IT’S THE BIGGEST weekend of the year in Gilroy, California, with more than 100,000 people visiting for the annual garlic festival. But on this late July night, 30-year-old high school football coach Rob Mendez has a taste for sushi. A young boy holds open the door as Mendez approaches his favorite spot. The coach nods and says “thank you.”
Earlier in the day, Mendez flew home from Las Vegas, a 48-hour escape before the insanity of the season begins. The lift mechanism on his wheelchair broke on the trip. And his roommate is resting back at home, exhausted from a pair of Vegas nights. But Mendez won’t give up that easily. He’s meeting me at the bar.
He rolls in wearing a plain white T-shirt and faded red San Francisco 49ers hat. Most everyone recognizes him and says hello. He’s like Norm from “Cheers.” Without his wheelchair working properly, he can’t raise its height to sit next to me at the bar. I suggest we move to a lower table and make things easier. He scoffs.
“Screw that,” he says. “I’m sitting right there at the bar next to you. Can you lift me out of my chair?”
I panic. How do you move a fully grown adult with no arms and legs? Where do I put my hands? What if I drop him? Mendez gives me directions. I unbuckle the belt around his waist and weave it through the slits torn on the sides of his shirt. I lean over, wrap my hands around him and lift him out of his chair. “Put me on your shoulder,” he says.