Tucson Salvage: World-class wheelchair athlete to revolutionary bean counter

click to enlarge Tucson Salvage: World-class wheelchair athlete - to revolutionary bean counter
Photo by Brian Smith
Colin Wylie Cutter has had many near-death experiences.

An elderly woman sits comfy in a corner chair, lost in a book. A young mother with two cagey knee-highs signs a reproductive-freedom petition at the counter. A handful of others indulge in easy vices of Marx, vegan fare or iced, shade-grown organic. It is downright tranquil inside the winning, air-conditioned bookstore-coffeehouse Revolutionary Grounds, the brutal, hot summer day outside be damned.

Here is employee Colin Wylie Cutter. His low center of gravity wheels, seemingly effortless, behind the counter and out to customers. His face is the first thing you notice, a countenance so pleasant as to suggest a certain chill, boho élan: long tied-back dreads, sea-blue warm eyes, no lines of pain or worry bracketing his mouth. Squint, and he could be the mellow dude peddling Molly in the parking lot of a psytrance fest.

He laughs. “I must really hide it well.”

He means he suffers. I soon learn how spinal pains can color his movements, and he must listen to his body, a skill he learned as a world-class athlete. He knows his limitations. The 30-year-old son of a minister was born with spina bifida, a defect of the spinal cord, and bears lower-body paralysis. If he pushes himself, he hurts.

Revolutionary co-owner Joy Soler hauls supplies behind the counter and tells me Colin was a regular at the shop’s old locale near Downtown and “kept asking if he could work here.”

When the shop relocated to central Tucson a few years ago, Joy measured Colin in his chair and designed the kitchen area so he could turn around. “We live in a very inaccessible world,” Joy says, “and it’s not OK.”

“Besides, Colin is generous and open to the world,” she adds. “That’s why he’s here.”

* * *

A few days later, Colin is rolled up to a table inside Revolutionary, wearing a yellow-orange T-shirt, Vans multicolor shoes and fingernails painted in colorful Jackson Pollock-like splatters, which, he infers, offers him a kind of ironic self-amusement.

He rides the bus 30 minutes to work from his house, a chore in a wheelchair (“My goal when I get on the bus is to get off as soon as possible”).

Calm fills his speaking voice, but get him talking about nuances of, say, Jim Morrison, collegiate sports and hypocrisies of Christianity, sentences unfurl crammed with potent beliefs and insightful tangents. Yet, he apologizes for swearing. An old habit, he says, and jokes, “You’re not supposed to. You’ll go to hell.”

In context, it is hard not to joke about hell.

click to enlarge Tucson Salvage: World-class wheelchair athlete - to revolutionary bean counter (2)
Brian Smith
"I'm just not a put-me-in-a-home type person."

He’s had many near-death experiences, including risky surgeries (22 total), a high-speed car wreck, sicknesses involving infections and an Oklahoma tornado, which recorded the highest windspeed ever on May 3, 1999. Lots of self-inflicted blackout nights. He feels fortunate to have made it out alive.

There is his sports career, cut short by injuries, which came up almost incidentally in conversation, like it’s just something he did once before in life.

Here is a proven world-class athlete in disability sports — basketball, track and field, swimming, weightlifting and table tennis — who kicked ass in big national and international events. He traveled the world as a kid athlete from his home outside Oklahoma City, met sports stars, won scads of medals.

The list of accomplishments is eye-popping. Briefly: he was a five-time national table-tennis champion, seventh grade through high school; is a national swimming record holder (50-meter backstroke) and three-time Junior Team USA member; a division of the U.S. Olympic Committee for track and field, in which he medaled in the World Championships in Switzerland (bronze in javelin) and the Czech Republic (gold in javelin) the next year. He’s a national champion powerlifter. A high school all-American. In college, a wheelchair basketball star, division one.

Since he was a boy, he wanted to take disabled sports mainstream. He was an inspiration, as an athlete and as a participant, in the well-being of others and to newly disabled persons.

“I remember one was an Oklahoma high-school football star, just a stellar athlete with a big future. Then he got hit by a drunken driver. He was just going to die in the wheelchair. I got him into wheelchair basketball. He learned he could still run into people. Disabled athletics saved his life.”

He got a basketball and academic scholarship to the University of Missouri, studying sociology and psychology. “I took a year off and it turned into ten,” he says.

Nine years ago, Colin moved to Tucson to stay with cousins and dug it. Burned out on college, on the Midwest, he wanted to be around extended family. While training in Tucson for the Paralympics, he suffered three injuries in a row, involving a cracked sternum and torn-out shoulders. His career cut off.

If there was a method to overcoming the addictive, drug-like endorphin rush of competition, triumph and athletic prowess, he doesn’t reveal so much. What rushes his head when he lays it on a pillow at night might be something else entirely.

“It felt like a forced, de facto retirement,” he says. “Healing up took a year and a half. Life can pull you in a different direction.”

