Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Heather Siegel: "What better way to honor my father than having dinner with you on the eve of the 8th anniversary of his passing."
“All articles written about disabled people always start out with how the person was before the accident,” says disabled person Heather Siegel.“Then they have the accident or the illness, and [the article relates] how they have survived. ‘And aren’t these people just chirpy? Aren’t we so happy that the chirpy little wheelchair people are still functioning?’ I hate those articles.”
This is not one of those articles. This is the story of a dinner, starting with the gathering of the ingredients. I arrive at the front door of Heather Siegel’s apartment building — “in the wilds of Escondido” — at four in the afternoon. I ring the bell, and a minute later, she arrives and lets me in. From the door, it is a few steps to the row of silver mailboxes fastened to the wall of the entranceway. Heather opens her box and removes the flyers within — she has a P. O. box for the rest of her mail. Together, we sit down on the bench situated against the opposite wall, there to inspect the grocery-store flyers for attractive sale items.
Just after we begin to sift through the flyers, another woman — tall, short-haired, radiating presence — comes to fetch her mail. She and Heather know each other, but to me, she identifies herself only as “Ms.” “First I was a Miss, then I was a Mrs., now I’m a Ms.,” she explains, laughing. While she chats with Heather, a handsome UPS man arrives bearing a small package. “Are you 304?” he asks Ms., noticing the mailbox she is opening.“It’s for you.”
“You’re kidding!” she exclaims.
“It’s kismet, destiny. What am I getting?”
“Oh yeah, my hair color. My platinum threads are starting to show through!” The UPS man departs, and Ms. tells a story.“I used the L’Oreal Casting Color Spa in my hand. The ball was weird and it slipped out of my hand, and I sprayed my wall with brown hair color. What price vanity? This was the first time I colored my hair in about ten years, and it was just this spurt. I’m there with gloved hands, I can’t touch anything, and I looked up and was, like, ‘No-o-o-o-o-o!’ I managed to get it out with Clorox paste. I called L’Oreal and said,‘I think there’s a flaw.’”
“Well, you’re going to live here for a while,” says Heather, suggesting that the occasional stain on the wall should not be a source of worry.
“I’ve been here 11 years already. Don’t you think I’ve paid my dues?”
“No; when you move out, I’m sure they’ll find some reason to go after you.”
Eleven years ago, this was “a lovely senior community,” says a wistful Ms. “I had five kids and raised them...” Eleven years ago, she moved into this complex, which offered “high-density, low-cost housing for seniors.” (At 51, Heather is not a senior, but the complex also accepts people with disabilities, both mental and physical.) Now,“just about anything goes. We have one maintenance guy for the whole property; they pay him $9 an hour.” She runs her finger along the top of the mailbox and displays the resultant coating of dust. As she talks, a narrow wisp of a young man — hard to believe he’s much older than 20 — comes to place a letter in the outgoing mailbox.
Upon seeing Ms., he says “Hi.”
“He’s been here already,” says Ms., referring to the mailman. “Oh.
“I’ve got [my mail] in my hands,” she continues, as if to offer proof.
The man looks at his letter.“He’ll pick it up tomorrow,” consoles Heather.
“Okay, yeah.” He places the letter in the box and walks out the door.
“That’s our latest tenant,” says Ms. to Heather after the man is gone. She turns back to me. “What’s basically happened is that all the good ideas of creating low-cost housing for seniors are now out the window. I kind of want to get out.”
But whether she will ever leave is a questionable matter. “Nobody moves from here who’s not dead,” states Heather. “We’ve had something like four deaths in the past six months.”
“Have you seen The Golden Girls?” asks Ms., turning to me. “You know how the mother was placed in Shady Pines when she didn’t behave? We’re beginning to think this is Shady Pines, only we haven’t been told yet. Not even light emerges from this place — nobody gets out alive! Plus, it’s just a goofy bunch of people — ‘eccentric’ if we were rich, but since we’re not, probably just incredibly neurotic, and some over the line of neurosis. What’s the saying — ‘The neurotics build the castle, the psychotics live in it’? We’ve got some people living in the castle in here.”
Psychotics and youngsters aside, this is home. “Have you seen the building they’re building across from the hospital?” asks Heather.
