I am urging Laurel toward the train station. She’s an old friend, currently visiting from near Sacramento, and she doesn’t know our suburban foot routes, their length or duration. And it is important, today’s regular visit to the dermatologist. Fateful, one might say. But damned if we aren’t making good time, Laurel and I. Unbeknownst to me, this is the carless era. Oh, I know it in a way. But this particular epoch has lasted so long that it does not feel like a phase. Yes, there may come a time when I don’t have to roll to the railway station to complete the 1.2 mile journey to a clinic in Palo Alto. In fact, that time may come on Monday.
That’s when I do a final check of my newly modified Chrysler van.
But we are not there yet. For now, we are on various stages of the southbound Caltrain experience. Winding up in the old Southern Pacific depot, all curvilinear, streamlined and 1940 Art Deco. A Palo Alto landmark…now revitalized the way most things are in my life. Through caffeine. Yes, it’s now the Café Venezia, or somesuch. And the coffee is quite good. And the food, modest but sufficient. The atmosphere being the main draw. All that old California oak inside, benches and counters. That and hissing espresso. It’s not brilliant, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s what it is. And I’m glad Laurel is enjoying it with me. Or at least I think she is. Turns out she’s not enjoying it all that much. That’s because she asked to use the toilet.
Big mistake, it turns out. Actually, all she wanted was a sink. Laurel had just peeled an orange. She wanted to rinse her hands. Sorry, the barista told her. She would have to surrender her driver’s license or her mobile phone, just to get in the door of the toilets. I would have been slightly incredulous myself. And depending on bladder needs would have either played along or told them to forget it. Laurel took things a step further. She told them to fuck off.
Which vaguely unsettled me, truth be told. And why? Because increasingly I find myself doing much the same thing. Showing no patience, giving no quarter…just blasting away at the general incompetence and injustice of this, our world. And what’s to be unsettled about? Well, partly to see my own behavior reflected. And to see what works, and doesn’t work, about it. What works is clear enough. It is most gratifying. After all, one has been around the proverbial block, acquired a certain level of life knowledge. And by this point, the difference between a spade and a shovel is well-established. Someone calls a spade a spade, right? Well, yes, except that to the casual onlooker I’m not so much telling it like it is. As telling what it is to be 66 years old. A codger, in fact. A curmudgeonly codger to boot. Because, when all is said and done, both shovels and spades are obsolete. No one cares about either, let alone the distinction.
Then there’s that other thing, the social context. The Palo Alto Transit Center – its full and proper name – is also a place where the marginal of this earth tend to congregate. Poor people. Transient people. Those who cannot afford a car. And those who seek shelter at a nearby refuge for the homeless, not to mention a free clinic for the afflicted. Yes, it’s that and it’s this, a place where students and professionals en route to and from the Stanford University campus stop off for a cappuccino. Yes, it’s four dollar cappuccinos and it’s also four dollars for a large load of aluminum cans plucked from the rubbish, to be turned into cash for those who need it badly. And many do. That, plus the other thing that we can’t quite talk about in America. Which has to do with the general madness of the populace. We are driving ourselves nuts. And the first to crack are often the most vulnerable. And the most visible, for they have nowhere to hide. Except the toilet at Café Venezia, I suspect. Where they probably trash the place. Which is not defensible. And isn’t even stoppable, not by depositing one’s mobile phone. I thought this through immediately. Simply find an old, discarded phone, leave it with the barista, then go into the toilet and destroy all you can.
The next day, here in equally affluent Menlo Park, damned if we’re not heading for another café. And this time, one of our local poor sleeping rough is very much on display. He sits where he always sits. But today he has rolled up his pant leg and is having a go at something on his feet, rubbing alcohol in one hand, cotton swabs in the other. Hard to say what is wrong with his foot. But as I pass him, his leg reveals itself. Red and raw. A serious skin affliction. Does he know about free community clinic, I wonder. I only know about it because of Jane, who keeps tabs on resources for the poor.
The poor are always with us, they say. But our Nook is not, I realize on my way out of the subway station in Glen Park, our new neighborhood. I have left my Barnes & Noble version of the Kindle by the sink in the men’s toilet. I’ve only been gone minutes. But that’s all it takes. Someone has swiped the thing. And to what end? Do they really want to read about the condition of American rivers or the poetry of Philip Larkin? Barnes & Noble advises that they may want to buy stuff through my stored credit card number. They pull the digital plug on the missing e-reader.
For the time being, I’ve got a Carl Hiaasen tale unfolding. I want to know what happens. Which requires me to buy an actual book. Which I do, and hardbound, yet. I even buy another, just for the hell of it. Within moments of arriving back in Menlo Park, I will have ordered myself another Nook. Which makes me cringe, even to think about it. Because what I’m really thinking about is the money being poured into a house just up the hill from the same bookstore. There was a poetry reading about to happen. I felt bad about missing it. But I really feel bad about missing the neighborhood for an entire year while the house gets built. Meanwhile, while money gets poured into this project, I see people trudging up the street, my street, looking very much like they have satchels but no place to put them. So I make my guilty purchase at the bookstore, and I make a hasty exit. The corner is tight. It’s hard to get my wheelchair through the door and pointed toward the street. Particularly hard when my patience has run out.
Because, like Laurel, there’s something about the situation that I can’t take. Which is that in San Francisco, 2013, a bookshop can be this inaccessible. I have a very maneuverable wheelchair, and exiting the premises should be no problem. But it is. Somehow, I negotiate most of the necessary angle. And my exit should be free and clear. But I seem to have hooked onto something. I want to turn around, Laurel-style, and denounce this thing. But I will be living up the street eventually, and I don’t want to get a name for myself. So I force the joystick and hurtle forward. Something crashes behind me. Turning around I see what it is. One of my back wheels has hooked a metal newsstand. The latter has toppled to the ground. It may not be as effective as telling the owners to fuck off. Nor is the message clear. But it’s in there, the message is. In there and screaming.