the broader--broader human experience, and--and it's a great adventure, and that was--the--I was very surprised to discover that.
Where do you live now?
Live in New York City.
I work for ABC News.
I work for a television magazine program called "Day One," which by the fall will no longer be on the air, but I'll be doing something for ABC. I don't quite know what, but you know, doing long-form, documentary, magazine-style pieces much the same what I was doing at National Public Radio, only with pictures, and in the kind of loony world of network television.
How long have you been at ABC?
Since 1992, so about three years.
And how long were you at NPR?
Twelve. Twelve years before that.
I know you've probably done this far too many times, but what got you into that wheelchair? When?
I was in a car accident at 19 when I was in college, and you know, it was the kind of thing where I was a confused kid having a great time in college, studying mathematics, having really no idea what it was I might do with my life. Was hitchhiking, got in a car, the car went off the road because the driver--the two women who picked us up, myself and my college roommate, had been awake, you know, driving for 30 hours as kids often do when they're driving.
Where were you in school at the time?
I was at the University of Chicago. And we were hitchhiking to Massachusetts to visit my roommate's girlfriend at Williams College. And we never made it to Williams. And in Pennsylvania, the driver of the car fell asleep. I was--I was--woke up in the back seat and discovered that the car was out of control and we were weaving across the road in this crazy way, and I actually remember thinking because I was in physics and math class in college that--that what I was experiencing at that moment related to some of my assignments, you know, forcing it--bodies being acted upon by forces in space. You had this tremendous feeling of gravity, this visceral sense of being plummeted and tossed about on earth. And the idea that you were alive inside this car didn't really matter. Your--your--your human personality sort of goes out the window, and you feel this--you know, that feeling you get when you're in an elevator when it goes up and down, that sort of pit in your stomach. It was sort of all over my body and mind, and we went over this guardrail and landed at the bottom of a 200-foot embankment. It was a slow grade of an embankment, but the car rolled and bounced.
And at the bottom of that hill, I was in this car, and I knew I was hurt pretty badly. I was conscious the whole time, and I was scrunched up in the backseat and bleeding from my head. And I had some trouble breathing because my ribs were broken. A bunch of ribs were broken. And I put my hands down, as you naturally would--you're kind of crouched in one of these American-made car backseats where they don't have much in the way of leg room. And I put my hands on my knees, and nothing--it was like they were somebody else's knees. And at that moment--and I describe it in the book--that was the moment that began this other journey in this other body. And I remember thinking, `OK, so something is broke in my back. So something has broke in the spinal cord. So you know, number one, I might not walk again,' and actually--I mean, I said I might not walk again, in the car, I remember, but I was sure that I wouldn't. It just seemed so, just so stark, that change. And anyway, I was in that car for a long time, and some paramedic firefighter-types came upon us--it was on Route 80 in Pennsylvania--and sawed the car, you know, into pieces to pull me out of it.
Thank God for a truck driver who was behind us, who put out this fire that was going on at the same time. The driver of the car died, so in a sense I was very, very lucky. My roommate was OK. He was--you know, he wasn't hurt at all. And--and the other person...
Subplot in the book.
Where is he now?
Rick is in Seattle. He is a kind of venture capitalist who works in that whole kind of pot of wealth associated with Microsoft Corporation. He's doing very, very well. We've been close all during the 19 years since my accident. But unquestionably, in a kind of a mirror image way, it both divided and brought us together. And my relationship with him is part of the book--I mean in a sense that I was afraid for him at the accident because he's sort of running around scared to death. You know, he--he is fine, but his best friend is maybe dying in this car. He was very concerned for me after the accident and in a sense was afraid to address it and talk about it. We were afraid to discuss it as friends. I think a lot of relationships between men sometimes have these barriers where something immense happens and it's almost too difficult to talk about.
And you know, time went on. We actually did sit down for the first time 16--17 years after the accident and talked--while I was writing this book--and talked about what it had meant. And it was so surprising because what I thought he thought, and what he thought I thought were completely different. I remember saying to him--I remember having this--on a--on an assignment for ABC News one time in some crazy hell hole, of waking up from a dream and going `My god, I never thanked him,' because essentially he saved my life. I mean, if he wasn't there walking around, I would have burned up in that car. And I was so driven to move on from that moment that I never had said, `Thanks, Rick.' And I remember I was being so obsessed with this idea that I'd never thanked him and that there was no--you know, there was no acknowledgment of his role, that I was the one that was getting all the attention. I was the one in the chair. I was the one going to NPR and being the journalist and overcoming obstacles and all of this, and that he had never once been thanked by me.
And I remember I said this to him, and he says--I think he kind of went `huh?' You know, he said `What a silly thing,' you know. And both of us being so moved by that that we had carried around, you know, our--in our lives, in our little packet of life that we all carry around with us these like strange questions and weird presumptions about things. And in a way, it was a relief to kind of move past that in the course of writing this book.
You explain this in the book, but...
Physiologically... what's the deal?
Some details. Now we pull out the charts here. Look, Ross Perot. I'm broken here, T-5. It's called thoracic vertebrae. It's the fifth thoracic vertebrae. You have cervical, thoracic and lumbar, which means I'm paralyzed from about here. Christopher Reeve, for instance, is like up here, C-1, and a lot of individuals--a lot of war injuries are much lower, so like way down here, because if you take a bullet here, it's probably going to end your life because it's going to go through your heart, but if you take a bullet down below--so a lot of the paraplegics, for instance, from World War II and the Vietnam War era are low. Car accidents are often in this area or the neck area. So I'm paralyzed from here down, which means I can move my arms and you know, I have good upper body, and it's literally dead from here down. I mean, it's no sensation. It's not dead--actually I'm wrong to say that. It's very much alive. It's very much a part of me, but it's--it's you know, no sensation.
How tall would you be if you were standing straight?
