No way around it, the ludicrous feeling of boarding Caltrain for the 1.2 mile ride to Palo Alto. Acknowledging that I could, and I have, bounced that distance directly in my wheelchair. No train, no van. Just me and the road surfaces, what is left of them in 2011 Depression California. Never mind, for on my way to the train station, it all begins to dissolve, the sense of the inappropriateness of my day’s transit choice. Making room for the real question. Why do I always feel that what I am doing, in fact, my very being, is so terribly wrong? Fortunately, while there is room for this question, there is no time. I have a train to catch, a ticket to purchase. And my sense of urgency is not displaced, for here it comes, the 8:23 AM southbound. And, yes, there is that last-minute worry that I am bothering the train crew with my demand to be hydraulically hoisted aboard here, then mechanically deposited there slightly more than one mile away. But, no, the conductor instead asks where I have been, says he hasn’t seen me in a while. Never mind. We are off, a few blocks of the Peninsula drift by, and then I am back on the ground in Palo Alto, rolling toward my meeting.
The Business Marketing Association. I thought this sort of thing was all in my painful past. But David, a fellow corporate writer, is still in the game and giving a presentation at a morning gathering of the BMA. I bounce along the jogging path, skirt the familiar medical clinic, roll into Scotts Restaurant, where David is waiting. He is a good friend, and my presence is clearly sought, and I am glad to be here. No, I am not. I am glad to have turned up. The rest will be whatever it is.
A breakfast meeting. David is speaking on the topic of how to write for the web. A good critical thinker, he has put more into this than most people in the corporate world would appreciate. But like a lot of people in the Depression job market, he has more time on his hands than he would like. Providing the opportunity to create an exhaustive presentation, which he has. Barely halfway through it, I decide to hire him myself, for an NGO advocating for American railways. Mostly, I decide that I want this meeting to end.
Even before it begins, things are uncomfortable in a familiar way. I have to meet people. This means shaking their hands, all twelve or so participants, smiling and looking interested. It’s the left-handed nature of this activity that distinguishes me from everyone else, of course. And God knows I’ve done this for well over four decades of right-handed paralysis, but I have not done it recently. I haven’t been to a business meeting like this one in years. Now the excruciating news. Each of us must introduce ourselves. And so it begins, the trip around the tables…I’m Kathy, and I handle marketing communications for Weltscmerz Technologies. I’m Jim. I’m Anastasia. And so on. When it’s my turn I only say my first name, Paul. I describe myself as a retired marketing writer, entirely true, and I add that I am active in non-moneymaking realms, such as advocating for Caltrain. As for the first name, I am afraid that I will stammer in uttering the last. Taking me back to a time when I was about 15 years old and tried to leave a message for my doctor father at a hospital somewhere and couldn’t get my last name out. It was my era of adolescent stuttering. And somehow I choked at ‘Bendix.’ It is still with me, this experience. Everything is with me, that is the strange snowball-like fact, how life rolls and gathers everything with it. Moss. Snow. You name it.
A breakfast meeting. Which means the professional quadriplegic must be careful. Choose what you eat. Particularly, choose what you eat in public. The meeting is a small one, and so is the dining room alcove. I have chosen eggs and, being quite nervous and only picking up on the presence of a Jewish woman at the last minute, bacon. My choice was a poor one. First, nerves being what they are, I keep dropping or slamming my fork against the china plate. The resulting clink echoes across time. It awakens the quadriplegics who have come before me. All of us are here now, but I’m the only one who is alive and in public and making a neuromuscular spectacle of myself. As I did for the many years of my professional life. Which was over until about twenty minutes ago, but now has reanimated. Also brought back to life, and playing in the background, is my third year of high school. I drop the fork again, and just to drive home the paralytic message, badly mangle a piece of bacon. The latter defies cutting.
I am surrounded by people who don’t want to watch me eat and would much rather hear David speak. Actually, I am with them in spirit, just not in body. I don’t even want this breakfast all that much but am stubborn in this regard. I have started something, i.e., a meal, and I am going to finish it. In the end, I come to different solutions. The first involves collapsing a piece of bacon around the end of the fork. On its way to my mouth this accordioned piece of pork belly comes undone, but never mind. I quickly slip the mass into my mouth, hoping the operation has gone unseen. Time passes. David is saying interesting things about how the human eye travels across a webpage. I am focusing on the next piece of bacon. I believe that the least obtrusive answer is the most gauche. Grab the sucker between two fingers and shove it in the defiled mouth. Mine. Proving one of history’s least understood chapters in which quadriplegics, not Jews, invented treif.
After the meeting, people politely congratulate David. He deserves it. His quality of thought being several levels deeper than the average business person can, or will, absorb. A woman chit chats with David for an extended period. I can tell he is tired, wants to sit down and recover from his performance. But this woman is going on about synergy. How what she is doing with communications naturally meshes with what he is doing and the two of them really should see how their vectors cross. I know when David is nodding politely, mentally reeling under the assault of incessant bullshit. And this is one of those moments. But this is what self-employment was all about for me. The need to blather on about things I had not mastered, then appear enthused about sales figures and market penetration.
One thing, though. Time does fly. That’s the thing about work. That’s the thing about activity. I don’t like going out in the world. I don’t like being out in the world. I’m not even sure I like the world. Nonetheless, I have encountered it. Not only in the past, but on this very day, in the present. And what David has said about the use of metaphor in Web communications rings profoundly true. I didn’t intend to pick up useful communication tips. But there are things to say, people to reach, railways to save, trains to keep running. I still care about things. And at times I even care about myself.
Which, rolling back to the Palo Alto Caltrain station, makes it possible for me to see my mother in a certain light. How she seemed to hate herself. More exactly, how she must have felt herself unlovable. For example, how hard it was for my mother to accept that family and friends wanted to throw her a 70th birthday party. She cried continuously and could barely show her face. Unworthiness. The family legacy. And now beset with latter-day grief, what and how much am I really grieving for?