In the picture the dancer is clothed in black, arms out, one leg raised so high that the toes threaten to brush the ear. His head is cocked upward, teeth bared in a cross between a snarl and a smile. Triumphant.
Barry Martin's sister takes this photograph out of the black plastic envelope for him. His numb fingers can't curl around it. He doesn't spend much time looking at it. "It's kind of self-indulgent to look at pictures of yourself," he says with a laugh.
But he won't let you borrow it, he won't let you take it away even for a day. There is a finite supply of pictures of Barry Martin dancing.
Last week, Martin filed a $130 million lawsuit against the Republic of South Africa and the Transvaal Department of Hospital Services over the incident that ended his dancing career. His experience, says the suit, "so shocks the conscience of mankind and violates the standards of civilized nations, so as to constitute outrage and torture in violation of all principles of International Law and human decency . . ."
The facts of the case, as stated in the suit: Martin, a black American dancer performing with an English troupe in South Africa's Sun City resort in September of 1983, was a passenger in a car which skidded off the road and rolled over several times. Both he and the driver, also a dancer, were injured. An ambulance that arrived on the scene picked up the other dancer, who was white, but left Martin in the car, where he was in severe pain. A black passer-by later drove Martin to a white hospital where he was forced to wait in the lobby and refused admission because he was black. By the time he was admitted to the black section of another hospital, he was quadriplegic.
According to his lawyer, who is also a neurosurgeon, the car accident only fractured the fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae in Martin's neck. He still had feeling in his arms and legs. Sometime between his arrival at the white hospital and his admission to the second hospital, those vertebrae dislocated, destroying the spinal cord.
Fifteen months later, Martin reveals little anger or bitterness. "I dream about the accident," he says. "Sometimes I'm dreaming what's going on is a dream and I'm going to wake up out of it. And then I wake up."
He is 23, fresh-faced and brown-eyed, dressed in cords, sport shirt and an Izod pullover. The dining room of his parents' small, neat home in Cambria Heights in Queens has been converted into his bedroom and that is where he spends most of his time. His bedroom used to be in the attic. "I'll never see that again," he says ruefully.
"He's a sweet, good guy and he's bright," says Martin's attorney, Harvey Wachsman. "He really got the business." Wachsman, who was contacted by a relative of Martin's, filed the suit in U.S. District Court for the southern district of New York. He will also file in South Africa, according to Wachsman.
The South African Embassy has declined to comment on the case because it is sub judice. But at a time when American protests against the South African government's policies have reached an unprecedented intensity, this case could become a horrifyingly specific case study in the reality of apartheid.
"This happening to me, and being American," Martin says, "it makes me realize this must happen all the time to blacks there. People must lose their lives because of the system."
Of the South African government, he says, "It's lousy, screwed up -- very screwed up. It's inhumane. I know that all the people don't agree with the policies. And that's based on experiences even before the accident."
Martin needs constant care. He must be dressed, cooked for, helped with bathroom functions. He has physical therapy three times a week. A visiting nurse comes once a week. He is more susceptible to illness and goes regularly to a doctor. Wachsman does not expect Martin's condition to improve significantly.
"He has no bladder, bowel or sexual function," says Wachsman, "nor will he ever."
Martin still holds some hope he can have children. "I want to get a sperm count taken," he says. "Your chances are lessened but not impossible. If it's still around, I'd like to get it preserved."
He has no real use of his fingers but because he has use of his arms and wrists, he can do some things with his hands. He can feed himself. He can hold things with some effort. His sister, Hilary, brings him a cup of tea and carefully wraps his fingers around it. The cup wobbles in his hand but never slips.
He has already dealt with much of the mental agony, like "Why me?" "Yes," he says nodding, he asks that question. "When I get aggravated or when something happens and I feel dependent. Or the fact that I never did anything to anyone. I was living by the rules, doing what was good. I just think," he pauses, "I don't deserve this. But, the only answer is: 'That's life.'
"I try and enjoy myself," he says brightly. "Find pleasure."