You know, there's lots of stories in here, and I--I want to ask you first which story people talk the most about. And I'm going to ask you to tell one of the stories that's so out of context with what people normally hear here that it might surprise them. But which story in here do people tell you they like the most?
Well, I was at a signing out in--out in California and you know, people are just starting to read this, and so it's just sort of getting out there. I mean, a lot of people for years would ask me to tell the story about being at Khomeini's funeral where I was there and met this really funny character--and I could tell that story. Or they would ask `How did you get started at NPR?' where I missed a deadline because I couldn't get my wheelchair into a phone booth. And a lot of people have heard those stories.
But now that people are reading the book--I was at this signing in California, I was trying to figure out something to read. I had read one story, and they'd enjoyed it and I was thinking `Well, what else should I do?' And then people were calling out, and so people were asking, `About the time the bus ran over you,' or `About--about, you know, Jeanie and Jeff,' these two mentally retarded people who I worked with years and years ago and how we went on to this beach and almost got arrested. And you know, `Tell the one about Rodwan,' a story about this Palestinian boy who I befriended--young man who I befriended and gave a wheelchair to, and it resulted in this, you know, amazing event that happened in the course of the intifada.
But you know, just the fact that they're asking, that these stories have a certain life outside of me and that they're associated with like paraplegics and wheelchairs and disabilities, you know, stuff that often gets discussed exclusively in a context of you know, welfare or the ADA, or--it's very satisfying. It's very satisfying.
None of those are the story I want you to talk about.
I didn't think so, Brian. I didn't think so.
This story that I happened to--when I started reading this, I opened the book up, and I went right to this page, and it's the story about Martha's apartment.
Right, which used to be our apartment.
Yes. Now, who is Martha?
Well Martha's the one I don't want to talk too much about because part of the reason the story's in there is that--you know, it's not her real name, but suffice it to say that in a large Midwestern city, I had a relationship with a very wonderful person, and it didn't work out. And I had just recently moved out of w at had been our apartment. And she's, you know, happily married now and has her own family and--and she and I are--are friends. However, at that time, we had just broken up. And part of the reason we had broken up was that, you know, she had difficulty imagining--I think a lot of people sometimes do have imagine--have difficulty imagining that they would be together forever with someone who has a disability for one reason or another. And in a way, she couldn't deal with it, and--and so that was a--but in my--I was inclined in some ways to like `Well, I'll--I'll get her.' I mean, I--in a way, it made her more attractive to me in some ways, and this is part of the theme of the book, so why are you attracted to the things that are--you know, why are you attracted to the stairs? `You know, stick with the ramp, John. Stick with the ramp.'
What year was it?
This was mid-'80s. And--and--and so we had broken up, and I had moved out. And at the same time, about the same time, the NASA, the space agency, was soliciting journalists from all over the country to apply to become the journalist in space. You know, they wanted to send a journalist up. And the program was discontinued after the Challenger disaster where seven people died, including Christa McAuliffe, the first civilian teacher to go up into the space shuttle. But at the time, they were still soliciting applications. And 2,000 or so applied. They narrowed it down to 100, and then they narrowed it down to 40. And I was one of the 40. Cronkite was one of the 40. Geraldo didn't make it into the 40, OK? So--so here--there--there was a lot of press about this, and there was a lot of press about the fact that among this 40 was this guy in a wheelchair--me.
And Martha, who was my friend at the time, even though we had just broken up, was thrilled by all this. She just thought this was so fascinating, and we had dinner the night before I went on the "CBS Morning News." I was going to be the guest. Walter Cronkite was going to be the guest because he was one of these 40. And you know, I was in radio at the time. I was you know, just little--I'm mean, I was still just low on the food chain in the media. But at that time, it was just, `Wow, you're going to be on TV with Walter Cronkite!' And so I went out for dinner with her. She was just--she couldn't be happier, and it sometimes happens in these e relationships where you know, you--you--you break up, but you kind of `Well, maybe things could work out,' kind of thing, we had one of those `Maybe things could work out,' kind of dinners. She--in the course of this dinner, she mentioned that she had also been seeing some other people, but that didn't register with me at all--at all!
Yeah, right th--this stage manager guy that she'd been sort of seeing because she was doing some sort of industrial show in town. It didn't register. Drew a complete blank on that. The next morning, I get up, I'm on the "CBS Morning News" show, and it was one of these funny moments. And you know, I was--I was sort of talking with Walter and the anchor at the time on that program was--first he was concerned about Walter being too old to go into space, and you can imagine how Walter responded to that. I mean, he was really thrilled to hear that. And then he turns to me and says `You want to be the first paraplegic in space?' And I was `No, no, no, I want to be the first journalist in space, pal.' So it was think kind of interesting repartee. And in the end, I sort of said `In space there's no gravity, so you don't need wheelchairs, so anything is possible.' And it was kind of this affirming moment. And I got off the air and I, you know, called my parents, and they were thrilled. And Martha called, and her parents called and you know, it was like `Wow, that was great, that was really good!' So I was feeling kind of, Brian, on top of the world on that particular day. And so that evening I said `You know, I'm going to just go over there, you know, to our old apartment and just you know, surprise her, maybe take some flowers or something,' and I still had the keys.
Still had the key.
And I still had the keys. This is the key--I still had the keys. So I go over--there's nobody there and--and I go into the apartment. I look around, `Oh, well, you know, she'll be home later,' or something like that. So I go into what had been our bedroom, and I lay down on the bed. And I'd been up since 5 in the morning because this is Central time. I'd been on morning TV, I'd been up since 5. I was tired. I fall asleep immediately on what had been our bed in what had been our bedroom in what had been our apartment. And the keys I still had. And you know, God knows what I was thinking.
