Travel on Holmes Road out south and you might see the “crazy old woman in a wheelchair.”
She says that’s how people describe her when they call the police.
She’s out there on her Permobil M300, hugging the curb through rain, snow and dark. On the past winter’s cold nights, you’d swear the heavy-duty wheelchair was being driven by a heap of coats and blankets because that’s all you could see piled on the seat.
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But look deep into the quilted lair, beneath the mounted umbrella, and back in there is the round face of Leah Hadas Aviel, wire-rim glasses perched low on her nose, lavender hair, a ring on every finger and rock ’n’ roll in her earbuds.
Good grief, why is she out there? It’s dark, it’s raining, cars zipping past. Why isn’t she at least on the sidewalk? This sweet old great-grandmother is gonna get plowed.
Somebody should say something.
“Yeah, well,” Aviel said kindly when flagged to the curb, “I don’t mean to be a smart ass, but have you ever ridden one of these things?”
Sidewalk street crossings are bumpy, she explains. Hurts her back, which is already broken, which is why she’s in the wheelchair in the first place. She’ll take the street pavement even if, as she says, she has come close to scraping paint with cars and trucks. She points out, too, her power chair is Missouri Highway Patrol safety-approved and her route is perfectly legal.
This is a woman who has chosen not to go gently into the night. She just goes. And that’s what the wheelchair is for. She’s not all that old, 70, but health issues mean she will never walk again. The chair keeps her out in the world. It is her vehicle to independence, to a life fulfilled.
She travels to libraries, downtown, temple in Prairie Village and stores all over town, rolling aboard buses for longer trips. But mainly, she used the chair to get to a vocational school where she just wrapped up a certificate in medical coding and billing.
Now, she’s just another spring grad looking for a job. Only her end game is not to start a career, but to get a weekly paycheck so she can get out of her assisted-living facility.
“I’m not cut out to live with 28 old people sitting in their rooms watching paint dry,” she said. “I want a job, to be on my own. I want my own piece of the earth.
“I want to set up my books on my bookshelf. My hardback books. And this scooter elevates me so I can reach the ones on the top shelf.”
She knows she draws stares when she rolls down a street. Her Permobil, with all its hangings — bags, provisions, stuffed toys and ornaments — looks like a scooter version of Pa Joad’s truck. People think she’s some kind of motorized bag lady, and she’s fine with that.
Because Aviel has places to go. She’s matriarch of a family haunted by demons. She, too, is their connection to faith.
“I need to teach the young ones,” she said.
Rabbi Scott White at Congregation Ohev Sholom in Prairie Village sees Aviel roll into temple every week.
“She’s sort of like a fine wine, keeps getting better,” he said. “She’s very creative, very ambitious. She perseveres through her disability and just keeps going.
“And she is very much the spiritual core of her family.”
Her scooter also gets her to The Daily Limit, a bar up the street at Red Bridge Shopping Center. She likes the Canadian Club. Straight up. She also enjoys a band that plays there — The Rippers, a ’60s tribute group.
“I’m one of their groupies,” Aviel said. “I’m out on that dance floor and I’ve wiggled so hard in this scooter I’ve probably shaken a few screws loose.”
‘She wants to be there for us’
A son, a daughter, seven grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and another on the way and nobody dares tell Great-Grandmother Leah (that’s what her business card says) to stay off the streets at night on her scooter.
Why not just stay in and play bingo and do crafts with the other residents at Waterford South, the residential facility where she lives?
“Wouldn’t do any good,” said son Oliver Edwards of Overland Park. “She’s going to do what what she’s going to do. Nothing changes there.”
When told she was cruising Holmes a recent night with Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” in her earbuds, Edwards said: “Probably.”
He and other family members say Aviel is like a free-willed, old hippie chick who refuses to stay on the disabled list. Tell her she can’t and she’ll show you she can.
“Stubborn is probably the word,” grandson Jesse Tucker said. “She’s taking these classes because she wants a job. She’s just not happy living where she is. Nothing against that place, but she wants a place of her own.
“She doesn’t think she needs managed, and she’ll sure let you know it.
“And she wants to be there for us. I got away from church for a while. She brought me back.”
Some members of the family have wrestled with substance-abuse issues. Aviel herself had a rough beginning in life.
She said her father was an alcoholic. The more he drank, the more her mother prayed, and the more she prayed, the more he drank.
Her mother scrubbed floors. A younger sister died when she was hit by a car.
“And that was my childhood,” she said.
As an adult, Aviel worked as a surgical tech in hospitals. She married a few times, and moved often.
But a few years back when she broke her back in a fall in an operating room, she returned to Kansas City for good. She started reading more, learning new things and got back to her Jewish faith. She speaks with passion of the moral obligation to stand with groups historically oppressed: Jews, African-Americans, the LGBT community, the bullied and disabled.
“You stand with those groups even if you stand alone,” she said. “Do so with a willing heart and God’s blessings will come to you.
“Being in a wheelchair, I’m not asking to be put at the front of the line. I just want to be on the list.”
The rains had passed a recent morning, the sun shone bright and here came Aviel, shining even brighter.
Rings on every finger and bracelets lining both forearms caught the early light. She smiled as she approached the bus stop on Oak Street just off Minor Drive. When parked, she broke out a thermos of coffee and set it on her tray.
Or as she calls it, her workstation.
She was headed downtown to the Missouri State Office Building to meet with a vocational rehabilitation counselor to talk about resumes and job interviews.
“I’ve been waiting for this day,” she said.
She knows she will always need help doing certain things. But she wants to find out exactly how independent she can be.
She wants that for herself. And for the grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“I refuse to be the cranky, old lady in the picture,” she said.
A few minutes later, she was on the Country Club Plaza, hurrying to catch her transfer bus. Cars filled the streets, horns honked, a big truck thundered by.
Leah Aviel rolled past it all. She had passed through the dark, the cold and rain. This day was nothing.
This day was everything.
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182