North Shore

Thing about holidays, any holiday, is that there’s no holiday from oneself. This being the essential instruction for the introvert on vacation don’t expect too much. Or expect way too much. It doesn’t matter. Either way, you wind up with that essential piece of baggage: yourself. No getting away from it. Although that is exactly what you are on holiday to do. Get away from it all, or so the expression goes. On the other hand, the inner measurement always registers best, lets one know what’s happening, and often delivers surprises.

There are no surprises about Honolulu Airport, let us be clear. When Marlou was alive, the two of us landed here on an annual basis. I came several times after she died. Then Jane and I started flying to Hawaii. So the oddities of the air terminal – much of it open to the air and speckled with tree ferns and other tropical flora – well, there is not much impact.

Andy Ong is another matter. I discovered him with the help of an island travel agency. For years a Honolulu company had met me at the airport for a $200 ride to the other side of Oahu. Until with nothing more than a shrug and a phone call, someone at Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays – very pleasant at this moment – make a call to Andy. He pulled up in his wheelchair-friendly taxi, I rolled in, and the rest is history.

History in the making, that is. For here he is, our Andy, speaking to me on the other end of a mobile phone explaining where he is parked, while I detail our arrangements with bags…Jane is still eyeing the carousel for the last one. Which puzzles me, for we already have two bags. I ask if she has a third. No, she thought I did. An exchange which sparks a remarkable amount of annoyance over a trivial matter. Why? Why? Jane has her own answer. Travel. The whole process involves cramming onself into smaller and smaller containers, until one is finally strapped into place, elbows pinioned, for what should be five hours but owing to the headwind out of Tokyo, approaches something like six.

Nevermind, for Andy is waving to us from his vantage point, across four lanes of airport traffic. He is some kind of Islander, perhaps native Hawaiian or Filipino or, as is often the case over here, a mixture of both. His voice, middle-aged basso profundo, never fails to startle. And to complete the sense of incongruity, he has more microphones and wires dangling from him than I can count. Slow, slow, he advises, as I roll my wheelchair to his taxi. Soon Honolulu’s night motorways fly by. They dwindle. They become a two-lane highway. The two-lane highway becomes dark, narrow and pothole-ridden. The night envelops. At a bus stop, a lone streetlamp illumines a woman. All around her a dark night jungle. The effect sinister, and the question: will anyone come for her? And what could emerge from this remote end of a crumbling highway, the sword shapes of night flora giving a more African than California feel? The answer comes at us out of the dark in the form of the passing #55 bus. Which I have taken a time or two in the past.

We drive north. Jane sits beside Andy. I am in the back. We turn east. A familiar hedge of hyacinth, improbable elsewhere, appears beside the highway. Turtle Bay. Sufficiently floodlit to give the sense of all-night, every night activity. A town of sorts. Although the only reliable term is ‘enclave.’

Once checked in, we order room service. Soup. Some shrimp. A glass of wine. I am not sure that I require any of these things, but this food tells my body something. I am here. Where as I was there, now I am in this place, six hours west of San Francisco, and considerably south. Rubbing shoulders with Mexico City, say. And now in Polynesia, not the California suburbs.

There is a constant roar. Waves. Gigantic ones, pounding and pounding. This is one of the Earth’s most renowned surfing spots. Which means nothing to me at this particular moment. I am only annoyed that I can’t find anything in my suitcase. It’s not clear why we have come this far. Why the flight took so long, why the road across the island was so bad. Or even why I am so tired. The answer being terribly obvious. That 10 PM here it is 1 AM San Francisco. We sleep.

When we wake, I do the usual, rolling my wheelchair downstairs in search of Hawaiian pastries. The latter run to variations on coconut and macadamia, but the Kona coffee does the trick. Within the hour, Jane and I are in a Hertz car heading west. Tropical lagoons curving in an arc of coconut palms, large humps of lava encrusted with greenery that pass for hills. Then, around a point, Kaneohe Bay.