But when I woke up--I mean, it's four hours later, there were voices, and there was like--the stereo was on, and there were two voices out in the living room, and I was suddenly terrified. And before I really even had a chance to think about what I was going to do, they started doing this `OK, I'll get the lights,' you know `I'll do the stereo,' `OK, see you later,' `I'll brush my teeth,' this sort of like, `They're coming to bed right now, they're--I mean, they're coming into this room.' And--and I thought for a second, `Well, may--couldn't I just go out and say, "Hi, sorry I'm here. See you later."'
But I was so worried about her date, you know, that having a guy in a wheelchair emerge from her bedroom that it would really kind of put a damper on things or something. And in the morning I'd been thinking about journalists in wheelchairs in space, so it was a real like the sky's the limit kind of sense of what's possible here. And so for some crazy reason, I decided, `Well, what I'll do is I'll jump off the bed, fold up my chair, pull off the wheels, because they're these advanced quick-release wheels and just kind of get under the bed, and I'll just be there. And I'll just escape sometime later or something,' I don't know what, but I just did not want to be discovered there.
And that's what I did. And sure enough, they come into the room. I'm off the bed, I'm under the bed, I move the wheelchair, I'm huddled with all this stuff under there. They just like--you know, it's like a mid-air collision, you know, boom, and stuff starts falling, you know, shoes and socks and everything else you might imagine. And--and they're in bed, and it's 10 hours of this. I mean, 10 hours under the bed and they're on top. I mean, they weren't awake for the 10 hours, I assure you, but--and I was just like `Oh, my god. What am I doing here.'
Ten hours, yeah.
And--and you say you found a pen and wrote something on the side.
I scratched a little note to her saying I was here. And it's amazing what you learn when you're underneath the bed of someone you're that close to. And it's amazing you know, what other guys will--you know, this guy talked a lot about "Lord of the Rings," the J.R. Tolkien book, and Martha did a lot of `Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.' I mean, it just seemed like the guy was kind of a loser. But--but you know, who was the loser, right? Me. I was the one under the bed.
You're--you're leaving, of course, a lot out because it could take the whole program to get...
It could take--yeah.
...the details on it, but--did you, were you able to sleep?
No, I couldn't sleep. If I fell asleep, I would snore or something--or you know, if you're--if you're a paraplegic, you--you often get spastic. I mean, you're--you're leg will like start twitching or something. And so I was just having to lie there very, very still and monitor my legs and everything because if I twitched, I mean, God knows what they would have thought. Somebody, you know, while they were sleeping is like snoring or making noises underneath the bed, so--so I just had to lie there completely still. I mean, compared to going into space, quite frankly, this was way, way beyond. I mean, this was--I couldn't imagine too many more people having done this.
Now what--what happened in the morning?
Well, in the morning sh--they're--they're, you know, getting up and--and I was just like--I mean, I had to go--I had to go to the men's room very, very badly.
Can you tell in your state whether you have to go to the bathroom?
Yeah, yeah, oh yeah. You--it's not like anyone else, but it's an unmistakable--unmistakable feeling of extreme urgency. And--and so, you know, I was hoping that this was going to be over soon. And they're collecting their stuff. And--and--and Martha reaches down to grab something, a sock or something. And her head comes down, and I'm going `Oh, my God. Oh, my God, she might see me.' And her head comes down, and then it goes up. And I'm going `Maybe I got away with it, but I don't know,' and then her head comes down very slowly. And she looks and me--I mean, her head's upside down looking at me. I'm like under there, `Hi,' you know, and she--she was great.
She says `Why don't we go into the kitchen and have some coffee.' She immediately gets him out of there. And they go into the kitchen and have coffee or something, and--and then--and then he says goodbye. And she comes into the room. thought that she would just take out a--you know, a farm implement or something, a rake or a pitchfork and just, `What the hell do you think...' But no, she was very nice. I gave her back the keys. `Here, keep these. I don't need them.'
But the--the--the moral of the story there was, you know, in the guise of it can be done physically, all right, you know, you can get yourself into some extremely bizarre situations. And in a sense, physical rehabilitation in America--you know, the adventure of it is this idea that, `Hey, people say you can't do that, but you can. You know, it turns out you can, and hey, I'm going to do it.' But you can take that to an extreme that in this case was very bizarre and humorous, but in other cases, you know, is--is a disturbing side in some ways to America's entrepreneurial kind of `can do' attitude that I've had occasion to live from both sides.
Now, the one thing you don't tell us in the book is did she ever tell the stage manager that you were under that bed?
No, she never did. No, I know that, she never did, but they don't--he doesn't even know who he is. And they didn't--they didn't--see they--they--they didn't have much of a relationship, I mean, it was just kind of--he was just passing through. You know, he's...
What does she think of you today telling this story in this book?
If I was using her name or if I was telling anything so that anyone could recognize her at all, she would hire someone to come to New York and kill me, but we're good friends.
The other story that I want you to tell is the Christmas Eve cab--taxicab driver.
New York City.
Yeah, that--I had just--I had come back from the Middle East, and the one thing I had learned being overseas was that the Third World has a character of improvisation to it, and because I think there's a perception in the Third World that things aren't work--phones aren't going to work; you know, the TV's not going to work; the infrastructure is not fundamentally on your side, which is identical to the experience of being disabled--certainly being in a wheelchair in America. You know, it's not like people are against you particularly, but you know, you have an expectation that you're probably going to run into a lot of surprises between point A and point B. The advantage in the Third World is that when you meet people between point A and point B and you need help, they're like--there's a--there's a kind of cooperative spirit in the Third World about issues like getting up stairs or going here or getting from here to there, which was very refreshing.
So I came back to the United States really used to that kind of--you know, 50 people lifting me up four flights of stairs to interview, you know, some Arab leader or something. And that that was not the way it works in New York at all. And it was not the way it works in America, particularly. I think somehow culturally, you know, if I'm in front of some stairs, and I--`Could you help me get up the stairs?' there's more a sense of `Isn't there a ramp? Didn't we pass a law?' I mean, is--is...
