A bad sign that the 8:39 morning express to San Francisco is running late. This rarely happens on Caltrain. Save for the occasional suicide, locals hurling themselves upon the tracks in frightening numbers…a sign of the times, one cannot say. The times one can count on being of the daily schedule variety. I have an appointment. I need to see a woman about my book. Yes, there is one. I have seen the cover. I have seen the beautifully designed pages. I have seen the future, and it is in Berkeley…at least this morning.
In another phase of life I had a briefcase. Downright handy, it was. But it seemed to be an artifact of work. And supposedly work is over. I mean, one can’t call a novel, a newspaper and New Yorker, work, can one? They are incompatible, these objects, the shiny book cover, newsprint and slick magazine pages shifting around my lap like tectonic plates. Worse, with numbed fingers it is hard to feel what is happening, let alone correct the slippage…of one thing under the other, and ultimately off my lap to the Caltrain carpet. Never mind. We are late but pleasantly rocketing along. Rushhour.
Which explains why the men’s toilets at the San Francisco station are jammed. Worse, when I find a vacant urinal, life presents an essential problem. I have all this junk on my lap. There are no shelves or available servants to hold these items…although with the United States hurtling toward underdevelopment, the nation’s workforce may soon expand beyond homeless windshield cleaners to India-style book holders in our men’s rooms. A bright future. For now, the dull present forces me to lean my book against one wheelchair tire…the edge resting on a rather septic floor…and jam newspaper and magazine behind me on my seat, while I stand. It all works out, although I do forget the book, knocking it right onto its cover and against the grimy, suspiciously wet tile. Never mind. Across the street a tram awaits.
Or to be more precise, I wait for it. Interminably. The electronic signs announcing tram times are usually fairly reliable, but not this morning. And four minutes soon drags into 14. Until the tram pulls up, I roll on, and everything should proceed swimmingly. But there are complications. This is one of those rare moments when another electric wheelchair rolls on too. I eyeball the chair in a manner only known to wheelchair insiders. His is a good one, a Swedish model much like mine, only newer. He is also rigged out with a lap top computer mounted on a lapboard, mobile phone hooked to a flexible stand. Not to mention a GPS screen slightly to his left. The Bradley Fighting Vehicle is no better equipped. But the effect on the disabled occupant seems paradoxically weakening. He needs all this gear, that is the thing, and so seems to be drowning in it. I wonder if he has ALS. He is younger than I am, fortyish. And he wants the 38L. I want the 38L, he tells the driver in a voice that is loud and clear…but muffled, if not obliterated, by its context.
This is the City. The provincial capital, the big city, relatively speaking. The driver tells him that he needs to go up. That is to say, get off at the tram’s first underground stop, Embarcadero Station, and proceed to the surface. Except that he doesn’t say this. Only I can see disaster looming, along with my fellow wheelchair guy, because of a certain level of experience. It is frightening rolling about anywhere in a wheelchair, more so when you are a country mouse among city mice. Actually, San Francisco is a small city, and the possibilities for travel going awry are just as small. He will make it to Market Street, fumble about and find the 38 Geary bus stop. What I am sympathizing with is the anxiety, the sense of being defenseless in a wheelchair…having to turn the entire mechanical device around, lazysusan-style, just to see who is talking to you. Still, somehow he will find the bus stop, or a stranger will point it out. He will reach his destination, but not without a troubling and lonely journey. He proclaims the 38L one final time, as though sheer volume will make the bus materialize. I can’t help admiring him. Loudness, anything that raises the disabled profile is not easy to muster. Not that it matters. The driver isn’t listening. He has other fish to fry.
There is a spatial problem developing. Actually, it is a very simple one, but the parameters are new, not yet known. It amounts to this. I have wedged myself between the driver’s compartment and the tram’s far wall. This gets me out of the way of passengers and normally provides a place to hang out for a few stops. But the other wheelchair is blocking the entrance door. The quester after 38L has to move inside, which necessitates a three-point turn. I am occupying one of the three points. I need to get out of the way. Except that he is blocking me. He can’t move unless I move, and vice versa. And there is more. A homeless guy with a walker. Actually, to make a badly needed distinction here, I have no sense of his residential status. He is poor. And neglected, an image that adds up to ‘homeless’ at this sad moment in our national decline. But for the time being, in terms of spatial transit relationships, his walker is all that counts. There are now three vehicles, all four-wheeled, and somehow they have gotten irretrievably jammed. How did we get here? Or why are we staying here?
Well, one of us is visibly anxious, out of his suburban element, and excessively focused on the 38L bus. Another is trapped in a corner and awaiting an opportunity to move his wheelchair. And the only ambulatory one among us is pushing forward, blindly, purpose unknown. For the poor walker guy acts like he is trying to get off the tram, when really he wants to stay on. He wants a space, I think. And precisely why he is pushing against the 38L wheelchair guy is impossible to say. What we need is leadership. And we have it in the form of a Muni driver, a take-charge stalwart of the city’s municipal railway. You back up, he instructs 38L. Now, you wait, he tells me. The walker guy he more or less prods, back, back. And it is true that a space is now opening. The driver asks people seated in one of the tram’s seats along the wall to stand and sit elsewhere. He folds the seat out of the way. Just long enough for 38L to try maneuvering his way into the tram. I sympathize with the guy. He is actually quite good at steering his wheelchair, but conditions are against him. The tight spaces and severe angles of a tram require a certain level of experience and expertise. He will get the hang if he does this a few times, but we are not there yet. In fact, he has gotten himself slightly hung up on a metal stanchion. Ah, now he has rounded the corner. We are all in position, more or less. All that lies ahead…is Berkeley.