“I looked into it. They don’t have balconies. My apartment is wonderful; it’s very big compared to what they could build now for the cost. God’s going to be really good to me and give me a few hundred thousand dollars — ha, ha! Time for my medication!”
Ms. departs; Heather finishes sorting the flyers she wants from those she doesn’t, and we walk slowly down the hall and out a side door, which opens onto the parking lot. Immediately to the left is a row of parking spaces covered by a sort of solid awning. “Heather’s car,” as she refers to it, “a gold, four-door Saturn” outfitted with a wheelchair lift and a disability license plate, is near the end of the row. From the car, we can see the patio leading to Heather’s ground-floor corner apartment. “Distance is very important to me. The power station at San Onofre went out this morning, and we were all in the dark. If there was a guy in a wheelchair living on the third floor, he wasn’t going anywhere. I always make sure to live on the first floor wherever I’m at; this time, I even got a corner. From that window to the door to my car, you can’t get any closer. I put up with a lot of shit just to get what I want.”
Heather offers to show me her license and registration, sees me into the front passenger seat, asks if I have enough room, announces “door closing,” closes the door, walks around to the driver’s side, gets in, starts the car, and we are off on our shopping trip. “I want to point out that this car is modified for the use of hand controls,” she says. By manipulating a lever mounted just behind the steering wheel and attached to the foot pedals by steel poles, she can accelerate and brake by hand. A knob has been mounted on the steering wheel to aid in steering; “my understanding is that when cars originally came out, they had these sorts of balls on them.
“Once I started using hand controls,” she explains, “the state didn’t want me to go back and use regular foot controls, because your mental processes become oriented toward [one or the other]. So I have a restriction on my license.” This can be a source of trouble. “What happens if my car is in the shop? What happens if my car is in an accident? What happens if my car just dies and I need another car?” The answer is to rent a car, but it must be a car with hand controls. “There has been federal legislation that says if somebody asks for a car with hand controls, then you have to offer them a vehicle with hand controls.” The catch is that “I have to give them 48 hours’ notice, during the week. I am restricted; I can’t just casually drop in and decide I want to rent a car.” Advance planning is required, but how do you plan for a breakdown or an accident?
Planning is more feasible with regard to the matter at hand.“Getting out of my house and buying groceries is a very calculated consideration.” For example: today is “Wednesday, versus a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday,” when store traffic is heavier. Though Ms. provided an unexpected delay in our departure, we are still arriving ahead of the after-work rush, and in daylight. “It’s important to be seen. It’s easier to get cooperation. ”Day light is a luxury, however; store traffic is the crucial factor.“These are all handicap parking spaces,” she notes as we cruise past the front of Albertson’s. “We have one, two, three, four — that’s twice as many as we usually get right by the store, and you’ll notice that they’re all full. There are two over there [across the driveway], and it just so happens that that guy is pulling out.” Otherwise, all six would have been full, and we would have had to park elsewhere.
Heather parks, and we make our way across the driveway and into the store’s cavernous foyer. She leads me toward the two motorized carts parked in the far corner. “Two carts, very good. Two is more than one, and one is more than none. We ’re going to assume that they’re both working; that’s not always the case. And it’s being charged — these are the things I look for. They’ve put a permanent key in, so I don’t have to find someone to get a key for me.”
These are the two great bugbears that Heather seeks to avoid: competition (for parking and carts) and assistance. Timing is the weapon against the former; the cart is a great help in the struggle against the latter. “People who are disabled have a wide variety of personalities. Some people enjoy the socialness of [asking]; some people are like guys who don’t ever want to ask for directions. I don’t want any help. Every time you involve another person, there’s a personal interaction: who they are, who you are, what they smell like, what they talk like, everything else like that. I’m not a very social person. Number one, I want independence. I didn’t come here for a social exchange; this is a business exchange. I have to be polite, because society requires me to be polite. But Heather Siegel does not like to kiss ass. I’m an S.O.B. and a misanthrope, because I hate people and would love to be just left alone, but my disability forces me to have interactions that I don’t really want to have.”