In this country.
Yeah, in this country. I mean, there's more a of sense of `Oh, gosh, didn't they--I thought they were supposed to deal with this,' you know, it's like `No, no, no, we'll deal with it, we'll just go up the stairs, all right? We'll get more people and we'll go up the stairs.' That is frightening to Americans in a way that in the Third World, it's just not frightening. So I was full of this--coming back, and on Christmas Eve in--in New York City, I'd taken a cab up to a church way up in the up we--upper west side that I thought was having a midnight service--and it wasn't, as it turns out.
Riverside Church. Great fabulous church, but they weren't having a midnight service. I don't think they ever do, but I had bad information. Anyway, I get off in the back, where the wheelchair entrance is And I say `goodbye' to the cabbie that brought me uptown, thinking that, `Well, they have the door locked, so if I go around front, I'll certainly see somebody, and they'll unlock it for me.' Well, I went around front and discovered in a 40-mile-an-hour wind that there was no service, there was no nothing, and here I am stuck on 125 Street and Riverside Drive.
With no wheels.
With--with a--with just a kind of a Christmasy sort of jacket, but no parka or anything, no--no winter clothing on, per se. I needed a cab downtown.
What time of the night is this? Midnight?
It's just before midnight. It's like about 10 minutes of midnight. And one cab passes, didn't stop. Another cab passes, didn't stop. And I'm beginning--you know, a lot of times in New York, you have to wait for taxis. I mean, in the rain, for instance, you have to wait for five taxis before someone will pick you up if you're in a wheelchair and you're by yourself. If you're with--in a wheelchair with somebody, they'll stop. If you're in a wheelchair by yourself, you know, you have to kind of take your chances. If it's nice out, you'll do a little better. If it's--there's a 40-mile-an-hour wind and it's Christmas Eve, believe me, you don't do very well at all.
And one cab passed me by, the second cab passed me by and I remember thinking `Oh, come on Santa, you know, it's time. It's time for a break here. Let's just get me downtown again. I'm freezing.' And the third went--passed me by. And then somebody comes and sees me--a cabbie comes and sees me, and--and starts to pull over but then changes lanes, and goes over into the left lane. But he's caught by the light, so he's stuck there in the intersection with his turn signal on turning left pretending like he hasn't seen me. You know, I was going `This is ridiculous.' So I roll over, open the door and say `Can you take a fare?' He says `Yes.' I get out. I get into the backseat. I fold up my chair, and I said `Please put my chair in the back, in the trunk.' And I did, I absolutely said `Please,' this first time. And he goes `Nah, it's too cold.' And I said `Well, then--you know--you do it,' which of course doesn't really speak to the issue of why I was in the chair to begin with.
What year is this?
This was '92--this was '92.
Three years ago.
Yeah, that's right, very recently, really. And I said, `Will you just put the chair in the trunk.' And then he said, `No man, no way.' And then finally I said, `Would you just put the damn chair in the trunk?' And then we were fighting. And then he was just like `No way, no way. You're bitter. You're--you're crazy. No way.' And it was just like at that point I thought to myself, `If I have to get out of this cab, this will not pass.' I think a lot of people in America come to these moments of `this will not pass.'
And in my case, what I did as I closed the door to the cab, and I was so livid and angry. And I wear these white handball gloves--a lot of people in wheelchairs wear gloves of one kind or another, but these are fully fingered gloves, and I hauled off and just bashed the passenger side window in the cab. And it shattered. I mean, when you're that angry and you've got really excellent upper body strength, you can do that. And I went around front, and I just put a fist through one--one headlight, and I put a fist through the other headlight. And then I went around to his side and I was going to do the same with his window. I wasn't going to attack him, because that wasn't my interest. I was just was going to leave a sign on his cab of what had happened. And I'd started to--to haul off and--and smash his driver's side window, and I noticed there was blood all over his face, and that made me really angry. At that point I went, `You have a--I did not lay a hand on you. That is--you know, you are not bleeding. I did not hurt you. How dare you look like, you know, you've just been slashed.'
And at that point, I realized as I'm hauling back to smash this window that it's--it's my blood that's on his face. And I was like cut open on this thumb here, an artery in my thumb. And it's just a big mess, an unbelievable mess. And so I roll away. And I'm rolling down the street, and a cop meanwhile has like checked out this cab with the door open, three windows smashed and the cab--the cops come down, they talk to me and they said, `Did that cabbie try to hurt you?' And my only thought at this point--I'm bleeding--is like, you know, `How dare you think that that cabbie was hurting me,' you know. `I am going to kill him, all right? Just because I'm in a wheelchair doesn't mean I can't kill this cabbie.' And you know, we're having a kind of affirmative action discussion here on 125th Street and Riverside Drive.
And anyway, to make a long story short, I spent my Christmas Eve in the emergency room of St. Luke's Hospital getting it stitched up. It wasn't a terribly serious injury, but it was a lot of blood. And the intern noted that of all the people that he had certainly treated, I was perhaps the one who could least afford to lose my thumb.
But you know, that's a story about anger. That's a story about a particular moment, a particular Christmas moment when you wanted things to turn out a particular way and they didn't, but I include it in the book because I think especially today America in individual moments is confronting the anger of groups. And in a sense, we're kind of blocked in our ability to express it other than in violence. And I think it was a surprise to me that I regretted very much what had happened. I think that cabbie was wrong, and I--you know, just could not imagine a worse thing to do. But as I was going to the hospital, I just realized how stupid it was, what I had done, even though I was righteous in some crazy kind of way.
And America's full of that today, full of that, you know, `Waco makes me angry, so I'll blank'; or you know, `My brother was a victim of a drive-by shooting, so blank.' And in a sense, the political story of America in the late '90s, I think, is dealing with these pockets--individual pockets of anger in a very well-armed society. And part of the message, I think, is to try to find a language for expressing one's frustration in America through our democratic institutions without having to, you know, put your fist through the cabbie.
