I am deluged with flyers and mailers, not to mention wheelchairing past lawns staked out with more cardboard election signs than tombstones in a graveyard. Such is the bitterly fought election over the officers of the Menlo Park Fire Board. The only point being that I know all this. So when I roll in the door at 7:45 this evening only to be greeted from a call from Steve from the Menlo Park Firefighters…there is every reason to be gracious. Although in the moment graciousness eludes me. I assure Steve that my house is not ablaze and say goodbye.
Which is nothing to brag about, considering the general course of my day. Which began at 3 AM with me in a vociferous dinner party conversation. No, I tell my crystal clinking, plate clattering restaurant companions, I had no idea that the Embarcadero Freeway had been torn down. Everyone at the table is aghast at my coarse ignorance. I look around the assembled guests and ask ‘why am I always the last to know?’ And in this dream, I am as worked up as the guests. Everyone is disturbed, somehow. I am most aggressive in my sarcastic self-deprecation. Which soon translates into being awake and awake and awake until, well, now. I do not return to sleep.
What is going on? Enthusiasm or hysteria? Too much energy to channel into the conventional outlets? Or just plain fear? It really doesn’t matter, for I have so constructed things as to have many miles before I sleep, all of them on public transit. Better get going. But not before I ask Menchu to whip up some croutons. Never know when you might need croutons. And with all that bread hanging about the kitchen, most of it putatively French, might as well let go with the olive oil and the garlic and the oven. She does all this admirably, I turn off the heat, let the croutons cool, stuff them in a bag, and let the good times roll.
Naturally I am rolling toward the northbound platform of Caltrain at maximum warp and with maximum load. Among the latter, Kipling, a rail lobbyist’s newsletter, the New York Times, the Guardian, The Nation and one New Yorker. When I expect to read all this is not clear. It is magical thinking. It seems to me that after having lunch with Leo, my writing professor from the 1970s, I will have lots of time to kill in San Francisco before journeying south to the Caltrain meeting in the Peninsula suburbs. Lots of time.
From the moment the journey tries to begin, it stumbles. Human beings need sleep, this is the simple truth. True, I did have four hours the previous night, but the body is telling me that this is not sufficient. It is the fatigued body that told me to load my lap full of half a library’s reference section. And now it is telling me to announce to the Caltrain conductor that I am heading to San Francisco. Which is factually true, though circumstantially false. I need to get off this train at Milbrae and launch myself citywards on BART, the region’s subway system. Unfortunately, he is absent for much of the northbound trip, but fortunately does reappear at Burlingame. He lets me off at the next stop. The BART train departs within seconds, and what a good boy am I.
The morning’s rigors are already getting to me, and I do slightly nod off somewhere near Daly City, awakening only seconds before we hit Balboa Park. I roll off the train onto the shiny brick platform. Follow the Yellow Brick Road. We’re off to see the Wizard…of the glass booth. Wheelchairs are something of an afterthought in the BART system, and often one is obliged to exit with the help of the station agent…who swipes the magnetic ticket, then opens an emergency door. Except that the glass station booth is empty. No agent in sight. However I do collar a BART employee, a woman in a yellow safety vest, and more or less demand her help. After all, I am in a hurry, have a lunch appointment, and cannot screw around. There, she says. She is pointing at the most obvious thing, a wheelchair-sized exit gate. No, I tell her, I am not going in the system, but heading out. Yes, she says, that’s the exit. I cannot understand this. The facts are so simple, yet I deny their truth. Until the reality coalesces through a fog of fatigue. This is the exit, a wheelchair exit. And, yes, at other stations, such as Berkeley, things are much more confusing. Wheelchairs rise one level via elevator, emerge outside the paid zone, and the station agent intervenes. But not here. And by the time I finally grasp this reality, having swiped my ticket, the turnstile closes. I have waited too long. The BART woman…perhaps a janitor, opens an emergency side gate. After which I’m still convinced that I must take the elevator up one more level. But here at least I give reality a try. The outside is, you guessed it, just outside.