It has also caused her to have interactions that, whether she wanted them or not, she felt inspired to have. “I moved to Southern California approximately ten years ago. The cart situation was dramatically different. I worked very hard to bring it to the stores’ attention — I’m not the only person, of course. The situation is much better today. I think stores have finally figured out that if you give Heather Siegel a cart, Heather Siegel will shop in your store. Remember all the flyers that I flung out? If they don’t have a cart, I don’t shop there.”
Heather raises one of the cart’s armrests, eases herself into the seat, and buzzes into the store. First stop: the meat department. Heather picks up a package of boneless, skinless chicken legs at $1.49 a pound.“Certain items I can get at one store or another,” she comments. But “I consider the meat department at Albertson’s to be better than Vons — that comes from being a shopper.” Though it means extra trips (and extra planning), she will also venture to Henry’s for produce and Trader Joe’s for good jelly.“Every woman can tell you that to get what you want, you have to shop at several different stores. You’re getting the truncated version; this is non-list shopping here. If I had more time, I would discuss it with my mother,” who lives in Rancho Bernardo. “What did she see on sale, what did I like that was on sale, the whole schmear.”
And though she passes down the pet aisle, scanning the cat-food selection, she prefers to buy provender for her two cats “at either Target or Wal-Mart. They have pet departments. It’s not even that the prices are better. Psychologically, I don’t like buying stuff from the grocery store that isn’t groceries.”
The chicken legs are located in a low-slung refrigerated display case, but the yogurt fills an entire section of the dairy department, and Heather cannot reach the topmost shelves from her cart.“Now remember, I am mobile. If I couldn’t get up and I wanted [yogurt] up there, I would have to ask someone for assistance. I was told that there’s somebody who brings a cane with him when he comes; if he can’t reach it, he knocks it off the shelf with his cane.”
We pause at the day-old bread display.“I always take a look, because it’s exciting — you never know what you’re going to get here. If I wasn’t on a calories-restricted diet, this [would be] the best place in town. Not only do they have good stuff, but this table is 50 percent off. If you wanted this pie — on occasion, I’ve gone to people’s houses and brought them a pie, because it’s a half-price pie. You’re getting a $5.00 pie for $2.50."
We pause again for bananas and then make our way to the out line. Heather points out a woman operating an electric wheelchair, accompanied by a young girl.“She’s working with her child; she is someone who would not be able to reach the shelves on her own.” A minute later, a very large woman passes by in the second of the two motorized carts. “If I came in at this point, those carts would not be there. I would have to sit and wait. I’ve never had to wait more than 30 minutes,” but still, that’s 30 minutes longer than an able-bodied person would have to spend at the grocery store.
The line moves quickly; we arrive at the cashier. Heather’s speech — brusque and quick up to now — softens and slows, but it loses none of its directness. “Hi, I need some help taking the items out, please.”
The cashier motions to another employee.“Cody, will you unload this basket for me, please?”
Heather addresses Cody. “Hi, good afternoon. Will you be packing my groceries today as well?”
“Yes, I will, probably.”
“Okay, I have a special way I would like you to pack them.”
“I would like paper bags inside of plastic bags.”
“I want them super lightweight: one bag for that, one bag for that, one bag for the other. When in doubt, give me another bag.”
She turns back to the cashier, who asks,“Did you find everything you were looking for?”
“Very good.” She turns to me.“They always ask that. Usually, if there’s something I couldn’t get, [I’d let them know].”
She has Cody unload a few yogurts from one bag and start another. She pays, then asks, “And Cody will help me?”
“Cody will help you out with your groceries. Have a good day.”
Before she leaves, she checks the receipt for any mistakes. Then she leads Cody to her car and has him put the groceries into the backseat. She thanks him and gives him the cart to drive back into the store. As we drive back to the apartment to put the chicken and yogurt in the fridge before heading off to Vons, we pass an elderly gentleman motoring along the sidewalk in his own motorized cart or scooter. On his lap is a small dog in a cage. “I think he lives in my building,” says Heather. Heather owns a similar scooter, but she doesn’t take it over the top of Highway 78 to Albertson’s. “That really does require a car, or a scooter with more oomph . And you might get there and not have enough oomph to get home. I have a degree from SDSU. I had a different scooter when I went there, and many a time, that scooter could not handle the hills of SDSU.”
