Nice Versus Decent

I’m leaving a hibachi place in Paramus, NJ when I see a Mercedes SUV swing into a handicapped spot. Two well-dressed parents with three equally bespoke children walk out of the car and into the restaurant. The adults are slim and in shape and none of the children have a disability as far as I can see. After they’re out of sight I walk over to their truck and see a blue handicap placard hanging from the rear view mirror. Now I’m pissed.

“Did you see that?” I say to my friend. “They’re all fine but they parked in a handicapped spot.”


“That drives me insane.”

“They probably have the handicapped thing for when they drive around an elderly parent. “

“But the parent isn’t with them now.”

“Maybe we should key their car,” my friend says with a grin.

“Would serve them right,” I say. “But it’s not worth the bother.”

“Probably video cameras watching anyway.”

Now before you freak out over me contemplating vandalizing a car, you have to understand the utter hatred I have for people who misuse handicapped parking. When I was thirty I lived in a small neighborhood where parking was scare. The reason for the paucity of automotive berths was because all the homes on my street were two families with grown children. So every driveway was filled with three or four cars. One had six. Because my apartment didn’t have dedicated parking I had to find a space on the street. But since the area was so congested I usually ended parking two or three blocks away. I could have dealt with that – if my neighbors weren’t such shits.

Five homes on my block had handicapped parking spaces in front of them. And in the four years I lived among them I never saw anyone with a handicap get into those cars. The bottom line is these residents always wanted to have a parking space in front of their homes so they fraudulently applied for a handicapped spot. I suspect somebody paid someone off at city hall. And if you think I’m being cynical the mayor of that town was indicted for corruption and the city government was almost taken over by the state.

My godfather, a Catholic priest, never liked the word handicapped. “What is this golf?” he’d cry. “They’re cripples! Jesus called them cripples! What’s wrong with that word?” And you can be sure he didn’t like the term “differently-abled” either. Now Ted was born in the 1930’s and was a child of his age so don’t be to hard on him. If he was around today I think he would have had no problem with the words “disabled” or “disability.” But he knew language was a powerful thing and that people would exploit the word “handicapped” at the expense of the needy. And for him “cripple” meant someone who really, really needed that parking spot.

But what counts as a disability in our day and age? I have known and worked with seriously disabled people during my lifetime – people who had lost limbs from accidents, disease and war. These people needed handicapped spots. And you know what? I knew a guy who was in a wheelchair who never used them. “Those are for people who can’t get around,” he said. He was one tough cookie. Handicapped spots are for the frail elderly, people with serious medical conditions, and those with major ambulation problems. They’re not for five healthy people to get a good parking spot on a Friday night.

I have no reason to doubt that the owner of that Mercedes got a handicapped placard because someone he drives around needs it – an old parent, disabled child – whatever. But when that person’s not in the car you can’t use the spot! And the last time I checked that’s the law.

I know people will get pissed when they read this, probably because they have or know someone who struggles with a disability that’s not immediately obvious. I’m always willing to give people the benefit of the doubt – but not to two healthy parents who use cynically use their handicap sticker to score a good parking spot. And what’s the lesson they’re teaching their children? That you should take whatever you can get? That the rules don’t apply to you?

Now I’m sure if I talked to those parents they’d be as nice as pie. Fuck nice. Nice is overrated. Nice is very often a lie. We’ve all been stabbed in the back, exploited, and robbed by people who look “nice.” Con artists are often “nice.” Nice is easy. Decency is hard. Over the years I’ve run into people who weren’t exactly nice but were decent. Even though they appeared unpleasant at first they would do the right thing, very often at expense to themselves. Nice and decent are light years apart. Nice is just smiling and showing a minimum of social graces. Sure it helps make life go a bit smoother, but decency would do far, far more. How many times have we run into a nice person who was monstrous underneath? What did Shakespeare say? “One may smile and smile and be a villain?” Watch out for those people.

A short while ago an eighteen-year-old boy committed suicide because his roommate and another student video streamed him having a sexual encounter with another man in his dorm room. I’m sure the neighbors and friends of those two voyeurs would describe them as “nice” kids. Maybe they are – but they sure as hell aren’t decent. A person with a moral sense would have never have done such a thing. Those kids had no such sense. Now I don’t think they could have known that boy would kill himself, but that’s not the point. They should have never have done what they did in the first place. But somewhere they learned that everything’s on the table to be exploited, the rules don’t apply to you, get what you can, everything’s for the taking and who cares who gets hurt? Someone taught them that.