What gives him pleasure, he is asked. The music that has played softly all morning from his stereo tape player? "Yeah," he says, his tone suddenly half-hearted. He looks around the room, stony-faced, expressionless. Gradually the tears well in his eyes. The Accident
He went to England in July after his graduation in 1983 from the State University of New York at Purchase, where he had majored in sociology and dance.
He'd been performing for years, acting with community groups and dancing. At age 14, he began studying on scholarship with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, spending most of his days after high school practicing, taking extra classes, pushing himself to pick up technique and training that longer-term students already had.
The trip to England was his "breakaway." Shortly after his arrival, he got a job with Hot Gossip, an eclectic dance group directed by Arlene Phillips, the choreographer for the movie "Annie." The company was planning a tour to South Africa. Martin had already traveled around Europe, and this seemed an opportunity to see South Africa. Once there, he spent most of his time working and "observing. I wasn't in a position to make conclusions."
On September 26, he accompanied Peter Pink, an English friend and dancer from another group, in a borrowed Volkswagen Beetle on a trip to a dentist in Rustenburg. The accident happened on the return trip. "The car must have skidded off the road," Martin says. "I don't exactly know how . . . It rolled over several times." He said Pink, who was driving, was not speeding or at fault. The car landed upside down with Martin trapped inside and Pink outside the car.
"I was semiconscious," he says. "The impact. It turns and turns and turns. What was happening? Then I realized I was in pain."
Martin begins to sweat as he tells his story. His sister wipes his forehead and brings him a towel to wrap around his neck. His lawyer, who is sitting in the room listening, says the sweating has nothing to do with the story he's telling. "I think it's a physiological problem . . . he gets it all the time," says Wachsman.
"An ambulance came to the scene," Martin continues. "The ambulance didn't come close enough to me. Pink must have been thrown out of the car. There were people around. There were lots of things going on. People were speaking Afrikaans. I didn't understand it. I was in a lot of pain."
At the time he didn't understand why the ambulance left him. "I didn't know if they were going to get something else for me or what," he says. "I thought maybe he was worse off than me." Pink, Martin says, was discharged from the hospital in three days.
He recalls that several passers-by helped him out of the car and a black man drove him to the Paul Kruger Hospital in Rustenburg. "Details are blurry," Martin says. "I can't recall any doctors seeing me . . . I was fainting."
According to the suit, he was "forced to wait on a hard bench in the hospital lobby and was never admitted to the hospital and was never given any medical care, attention, diagnosis, or treatment, solely because he was black."
An ambulance took him from Paul Kruger Hospital to the black section of the H.F. Verwoerd Hospital, 65 miles away in Pretoria, and according to the suit, he "became quadriplegic during said transfer or upon arrival."
Wachsman says that with Martin's fracture "you wouldn't move him across the street like that . . . You have to stabilize the cervical spine first."
"I can't remember the journey," Martin says. "All I can recall is a lot of black nurses around me and that's when things started going bad. I went into cardiac arrest."
Cardiac arrest, says Wachsman, can be the result of swelling in the spinal cord.
According to the suit, after Martin arrived in the black section of the hospital, he received "no treatment, medical attention, or care for more than 24 hours, despite the fact that a diagnosis of quadriplegia was made upon arrival." He was then granted so-called "Honorary White Status" and transferred to the white section.
The next thing Martin remembers is being in traction in intensive care and seeing his mother's face. It was late the next day.
Martin got the diagnosis from the doctor. "His tact was off," says Martin with a smile. "He asked me how old I was and then he asked me if I had kids. And then he said, 'You'll never dance again.' First I started laughing, because I didn't believe it. Then I gradually did, because I couldn't move. Then I got sick again. I just -- I didn't care. Then my father came and they started talking about operations and getting on with it." He sighs.
Within the next two weeks, an operation to fuse the cervical vertebrae was performed, to stabilize the spine, and he stayed in the South African hospital until November 15. His hospital treatment improved dramatically, aided by the fact that his parents were there most of the day demanding that he get proper attention. And, while some hospital staff became guardian angels, others were rude and resentful, Martin says.