Home now, Heather loads the groceries into a two-wheeled shopping cart she has stored in her backseat, then wheels the groceries into the apartment. Then it’s on to Vons, where we find three carts, though only one of them is a new model with a raiseable armrest for ease of entry. The cart is also the easiest to access, and we navigate the aisles with expertise born of experience — canned mushrooms are not shelved with the canned vegetables, they’re with the canned tomatoes in the pasta aisle. After the mushrooms, it’s on to the canned peaches, the instant oatmeal and the Dixie Fry, a sort of Shake ’n Bake. Finding this last item means asking for help, but the request and the assistance both go off smoothly.
On our way out, Bill, the employee helping Heather bring her bags to the car, steps out into the driveway in front of the store to make sure that traffic does not fail to notice Heather and her cart. “Thank you, Bill,” she says, with evident sincerity. “You’re doing a really good job.”
As Bill drives the cart back, someone calls out good-naturedly to him from a car window, urging him to hurry it up. Heather is irritated.“Everybody thinks they have the right to insult you and make comments. Would you walk up to some old man and say,‘Walk faster, old guy’? Would you walk up to a black guy and say, ‘Hi, black fella; I’ve seen blacker ones than you’? But people will walk up to someone in a disability device and make some kind of disparaging remark. It’s always in a joking fashion — as if, somehow, it’s perfectly all rig ht because they added laughter to it.
“Another famous one is that sometimes, when you’re in a wheelchair, they like to bend down when they talk to you, so they can have eye contact. I know I’m in a chair. I know I’m sitting down. You don’t have to bend down — I consider that patronizing. I mean, if you really felt it was necessary because you wanted to see me better or hear me better...but I consider it pandering and unnecessary.”
When we arrive home, Violet, one of Heather’s two cats, is waiting for us in the window. Ordinarily, Heather likes to be home for the 5:30 news, but tonight, we don’t get in until 5:55. She turns on the television for the 6 o’clock news on ABC, then heads into the kitchen.
“Do you have any dietary restrictions?” she calls in to me.
“Well, the main course is going to be chicken, mushrooms, and peaches. We bought the peaches and the mushrooms and the chicken, so you got to see all the stuff.”
Heather lives in a one-bedroom apartment. There are four rooms: a long living/dining room; a small, square kitchen; a bedroom and a bathroom. The 13-inch TV sits in the far corner of the living room, tucked in between a VCR and an alarm clock and anchoring one end of Heather’s office — a row of shelves and desks that stretches from the corner to her bedroom door. On the shelf below the TV, a scanner/copier. Next to the TV, a fax machine sits under a lamp; a printer abuts the fax machine. Next comes a computer tower, followed by the monitor and keyboard. To the right and slightly lower sits another computer. Papers are everywhere — “this is called the horizontal filing cabinet — that’s a joke I heard.” The piles hint at an order discernible only by the maker.
A sizable box of VCR tapes peeks out from underneath the TV shelf; Heather tapes her soap operas, All My Children and One Life to Live. And though she reuses her tapes,“There are times when, if I have nothing better to watch on video, I’ll just pick up an old VCR tape and say,‘Oh, that character has changed,’ or ‘They don’t have that person or that story anymore.’‘Here’s a nuance in the story that I never quite caught.’” After taping, “Usually I watch them at least three times to make sure I get it all. When you’re a soap-opera addict, everything counts.” Besides the soap tapes, three videos from the Rancho Bernardo library stand next to the TV: Adam’s Rib, The Big Sleep, The Apartment.
Two chairs and a couch line the wall opposite the office. The chairs are covered with bedsheets; the couch has been patched with duct tape and is partially occupied by more piles of paper. The cream-colored walls are bare except for two clocks, a calendar, two framed paintings of Parisian scenes and a framed magazine cover featuring a smiling little girl. The pale carpet is stained. Heather does not often have visitors. “I can’t remember the last time I sat down here and had dinner with another human being. I’ve had people over for a party — maybe a year and a half ago, we had a spontaneous one on a Saturday afternoon. I had just had my carpet cleaned, and I said to myself, ‘I want to show it. I want to have a party because I have a clean carpet. It’s never going to happen again.’ I went up and down the hallways saying,‘I’m having a party! I’m having a party! Come on down!’ So we sat around here on a Saturday afternoon, and we celebrated my clean carpet.” Still, “I’ve been here about five years myself, and I think I’ve had less than five episodes of that happening.”