On a so--a wholly different matter, you tell the story about a colleague at NPR--you didn't name him--who when you'd be wheeling down the hallway, he'd slap himself up against the wall and make some comment about, you know, making sure that you had enough room to go by. Explain what that was all about.
When I went to NPR--I mean, the first time I--you know, I came from the Pacific Northwest, where it's a little more kind of folksy and...
Oregon and Washington.
I was in Eugene, Oregon. That was where I got my start in radio. And I went from KLCC in Eugene, Oregon. I worked in Seattle for a while. And when I started in radio, my idea was--you know, I wore overalls to work, and I didn't wear shoes because I didn't walk, man, so hey, I didn't need to wear any--I didn't need to wear no shoes, man, and--and so that wasn't really going to translate well in an office, working in the nation's capital at National Public Radio, so I had to acquire--I mean, it was a totally new experience for me working in an office around lots and lots of people who stood and walked. And what I discovered is when I would roll down the hall--they're fairly narrow halls in NPR's old building over there on M Street in Washington. And you know, people'd come around a corner and they'd see me rolling towards them and they'd go `Hhhhhhddd,' you know, like they were going to get run over. And I had to admit at a certain point that I would go fast. I was certainly going faster than a walk by...
You don't--you don't use a motorized...
No, no, no, I'm just pushing along, and--and so that, you know, it was abrupt. Certain people would take this to extreme though, and this particular individual would do a whole like bull-fighting routine, and this kind of `Oh, gosh,' you know, sort of jumping out of the way of me, thinking that it was this kind of, you know, sensitive, sort of informal way of dealing with my situation, when to be truthful--I mean, unless somebody was startled by me, most people just didn't give it a thought. I mean, they'd just walk by. And one day this fellow says to me `You know, John, does everybody do this when they go--when you go by?' I remember looking at him, I'm going `No, just you, and why are you doing that?'
And--and it, you know, it was such a lesson. What I--what I discovered always in journalism, what I certainly discovered in the office environment at NPR is that how people deal with you says a lot about them, as they attempt to find out more about me, certainly to find out more about--about the wheelchair.
For instance, you know, in New York, cabbies from India for some reason always want to know what happened to your legs, and they always want to know, you know, was--was it your fault? Was it an accident? And they're always--they want to go all the way through the story and it's, `Oh, my god. Oh, my god. Oh, my god. Oh, my god. Oh, my god.' And then I pay my fare and I'd say `Goodbye.' You know, they'd say `Goodbye, oh, my god.' Americans--cabbies, typically want to tell me about like their relatives who are in a wheelchair or the time they spent in a wheelchair or something like this. There's a certain kind of cultural dimension to the way that people approach things that are different--in my case being in a wheelchair. And it's always been fascinating, not fully--it doesn't fully describe the person, but it reveals these differences, and it's always been very, very--it's in kind of a narrative. And--and part of that is what I try to bring out in the book.
Where did you write it physically? Where'd you sit?
New York City. I have a--I'd lived in little studios and garrets when I was in New York. And during most of my life as journalist I decided that when I got the contract to write the book, that I really wanted a serious office that would have some space, a place where I could find quiet, a room of one's own, as Virginia Woolf wrote in her--in her memoir. And so I got this place on the upper east side, in Manhattan, that looks over the water. It actually looks away from New York City. It looks out over Long Island Sound. And I would get up very early in the morning, about 4:30 in the morning and get my coffee, and I'd be at the word processor at about 5. I'd stay there until about 10, and then I would hop in the shower and go off to ABC News, where I had my other job, and work there until 8, and then try to do something to get my mind off both of those things, get home about 11, go to sleep, wake up 4:30, do it again. Good day was 2,000 words, a bad day was having to erase, you know, one or 200 because you looked at it and you went, `No, it's not working.' An average I would say was probably about eight or 900.
Where is this cover photo taken--or was it taken?
My favorite place to roll in the city of New York, which is over the Brooklyn Bridge, which is the--the two best wheelchair ramps in the city of New York are the Brooklyn and Manhattan sides of the Brooklyn Bridge, it's one of my favorite places.
When--when was it taken?
It was taken--when was that taken? It was taken late last year--very late last summer, I guess, like November---or excuse me, August, September.
How many days do you think you set at that processor--word processor at 5:00 in the morning?
Well, I started writing the book in January of '93, and I finished pretty much by August of '94. And a lot of that time for ABC News, I was on the road, so some of the times I was getting up in a hotel room on one of the stories I was working on and doing it on a laptop. But I would say--oh boy, I really haven't thought about that. I would say hundreds.
Was it worth it?
Oh, yeah. It was--it som--som--sometimes it was my sanity from--from, you know, television. And some days, television was my sanity from getting through the book. In fact, doing them together was a great thing. But yeah, it was very much worth it. I mean, the reason that it's worth it more than any of the adventure stories and the humorous stuff that happens in there and getting that down on paper was the opportunity that I had to explore a family member, my uncle Charlie, who's mentally retarded, who I discovered in the course of writing this book was alive and living in Upstate New York. And part of this book is the story of why at age six he was sent away, never was a part of our family and was institutionalized and really was cut off from us.
And who--I mean, I wanted to ask you in conjunction with that that you dedicate this book to Margaret Peggy Zin.
Right, who died in the accident.
You want to thank Richard Rykowski.
Who's my college roommate.
Who is my grandpa with one arm.
And Charlie Peter Sleagil.
Charlie Peter Sleagil is my--is my uncle.
Now, when was the first time that--Charlie Peter Sleagil is related to you in what way?
He is my mother's brother. My mother is the--is his oldest sister, and my aunt is his younger sister.
Is your mother alive?
And where does she live?