The real point being Dick and Joan, Marlou’s parents. And the point of our lunch? To note the passing of time, the sense that my wife’s death is somewhat behind us, all of us. And there is something more. I am glad that the two of them seem so accepting of Jane, and the simple fact of time’s passing. Marlou’s passing now one day shy of four years. Incredible. We are all here. We even have dessert, Hawaiian cheesecake. Not to mention a drive through Kaneohe’s botanical gardens. Jane and I set out for our hotel just in time to catch the North Shore’s rush hour. Nevermind. The lagoons are still there, even the sunset. And we have another six days at Turtle Bay. Plenty of time to slow down. Actually, to by day six, approach stop. On our final morning we do what we have done all week, watch a group of enormous humpback whales gamboling just offshore, complete with spraying, splashing and enormous tails in the air.

The flight home is shorter, but not, of course, short enough. When I think about this, the thought glimpsed out of the corner of my aging eye, the notion reeks of decadence. The reality is that traversing the mid-Pacific in four and a half hours is nothing less than miraculous. Though at this moment I really don’t care. The narrowness of the seat, the struggle to the toilet, all of this seems a major imposition. As does the return to reality, the fact of sleeping alone this night sparking some vague anxiety. There is a major hike up the aisle of this Boeing 777, and here I really do try to be philosophical. I need all the exercise I can get, that is the thing. But I don’t necessarily need it in this form, schlepping up an aircraft aisle too narrow for my crutch, grabbing the back of one seat after another for balance and support. Still, when one considers the alternative…which I don’t. It is easy to become old and despairing and, yes, spoiled. After all, I can now do these trips on a regular basis. Which was hardly true in the past.

Everything is easier with Jane. A person as physically disabled as I am lacks credibility. This may be why airline staff address matters of my physical capability to Jane. Does he need this, and does he need that? I find this galling and tend to respond snappishly. Still, they do listen to Jane. No, he doesn’t need his crutch, not now. Could you bring that wheelchair closer? Good, now lift the footrests. And so on. Most important, perhaps, Jane was present at Honolulu Airport when I had a chat with the baggage handler. Lift here, don’t lift there. I doubt that these words would have had the same force from my lips alone.

For once, my wheelchair appears to have crossed the Pacific without a scratch. Honolulu is a notorious wheelchair bashing center, as I can attest from bitter experience. And, yes, I have had sufficient experience…this being part of my rather cushy life, disability notwithstanding.

We are sailing, now, Jane and I, toward baggage claim. Which explains why I drive my wheelchair aboard the moving walkway, then tilt the joystick forward to maximum warp, achieving a combined speed of, well, who knows…maybe 10 mph. Way cool. Meanwhile, I keep getting calls from Super Shuttle…or something very close. Being forever behind the technology curve, I am not a possessor of a Bluetooth earpiece. Actually, this may be a good thing. This quadriplegic does not combine well with very personal electronics. Anyway, the point is that I cannot answer a mobile phone call and drive my mobile wheelchair at the same time.

Jane and I are hurtling toward baggage claim. Both of us want out of this airport. I do stop at one point and have a phone chat with what proves to be Serra Cab. They are picking me up, they say. The “they” being a woman who refers to me as honey. Which, truth be told, I like, even need. At this moment, cramped from the plane ride and inpatient and, yes, rather jaded, I like being honeyed. She puts me on hold. The recorded message urges me to use Yellow Cab more often. Which sets me off, it does. A trigger gets thrown. It’s too much, I tell myself. Super Shuttle hands the job off to Serra Taxi which is actually part of Yellow Cab…and the gist of all this boils down to where…where do Jane and I go to get this taxi…that was an airport van but now isn’t. Not that I am particularly perturbed. Super Shuttle has done this before, and typically on a Sunday night, just like this one.

The company doesn’t want to mess with wheelchairs, doesn’t want to crank up their wheelchair-lift-equipped van. It’s happened before. Actually, there is more of a history. What has really happened before is that I have arrived at the shuttle stop, having reserved and paid for my ride online, only to find that the wheelchair van is broken or driverless or in Oakland…or some combination of these. My letter of complaint may still be on file with the San Francisco Airport Commission. Which may be why Super Shuttle now dispatches a cab of a Sunday. Not that I care. I don’t like airports. I want out. I want home.