She does, however, see her mother on a regular basis.“It was approximately eight years ago today that my father died. They lived in Rancho Bernardo, and I lived in the South Bay, and I liked the distance. But after my father died, my mother said that she was tired of paying the toll bills. So, I had to move within the local-calling area of Rancho Bernardo. Some people are connected by the umbilical cord; we’re connected by the phone cord.”
Another desk — considerably smaller — occupies part of the dining room. On it are more papers, the mail, and some family photos. Here, the walls feature Heather’s framed diploma from the University of Illinois, a picture of two silhouettes facing one another, and a stylized print of an adobe hut. The round table is pushed up against the wall and covered by a floral-print tablecloth. There are two chairs.
Heather has handed me a binder containing her profile-portfolio. It opens with a sort of résumé: “...Heather e. Siegel, editor and publisher of The Siegel Sidebar ...University of Illinois, BA in History...certificate in paralegal studies from San Diego State...Famous bosses: Jimmy Carter, President of the United States...Sidney Siegel, her father, editor of local newspapers...Famous battles: moved the Rancho Bernardo, CA Post Office from the top of the hill, fought moving the Rancho Bernardo, CA public library from the bottom to the top of a hill...Knows something about: cats, dogs, wheelchairs, handicapped parking, nursing homes...Dynamic public speaker — does your group need entertainment for its next meeting? Heather Siegel: freelance writer, disability rights advocate, independent paralegal, influencer of public policy...Letters to the Editor...”
Heather returns to the living room from the kitchen and sits down in her desk chair. “I’m going to relax for a minute and have a cup of tea while watching the news.” She notices me noticing the letters.“That’s a representative sample. I give talks to people about how they, too, can be proactive.”
The portfolio also includes letters to Heather, one of which is from an independent-living counselor from the Access Center. It begins,“I recently had the opportunity to review your video, Heather Siegel’s Battle to Get in the Front Door of the Library ...”
“Would you like a copy of my video?” She rises and ambles out the sliding-glass door that leads to her patio and the outdoor storage closet. As she opens the closet, she exclaims, “Oh! Big thrill! You want to know about disabilities? I have something to show you. Guess how many legs I have in my closet. I’m serious.”
“Ordinarily, I would say none.”
“Here’s a pink leg,” she says, removing what appears at first to be a hard plastic boot from the closet. The “leg” turns out to be a kind of brace that fits around the back of the calf and is open in the front; there are Velcro straps at the top and bottom of the calf-covering section and another to fasten the bottom portion to the foot like a sandal. She pulls out more legs — a clearly medically intentioned opaque white plastic model and two brown leather open-toe versions: one lace-up, one zip-front.“I think there are 14 legs.”
“When do you use them?”
“I don’t use them at all anymore. I got better.”
Earlier, I had asked Heather to characterize the exact nature of her disability. She answered,“I would say, while I don’t have multiple sclerosis, I have a lot of symptoms associated with MS. It would be acceptable to say I have a mobility impairment and I have a vision impairment, and those are things that affect people who have multiple sclerosis.” When she puts on the video for me to watch while she brings in the groceries and starts making dinner, I get a little more information.
After the opening music and titles, which let us know we are entering Heather Siegel’s home in National City (the video was made in 1993), the camera shows us Heather in bed. “Good morning,” she says. “My name is Heather Siegel, and my day begins like everybody else’s day — having to get out of bed. But getting out of bed, for me, requires something special. I need assistance: mechanical assistance from my various braces, made for me by Baja Orthotics; and help from a friend. Yes, to get out of bed, for me, is a very special occasion.”
A woman enters the picture.“Glenda is going to help me out of bed into the wheelchair. Thanks, Glenda; glad to have you here.” Glenda helps Heather into the chair.“Thank you, thank you. Okay, let’s go get my hair done.”