She lives in Albert Lee, Minnesota, which is about 90 miles south of Minneapolis.
When was the first time you heard about your Uncle Charlie?
When I was a little boy, there was a picture that we had that had the faces of my mother and someone who looked very much like her, another--a younger child. And I would always ask who that was. And probably on a half dozen occasions, I would ask, because kids always are curious about everything--`Oh, that's Peter.' He was called--they called him Peter when he was at home. `That's Uncle Peter.' And `What happened to him?' `Oh, he had to be sent away.' And that was the sole detail that I really knew about him. And what--35 years later, 30 years later I asked my mother while I was working on this manuscript--I wanted to know about some of the disabled individuals who were in my family, my grandfather with the one arm being one of them, and Uncle Charlie being the other who I remembered, you know--`Yeah, I had this mentally-retarded uncle, right? And I asked my mother `What year did he die? When did he die?' My mother looks at me and says, `Well, he's not dead. He lives here.' And she showed me where. She went over to a drawer and opened the drawer, and in the drawer were like correspondences from this facility where he lived for--in this facility for mentally retarded adults.
And I remember being so angry that my mind had killed him because essentially I knew so little about him that there was nothing to know, so my mind just kind of killed him off. And I remember feeling that of all the things that motivate me in this book, the idea that because of some detail about one's existence, wheelchairs, mental retardation, whatever, Republican, Democrat, that people will decide who you are and put you in a box, a category of some kind. In his case, literally a box. And--and that is so frightening to me. Breaking those boxes is so much about what I am, that I set out to go visit Charlie. You know, Peter is what they called him, but since he's been in the institution, they call him by his real first name, Charles, so he's Charlie now.
And to go visit him; to interview my grandmother, who's still alive who lives in Houston, Texas, actually Conroe, Texas, north of Houston; to visit my aunt who also lives in Conroe, Texas, and to interview her. Susan Young is her name, to interview her about the circumstances of--of Charlie, of Peter, and my mother. You know, and this was dicey business. This was stuff that ad not been talked about in our family at all. And I was not clear as to whether anyone really wanted to talk about it. And I was also not clear to whether it was any of my business. They'd sent him away long ago. I didn't know if they wanted me, you know, mucking up the works here.
But to my great surprise, and what makes this book worth it, is everyone told everything, and visiting him was a wonderful experience. I mean, he's profoundly mentally retarded, but you know, when you look at somebody and know that they're of your blood, or your--of--of you, and that that--the fact that he can't talk or that you can't play softball together or you--you can't talk about the World Series is so unimportant. To be reconnected to him again and to have this book be a part of that, it means really a lot to me.
You took your guitar along.
Yeah. Well, I had heard when I was interviewing my grandmother that he could sing "Red River Valley," that when my grandmother was fighting to keep him to train him or just to make him normal, which is something she ultimately failed at--for reasons that weren't her fault; medically he wasn't going to be normal--she would sit him at the piano and play music with him. And he would sometimes mouth the music. And the one thing that the people at the hospital said he retained was knowing the song "Red River Valley."
So I took the guitar just with this idea that I would sing that song to him, and maybe he would sing it with me. I didn't--I had no idea what to expect when I saw him. And he didn't sing with me, and it didn't matter. But it was--you know, we sat around. And I played some music, and he watched. And the other people in this home sat around and watched. It was just--I wanted to bring something to him. I didn't just want to be taking impressions, pictures away.
The accident happened when you were 19?
You're 38 now?
Thirty-nine. Just turned 39.
And how old's Uncle Charlie?
Uncle Charlie is in his late 50s now, and he is--he's like 58 or 59, and--he's 59. And you know, he's a healthy--I mean, to the extent that he can be--man who looks very much like my mother, you know, and living in upstate New York outside of Rochester, New York, a town called Phelps, a little town on a little two-lane highway.
Another part of the book that I remember is you detailing all of the gear that you took with you when you went to the Middle East the first time around.
I was so paranoid...
...when I went--this--in 1988. Early in 1988, I went off to the Middle East, the intifada, the Palestinian uprising taking place in Israel in the occupied territories. It was at its height at that point, and it was the biggest story in the world. And NPR was sending me over there, and I was--I was terrified--I mean, I would not admit this to anyone at the time, but I was terrified. And so I just thought I was going to miss out on the story. There'd be too many steps. I wouldn't be able to do what I--I'd really not been in that kind of terrain before.
Had you ever been overseas?
I'd--I'd been overseas as a tourist but never as a journalist.
Why did you want to go?
Well I had been itching to get them to send me somewhere. I really wanted to go to South Africa and if you remember, '85-'86 was the state of emergency period, the height of the unrest in the middle '80s, but I wasn't able to do that. NPR didn't send me and there was no visa possible anyway, so I'd been advocating to go to Asia or London, there was a possibility. Russia there was a possibility, Moscow--Soviet Union at the time. And I was sort of runner-up, and it wasn't, you know, I just--they weren't sending me. There was--they'd send somebody else. And--and I remember they--they had an opening, an unexpected opening in the middle of this big story, and I was kind of the only guy kicking around Washington with his bags packed. And they asked me, they said, `You know, would you go to Jerusalem?' I never in a million years expected that that place would open up.
Had you been asking?
I'd been--I hadn't been asking about Jerusalem because it just seemed like that was not a place they were going to send me. It was just too important. But they were--they were quite literally desperate to get somebody over there. And they knew I was smart. They didn't think--you know, it wasn't like they'd scraped the bottom of the barrel, but I was quite literally the only person who could go tomorrow, and I did. When they said `Could you go?' I--I rented the apartment, I packed up my stuff, I was out of there in a matter of a couple of weeks.
When you say pack your bags, how many wheelchairs?
