Driving Force

Honestly, I faced white-water rafting with more equanimity. And I have done this a time or two, had my disabled self hauled into a inflated conveyance and cast off down the, variously, Yampa and American Rivers. Of course, in neither instance was I piloting. No, command and control had been delegated to others. So never mind the foaming rapids, lethal boulders playing peekaboo, the surging currents. Really, that was someone else’s problem. Driving to San Francisco is my problem.

Gentle reader, let us be clear, our provincial capital is only 30 miles away. People drive there to purchase darning needles. It’s nothing. Which is why, I keep reminding myself, the disabled world is small and threatens to shrink further if one isn’t careful. But one is careful. Careful and anxious, contemplating the afternoon’s drive for many afternoons previous.

And I was off. Even early, I was, thank you very much. Although, it must be asked, early for what? For the drive to San Francisco is a known thing. Its duration and general conditions having been observed many times. Still, there were the unknowns, so I was glad to be shoving off a good 15 minutes early. Naturally, I took my way out of town. Problem is, I have two. One leads to a motorway that skirts light industrial developments near the Bay. The other freeway rolls through coastal foothills. And I paused at the end of my driveway for an embarrassing moment, trying to decide. In the end, I opted for 280, the more pastoral highway. It is reputedly more relaxing.

Jane’s route through Menlo Park to 280 is more circuitous, albeit probably shorter, but I was in the driver seat, wasn’t I? My way loops up Sand Hill Road, but never mind. This was shorter in my mind. And my mind was having its way. Including flinging me right into the bustling midday traffic. Which, I would like to point out, involved elbowing the special control that rattles off a series of options, a synthesized voice intoning left turn, right turn, dimmer, and on and on. I muttered left turn and damned if the appropriate light didn’t flash. I was flashing too, hurtling northbound. And not so fearful of the long sloping descent into the Valley of the Shadow of the exit to Half Moon Bay. In fact I was down and up again, climbing toward San Mateo, then swooping low into Milbrae, and swooping and swooping, for that hill does go on a bit. And if you haven’t gathered by this time, hills and the braking they require throw me into a mild existential panic. Will the brakes work? Will the car stop? Is there honey still for tea?

Damn right. There’s plenty, in fact. Because I am blasting across San Francisco’s southern flank, past Lick-Wilberding High School, which a university friend whom I haven’t seen in approximately 50 years, attended. But I am remembering these obscure, mostly forgotten bits, because that’s what happens when you’re flying, rolling toward a bold new automotive future. Note how deftly I change lanes. Well, not all that often, but when I am obliged to shift from one carriageway to another, I hit the elbow control and the lights do what they should. As do I. Passing from one lane to another with something bordering on ease. Actually, my van has a blind spot director, something along the lines of radar or sonar that picks up a foreign object alongside your car. Yes, yellow arrow illuminates in the wing mirror. And I’m thinking, wow, this investment in a high-end car, absolutely the first in my 66 years, well, it is paying off.

And now I am getting off, for Interstate 280 is coming to a spectacular end, having done its job of urban transport, carrying me and a surprising load of stopped traffic up and over the Caltrain railyard and down…though more slowly than I would have expected…to the city surface. Note that I have planned my route. Yes, there is a GPS on board, but who knows how to run these things? Certainly not I. Which is why I consulted our friend Mr. Map. And the only purpose of the latter being the one-way system, which thwarts even experienced drivers.

But never mind, for we have successfully joined the throng on Folsom Street, and having crossed Second Street, then First Street, we are lowering flaps for the turn into Fremont Street. We should all turn into Fremont Street. Although the Federal Express driver ahead of me will turn into a frog, if I have my way. He has left his van flashing in the left lane, but not to worry, I have steered around him to the right, preparing to turn left…when the news is revealed. One cannot turn left. Yes, even from a one-way street into another one-way street. Whatever. This is San Francisco, capital of arbitrary parking and traffic laws.

What happens when you can’t turn? You go around the block, don’t you. Or in San Francisco, you go around the blockage. Which I’m doing now, turning right, then right, then right into…a carpool lane. Which makes absolutely no sense. But, rising from the primal deaths of this driver’s memory, a warning. Markings like this only appear on motorways. This street is becoming just that. This roadway is becoming a highway to hell, or more accurately, the Bay Bridge. Which dominates this entire neighborhood.

It soars overhead, hangs over buildings, and makes a most impressive anchorage near Brannan Street. For I have just seen something that, I must admit, transit does not afford. A view of where the enormous steel cables are grabbed by an equally enormous concrete block, the entire effort making the suspension bridge suspend. A working remnant of the industrial age. And I am most impressed. Although right now I am most alarmed. For I am afraid of what is happening here, that like a police dragnet, I am getting swept up. I don’t know how, but Brannan Street is leading me to Oakland, and I need to get out of here. Which is only possible if I turn down this alley, which isn’t exactly what I intended. Particularly since the so-called alley turns out to be romantically paved in brick and tilting downhill like some byway in Volterra.

I turn left on another alley, eventually turn right again, then right, and finally paydirt. Fremont Street. I do scan the roadside for possible disabled parking. But it’s not happening. What is happening is just ahead, the high-rise that is 425 Market Street. Turning into the garage, the entrance a steep curvilinear path to a long anticipated ticket machine…which will involve a maddening, possibly impossible reach through my van window to grab at the parking token. But at the bottom, a stunning surprise. There is no machine. This is a valet operation, everything hand parked, by a cheery band of Chinese-American attendants. And damned if there isn’t a disabled space right in front of me, one with adjacent crosshatching for a van’s ramp or lift. I pull straight into it.

Which, the parking guys, aren’t terribly keen about. Find you good place, they say. Better place for your good car. Here. Here. What the hell. I follow, and now, horrified, find myself backing around a pillar, while one man gives me jerky and hyperactive hand signals, and two of his colleagues exchange something unknown in Cantonese. Which, I roughly translate as “let’s watch this fool bash his new car into our concrete maze.” However, not to worry, I have this backup screen in my car. Not to mention beepings that erupt whenever the car gets too close to anything. Not that I understand the signals. But the general idea gives me a sense of well-being. Even better, the screen gives me a sense that I am finally parked.

But in the wrong location. There is a car right next to me. Why didn’t I see this? Why don’t these guys understand? Fortunately, two of them are still around, and now I am more or less screaming that this will not work. Yelling and screaming is more or less what they are doing also, albeit in Cantonese. They tell me everything is fine. I drive forward, out of the parking space, blocking the way for anyone else and show them what I mean. I push a button, the door opens and the wheelchair ramp extends out, tilts down and hits the concrete floor. Oh. Oh. An explosion of Cantonese. Not to worry. Not to worry. They move the car next to me. I back into the space. I turn off the engine. I breathe.

I am late for my appointment. But I am alive. There is that. Even better, my van is okay. There is life. I lock the doors. I push the button for the wheelchair ramp. Nothing happens. I push it again. Nothing happens again. A third time. It is broken. The wheelchair ramp is broken. This always happens with any piece of disabled equipment. Eventually, you are fucked. I certainly am. What to do now?

Fortunately, I glance at the dashboard. Because I have purchased a high-end car, a matter of extreme expense but stunning perspicacity, guess what? There is a message on the dashboard. To operate, must unlock door. Oh. I unlock, the side door slides open, the ramp slides down, I slide out. And enter a new chapter.

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