He soon got popped for weed, sold $30 worth to an undercover, got four nights in jail and two years’ probation. He was the black-sheep boy in his family. He can laugh at the bust now. “My probation officer smoked weed, and even he said my case was just dumb.”

Things got worse when he hit a release valve of self-destruction. Booze, blow and blackouts, fueled by self-pity, and it didn’t end well. Three lost years, the last of which he spent trying to stop, which he did, armed with a nagging idea “he had more to offer the world.

“I never got to party and be a kid,” he says. “I was too busy with sports. It’s what I assume you do in high school. I was also trying to cope with pain issues, which is a temporary fix. And fractures with my dad.”

I asked if maybe his injuries and coming off a mad endorphin-rich sports ride played a role. He pauses, considers. Adds, “Perhaps I was drowning out sorrows.”

Some guilt rises too: “I don’t think I was working during that time either. I think my poor mother footed the bill for my insanity.”

To support himself, he worked various jobs in Tucson, from house-sitter to restaurant greeter. There was an aborted relocation to Portland in which he talks about how the city’s inviting progressive policies do not exactly extend to the disabled. He tells a story of falling down stairs (“stairs are everywhere in Portland”) outside a friend’s place where he was staying. He cursed into the rainy night, and soon returned to Tucson.

He talks of depression, a lowly, persistent passenger in his being, debilitating at times. Yet to turn around and discover enough about oneself to attempt a new game is an accomplishment in itself. It’s not Fitzgerald’s thing of no second acts. It takes years to master skills and become great at one thing, in sports, medicine, plumbing or whatever. He writes now.

There is an acute self-awareness, he reckons, when limited mobility and restrained (and strained) interaction with other humans pushes one inward. When pinned in place depression can fester, where ideas, wonders and impressions marinate in the air around him and hopefully fall into him. Sometimes, he only imagines there is any place he could go. It makes sense he has become a writer, and the accomplished short stories and poetry he shyly let me read soar from the vantage of a bound, quiet observer of the human condition in both satirical and heart-melting passages. It is his dream to be a published author, not at all far-fetched.

He plays guitar, too, writes songs. Gives and receives lessons.

* * *

Framed by a long wall of well-curated new and used books, from transgender studies to fiction to anarchist organizing, Colin talks about his father, who he described as ultraconservative Christian.

“My dad is really smart,” he says. “Speaks ancient Greek, has four degrees, made a life traveling around the world helping others. I used to hero-worship him.”

Colin was born in Zimbabwe, where his dad, a minister, did missionary work. The family, including Colin’s mother and two older siblings, soon moved to a small town in central Russia. The family returned to their home state Oklahoma where Colin, still a child, could receive better medical care.

Colin grew up attending public schools where his faith created “opportunities for ethical and moral tests.”

His relationship with his dad “became an ongoing, slow-motion train wreck, never one big fallout.”

He and his dad were still talking up until 2016. The theological differences were one thing, but Trump, he says, was the end. “My dad is extremely dogmatic about it all. That’s what was so difficult for me to understand. Before that, my family was apolitical, what we were doing was supposed to supersede all that. There was a noticeable change in him. My sister said it well: ‘The way he is now is the person he raised us not to be.’”

He continues, “I just push back on the righteous, anyone, even if they’re right. Look, I don’t mind if people are religious. I mind if they try to shove it down someone else’s throat.”

Colin, who is very close with his siblings and mother, is hardly religious now but is not slow to recognize good Jesus in Christianity. “Growing up we were taught we could do anything,” he says, “and to be kind to everyone, to understand people have a story, never prejudge and how to be a good human, at its core. I got that. But I learned all the hypocrisy in Christianity and got out.”

Still, he’s lived a life inhabiting the in-between breaches among the existence of others who get preferential treatment. He talks of a disabled person’s pressure to surpass one’s goals to succeed in any life choice.

He says “almost definitively” he feels like a second-class citizen, “a subsect of the human race. People aren’t talking disabled rights at the moment. It’s not in vogue, and that’s OK, so many other people need help. But my disability is not considered. I don’t feel malice toward anyone, (the discrimination) is not active, it’s passive. When I go to a job interview, if their eyes stare at the chair, I know I’m not getting the job. At Revolutionary, Joy said, ‘How can we make this work?’ I mean that just doesn’t happen.”

Such displacement extends to relationships, and, yes, Colin can have sex. “Why would you go on a date with a person who can’t walk?”

Now that he is gainfully employed is a kind of feat. He fights nihilism and cynicism; the rejection of religion is one thing, yet understanding his life has meaning is another.

“What I’m learning now is I don’t have to do great things,” he says. “I can just chill. To know you don’t have to hit home runs.”

He talks Tatiana McFadden, the champion athlete born with spina bifida, how she’s sponsored by oil company BP, been on McDonalds cups, featured in a Netflix documentary and “nobody outside disability communities knows who she is. She is in the Olympic Hall of Fame.

“This is how the cookie crumbles for a disabled person.” He adds, “There’s a thing in me. You can succumb to it, and roll over. You can put me in a home. But I’m just not a put-me-in-a-home type of person.”

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