The 4:19 express rumbles toward San Francisco with gratifying speed, almost enough to drown out that sense in the lower quadriplegic back that this is all a bit much. It is what Caltrain calls the reverse commute. An outdated term, it hails from the recent, more traditional past. San Francisco, provincial capital, used to attract commuters into it every morning, driving them out and homeward every evening. Now many people prefer urban life after hours, working in the sprawling suburban technology parks of Silicon Valley during the day, home to the city at night.
It is, or was, a nice idea. But my workday, as it were, is beginning. Nothing to do but try to be comfortable and read my Carl Hiaasen novel of sleaziness and skulduggery in South Florida. Then bounce aboard the tram…of which there is a bounty, being rush hour…and bounce off at Embarcadero, the Financial District.
This is all shirt-and-tie San Francisco, small high-rise canyons, largely modern and faceless, but not entirely. I curse myself for not bringing a map. Then, of course, I remember my iPhone. Still, something in me is too stubborn to give in. I am certain it is up there, somewhere up California Street. The latter is a pleasantly wide thoroughfare. It admits enough sunlight to counter the sun-blocking effects of the tall buildings. The wide sidewalks, the rumbling of the cables under the street, the occasional cable car…it’s San Francisco.
Battery Street. I am convinced it’s imminent, perhaps even barely legible on a distant corner sign. Meanwhile, even the sidewalk opens on a small plaza, a huge office block rising and curving to embrace it. 101 California. The address is bold, proclaimed in a pile of three-dimensional stainless steel letters. I stop briefly and let this sink in. The irony of how I have stumbled upon the place, stumbling toward Battery Street. Not my physical destination, but my spiritual one. The structure is bigger than I expected. Had I never seen it before? The shootings that occurred here slightly predated my wheelchair era. I was still getting around by crutch, although running out of neuromuscular steam. So, I had probably only seen this façade before now on the covers of the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times.
An utterly demented man took the elevator to the 34th floor one afternoon, packing enough concealed weapons and ammunition to kill nine people and wound six others. The sort of event one doesn’t forget. But this is more than remembering, this moment on the sidewalk. The downward nature of it, the descent from life, hope and possibilities. Frightening and wrenching to consider from the vantage point of time. But in the moment it is mostly down, gunned down.
The San Francisco Bar Association, just around the corner, occupies a neoclassic building of uncertain age. Inside the marble lobby the actual office location becomes murky. A woman behind the counter eyeballs me. I scribble my name on a clipboard, and she directs me to the elevator. I roll between thick rectangular blocks, doubtless metal detectors. And then, moments later, I’m in the Bar Association conference center. It’s a large room. Someone suggests I sit in the back where there is more space between the tables. For some reason, I acquiesce, feeling shy, out of place. But secretly bridling at the notion of being the wheelchair guy at the back of the bus, as it were. On general principles, I decide to roll closer. Then I meet someone from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, one of the sponsors of this event. Then I eat half a plate of hors d’oeuvres. I forget about moving, and the proceedings get under way.
The four panelists, lawyers on opposite side of the gun issue, are just far enough away to manifest as people, but not so close as to disturb me. The National Rifle Association’s legal advocates so totally appall me that I don’t want to see too much of them, get an excessively personal impression. I want to hear. Consider and examine. What can they be thinking? Yet, in this instance, I don’t want to put that twist on the question. What is their thinking? That will do.
This discussion is actually a seminar of some academic standing, worthy of continuing credit for lawyers. But, no, it’s not drowning in legalese. There’s a moderator who steers things in a comprehensible direction. The only thing offputting is more of a quibble, that lawyers, like anyone, tend to talk shop. There’s this judge and that judge. And there’s the usual unsettled legal landscape. That’s going to settle, we are assured. And meanwhile, there’s this. Whatever this is.
One of the attorneys, Ben van Houten, lost his wife in the 101 California shootings. I have read about him for years. And now here he is in this sterile room, all stainless steel and plastic, so neutral…and overwhelmingly poignant. Which is doubtless more about me than about him.
And what is said? One of the NRA attorneys readily delivers his tripartite analysis of America’s Second Amendment to the Constitution, all quite glib and prepackaged. A person has a right to defend himself. He has a right to protect himself and others wherever he is. And we Americans have the right to defend ourselves against tyranny. That’s all there is to it.
At the end of the debate in a brief question session, someone in the audience politely asks the most screamingly obvious question. What about consequences? Do judges take into consideration the societal impact of whatever decision they make around guns? What about the research – does anyone listen to this? Wonderful to hear Ben van Houten point out that the NRA has been remarkably successful in suppressing studies and findings on gun violence conducted at the National Institutes of Health and elsewhere. Neither NRA lawyer comments.
“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state….” That’s the setting for this phrase about the “right to bear arms.” How can this be twisted into a gun-toting free-for-all? It obviously has to do with national defense, 1791 style.
But if you want guns, feel you need to protect yourself against the world with your own weapons – this is what there is. I am staring at this NRA guy now. This lawyer. Consequences? Research? His intellectual bulwark was tightened down long ago, and random gun violence, gun accidents, the fact that these occur in the United States at a rate that vastly exceeds anything else in the industrial world…whatever. A man has his rights. Constitution says so. I keep staring at the NRA’s lawyer. His world is pinched and narrow, and I’m glad I don’t have to make small talk with him at a cocktail party.
Whatever can be said, it’s his world, not mine. And mine is larger than I ever expected. The seminar ended, I’m relieved to find that it’s still early evening in San Francisco. The streets are fairly empty. And wide enough for a wheelchair, a fleet of wheelchairs, to move in formation down California Street. I’ve taken the long way around by mistake. Not the best route. And at one intersection the curb ramp proves so steep that my foot pedals actually lodge in a crack in the concrete. For a puzzling moment, I am actually stuck. It is maddening, not to mention baffling, how such a thing can be accomplished. To design a wheelchair ramp that cannot accommodate a wheelchair… Sems a supreme achievement.
A couple of passersby help me out. I’m back on my roll toward the regional subway, BART. I’m on a roll in general. A California roll. And yes, there is again, now on my right. 101 California. Which some of us remember, even if we’ve never been there.