Parents and caregivers are the ones who instill a moral code. We teach children to do the right thing by example and, as every parent has told me, their children watch them like hawks. We all falter and screw up, myself included, but some parents will blame the fact they are unable to provide such lessons because they have three jobs, latch-key kids and are fighting against media influences too powerful to counter. That’s a cop out. All the moral lessons I learned occurred in seconds – a Scoutmaster telling me to not pick on the weak, my mom chastising me when I had done wrong, my Dad telling me to open a door for an old lady and my godfather’s tenderness with the sick, dying and confused. I can roll up all those lessons about human decency into two hours worth of time. Morality is taught in moments – not in textbooks.

The parents in that SUV had such a moment. And they failed.

37 thoughts on “Nice Versus Decent”

  1. thirtyeyes says:

    Broke my leg once, got a handicap permit for 3 months. I almost never got the opportunity to use it. The spaces were always full. In the beginning it was really painful to move at all, not so much later on. I cannot count the number of times I saw someone bound out of their vehicle and stride off to where ever as I hobbled by on crutches from the back of the parking lot. Honestly, I think I got a handicap spot, like 3 times in 3 months.


  2. Deus says:

    While I don’t experience the rage that you do with handicapped parking spaces, taking that as simply an example I agree with your overall point. Decency is taught to younger generations, or, as is often the case, it is not taught.

    People tend to make excuses for why they are not “good people”, and blame humanity in general for their “weaknesses” and even go so far as to discount the possibility of the human race doing many good things because humans are inherently cruel, etc. But these are all things people learned and they are things people teach others and it’s possible to choose to break that cycle, but if people don’t it will continue to perpetuate.

  3. Stephanie S says:

    Towards the end of her illness my mom was unable to walk most distances and predominantly was pushed by my father in her wheelchair. She never traveled alone because she was unable to drive, like walking (or anything that required strength) she just couldn’t do it. She had the blue placard for the car, but she never used it unless the person she was with was my grandmother because she felt the rest of us were hale and healthy enough to walk and push her without complaint. The places we went most as a family were the GSP, Kiku and the now defunct tenplex on route 4 and we usually parked pretty far away due to the size of the lots and the extra moments to walk inside were negligible. Decency isn’t even part of the equation, it’s just plain laziness on their part.

  4. Kim says:

    THANK YOU for this post! As a teacher, I daily see students who others label as “nice” commit very indecent acts. Decency is a vanishing quality in many human beings.

    Your rant about the parking space perfectly sums up for me many people’s sense of entitlement. Too many people feel that they are entitled to whatever they want…and it’s because parents, guardians, and/or others tell them that they deserve it. Why? Oh gosh, we wouldn’t want to hurt little Billy’s self-esteem.

    No one deserves anything. A person has to earn what s/he gets. However, in this fast-paced, instant-gratification society, no one has any patience anymore to wait.

  5. Erin says:

    You’re damn straight you’re going to get people angry with this. I personally have a disability that is not immediately obvious, and I get harassed (and screamed at) nearly every time I park in a handicapped spot. However, if I need to walk further than about 300 feet, I am in extreme pain. I also have a friend who is am amputee, but uses a prosthesis – you’d never guess she was missing a leg unless she was wearing shorts.

    Unless you are a doctor who has examined these people personally, you have no right to judge their ability to get around. Shame on you.

  6. Adrian B says:

    In Australia there is a campaign that says “look for the sticker [disabled pass] not the person” as some people have disabilities which can’t be readily seen (extreme shortness of breath if walking more than 20m). However, it does agitate me if the pass is abused but who am I to judge?

  7. waiter fan says:

    I have to strongly disagree with you on this one and hope what I write may help you be more open.I work with young college students who have non visible medical conditions. Before this position I would have felt the same way. Many of my students look young and vibrant, even healthy. But their symptoms are often unpredictable and may occur at any moment. Sometimes, you may not even know the pain or discomfort a person is in. When someone has lived with a condition for years you learn to “grin and bear it”. That doesn’t mean those few steps aren’t painful, uncomfortable or that you may be hit with symptoms as you walk out of your car. Some of my students with breathing issues may look healthy but they may be out of breath by the time they hit the front door. Or some people have other non visible symptoms. Just don’t make any assumptions. I know I did before this job and the stories of ignorance from others from my students can be so heartbreaking.