"People wouldn't speak English to me," he recalls. "There's nothing worse than that. I was dealing with some people who really didn't care . . . I had a few incidents that made me crazy. The doctors were putting tubes down my throat for aspiration. It was very painful. The nurse clearly didn't like me. She'd sometimes say, 'Who do you think you are?' She'd jerk the tube in my throat."
Sometimes at night his arms would contract at the elbow and he couldn't straighten them out. "I yelled one night for the aide and she came in and said, 'I'm not your bloody physio therapist .' And I told her to get out then. She threw the sheet over my face. And at that point -- I can usually control my emotions -- but at that point, to be crying and to feel like someone couldn't feel my side, I just felt that was the bottom."
What kept him going, he says, were his visitors -- black South Africans, white South Africans, dancers, artists, a black bank teller who had heard about the accident. Linda Smit, a prima ballerina with the white Pact Ballet Company in Pretoria, was a constant comfort. "She came every day," Martin says. "She massaged my feet, my legs, my whole body."
Martin left South Africa on November 15, 1983 for the National Spinal Injury Center of the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, England. He stayed there 10 months, learning how to eat, how to push a wheelchair, how to type with aids called "plunkers." He also worked on developing his biceps. He returned to his family's Queens home this past September.
Peter Pink visited Martin once during his hospital stay in England. "I haven't seen him since then," Martin says. "I'm just disappointed that he didn't show more concern. But maybe he has to deal with guilt. He was driving the car." Living at Home
Any anger and frustration now come from simply tackling the daily battles of living. "I try and deal with the system," Martin says. "Believe it or not that takes up most of my time, just making phone calls and getting the right equipment."
He is applying to graduate school in arts administration at New York University. He's also in the process of being evaluated by the state's Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. "This doesn't happen to many dancers," he says. "They can't place me. What's even more depressing is when they say, 'Oh, have you thought about working in a box office and selling tickets?' That's not what I had in mind."
The attendants that the city sends -- Medicaid covers all of his medical expenses and care -- often displease him. "It's hard to get one tailored to your needs," he says. "They don't expect you to be as active as I want to be." Most of the after-hours care he gets is from his sister, Hilary, 25, who works as a Social Security benefits authorizer. A slender, pretty woman, she has taken up the burden of her brother with efficiency and caring. Barry's father, Lionel, is an auto painter and works long hours. His mother is in England under medical care, which Martin won't discuss further.
Hilary says that even before her brother came back to New York, "I made a promise to myself that I would make sure he was fine before I left home ."
When she leaves her job at 5:30, she comes home and cares for her brother. Last week, she took him shopping. "It was the first time I've been out with him alone," she says, "and I knew I would need help getting him from the car into his wheelchair. But we went to a shopping center and I just asked people for help. It worked out fine."
In his home, Martin contends with all sorts of physical barriers. He can't get to his tape deck and stereo, four feet away from him. He wants an accessible desk. He can't have an electric wheelchair: "It would knock my house down," he laughs. "It wouldn't be able to get in the door." He needs an adapted phone -- "a phone big enough to hook my hands into and buttons large enough to push."
The phone, particularly, seems important. It rings constantly during the morning and late afternoon as friends call. No girlfriend, though. "My career takes precedence," he says. "I have to get myself together first."
Dance is still very much a part of his life. His sister advised him to keep his leotards and ballet shoes. He chuckles: "98 years old, digging out dance clothes." In the three months that he has been back from England, he has seen shows like "Tap Dance Kid" and on this day he was planning to see the Alvin Ailey company in concert that night.
"You know you'll never be able to sneak into a Broadway show." He smiles delightedly at the thought of past antics. "Now, it's a big production. Now, you go rolling in," he says with a sweep of his arms and a laugh.
Any wistfulness seems to be outweighed by a desire to keep in touch with the art and the business of which he was once part. "I keep up with what's happening," he says. "Going to performances, gossiping on the phone, reading reviews. It's funny, but that's just the way it is. I didn't plan it. But that's what my life was, and that's what it still is."