A Story

Let me make it clear…. I had a hard time finding it. In fact, everyone did. One thing I learned from years as a Silicon Valley copywriter – avoid ambiguity. And the location was fraught with just that. Yes, it was just beyond the San Francisco Giants stadium. Yes it was more or less associated with Pier 40. But none of this information was particularly useful. Even describing it as the former home of the San Francisco Harbor Master…well, that was particularly silly. Although it does say something fascinating about the human psyche. That we live in the present and in the past at the same time. And time was of the essence, being late, so when I finally found the small structure comprising the offices of the Port of San Francisco, it was bothering me, my lateness.

I could see the meeting under way inside, because the conference room was on the ground floor, plateglass on all sides. And it did not take long to work out how to enter, for there it was, the door. A glass door unfortunately, that opened just behind the speaker. Who was currently speaking. Causing me, and anyone else late of course, to conspicuously enter. No low-profile rolling in from the back. Although, truth be told, I did attempt this. But one of my fellow rail activists noticed me at the glass door and rushed outside, yelling ‘Paul.’ Thereby apprehending me and forcing me back, through the high-profile door beside the podium.

Well, at least I was entering under the wing, as it were, of one of the organizational officials. Which made me feel no less self-conscious, but publicly acknowledged as one of the team. So I rolled inside, collected my badge as an official member of the California Rail Political Action Committee…then found a space, right next to someone else in a wheelchair. Landsman.

Though this was the second of the day. Riding north into San Francisco, I shared a wheelchair space with a big guy. He was somewhere between burly and fat. And he made me a little nervous. Partly because he was looking around, no reading material in sight. My extrovert sensors were going off, everything signaling caution in the space-sharing department. It wasn’t long before he asked me a question. When was my car accident?

I smiled. Always a bad sign, it should be noted. And I feigned bewilderment. What auto wreck? We were off on a bad foot, or a bad wheel. Which doesn’t mean that we can’t have an exchange, I was thinking. I was not about to discuss my injury. Too many issues. But I could acknowledge my injury, that it was more than 40 years old. And him? Injured in the military, basic training. Not paralyzed – just an extremely bad back. None of which got to the heart of the matter. Which had to do with his complaint to the conductor.

A deaf man had been circulating the train cars, begging. Plenty of programs, my wheelchair companion said, for people like that. No excuse to beg. Turns out he knew about programs. He worked for one, some kind of disability advocates group. I stress the ‘some kind,’ because things are not always what they seem in this, our American world. Besides, he had a surly, chip-on-the-shoulder vibe. As for people begging on the train, well, I wish they wouldn’t. And what to do when they do? First, talk to the person in question. And if talking is difficult, communicate by writing, have a go at it…especially if you describe yourself as a disabled advocate. All of this being deeply ironic, obvious to the point of tears – and somehow part of contemporary America.

In short, I didn’t like him. But the woman at the train meeting – gentle, quiet, warm. And totally quadriplegic. Much more my kind of person. It developed that she was from the northern Sacramento Valley. I liked her immediately, offered to get her a sandwich at the lunch break. No, she had brought lunch. The only lunch issue being my own. Bruce, the same guy who had ushered me inside, urged me to join the small group heading for a nearby restaurant. What ensued amounted to a rushed Caesar salad, chitchat with the guy who runs one of the regional rail lines and my effort at a joke. I offered this out loud, near the end of lunch, a redoubtable Monty Python-style railway announcement…the train arriving at platforms two, three and four will be arriving sideways. No one laughed. And it’s not my fault or theirs. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. But I had extended myself a bit. Taken a chance. And so what if the joke fell flat? Falling flat is a good experience for me.

A wonderful thing, clarity. It was 2 PM, one of those dozy post-lunch moments when, particularly after a somewhat sleepless night, I do tend to drift…and yet I was relatively rapt. Dan Richards, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Commission, is one farsighted, clear-sighted guy. Immensely articulate, he laid it all out, the challenge ahead. The state’s burgeoning population…its land-use issues…the pressures on air quality. And much I had never considered. The market factors driving airlines away from flying to and from Los Angeles. Airport space. And most illuminating, insights into California itself.

The state popularly conceives of itself is divided north and south. But, no, Richards said. Get close to California government, and you see a different divide. Much more like the rest of the country, the coast versus the interior. That anyone living along the Pacific Ocean strip has better everything. More jobs, better education, opportunities. The San Joaquin Valley containing, as Richards pointed out, five of the poorest counties in the nation. Appalachia in California, he told us.

The first segment of California’s high-speed train line begins construction just there, in the interior valley. A move that has been greeted with jeers and boos in the press. Which means the coastal urban press. Read about this development in the San Francisco Bay Area, and you’ll hear about the train to nowhere. The little valley towns that mark the start and end point of the first construction phase are unknown to most people, certainly to me. But the Fresno Bee doubtless has another take. High-speed travel in and out of the state’s interior is most exciting if you live in Modesto. And vital to unifying California, if you listen to Richards.

All in all, a very satisfying, even rousing, public policy meal. I could work with these people, do more, I was thinking heading trainward down King Street. With the station nearing, I decided to head west toward more coffee. Nothing like a quick cappuccino to-go from my favorite railside café. Besides, I needed another few minutes of this, my rolling meditation.

For if you are going to make any dent in things, have any impact, you have to enter through the front door, the glass one that opens right next to the podium and makes you highly visible to everyone in the room. For you would really like to be the opposite, wouldn’t you? Invisible, no one staring. While the answer, the real answer, comes from someone like Robert Reich. The ultra-short star of Inequality for All. Who includes a fair amount of info about his own disability in this 90-minute documentary. Just enough to let us know he’s comfortable with being who he is, and even more important, how his disability turned him in a socially involved direction. Who knows? He may want to be invisible at times too. But, no, he not only has a story to tell — he has story to live. And on that note….

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