  8. savannah says:

    Morality is taught in moments – not in textbooks.

    that sums it all up, sugar! thank you. xox

  9. Tucatz says:

    Been there myself. I broke my leg this spring and when I finally could drive again I’d find that the handicapped spaces were often taken by some guy in his twenties sitting in the car listening to rap while his momma was in the store shopping. I would park my car, then go back to them on crutches and chew them out and watch them shrivel like the little teeny peckers that they were.

    Getting bitched at like that by a six foot tall white guy in his forties apparently carried an extra sting, because they would never meet my eyes or speak loudly enough to be heard.

  10. Leslie says:

    Just for the record, my husband has a handicapped parking tag, because he had a heart attack two years ago, spent four hours in an ambulance trying to get to a hospital through a snowstorm, and now has only half of the heart function of a normal person. Yes, he can walk. Yes, he has all of his limbs. But walking for any distance wears him out and sends him into congestive heart failure. He uses his handicapped tag, he doesn’t look disabled, but he is. He is. So everything is not about the appearances. Just saying.

  11. Lynn C says:

    I had a handicapped tag for quite a while after a bad car accident and rarely used it. I was in a wheelchair, yes, but I couldn’t drive and my husband was able enough to push me around in it.

    In fact, I didn’t even have one for like six weeks until my doctor suggested I get it… I didn’t even ask. The conversation went like this, “Hey, I have a request… could I get -” “A handicapped sticker? Sure.” “Well, no, I was going to say a new set of crutches, because these are too short.”

  12. Carolyn says:

    Just as a reminder, a lot of chronic pain disorders and cancers cause extreme pain, even though you’re able to walk relatively quickly and normally. Alternatively, one of the non-drivers may have been blind. You don’t have all the facts.

  13. Laurie says:

    While I completely agree with you about parking in a handicapped space that you don’t need, I have to say that you still need to give people the benefit of the doubt until you know they are doing something wrong. My mom had a heart transplant 13 years ago. Before that, and even now at times, she gets so out of breath she can barely walk to the mailbox. Yet she is so stubborn that she has learned to hide it well. Because of this, she would appear normal and healthy to anyone who didn’t know her. Growing up with her I have learned that you never know what people are going through. Also – after everything she went through, she has always refused to get a handicapped parking pass, saying that there are others who need them more.

  14. endonesia says:

    “Morality is taught in moments – not in textbooks.”

    Never thought about it like that, but in reviewing my own life experiences, I think you are exactly right … I’ll try to remember and keep this in the front of my mind – thanks!

  15. Doris says:

    You’re right in saying that people will comment that they know/are themselves disabled in a way that is not obvious. Having a bit of a medical background, you have an idea of how very many disabilities there are in that category. Yet you still insist on believing that of this particular group of five people, NONE of them have a disability you couldn’t detect by sight alone.

    Shame on you. May you never find yourself on the receiving end of that kind of rude assumption.

  16. Nunya Biznez says:

    I despise entitlement in any form, and this is one of my pet peeves as well. At the time my parents were ill and dying, I developed a hyper awareness of people who misappropriated handicapped spots. In retrospect, I am lucky I did not get my ass kicked as I am a relatively mouthy, short, fat, small woman. Those I was telling off tended to be entitled pricks with overpriced cars, overpriced suits, and ubiquitous bluetooth devices. I actually made one cry at a Cumberland Farms.

    In regard to the crux of your story, it is so awful, the lack of decency that is getting telegraphed to young people, in these fleeting “teachable” moments.

    I feel so terribly heart broken for the young man who took his life in conjunction with being the target of such an intrusion into his private life. I too am appalled there are people who feel entitled to intrude on a person’s private moments, and have the unmitigated gall to share them, AND think they are funny. It is obscene the prevalence of casual cruelty that seems to have developed in our world.

    I have hope. I see a lot of casual and effortless kindness too. I think children see those moments as well. We are all responsible to show them how to treat each other.

  17. Nunya Biznez says:

    Damn, I do not want to seem like I made the guy cry by hurting him or being mean. I just told him how hard it is to maneuver a person who NEEDS that spot across a snowy parking lot in a wheel chair. I do not want any of the the strangers on the internet to think I was indecent.