I took--I took probably four sets of wheels, three different sets of tools, a zillion gloves, you know, because I didn't think I would be able to get gloves over there. I took two full wheelchair frames and components. I took a million tire tubes and tires. And I mean, I was held up at the airport because they thought I was a smuggler, the Israelis. `Why are you bringing the rubber tubes? We have them in Israel. We have cows in Israel. We have tools in Israel. We have...' You know, I mean this is what they would do. And--and--but I was so paranoid that I had to have everything that I could possibly have. And--and I got over there and I realized what I--what I--you know, a lot of what I had brought was not what I needed. What I ended up needing was--was like, you know, the ability to speak the language. And--and I learned that while I was over there, I mean, I didn't do it well, but I learned...
...Hebrew pretty well, and Arabic to a much lesser degree. Actually what I discovered is that if you're--if you're Western and you speak Arabic well, it's often harder to work in certain places unless you've lived there for a long, long time because the assumption is that you must be a spy, that you--you know, you learned your Arabic in some secret either Israeli or CIA school and that, you know, you're spying on them. So often, being able to speak broken Arabic--and a lot of people, of course, speak English--helped you. So you learned. You know, and--and immediately I discovered that being in a wheelchair was an advantage over there as opposed to being a horrible disadvantage that was going to, you know, condemn me to not getting the story.
Did you really wheel into the old Jerusalem City?
I was--when I got to Jerusalem, I was so fascinated to be somewhere where I never thought I would go under any other circumstances--but as a journalist I was there, and I was going to live there now. And to see this walled, old city. And I remember rolling up to the arch at Damascus Gate and feeling like you know, in "Alice and Wonderland," you're just going to go down the rabbit hole and you don't know what's at the other end, but you'll just figure it out when you get there.
Just wheeled right on down the old...
Just right on down--and it--I was so different than a tourist at that point. I remember feeling so--slightly with some trepidation, about what the heck was going happen, but the idea that--the fact that I was in a chair made what I was doing so much of an adventure, way, way beyond just walking through with your shorts and your camera, you know, picking up some souvenirs. I mean, the--what I was rolling on was part of the history. Indeed, the old city is ramped, because the old carts for delivering grain and delivering agricultural products--they would be rolled down these old stone ramps that actually were no good for wheelchairs. The ramps were like outside the width of my wheels, so I actually had to bump down one stair at a time.
What'd they call you?
They called me...(Foreign language spoken), which is "journalist of the wheelchair." I mean, first they thought I was a tourist, and then I said I was a journalist and everybody said...(Foreign language spoken). And then--Jerusalem is a place of immense tragedy and pain but also immense celebration and extreme emotion. And--and I was sort of bouncing down these steps and people would call from windows. You know, it wasn't like you know, `Great white father visits Jerusalem,' but there was this sense of `Hey, you know, look at that guy in the wheelchair.' And someone from another window would call `It's the journalist in the wheelchair,' so you'd hear, you know, `Who is this?' And they'd go...(Foreign language spoken). And then word travels fast in a place like Jerusalem. I would be at like somewhere on the West Bank and somebody would come to me and they'd go...(Foreign language spoken). You know, you would be--`You're the guy that we heard about?' (Foreign language spoken.) In Gaza, they would say that. (Foreign language spoken). Like `I know, I know about this guy.'
What about another--there's not much time. What about--and you were talking earlier about how Americans treat people in wheelchairs. But you had one of the officials carry you--literally carry you to the top of the police department every what, Friday evening, or...
What--what--Mo--Moshe, the--this guy who was with the Israeli police, just a big, strapping guy, who before I arrived there spent his time fighting with the journalists across the press line who would want to cover the Friday prayers in Jerusalem, which had--in 1988 and most of 1989 were news events in a way because there would be violence that would sometimes be orchestrated, sometimes spontaneous, that would relate to Friday Muslim prayers around the Dome of the Rock and--and on the Temple Mount, as the Jews would call it. And--and to get there you had to go up these stairs, and Moshe would fight with the--with the reporters all the time, and the Israelis were not happy with the coverage they were receiving. They were, you know, having a very difficult time with the story. And there was a lot of animosity between the police and the journalists, as there often is.
When I showed up there one day, I come to the front and I'm, and it's the last place I can go, and I'm with a bunch of journalists. And Moshe picks me out. And as an impulse to help me--but also as an impulse to completely irritate the rest of the reporters there, he grabs me, puts me on his shoulder and off we go to the top. And all the journalist are--and it was not the last time that something like that happened, but suddenly just being in the chair pushed you to the front of the line in a way that was way, way beyond, you know, the handicapped parking spaces outside the movie theater, and I was the agent of Moshe saying, you know, `If you're not a wheelchair, forget it. But my friend John here is going to go to the top.' And he was an interesting crazy, dynamic--I friend--befriended this guy. In some ways, it was a problem, because if I was ever somewhere in the West Bank and he was like coming up to me going, `John, how are you doing?' then all the Palestinian, you know, figured that I was, you know, not necessarily going to be their friend. So the--the--the loyalties and who you befriended and who you didn't befriend were--were strange enough already, to have the wheelchair there and to have Moshe lifting me upstairs created even more problems.
You tried to get into Iraq?
Didn't make it?
Well, I tried to go to Baghdad.
I mean Baghdad.
And I--I really wanted to go to Bag--I made it into Northern Iraq during the Kurdish uprising, but I wanted to go to Baghdad. And it was something I wanted to do for perhaps the wrong reasons. I mean, I knew Peter Arnett, I knew the people who were there. I mean, I was friends with the Middle East press corp who was there, the real hard-core people who were in Baghdad during the Gulf War. And we had most of our people deployed in Saudi Arabia, so there was an editorial reason to go to Baghdad, that we needed the other side of the story. But I really wanted to go there. I just--there was this idea that being in a wheelchair on the roof of the Rashid Hotel was going to be something that was very, very meaningful, and I just thought that that was something that I wanted to do.
