My Right Foot

Gordon McGuire reaches into the back of his mother's fridge and pulls out the front part of his right foot. After eight months in formaldehyde, the skin on the body part is ghostly white. The piece of foot is the size and shape of a turkey wing. The skin is mummified and feels like jerky.

"I saved it figuring some clinic or somebody might want a bone sample or something," he says with a smirkish grin.

He is clearly saving it mostly for its gross-out factor.

But the piece from the front of his foot emerging from the fridge is less startling than seeing the same chunk of extremity, swollen and maroon from infection, coming out of his boot two years earlier. Or, several months later, getting scalpeled off his foot during surgery.

This is just one of the downsides of having Proteus Syndrome (thought to be what the Elephant Man suffered from) or whatever it is exactly that afflicts Gordon McGuire and a few dozen other people like him on Earth.

Today, the remainder of McGuire's right foot, devoid of ulcers and sharp edges, looks like a healthy, sturdy peeled potato. At 43, McGuire can finally walk on his right foot without the blinding shocks of pain that could only be relieved by a self-prescribed addicts' levels of pot and meth.

It's the first time in a decade that pain and trying to mitigate that pain and lashing out because of that pain haven't filled his brain.

Which is the part of his body -- for the people who know him or have had to deal with him -- that's usually the most startling.

That's because Gordon McGuire has never been Oscar-worthy in the role of the lovable special-needs guy. He's not the Elephant Man, the boy of Mask or the guy My Left Foot was based on.

He is more often blunt, vulgar, wicked, hilarious, philosophical, bizarre, brilliant, sex-starved, drug-starved, road-weary, love-crossed, pissed-off and only occasionally heroic.

And this is a problem, since McGuire, in his journey to walk again, has become, through his own Web site and some national exposure of his plight, something of a leader and spokesman in the world community of malformed people. And he is beginning to feel like he's finally found his calling, a chance to put aside the deep anger and put to work the deep faith that has kept him alive.

And this is a problem, because, in these more sensitive modern times, people seem to want their severely handicapped to be cuddly little animals.

But Gordon McGuire is not an animal. He is a human being.

Not to say that he can't play cuddly for the camera. You may or may not remember Gordon McGuire from an episode last year of Ripley's Believe It or Not.

Ripley's producers called McGuire after seeing a short story about his search for shoes two years ago in New Times. Though Gordon's right foot has always given him by far the most trouble, his left foot is large and misshapen as well.

If you were to believe the Ripley's show, McGuire's life has had a simple arc. He was a meek little cripple locked up in his mom's house until the benevolent folks at Ripley's paid for a trip to Colorado for him to get a free pair of specially engineered shoes that sent him skipping down the road to a happy adult life.

"What a crock of shit!" he snarls recently.

In fact, the shoes sucked. After a few hours in them, he felt less pain walking barefoot.

The Ripley's producers did more exploiting than paying. During the segment, for example, canned video of an airplane flying had a voice-over bragging that Ripley's had paid for the trip to Colorado.

"Yeah, they paid for the gas for me to drive there," McGuire explains. "And the drive hurt like hell."

McGuire described during filming how his misshapen feet once caused him to fall outside a cab and how the cab driver told him he "looked like a tree falling." On the segment, his story was accompanied with the sound of a tree crashing to the ground.

"Nice touch, huh?" he says.

During filming, he was asked to react several different ways to the same question. The editors, he was told, would decide later which reaction worked best.

The owner of the small company that built the shoes later opined to McGuire that it sure would be nice if he helped defer some of the costs of making the shoes.

Most disturbing, though, was that fraudulent story line.

McGuire was honest about his sometimes sordid past: the accident that set off his decline, the drug dealing, the hookers, the religious pastoring to sex cultists, the two times his house was burned down, the problems of shifting back from street drugs to prescription narcotics, the DUI, the father he sometimes loathed, the stepfather he was happy to see die, the jail time, the stops in the nut house.

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Robert Nelson