The video then goes on to document Heather’s difficulties in getting on the trolley — trouble getting out of her car, the lack of a curb cut next to the handicapped parking space at the station, the long trek to the spot where the lift-equipped trolley car will stop. “How could I possibly do this alone?” asks Heather. “The answer is: I can’t. I am dependent on a personal assistant and a wheelchair.” The trolley arrives, and she documents her troubles in getting on board — backing onto the lift, etc. Later, we learn that she was unable to board the return trolley because “there were already two persons using a wheelchair on the train.” Again, she had to wait. Upon arriving in National City, she gets stuck crossing the tracks and has to be pulled across backwards by her assistant.
Cut to mournful steel guitar and strings behind a montage of black-and-white photos showing Heather on crutches, her right foot wrapped in a large cast. In one photo, she is attempting to negotiate a set of outdoor stairs in the Chicago winter. The voiceover comes in over the music. “The number-one question people have been asking me for the past five and a half years is, ‘If you can walk, why do you use a wheelchair?’ I don’t call this walking. When I was employed at the United States’ EPA, I was ambulatory and I was independent. Since my work-related stress fracture, this is what my life has become. I certainly have lost my independence. I am totally dependent upon others — upon the kindness of others, upon the tolerance or intolerance of others, on mechanical devices, and on the vagaries of medical science and biomechanical supports. It’s not much of a life.
“I was the one who resisted the wheelchair. It was my doctors who insisted that if I was going to have any kind of a functional existence outside of a nursing home and wanted to maintain my independence, that I consider the use of a manual wheelchair as a necessary device. The doctors understood my frustration. The doctors understood my anger. But I don’t really think the doctors understood what it was like to be half a person, halfway in and halfway out of life.”
I gather from the video that frustration drove her to Southern California, which she envisioned as a land of omnipresent curb cuts and pleasant weather (she was half right). Frustration then drove her to pursue a paralegal degree, “so that I [could] become more active in the community.” And finally, frustration drove her to contact the local TV news departments. The video contains segments from a News 8 feature on her battle with UCSD over the distance from their central library to the nearest handicapped parking space.“The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 guarantees me, as a disabled person, equal access to a quality education. The ADA has suggested 200 feet as a reasonable distance,” she tells reporter Jack White. “The problem is that it’s 890 feet from this [space] to the front door of the library.”
At the end of the segment, Jack White says to the news anchors, “Obviously, Steve and Carol, we have not heard the end of all this. It’s going to be an ongoing battle. We will keep you up to date on Heather Siegel’s battle to get in the front door of the library.”
Carol smiles. “Well, it seems to me that Heather is up for the fight, too, Jack.”
“Heather is indeed up for the fight.”
Cut to text on black screen: “The U.S. Department of Education accepted your complaint on February 11, 1993...The battle continues...”
Heather made the video because “at the time, I had a complaint against an employer. The employer did not believe that I was disabled. I decided that if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a moving picture must be worth five thousand words.” She grants a certain flair for the dramatic but notes that the assistants who appear in the video we re “real, live people who I wrote real, live checks to.”
Heather then puts on a second video, Heather Siegel, Paralegal, in which she advises people scheduled to appear in small-claims court on how best to conduct themselves and present their case. (The video reveals that Heather herself was once a plaintiff: she hit a pothole, sued the City, and won $1000.) “If you follow my advice today,” she promises,“you will feel more confident, you will have credibility with the judge, and more important, you might change the factors that brought you into court.... I spend at least one afternoon a week sitting in the small-claims court, watching people go in and watching people go out and watching people make the same mistakes over and over.
“I have sat in on over 2000 cases in small-claims court,” Heather tells me. “I made personal friends with the judge. All the judges are male, and they have these little clerk-type people that support the judge. The clerk-type people said to the judge, ‘Oh, she’s in the court because she’s got a crush on you.’ So one day the judge walked up to me and said, ‘Do you have a crush on me? Is that why you’re in my court?’“
‘No. I’m in here to try to figure out how you make some of the more stupid decisions that I’ve come across.’“
‘Well, if you want to know why I make stupid decisions, why don’t you come and read the files?’
“‘Really? May I?’
“‘Sure. Tell those twerps in the office that it’s okay by me.’”
“So that’s how I started reading all the files in the small-claims court. I got a chance to read every decision he made and figure out how he made those decisions. I was trying to figure out how the system worked.”