Through the open door, which leads right to where I last found myself months ago. Down a long footpath, skirting the edge of a Muni yard full of empty trams. Although one real tram, a moving one, has rounded a distant corner and is coming straight down the track toward me. Which means that I must rush to the distant wheelchair platform before the tram arrives. Naturally, I drop my wallet, Kipling, miscellaneous newspapers and magazines, on the pavement. I stop, cursing myself for being a fool. For overloading my lap with crap. Which now must be picked up, item by item, with one working hand, grab and lift. Grab and lift. Until my possessions are again in my possession, though the same cannot be said for my faculties. I roll up the ramp just as the tram whooshes by. I am a dismal and utter idiot. I will wait here for another 20 minutes, 30 minutes, just because I dropped my stuff. The tram pauses. The driver walks to the rear. Is this where I get the tram, I beg him. My hope is that, improbably, he will back the thing up and take me with him. He asks me where I want to go. I tell him. Yes, he says. He parks the tram in the adjacent yard. False alarm. As is the next tram that stops there. It is an N. I want a J. And here it is, finally, and the damn thing better get going and get going fast.
The driver is a young woman, black with cornrows. She has her act together, I can tell. She apologizes for needing to use the station toilet and leaving me alone onboard. But this is the end of the line, after all, which makes it the beginning too. A profound metaphysical truth, which eludes me at the time. All I notice is the pigeon that flies through the open door while the driver is away. I am most affable about all this, hoping she will return and get things going fast. I have made this mistake before, getting off at Balboa Park, somehow thinking this bridging of three entirely separate transit systems would be faster. It isn’t. We set off down Ocean Avenue, a part of San Francisco that could be anywhere hundreds of miles north or south, coastal air being prevalent, but the whole ambience neither urban nor suburban. Nowhere. Never mind, for ahead the tram will accelerate, its tracks rolling down the center of…bam. The tram slams to a stop, my wheelchair tilting, throwing everything off my lap, and almost sending me flying from the chair. There they are, the same things, the Kipling, magazines, newspaper, wallet. Are you okay, the driver asks? Yes, I assure her. A Hispanic woman helps me pick up the gear. She is seated with her husband, an impassive man who has seen too many gringos. Muy peligroso, I observe. She smiles. He looks away. The driver grab
s something like a car jack to readjust the stuck switch we have just hit.
I am remarkably late by the time I roll off the tram at 24th St. Rolling up the wheelchair ramp to the sidewalk a man stands oblivious, in my way. I wait for him to move. When he finally does so, he observes ‘you’re welcome.’ I can’t manage anything so lofty. I might have said thanks, but then again, maybe not. I don’t care. All I care about is that I have once again dropped everything from my lap, desperately rolling up the street towards Leo and lunch. Some sort of container wouldn’t hurt, would it? A bag, perhaps. Too late for that sort of thing. Too late for everything. Maybe even too late for lunch. I wonder if Leo is still there. Sure, of course, there he is. Or this wouldn’t be Hamano Sushi, would it? I have been meeting him here for years. I manage lunch without dribbling too much soy sauce down my chin. Exiting the men’s room, I do manage in turning the wheelchair to rip the pay phone off its cradle. I apologize to one of the waiters. I really don’t mind, such is my state. When Leo almost knocks over the cream container when we have coffee afterwards down the street, it feels like it’s my fault.
I board a tram, the final one for the day, taking me to Caltrain. Naturally, a quarter of a mile later, the tram brakes to a violent stop, everything flies off my lap again. But this time I am parked more or less safely, behind a low bulkhead just behind the entrance steps. True, if I really went flying, the protruding ticket scanner would break several ribs. Not to worry. For I have seated myself defensively. Wisely. For as anyone can see, this is not a good transit day. Which, however consistent the pattern of events, is not my fault. It is my fate, however. And whatever else can be said, it is taking me somewhere.