  18. kamikasee says:

    Since so many cities are starved for revenue, why not set up an iphone app / hotline for reporting violations. I’d rather see cops writing tickets for this than sitting around in speed traps.

  19. Kathy says:

    Great point. I know how my niece & nephew and their friends watch every move an adult makes and often question conflicting messages.

    My family has had a handicapped tag for more than 30 years. First for a retarded (another non-politically correct word, but that is what he was) brother and then for my father. It was hammered into each of us as we learned to drive, no using the handicapped tag if Matt wasn’t in the car. Now, no using the tag if Dad isn’t there. There is always someone who needs it, so no abusing the privilege.

  20. Lucia says:

    Breathing disabilities are not visible but limit the distance one can walk.

  21. amp 1 basketball says:

    I can completely relate to your post, I am a above the knee amputee and have been for been for 25 years. I was ran over by a garbage truck when I was 4 yrs old so I have a blue handicap placard growing up and I call it my tard card because somedays when I am so sore and I can barely walk I use it and people look at me like I am retard. When I wear pants and use the placard people can’t physically see my leg so they assume that I’m just a punk ass guy abusing the parking.I especially like when fat people use the handicap spaces and then see me pull up in a non handicap space and run into the store like there is nothing wrong with my leg, I’m sure it makes them think twice about where they park..
    My parents to me were great examples, they never parked in the handicap space for me unless they knew my leg was sore that day. It basically taught me to not be lazy or abuse the parking unless really needed.

  22. dane says:

    damn good rant, steve! you need to get yourself a paid opionion column. and while we are speaking of decent, could we get a shout about people walking the extra ten steps and actually putting the damn grocery cart in the many,many spots that are intended for them instead of using an empty parking space intended for cars? that is my pet peeve. i will forgive the mother with the young child in the car for not walking away from the vehicle to do so. many times i will walk up and offer to take the cart back for her so she doesn’t have to feel guilty about it. but the rest of you assholes who are too f*&%ing lazy to take 20 seconds to do the DECENT thing… dante has a special circle waiting for you. now thanks for letting ME rant. 🙂

  23. dane says:

    dammit. misspelled “opinion” in my blinding rage. and don’t wanna hear about my e.e. cummings style of typing.

  24. Sam Greenfield says:

    It is sometimes hard to see disabilities, but perhaps we need better enforcement. John Kelly of the Washington Post wrote a good column on the matter. One proposal would be that cops could challenge any owner of a handicapped sticker to ensure that it was being used by the person to whom it was issued. If it is not, the cop could immediately confiscate the sticker.

  25. Bryce says:

    Viktor Frankl, a man who survived the Holocaust (but lost his wife, parents, siblings) wrote the book, Man’s Search For Meaning (one of the greatest of all time). Here’s one line that pertains to this blog: “From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in the world, but only these two – the “race” of the decent man, and the “race” of the indecent man.”

    Love the blog, too. There’s a waiter on YouTube who has sort of become the Waiter Rant of videos. Check him out, he’s great!

  26. Kellye says:

    You don’t know if they were handicapped or not. They might be thin and walking fine, but perhaps you caught one of them on a good day where everything is working. There’s such thing as unseen/invisible disabilities, and it’s totally inappropriate for you to think they’re fine just because they look that way.

  27. Kirsten says:

    Well said!

    And Dane, I completely agree with you too – the abandoned shopping trolleys wasting parking spaces drive me crazy. Especially when I don’t see the trolley until I’ve already started turning into an apparently free spot.

    I sometimes imagine what I would say to a person if I caught them leaving the trolley there but I probably wouldn’t actually have the guts to say anything to them.

  28. joanne says:

    I feel the same way about “nice”. The most evil person in the world can act and pretend to be nice.

    This is probably nonsense and silly of me, but I feel that “kind” is a more genuine and honest quality.
    Thus I tell myself to find a “kind” man and be weary of a “nice” man.

  29. DomainDiva says:

    What a great rant!!! Whenever I am transporting an elderly or movement inhibited individual I always pull up to the front of the building, get them out and seated or out of the way, park the car and then get them inside safely.Sometimes all it takes is a little extra thought.

  30. carla says:

    I dislike the word ‘nice’. It marries too neatly with the word ‘cardigan’.