Dinner is served: a baked boneless, skinless chicken thigh topped with a sauce made from instant oatmeal and Dixie Fry; sliced peaches and button mushrooms. “We’ve done our best to coordinate,” says Heather.“At least the fork and the spoon and the knife are there — and the glass. Do you say any form of grace?” she asks.
“I do.” I bow my head and begin a silent blessing."
“Do you want to say it so I can hear it?”
“Okay.” I say grace.
“If you want more of anything, just ask, and I’ll get you more.”
Heather’s cats, Princess and Violet, have already eaten. Normally, they share her table, but since I am here, they were fed earlier. Princess is a domestic longhair; Violet — the Computer Cat, so named because of her fondness for lying on top of the monitor while Heather works — is a black and white Manx. Both originally belonged to other people. “I’m the Second Hand Rose of cats. Violet is Betty’s cat. Betty lived alone at the top of a hill in Rancho Bernardo. She didn’t have any friends, and she had two barking dogs. I know this because the barking dogs bothered my mother. She always said, ‘The only way we’re going to solve the barking-dog problem is, one of us is going to have to die.’ Betty went first.” Heather’s mother believed that.
“‘The dogs were buried with Betty — but she had a cat.’”
“What happened to the cat?” asked Heather.
“‘I don’t know.’”
Relatives had come into town to clear out Betty’s things. Heather introduced herself and asked after the cat. They hadn’t seen it.“So, I went to 4 Feet and a Feather here in Escondido, and I bought a can of Old Mother Hubbard cat food for 89 cents. I went back to the house on the hill and I told the relatives, ‘Put the food out. If there really is a cat out there, she’s probably hungry — it’s been days. She’ll come and she’ll eat the food.’ Then I get a phone call, ‘Please come and pick up your cat.’”
Violet joined Corky in Heather’s home; the two cats were the best of friends. When Corky died, Heather brought in another cat, a male, but it got into fights with other cats. “I had to actually go through the trauma of giving somebody a cat back.” She had better luck after getting Princess, a female she found through a newspaper ad.
When Heather began her story, Violet was outside. Within moments, she was inside and crowding Heather’s feet. “She came back in the house to make sure that if I told her story, she heard about it personally. Yes, I am telling your story,” she says to Violet. “That is correct, that is correct. Make sure I get it right.” She addresses me.“It’s their house; they let me live in it.”
“Do they sleep with you?”
“Let’s put it this way: they let me crawl into the bed at night. There’s no question about who’s in charge in this household.” Earlier, when Heather gave me the tour of the bedroom and disabled-access bathroom, Princess followed us closely. “After all, this is her bedroom. Somebody walking into her bedroom, she wants to know about it.”
Heather struggles to get the cap off a new bottle of apple juice on the table. “Single women have two things we can’t do — we can’t play strip poker by ourselves, and we can never get apple juice open. So if you’d like to open my apple juice, we will remember that.” Once the juice is open, she mixes it in her glass with diet lemon-lime soda.
I’m still curious about her disability and the extent of her recovery. “Did you get better through surgery?”
“I personally believe that, besides faith in the Lord, it was the hand controls. I stopped driving the car with foot controls, and I’m able to trace the improvement. And my attitude, which was, ‘If it doesn’t work, I’m not going to do it’ — including me. If I can’t get this apartment just the way I want it, I just don’t do it. I no longer said, ‘I’ll live with an unbearable situation.’ I don’t want to use a wheelchair, so I won’t. I can’t take a shower without modifications [to the stall], but it’s my bathroom. I pay the rent every month — why not modify it?”
After dinner, Heather clears the table. “I haven’t gotten many opportunities to clean up for a man at dinnertime. Most of the time, if we get [dinner] at all, we take it to a restaurant or something. This is sort of an inside haven here, requiring me to have two clean napkins.” In the kitchen, she shows me the stove, which qualifies as a disabled-access appliance because the controls are located at the front of the unit, making them accessible to someone in a wheelchair.“The dirty dishes are my own,” she notes. “I once had to go to a deposition — the place where I lived had a flood, and the water was so high that it washed the dirty dishes out of the sink. At the deposition, they had the nerve to ask me how many dirty dishes there were. I said, ‘You don’t understand the philosophy of dirty dishes. If I gave a damn about the dishes, there wouldn’t be any dirty dishes. But since I don’t give a damn, I don’t count how many dirty dishes I have. It defeats the purpose! If you’re going to have dirty dishes in the sink, the last thing you do is worry about them.”
