‘But she can’t just stop. You have to taper off. No. I understand. But it’s not up to Julie.’
The woman in front of me traipsing down Crane Street has a mobile phone clamped to her ear, the width of her sidewalk-blocking hips swaying from curb to apartment lawn.
‘But that’s what I’m saying. It’s wrong to just stop. She wants to reduce the dosage. Yeah. Yeah. But what does her doctor say?’
It has been a long day. If this woman only walked at the same speed she talks, I would be home by now.
‘I know he didn’t tell her to just stop taking it.’
‘But he did,’ I say, coming up behind her. ‘He told her to just stop it.’
The woman turns to me, shock frozen over a not very intelligent face, and I speed past her, bouncing toward the corner. ‘I’ll tell you in a second,’ I hear her say, as I clunk onto the street pavement.
A long, long day. Which began as so many do on the northbound Caltrain platform. A mysterious pronouncement is drifting across the digital screen. Train 237 will make Train 235 stop. The arrant nonsense of this transit tweet somehow seems worse than whatever news it attempts to describe. The face-value meaning clear enough, that train 237 is in a bullying mood, deciding to hold up its little metal hand and force its lower numbered cousin to stop. Or maybe lie crossways on the tracks. Still, reluctantly, I do acknowledge the idea. Train 237 is no more. It is picking up 235’s passengers, in addition to its own. Making it a local train. Local and late. Somehow, the day is already lengthening. I dial Pam in Berkeley to cancel our morning coffee. As for my acupuncture appointment with her husband near the center of Berkeley, well, that should be okay. There is plenty of time, after all.
I spend much of the northbound Caltrain experience pressing on my bladder, such is my concern about the next bold move. Which involves alighting at Milbrae. As predicted, the train bearing the contents of two rushhour northbounds, is unpleasantly packed. Amplified announcements from the staff beg passengers not to block the exit doors, find standing room on the upper level, and so on. In my normally secure and solitary wheelchair space, hands keep reaching around me to grab schedules from the plastic rack on the wall. I want out of here.
And in no time at all, this is what happens, me and several hundred others now hurtling north on BART, the regional subway line. The sense of hurtling mostly an illusion, pounding and screeching being better descriptors of the stop-at-every-station trip across San Francisco. Never mind, for now I am in Berkeley, and making my unfamiliar way through a very familiar station. After all, as recently as 30 years ago, I regularly schlepped through here with my crutch. Working as a science writer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, I boarded BART trains at San Francisco’s 24th St. Station, got off here, and walked to the stop for the lab shuttle on the street above. Which means that I should know where the elevator is, but damned if it remains in my mind. Still, working on a guess, it isn’t long before the elevator doors open on rehearsals for some canto of Dante’s Inferno, otherwise known as Shattuck Avenue.
Oh, it’s not that bad, considering the likely state of the impoverished in many American cities. I say ‘likely’ because my life is pleasantly insulated. And in a sense, summer California weather and fairly benign liberal attitudes provide some insulation for street life here. Still, there seem to be so many people living rough these days. As I bounce pass in my wheelchair, several ask for money. I continue on. I have promises to keep, miles to go before I sleep beneath Joe’s needles.
And it does have that effect, acupuncture. This has been Joe’s specialty for as long as I can remember, and I can remember at least 40 years. In fact, he was still at the residency stage of post-medical-school life when we met. And my skepticism being what it is, without knowing Joe I might never have given this branch of alternative medicine a try. But it has proven most effective and most instructive, this oddity of needles in the skin. Depending on my affliction du jour, acupuncture has helped me deal with bouts of insomnia, orthopedic aches and pains, spasticity and even balance. Don’t ask me how it works. Ours is not to know. But Joe has a rare opening on this particular day, and damned if I’m going to miss it.
I seem to have missed his street. Webster Street, isn’t that it? How long has it been since I visited Joe’s Berkeley office? Probably before or shortly after Marlou’s death. My God. Well, not to worry, for his office is within a block or two of Herrick Hospital, isn’t it? Which must be up ahead, just a few blocks further down Milvia Street. Except that it isn’t. And finally, having passed a housing project and a playing field, I roll into a shady spot that allows me to see the digital screen of my mobile phone. Fortunately, Joe’s office number is tattooed on my brain. I tell the receptionist where I am. Even she isn’t entirely clear, but I get the general idea. I have sailed past Joe’s turning by about eight streets.
I am stupid, stupid and now I’m going to be late. Late and stupid, and there is no excuse for this. Fuck me. Idiot. Idiot and fool. Fool and idiot and asshole. Late. For what? For no reason, except that I am incompetent. How can I not know where I am? Isn’t this the fucking town where I was educated, then crippled, then employed, the whole saga spanning on-and-off periods of 12 years? Fool.
And so on. As I denounce myself, some small psychoanalytical voice is trying to deconstruct the phenomenon. Is Joe a latent father figure? Do I imagine being judged by him, ridiculed for my lateness? Did I not know him at stages of my life when I felt much more one down? Joe as judge and stand-in parent. Once inside Joe’s office, conscious of my lateness…which amounts to not much more than five minutes…I have to pee. A process that takes much too long, and perhaps under the pressure of the moment involves lots of bad aiming and missing. Never mind, for the toilet is also equipped with paper towels. And it is not long before I am up on the acupuncture table, recalling the power and oddity of the experience. For within moments of needle insertion, I feel sleep washing over me. Then retreating. And what sounds the retreat, although hard to say, may have something to do with the thing Joe says. He marvels at my general vigor. Clearly, I am not 18, but the life force is bounding along, he says. Which I needed to hear, somehow. Have reconfirmed. A second opinion, as it were, mine not being enough. A father figure? How about a doctor figure, spanning 40 years?
I have a lunch date after all this in San Francisco. Joe helps me get dressed. He knows I am in a hurry, being frequently in one himself, so when I announce my intention to pee, he has a solution. An old-style metal urinal, which I have no compunction’s about asking him to hold. And he has no compunctions about holding. We have been through stranger things together, I point out, as my bladder releases itself. No aiming into the toilet, missing the mark, and driving myself further nuts. Helping myself. Getting help from friends. I seem to have interrupted one of those downward, self-hating spirals.
I thank Joe and in a way that bolsters me. I look him in the eye, con
fidently, warmly and let him know I appreciate him. This matter of looking for Webster Street, across town at a location where Joe closed an office in 1986, well, by now it is a matter of true mirth, shared enjoyment, and no burden. And with predictable jokes about finding my way back to the BART station, I am off.
Uncertain if it has really been a transit day from hell or a transition day from…who knows where? Just as no one knows the last dream I had before waking. Clint, although dead, is sitting behind the wheel of his Volkswagen van. I need a phone number, need to get in touch with someone. Clint tells me that I do not have the right number, and he does so with a familiar look. Paternal, one might say. Or simply managerial, the sort of role he adopted in decades of overseeing engineering projects. I have part of the number, 854, a Menlo Park prefix. And yes, this is worth looking up in my files. But for the time being, the being is Clint. He is alive in death and telling me something. That I don’t know everything, that there is good fatherly energy out there to support and help me, and although having the right number is important, not having it is just a stage. As I say, it has been a long day.