Change in the Weather

When the sky darkens, and an actual rainstorm drenches the Bay Area, something in me comfortably settles into a sense of normalcy. Yes, there is a brief ‘thank God,’ but not for long. Being thankful acknowledges the grave abnormality that has become normal, and I want to pretend. So what else to do with an actual rainstorm, but plunge into San Francisco Bay, more or less, aboard a Golden Gate Ferry? A long-overdue visit to the Marin Mishpacha, Gabriella and her daughter Daria. Which is quite a schlep, if one thinks about it. One suburban train to San Francisco. One tram to the Ferry Building. One boat to Larkspur.

I board the latter and, things neurological being what they are, I have to pee. The actual sequence being richer…if that is the word. For being a brisk late winter day, a.k.a. spring in any other part of the world, as we reverse out of the berth I park my wheelchair outside at the ferry’s stern. This is fine for a moment, and the view of the piers and San Francisco’s skyline is magical. Until the ferry gets itself turned around, points north and turns up its turbines…sending us blasting across the Bay at a most impressive clip…and turning the breeze from crisp to cold. I can’t take it. Neither can my bladder, which reacts to the cold with its own odd urgency. Soon I am standing up in the unisex toilet and discovering how things are.

Things neuromuscular have declined rather noticeably. At least in the one dimension of balance. I am just not walking enough, on my own, with my crutch. And this is the result. The ferry is only bobbing slightly – after all, this is a commuter vehicle, all about stability. Mine being gone. Which means that even the slightest dip and toss knocks me rather dramatically off kilter. Still, I stand and attempt to aim. I miss rather grossly.

A sobering reminder of how much effort it takes to manage this, my disability. A life’s work, it is. Which, when added to the day…more or less given over to journeying to and from lunch…I wonder what I am doing with this, my existence. Which seems more fragile than ever.

I am glad that Daria shot a nice photo of Gabriella and me at the luncheon table. It’s a moment to hold onto. Gaby is 92. Over lunch we exchange badinage, including a bit of San Francisco literary gossip. In other words, she is utterly remarkable. And I’m glad I have a photo to prove it. And now I’m heading back across the pedestrian bridge to the Larkspur ferry terminal.

A black family…at least, I’m guessing they’re a family…wait on a bench. This is not remarkable in any way, except for the location. White, upscale Marin County. Doubtless a small class of haute bourgeoisie professionals who are black do live here. But probably not these people. The man, perhaps in his 40s, overweight with hair woven in a non-corporate style, is no high-tech executive, or so I conclude. The woman with him has a slightly gypsy look about her. They stand out. My guess…their purpose is not so different from mine. A Bay outing.

As we board the ferry, I do as before, heading for the stern. I find the black family there. Something in me decides to be friendly. I say hello. The man and woman both respond with a warm greeting. As the ferry backs away from the wharf, I make chitchat about the beauty of the day. Once again, we reverse, then point the right way down the channel and accelerate slightly. For a few moments, it’s pleasant enough. Ferries move slowly along the shore, where their wake is feared to be harmful. We idle past San Quentin Prison, home to serious criminals…for want of better words…and to California’s death row. The place is old. It looks old. I wonder if the black family know anyone inside. An idle thought that contains possible combinations of bias, stereotype and truth. The incarceration rate for black Americans borders on the obscene.

As we emerge from the channel and into the Bay, the Golden Gate Ferry again turns its turbines up to max. Jets of water blast from the back, and the spray makes it over the stern. The black woman goes inside. I hang on for another moment. Somehow, I have a need to make small talk with the man, or more exactly, acknowledge him. I tell him how dramatic it is to see the water spraying out the back, get a sense of the jet propulsion. He concurs. It’s pretty impressive. The wind is getting to me again. Can’t take this, I tell the man. He laughs.

Here the plot gets confused. In reversing around to head inside, I bang my wheelchair against the guard rail. An odd occurrence, for normally I would have turned down the speed. But it’s set on high, amplifying a normal maneuver into an abnormal one. I am a little nervous, truth be told. I can be a little nervous around black people, deeper truth be told. Which is what all of this is about. Counter-phobic behavior, some might say.

Inside, it’s warm, the bartender looks reasonably busy…and my wallet is gone. Actually, it’s a man’s purse, the kind popular in Europe. I hang this thing by a strap from my wheelchair control. Which, when traveling, I monitor frequently. For it can fall off. And losing an entire wallet…complete with credit cards…is unthinkably horrible. But the unthinkably horrible has happened. The thing is gone. It is not there. Did I have it in the men’s room? Didn’t I have it to pay and get on board?

I roll back outside, to the stern deck, my last known locale…and have the briefest thought that somehow this black man has stolen it. And it is a very good thing that I have rolled back outside. For there it is, lying on the deck, at the man’s feet. And his son’s feet. They haven’t noticed it. And, in fact, they are so engrossed with the view, that they barely notice when I pick it up. Inside I check the contents. And in San Francisco, as we all head down the gangplank, I check out the man and the boy. He walks with a cane. He makes slow progress. Landsmen, we are. As I roll past, under battery power, I urge him to take care. Same to you, he says. Smalltalk. We have made smalltalk. But it is not small. And I am glad, even proud, of that.

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