Heather’s portfolio also includes an edition of her weekly newsletter, The Siegel Sidebar. “I have created a newsletter of just what I did this week. If it happened during the week, it’ll get into the newsletter. The goal was to become a published author. So, to get people to read my stuff, I’d send them jokes and other things to keep them busy and then an original story. Therefore, I can now refer to myself as a published author. I started out with family members and friends. There was some controversy, [people saying], ‘I didn’t ask to be put on your [mailing list].’ So now it has an unsubscribe option on the bottom of it. She has about 75 readers. I sign up.
The original stories are more memoir than anything else, though Heather notes that “since the beginning of my writing career, people have always said,‘I can’t tell what part is true and what part isn’t.’ I say,‘Good; that’s the idea. You’re not supposed to know the answers. The purpose of a story is, it’s a story. If you know all the answers, then you’ve defeated my purpose.’”
A recent issue of the sidebar opened with an original story, an account of Heather’s flight via mass transit (two buses and a train) into Orange County to follow up on a successful date. The story was followed by feedback from a couple of readers, then a Joke of the Week about a rabbi and an IRS agent. Next came Quips and Quotes (several from the National Association of Women Writers), then Things We Can Learn from a Dog (“Thrive on attention and let people touch you”), followed by Equal Time for Cats (“Dogs believe they are human. Cats believe they are God”).
Her successful date meant fewer entries in what is perhaps the funniest section, Diamonds in the Sandbox, a list of rejections she has received from a computer dating service, all accompanied by her captions. (“Does he think he is being cute?” above “Not interested...too-o-o-o-oo-o-o far away.”) Then news stories, an update on her lawsuit against Lawrence Welk (“I’m suing them to follow their own policy”), Letters to the Editor, a newspaper column about slain journalist Daniel Pearl, and finally, Heather Siegel’s 2002 Speaking Schedule. The audiences include NCR retirees, the San Marcos Lions Club, the Third Marine Division, the Villa Rancho Bernardo Nursing Home, the Carlsbad Lions Club, the Vista Women’s Club, and the Buena Vista Hadassah, among others. After February 1, 2002, Heather E. Siegel requests an honorarium or contributions to her favorite cause.
Before I leave, Heather plays me a tape of one of her speaking engagements. She opens by joking about how early it is and get to the meeting. But she doesn’t sound tired; she sounds positively peppy. “Maybe we should do a little exercise, something to wake us up? You’re already sitting down, but these are sit-down exercises. For example, is there anybody out there who needs to stand up to swallow their pride? Or shake the hand of the person next to them and find out who’s got the warmer hand?”
She asks if any regard themselves as leaders of the community. Nobody raises a hand, so she asks if any are willing to defend the position that they are not leaders of the community.
“Heather, we’re all retired.”
“Well, you know, Moses, I keep hearing about that.” Laughter... “I believe you’re all leaders of the community. You just need permission from yourself to recognize the power that you have. When you were working, did you have time to come to a meeting at ten o’clock in the morning? You have power that people who are working do not have. You have a certain amount of freedom, so maybe leadership comes from that.... Let’s pretend that everybody in this room [is a leader]...and we are going to, all together, write a letter to the editor. I’m sure we can find something we can say to the community leaders in Escondido.” There is in her delivery no trace of the misanthrope; onstage, she is every inch a people person.
When I get home, there is an e-mail from Heather waiting for me. It opens, “Dear Matthew: What better way to honor my father, Sidney S. Siegel, than having dinner with you on the eve of the 8th anniversary of his passing, 02-28-94. My father was an editor and publisher of a local neighborhood newspaper in Chicago, Illinois, and a member of the Rancho Bernardo Press Club. My family grew up with The Northtown Economist. I am sure my Dad would have approved of The Siegel Sidebar.” A few days later, I receive my first issue of The Siegel Sidebar; the e-mail is reprinted under the heading “Dinner With Matthew."