  31. Badem says:

    oh you would love what happened to my Sister this weekend then!!
    Local Hypermarket, they spent a good 20 mins driving around trying to find a parent parking spot because they have small children, when tehy witnessed a man pull his trolley to his car, load it up, dump the trolley and climb into his car and start pulling off, just him, no kids at all.
    So her partner pulled his car up wound his window down and bellowed ‘Oi, thats a parents parking spot, you know? for people who have kids? where are yours right not? not with you thats for sure’
    He then promptly drove off, teh guy in the other car jumped out and proceeded to chase my sister across the car park on foot while bellowing profanities.
    Some people are jsut assholes, I even got into a road rage incident myself last week, crossing an empty road, idiot decides to pull out of the bus stop he was parked in, perform an illegal move, swerve to avoid me crossing the road and had the cheek to wind his window down and shout ‘Move faster retard’
    Sadly as a Deaf person thats one thing I cannot abide, so I naturally gave him lots of crap back, It was funny to see him stop his car in the middle of a crossroads, get half out of his car and invite me around the corner for a beating, naturally i just gave him crap then walked off. asshole…

  32. Missy says:

    I know people will get pissed when they read this, probably because they have or know someone who struggles with a disability that’s not immediately obvious. I’m always willing to give people the benefit of the doubt – but not to two healthy parents who use cynically use their handicap sticker to score a good parking spot.

    How do you know that neither of those people has a disability that isn’t immediately obvious, Steve? Is it because they were well dressed? Had a nice car? Nicely dressed kids?

    I call bullshit.

    Most days, I look perfectly healthy. I can get up and be active, go to dance classes, do my own grocery shopping, walk my dog, goof around at the mall with my kids.

    Other days, I can’t even get out of bed. My teenagers have to help me out of bed to take the five steps to the bathroom to pee. Rheumatoid Arthritis is like that. (So is MS, Lupus, Fibromyalgia, Cancer, and a whole host of other “invisible” illnesses.)

    I’ve been berated by people for having the GALL to have good days, where I don’t hurt so much that I can’t function. “You don’t LOOK sick!”, they tell me. Well, I don’t have a responsibility to “look” sick. I just AM, and if I don’t “look sick” enough for your tastes, that’s YOUR problem. I also don’t have a responsibility to suck it up and forgo a placard because “other people are more disabled”. Their disabilities don’t make mine suck any less.

    Seriously. Pull your head out.

  33. Julie says:

    I’m with Missy. My father had COPD. On a good day, you’d never know he was ill. Most days he couldn’t walk 10 feet without stopping. It was only in the later stages of his illness he had to wear oxygen. Prior to that, he just looked like an older, overweight guy.

    You can’t tell by looking at someone if they have a disability so get off your high horse and thank your higher power (if you have one) that you don’t have to worry about people judging you… at least not for that.

  34. mccn says:

    I second what Missy said, although I probably would have used different language. Each person’s body is different, and each person’s medical condition affects him or her differently. Sometimes, my friend with Lupus can walk the full length of a parking lot – and she revels in doing it. Sometimes, she can’t. But you can’t tell by looking at her whether it’s a good day or a bad day. (Google “but you don’t look sick – spoon theory” for a moving explanation here). In this case, you may be right – these may not have been people with a disability. Or they might have been people with a disability who were having a good day. But it’s too easy to decide who needs extra help based on the way they appear to you. And it’s often inaccurate.

  35. Dan says:

    Missy, Julie, MCCN, I think everyone [decent] would agree people don’t need to look sick to be sick. However, if on the days you are fine and you can walk the entire car park, don’t take the parking spot.

    My take on this post is that having a disability card doesn’t mean you get to use it whenever you like, you use it when you need it.

  36. J says:

    To all those whining about good days…

    If you’re having a good day, don’t use the damn handicapped spot. Someone else needs it more.

    The end.

  37. admin says:

    As I said, I knew people would get into a snit about this. To those who disagreed with me you’re more than welcome to voice your opinion. However, there are people who abuse handicapped spots! Do you deny that? Do you think there are no perfectly healthy people who use them just to get over on the rest of us? I usually give people the benefit of the doubt – but there is nothing wrong with being suspicious from time to time.

    And since these comments tend to get hysterical they are now closed for this post. I left the ones bashing me up – so don’t accuse me of censorship.

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