No Exit

Homeward. And on this freezing Phoenix morning…a cold front, not exactly the PR image of the Lower Sonoran Desert…has weather in the bottom 50s. And due to my own standoffishness, I haven’t quite lined up help. Either my sister or brother in law would have been perfectly happy to stop by my hotel and assist with shoes and socks. But I couldn’t quite ask. And so, after struggling with my trousers…some neuromuscular complication making it hard to support one leg with the other, probably because the wheelchair cushion has been rendered sodden by the shower and I’m getting frigid signals in my bottom…I finally get one foot in a pant leg. I even get my sweater on. And a quick run into the hallway solves the problem with the shoes. A maid, vacuuming next door, handily gets my socks on, even figures out my leg brace. Mission completed. I roll out to face the hotel restaurant. Calorie City.

How else can one describe blue cornmeal crêpes with chipotle sauce…also hollandaise sauce, not to mention chorizo? How can one resist, that is the question. One doesn’t. One eats. And damn the consequences. Damn the torpedoes. Damn the chorizo.

Where was I? Hard to say, but now I am in the SuperShuttle van, and the next thing I know…aboard a US Airways flight…and now rolling out to my new van in the parking structure at San Jose Airport. The travel has gone swimmingly. There was a moment upon arrival when one of the baggage handlers insisted that the wheelchair didn’t work. I have experienced such moments before. I have seen the best wheelchairs of my generation…. Never mind. This wasn’t a catastrophe. All it took was reengaging the clutch, and we were back in mechanical business. Well, not quite. There was no delivering the verbal payload in ‘please tighten my chest strap.’ It went awry, this message did. But my usual travel fatigue and its attendant impatience did not get the better of me. Yes, I had to stand up, arrange the strap myself, then point. But such are things in America. Jobs like this are in the hands of the lowest paid, often English learners. And I really think the British Airport Authority does this better, employing educated professionals in the wheelchair arena. But never mind. This kindly Filipino man has strapped me in, he is carrying my bags, and we are both on a roll. Which, I admit, is now interrupted by a trip to the men’s toilet. Which involves unstrapping my chest, of course. But better be safe than sorry in the urinary department, I always say.

Very nice, in fact a downright relief, to push a button on my key fob and watch the door slide open and the ramp extend from my Dodge. Then see the back open. The bags go inside, and after tipping the man so do I. A quick roll up the increasingly familiar ramp, hard right and locking myself into driving position…and everything shudders and stops. The garage is virtually empty. It is almost 8 PM, Silicon Valley’s rush hour over, air departures for the weekend behind us. Leaving this blocky concrete vacancy.

A lot has happened in the last two days, not the least involving the transport of a 100 kg wheelchair…that is to say, my ability to move…across two states. There is a risk in all this. But now the risk is behind me. Still, a lot has happened, and the sheer reality of this automobile and my wheelchair and the preposterousness of me in my condition driving this thing 25 miles to the northwest…it hits me. And surely I will hit something. How could I not? I am an aging, fragile person, and all this is no more than a mechanism…reliant on the slim remaining functionality in one foot and leg. Not to mention one sore arm. I can feel it, how tenuous it all is. In particular, I can feel the chest strap immobilizing my floppy torso. Furthermore, it is cold. Only 48°F, the dashboard tells me when I start the van.

I reverse out of the space, eyeing the advancing background through the backup videocamera. A marvel, this thing is, but that does not make me a marvel, does it? I brake, realizing that I have pointed my van toward a dead-end wall. Soon I get myself sorted, back the other way and snake through the structure to the exit. Where there is no one. No human. Hardly surprising in this day of automation. But if one wishes to pay the disabled parking rate, 50% less than the alternative, one needs a human. In fact, I am armed to the bureaucratic teeth, having documented my disabled parking status more ways than even the State of California ever requires. Problem is, there is no one to share this with, leaving me all alone and headed for…absolutely nothing. For one must pay in advance at a kiosk somewhere, then slip the magnetic card receipt into the machine…before the wooden gate rises and one slips out oneself.

This vast airport garage has the emptiness of some French existential film from the 1960s about modernity and ennui. Which is fine with me. For I do what would be impossible under any other circumstance. I make a U-turn and head back, the wrong way, ignoring signs that tell me to abandon hope…until here it is again, the garage. So much energy, not to mention anxiety, and also time, expended…only to arrive back at the same spot.

I look for some sort of office. A pay station. Something. I turn up one aisle of cars, hang a left and go down another, then turn right up a ramp, make another left. And here I am, nowhere. But not just any nowhere. The third level of nowhere. I pull into an empty space, not that there is any other kind…and roll back into the terminal.

This is a bad French existential movie. The man at the ‘information desk’ has no information, of course. He advises me to push a button on the parking pay station machine. Sure enough, a human voice talks to me. Disabled parking? Oh. As though this is a complete and utter afterthought. He…if this voice is a he…will send a supervisor to the exit. I don’t care. I just want out.

Back up the ramp, into the van, and we are off. I reverse out of the space and turn right. Then left. Then right. I don’t see a single sign that says exit. I do notice that all the arrows painted on the garage floor are pointing the wrong way. This is only a nuance in a space that could be anything, a skating rink, for example, or the back room at Costco. Still, with all this emptiness, what is there to do but a three point turn…which points me if not in the right direction, the opposite one. I drive back along the entirety of parking level 3. There is no exit. This is not Sartre’s joke, either. This is the real thing. I am losing my mind. I don’t have much of a spinal cord, but I have always had a mind. Perhaps no more. How has this happened, and what did I do to deserve it?

Exit. There it is. And, thank God, there is a man, an actual humanoid…which, by the way, is the first I have seen in this bleak cement wasteland…and he is emerging from a booth. But, no, he continues to emerge, now even walking toward me pointing. At what? It doesn’t matter. J’accuse, the man’s gesture says. Die, he will tell me in a moment. For his expression is grim. Worse, he keeps pointing. Back, he yells. Another car is idling behind me. Viewing this vehicle from my videocamera, as I get nearer and nearer, a collision seems inevitable. After all, we have acres of room, there’s only one car behind me…but I’m never getting home. It’s that simple. This is it.

To be in full readiness, I have been driving around with disabled parking documentation on my lap. That means a plastic placard, along with a copy of the State authorization. I am holding all this junk under my paralyzed arm, and the paper keeps getting swept up as I turn the steering wheel. There is also the scary possibility that it will fall, interposing itself between me and the brake or the accelerator.

And so it is a relief to find that this man wants nothing but my credit card. Do I need all this documentation, I ask him. He silently shakes his head. After all, my driving behavior alone reeks of abnormality. For all I know, my bizarre peregrinations about his parking structure may have been captured on video. The gate raises, I roll out into the moonscape of San Jose Airport. Only to pleasantly discover that I have wandered into the right lane for 101 north.

Soon Santa Clara is whipping by. So is the rain. I hit the elbow control at the appropriate moment for ‘wipers,’ but nothing happens. A mild panic is rising. What is not readily apparent to readers in most of the world is that my part of California has seen virtually no rain for a year. It is as though I have forgotten about precipitation. I hit the elbow control again. And even hit it again. Damned if there isn’t a variable speed control buried in these elbow motions. A hidden treasure, it is. And you never know where you’ll find them.

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