In A Passage to India, Forster’s young Indian doctor hero…if we can call him that…goes to one particularly extraordinary length in his efforts to socialize with the British. He sets up an outing at some nearby caves, involving a short train ride. The party is to assemble at the local railway station one morning, ride to the place, see the caves, return. It couldn’t be simpler. But this is India, after all, and things are not simple. The doctor arrives with his retinue of servants the evening before the departure, all of them camping on the railway platform, just in case. Just in case what? Late. He does not want to be late, and knowing that he does not have anything like the British sense of time, decides this is the wiser course. The scene has always stuck in my mind. It speaks volumes about the differences in human cultures. And says just as much about the commonality of good human intentions. And says everything there is to know about disabled travel.
Something like sticker shock hits me whenever I review the bill for this summer’s trek to the UK. How did I rack up all these charges? Which are only part of the tally, after all, the transportation part. The ground part, e.g., hotels, is not even included. How? Mentally, I wash my hands of it. I let it go. Like Forster’s heroic Dr. Aziz, I know what I am up against and see no other alternative. Want to visit the Caves of Marabar? Grab the whole retinue, walk a few blocks to the train station and prepare for a long night. Is there no other way? There may be. But the anxiety involved probably is not worth it. Or, viewed from another perspective, there will be plenty of times when you can’t avoid the risky, worrisome option. So savor the peace of mind that comes from camping on the station platform. The next time won’t be so easy.
Take New York. It’s hard to say, not to mention slightly embarrassing, that the nation’s major city presents such a challenge to the disabled traveler. Or does it? It has in the past, that is certain. But the times they are a changing’. Rumor has it that parts of the subway system are actually wheelchair-friendly. Is this true? I cannot verify it. But, really, I must. Thing is, come July I will have to. I plan to turn up at some bookstore in New York City early in that month and read to an audience of five or six individuals. I prepare myself for disappointment in this way. Who knows about the audience? Who even knows about the bookstore, with so many biting the dust in this era of Amazon and e-readers?
The challenge, which viewed at this distance seems immense, involves the simple matter of getting from 57th St. to a bookseller in some other part of town. How far? I don’t know. Why should I worry about this now? I don’t know that either. But this seems to be another fact of disabled travel. Early and obsessive worry actually doesn’t hurt. And may even help. Relaxing can come later.
As for the summer’s vacation transportation bill, let’s put it this way. What should a couple of nights in Midtown cost? Whatever your answer, rephrase the question. What should a couple of nights in a wheelchair-accessible room in Midtown cost? Forget that too, because the real question involves the hotel room and the supreme ingredient: transportation for you and your wheelchair to the Brooklyn docks.
Surely in a big city like New York there are people who will do this sort of thing, you say. No need to throw vast sums of money at Cunard just to take advantage of their wheelchair-accessible coach. No need. Unless you want to have no worry. Which is the thing about the ship company. Shovel some cash at them, and they will miraculously get you and your wheelchair and your bags right where they should be, when they should be. One less thing to worry about. And, let us face it, one less big thing.
After all, there is now this matter of getting to the bookstore. Not just getting there, but on time…dressed up and looking in my prime, to quote Alan Jay Lerner. The galling possibility, and it is already in my mind and rankling, is that I will have to shovel additional money at the New York City limo service of last resort get to the bookstore. I have used Vega Transportation before to get from Midtown to Red Hook, Brooklyn. The trip cost just under $250. Which is somewhere between an insult and a nightmare. In fact, that sums up aspects of disabled travel. In Forster’s time, Dr. Aziz got to the railway station a day early. In this era, someone would gladly take $250 to get him there the same day. Either way, it’s ridiculous.
Even more ridiculous is running through such thoughts in the middle of the night in a San Francisco hotel. Jane and I have returned from a fund-raising event. We are spending the night here, then shoving off in the morning, Jane to work, me to home. It has been a frustrating evening. Things began to go slightly off course back in my apartment. We were packing, Jane and I. There was the matter of the suit. I have two, actually three. But it is the two that matter, for both are charcoal. And of very similar weaves. The only distinction being a matter of centimeters. One fits. One doesn’t.
Let me check that one out, I said to Jane. I recognize this one, she said. At which point a curious dynamic takes over. I acquiesce. And my motivation is actually fairly simple. I like being taken care of. But this is one of those moments when the needy elements within one must step to the side. And those that know we are the captain of our own ship have to come up on deck. Let me check the label, Jane. That would have revealed all.
So the predictable ensued. In the San Francisco hotel room, getting into the suit trousers proved remarkably difficult. I denounced myself strenuously for putting on weight. Then wait. What’s this? The jacket did not fit either. Wrong suit, of course. Which for a person already self-conscious about being in a wheelchair, adds another layer of unwanted disability. Who knows how gawky I looked in the get of who seems I was bursting? And speaking of bursting, my bladder being what it is, we were barely at the fundraiser/banquet and into the salad course when, you guessed it.
I set off, wheelchair rattling down the corridors of the St. Francis Hotel, an old San Francisco landmark, to the men’s toilet. Which proved to be exactly that, one single toilet in a stall. The latter poorly modified for wheelchair requirements, which set off another frantic moment of banging the wheelchair back and forth, trying to open the metal door. And once inside the stall, things got appreciably worse. The zipper, difficult enough to operate when Jane was helping me dress, had become immovable. It could not be budged when I was standing. So I tried sitting, sort of sprawling out in the wheelchair, legs extended. Which helped. Bit by bit, tooth by tooth, the zipper slid down its track. And just in time, of course.
The problem did not exactly go away. Now the zipper would not slide back. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking on the banquet proceedings, the salad course doubtless sliding toward the main. Remember the main, I thought, setting off back toward the ballroom full of diners. Frequent humiliation cannot be avoided in wheelchair life. At times it has to be ignored, pretended out of existence, just so one can carry on. In my quasi-fantasy, I had blocked my very open trouser fly with part of my tie. That, and my splinted paralyzed right hand might just keep things out of view when I returned to the ballroom to roll among the diners, find our table and summon Jane’s help.
Which proved unnecessary, for Jane was right outside the toilet. I had been gone a bit too long, she sensed trouble, and here she was. For two fairly shy people, we can be quite a brazen team. ‘We’ll just be a moment,’ Jane said to the hotel cleaning woman who was just leaving the women’s restroom. The attendant’s eyebrows slid very high, she shook her head, but too late, we were already rolling inside. Jane got the zipper into a functional position, and we were back in act
ion. Although I did have to position my napkin rather skillfully for the rest of the evening.
And now in the middle of the night…what? San Francisco’s high-rise skyline is glowing before us. We have a bed we don’t have to make. Jane doesn’t have to fight the late-night traffic out of the drunken city on this St. Patrick’s Day, a major alcohol fest in these parts. But something is not right. I cannot sleep. Nothing is right. This is not the life I signed up for, and now it is running its course. The great time out in the sky has become visible.
And on the final laps, the energy level appears to be dropping. Stamina is not infinite, it seems. A slowing down. Later, a shutting down. And down seems where I do not wish to go. Even though this is life’s essential lesson. That we grow down, not up. Go down, Moses. This is ever the way of wisdom. Will I go down gracefully? Hard to say. I am considering what ‘graceful’ might look like.