It galls me, it really does, that I have to make another call to, you guessed it, Serra Cab. For I have been through this before, the matter of cab locating. Like any airport, San Francisco’s is all about territoriality. The parking shuttles only stop here. The taxis go there. And Super Shuttle vans only ply their trade in yet another zone. Intense vehicular segregation, cops enforcing it all. So we need to be clear, and we are not. For it is coming back to me now, a remnant of my last call from Serra. Honey, where are you now? Door 9, I said. Baggage carousel 9? No, I said…for my bag just appeared at carousel 3…door…and speaking of doors, the one to the elevator was now opening, the line to Serra closing, but the closing remarks remain. Which is why I stop and call them again. Where do I meet your cab? The taxi area? The Super Shuttle zone upstairs? Yes, honey, you go to the Super Shuttle stop.

Whereupon I get another phone call. This time from the Super Shuttle office. Do you still want your ride, the woman asks. Still want? Do I still want to go home? Having prepaid this experience to the tune of $100 each way? Yes, I say. What else is there to say? I have no patience with Super Shuttle. And I am wedded to them. There is no other reliable way to deliver me directly to the airport. Jane and I press on.

We are rolling down the footpath just in front of the terminal when a man standing at the curb mutters something to Jane and she says no. But I heard something that could be described as Bondecks and tentatively say yes. The van does have a wheelchair ramp out and ready. Naturally, it bears none of the identifying marks described in any phone call. It is not from Super Shuttle. Nor from Serra Cab. The logo says Redi Wheels. And only a very local, somewhat battle-hardened disabled person could make any sense of this. But I get the general idea. Redi Wheels, the county transportation agency for the disabled, contracts with Serra Cab. The driver has parked here, a good 100 meters and five lanes of traffic away from the Super Shuttle van stop. Had Jane and I made our way through the terminal, we would never have seen him. This is a fluke. And I confess that I don’t like flukes. They are simply too random. I admit it. I like things to be orderly, organized, logical.

Which is why the driver annoys me. He stands there with a naturally-what-did-you-expect sort of cheeriness. As though we should all be happy. Which, with a different attitude, we would. After all, complicated things have ended happily. My wheelchair works. The ride home is here. The end is in sight. But all this has addled me. I roll up the wheelchair ramp. I stop. I back away and roll up again. Another unseen obstacle. Oh, he says, is your wheels. Yes, I tell them, this is a wheelchair, and it has all sorts of wheels. Paul, Jane cautions me. I know I am being a prick. But somehow this galls me too. A wheelchair ramp that can’t handle wheelchairs. It is old, that is the simple fact. Fifteen, maybe 20 years old, this battered van. I bite my tongue. I roll in backwards, the obvious and simple solution. I try to settle down.

There are so many things going on, none of them pretty. The man seems cavalier. Which actually isn’t true and, in fact, is most unjust. Super Shuttle, it develops, called this man and engaged his services at precisely the moment my plane was landing. He jumped into the game and has spent the last hour circling the airport roadways while United Airlines unloaded my wheelchair and, eventually, delivered our bags. Thanks to his doggedness, I really haven’t had to wait. Unfortunately, I am not in the mood for thanks. Part of me has decided that he is Middle Eastern, a native of one of the Israel-hating lands. Although nothing about our interaction remotely suggests this.

Redi Wheels’ van sails down the motorway, providing transportation and invaluable education. For there is an unspoken compact we have made in these United States of America. The classes will separate, the divisions widen, until the distances are so great that one is barely aware of the other. Most disabled people in this country have very little money. Staggering expenses, and very little to pay for them. The battered likes of Redi Wheels take disabled people to and from medical appointments and supermarket runs. A two-hour pickup window is not unusual. One can spend the day going to and from the dentist.

Thanks to luck late in my life, I book nonstop rides to the airport. And make no mistake, it is luck. An inheritance. Which is not a testament to my canniness, entrepreneurial flair or Darwinian superiority. I was just lucky. And the people driving Super Shuttle? Increasingly, they are foreign, very foreign…which hardly means much of anything in America. But they are foreign to their work, and this means they are untrained. Earlier this week I have had a driver who did not know how to secure a wheelchair aboard his disabled van. And tonight’s guy seems surprised that my wheelchair, of standard make, gets stuck on his ramp. Disabled people are inescapably a minority. Many of us are impoverished. All of us share a common infrastructure. There is no escaping this…and for me, on this day, no escape is good.

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