Putting my best foot forward, that is the thing, and how this was accomplished just last night is anyone’s guess. But it is true enough, this thing about my foot, how it has been cramping, keeping me awake, until last night. This welcome news has to do with the physiologically disturbing effects of travel, I am certain. Nothing like a little sojourn in Arizona to get one surprisingly dehydrated…followed by a program of water ingestion yesterday evening, followed by a night without sleep-robbing cramps. Actually, to put a fine point on things, my foot cramps erupted during the day in Arizona, with a greater than normal need to elevate my leg, keep the pinging under control. Never mind. I can live with this, days of jabs in my right arch. As long as the nights quiet down. Travel. Don’t leave home without it.
Yes, it had been one of those foot cramping nights, me dropping the afflicted limb off the edge of the bed, a sometimes and partial remedy. And by 4:45 AM, it was all in vain, and it actually felt good to arise and make tea for the sleep-sodden Jane beside me. Bathed and attired, I sat ready for launch, and it felt authentically transitional, that moment when Jane lowered the handles of my nylon bag over the wheelchair’s headrest. Luggage and vehicle now united, astronaut and payload off and bouncing over the 6 AM streets. All of it exciting, the streetlight sheen on the pavement, the absence of traffic being slightly illusive…so that the lone driver who approaches the wheelchair headed the wrong way on Live Oak Avenue veers as though startled. The street mostly empty of cars but filled with predawn promise.
The real dawn promises to hit me on Caltrain, but doesn’t. The northbound express has been canceled, I learn, and passengers mill until a local train scoops us out of the platform and we progress, station by station, toward the airport. It is a great indignity, this thing that Caltrain passengers must now endure to reach their terminal. But I endure it, the subway ride to the first suburb north, then a change to the first airport train south, a half-billion dollar mistake that shall live in infamy. Never mind. For we are there now, the airport’s driverless tram dropping me at Terminal 1 where the Hispanic staff of US Airways do an extraordinary job of getting me into a bulkhead seat where I sit in an empty row all the way to Phoenix.
Things do change, and one must be reminded of this, for my fears don’t. I simply can’t let go of the apprehension that someone, in ways that are fated and frightening, is going to damage my wheelchair. Yes, this has happened before, several times, but not recently. Perhaps the airport crews are becoming more accustomed. Perhaps my Swedish wheelchair is made of sterner stuff. But there it is. And having arrived in Phoenix, I am back in the thing and outside waiting for SuperShuttle, when something like gratitude or optimism gets me talking to the dispatcher. A very skinny black kid with dreadlocks. People like to be talked to like people, of this I am certain, and it is this knowledge that makes me talk to him. How is the weather? How is the tourist trade this year? Should I have asked my hotel if their own airport van could accommodate wheelchairs? All unnecessary talk, all designed to give a kid a bit of validation, which I sense is particularly needed here in Phoenix. Whatever the southwestern reality of the place, this airport is currently East Coast.
People are arriving for the winter, and they are distinguishing themselves in particularly American ways. I might follow their example, shunning the slightly feral black kid in the SuperShuttle jacket, a unwanted reminder of the streets they just left behind in Philadelphia or Boston or Cincinnati. Something, some buoyancy in me, steers things in a different direction. He choreographs curbside van activity in his own jivey urban way, this kid, while having enough professional sense to say ‘goodbye, Mr. Bendix.’ All that anyone can hope from anyone. I wish him all the best.