And NPR found out--some of my editors found out that the elevators didn't work at the Rashid Hotel, something which I knew and which I encountered frequently in my travels, but we never talked about this sort of thing. And they had also asked people from the networks when they were agonizing over whether I was going to go in or not, you know, `If John gets to Baghdad, will you tell your people to help him?' And of course, they responded as you might expect, they said `What? Are you out of your mind? Our people are very busy, and you know, we can't guarantee anything of the kind.' Where of course my relationship with them was personal and one-to-one. I mean, if I'd showed up in Baghdad, they would have gone, you know, `What took you so long, John,' and you know--you know, `We beat you to this story,' where it's just sometimes I would show up first, sometimes they would show up first. So I had no doubt that I would be able to function there.
But I remember when they got this information back, that they weren't going to help me, they called me and said `If the visa comes in--the Iraqi visa, you can't use it. We're going to give it to another reporter.' And I remember feeling for the first time--and I had a really good record at NPR--that this was something that was--that was an obstacle. The wheelchair was sort of preventing me from doing something I wanted. And it was very frustrating and very upsetting, but I also knew at that point that the reason I wanted to go wasn't about journalism and it wasn't about doing the story of Saddam Hussein or anything; it was about me, and I remember realizing I wasn't going to Baghdad and that I--I remember feeling very embarrassed that--that the idea that I was going to miss something by not being in Baghdad would be a part of my journalism.
What about the donkey ride?
Well, so that's--so what happened was, sort of stung from that experience, I go off to the next story, the Kurdish uprising, really feeling as though, you know, maybe I'd done something wrong. You know, maybe I'd you know, really been inappropriate in some way, and the Kurdish uprising happened in Northern Iraq, and I took a cab to the Turkish border. And I remember realizing that the roads were going to end and that it was just going to be a mud hole, and I didn't know how I was going to get to where the refugees where streaming across the border because Saddam Hussein had bombed and strafed the Kurdish towns and villages, and people were moving north and east into Iran and Turkey. And I remember saying to myself, `I'm going to have to get out of this chair if I'm going to get there,' and the only option was to get on a donkey and to go over the mountains. And so I did. And I remember when I did that, there were two feelings that I had, one, the donkey was walking, I was on legs again, there was this rhythm of being on legs that was so different than being in the chair, and that was a sort of a wondrous experience that...
How do you stay up on a donkey?
You--you just hold on for dear life. I mean, they--they tied my ankles underneath the belly, and I'd just--I'd get on this donkey, and it was kind of like the under-the-bed situation where you get under the bed and you don't really foresee what the consequences are and you know, eight hours later and in the case of the donkey, I was up on this donkey, and I was saying, `OK, I'm doing all right.' And it was only going up the first ridge that I realized I was committed to, you know, 12 hours on this animal. And so you hold on for dear life with your--with your hands and arms. And I was strong enough so I could definitely do it, but it was--you know, it was a physical--it was a definite physical effort. But the thing that I felt most of all was amongst the Kurds was realizing that I'd spent a lot of that war--and a lot of the journalist, I think, spent a lot of that war thinking that, you know, they would miss it somehow if they didn't go to the right news conference or they weren't at the right place where things were blowing up or they weren't with the right unit of soldiers going into Saudi Arabia or something, and I remember realizing at that point that there's no way to miss a war, that war is something that happens to everyone in its own way, and that, you know, around me, seeing the consequences amongst those Kurds and being on the donkey, you know, I realized that I had missed nothing.
Do you want to write another book?
Do you have any idea what you want to write about?
I don't know. I don't want to write about me anymore. I've had enough of that subject. But--but I--I've got a couple of ideas for a novel and a couple of journalistic ideas.
Are there things that--stories that didn't get in this book?
Oh, yeah. Oh, sure. Oh, sure. I don't know if they're worth another book, but--but they're definitely--there are stories we edited out, and there are things that, you know, I didn't want to get into. But I think, you know, that--that's good. I mean, that--if I thought that everything about me was in this book, I think it'd be a little frightening. But the--the nice part is that, you know, it's a--it's a small part of me really. I went into this project thinking that everything about me was wheelchairs and war zones. And when I'm finished, I realized that `No, there's a lot more to me than that.'
Of all the things people say to you since this book's been out, what is something you don't like to hear.
Well, I got asked this question the other day, `You've overcome so many obstacles and you've inspired so many people, what's the favorite obstacle you've ever overcome?' I remember drawing just a complete blank as though people look at me and say, you know, `Oh, you've--you've really inspired a lot of people by not committing suicide or something.' This idea of being an inspiration doesn't bother me so much, but I like to think--and I think what this book is about is I like to think that there is a universality to pushing ahead, and it's what we do in America. It's a very American thing to just sort of not give up. I think the idea that it's--there's something special about that is wrong, and in a sense, I'm just doing what everyone else I think is doing.
So then what's the best thing they've said to you about it?
The best thing they've said to me is--there was actually an extraordinary review in the New York Times, and other people have picked up on this. I mean, in a certain way, when I was getting to the end of the story, you know, I thought to myself the idea of a powerful individual who has a few problems and goes into a situation trying to make the best of it and worries about whether they're going to get asked the wrong thing or something and then is easily sort of made angry was an interesting metaphor for America as a superpower, that--that--that America sort of comes into a situation and says, `We're going to take care of it,' and then things don't go quite right. And you know, part of our experience since the end of World War II has been that, this idea that, you know, America is sort of worried about itself and you know, acts a bit like an oversensitive character in its dealings in the rest of the world, that my physical experience in a wheelchair and the experience of being different could mirror in some sense America's experience as a superpower in the world and that people would get that. When people have noted that and said `I get that,' that's really satisfying. That's the best thing.
Here's the cover of the book, and the author is John Hockenberry. And it's called "Moving Violations," and we thank you for joining us.
It's been a real pleasure.