I even wish Phoenix all the best, although I also wish that Phoenix wasn’t what it is, a wholly artificial cityscape owing no gratitude to taxpayers in the likes of Connecticut who paid for its life-giving water. The extremity of the place becomes most apparent when the plane begins its descent over Blythe, California. The Colorado River, essentially the only one in a vast region, is barely discernible. Green fields flank its sides. And then nothing. No, it is not fair to call the desert nothing. But whatever Northern European inheritance makes me feel that greenery is a norm, mentally turns the next several hundred miles of mineralscape into a waste. Also inaccurate, for no land is a waste, but this land is hard and flinty and inhospitable to quadriplegic wanderers, let us say that much. There is life beneath its baking soul, doubtless. And on this sparkling autumn day, the mountains surrounding Phoenix are all brightness. The SuperShuttle driver explains as we cover the few miles between the airport and downtown Tempe that the tourist season is better. Quite a disaster last year, he says. We turn down Mill Avenue, the main drag just off the Arizona State University campus, and the man explains that the area is populated by hippies. A quaint term, one I have not heard for decades, and wildly inappropriate to this massive and bland academic town. America’s culture wars go on forever.
I stay at the one hotel in Tempe that has anything like the feel of a neighborhood about it. I am here to have a meeting with my sister, to discuss some old family matters. And I am torn between wanting to have lunch on the sunny terrace of the hotel and taking a nap. After a fairly sleepless night of foot cramps, I opt for the latter. Later, rolling to the lobby, some sort of small convention is under way. It’s something military, lots of people wearing army camouflage with conference name badges. I’m Bob. Lots of Southerners here, of course. The latter always call me sir, doubtless because of my advancing years, but also because this is what they do. It makes me suspicious, this authoritarian-tinged sir business, going in and out of the elevator, passing each other in the lobby, but the mystery must endure. Who knows what ‘sir’ means to a Southerner?
Tempe, with its air-conditioned buses, palm trees and freshly paved streets, its restaurants and hotels, makes one think this is an affluent place, Phoenix and environs. I know it as a shellshocked center of the American recession, property values decimated, thousands of holiday homes unsold, many abandoned. And because I have met a couple of my sister’s students, a place of sharp economic division. One young guy, Jorge, waits tables at a retirement community in North Phoenix. His girlfriend tends to the elderly in their homes. Neither is treated well and both are paid poorly.
I cannot imagine discussing these futureless kids with anyone in my hotel. The conversational opportunities would seem better along Mill Avenue, with the university crowd. They would probably be ideal at a little coffee joint several blocks away. It is a dingy, concrete-floored place, but given to excellent cappuccino. Still, it does not have much by way of food or, more important, brightness. The In Counter, an apparent chain restaurant on Mill Avenue, offers just that. Poached eggs and cleanliness and skylights. When my sister and I are out for a wheelchair roam the following morning, I finally settle on this place, not the grungy coffee house. In short, I am seduced as easily as anyone. The next time, I tell myself. Next time I will h
ave had enough of wheelchair independence and Mill Avenue where the shuttered boutiques are increasingly apparent. There are 65,000 students just a couple of streets away from here, and if these businesses are failing, surely things are terribly bad. They are, of course. And it’s not a secret. And no one is talking in this land of I and me, except to themselves.
Which would be the end of the story were it not for one final we’re-all-in-this-together moment. It’s always very awkward arriving at any airport with an electric wheelchair in the belly of the plane. It’s not that I wait nervously, though I do. It’s that I delay everyone and everything. The entire cabin crew is obliged, or feels obliged, to linger while that final passenger awaits his power wheelchair. At San Francisco this involves transporting the chair from the plane, across the apron, through a door and to the nearest elevator. Which can take quite a while. So what is there to do but have a quick pee, getting one out of the airport that much faster? Problem is that toilets aboard the typical Airbus 310 are inconveniently lodged under the curving wall of the airplane. The average able-bodied person would not even notice. But the standing quadriplegic cannot get his hips forward enough. One’s attempts fall short. Significantly short, falling on the floor, in fact. Not to worry, for this is why the toilets are full of paper towels. Besides, the cleaning crew is going to get to this first-class lavatory soon enough. Which, I realized, having left the site in a very unsanitary condition, was not true. The cabin cleaners had, come and gone, and in view of the of wad of wet paper towels in the corner, I could not be going fast enough myself.