Pattern Recognition

Years ago, Stephen Sondheim wrote a song for a movie (The 7 1/2% Solution) about why ‘I Never Do Anything Twice.’ The idea was that repetition is dull, particularly if one is performing highly repetitive tasks, vis-à-vis working in a bordello. It’s an amusing, mildly racy little number. And on my way home from Draeger’s haute supermarket, it comes back to me. Why? Because I can see how in ways large and small, doing things two times, or 2000 times, weaves the fabric of life. Particularly a disabled life, which is naturally circumscribed. Still, I remember, particularly on what in California must be classed as an early spring day, albeit in February…that mine could so easily not have been a life at all. And it is, trust me, all about repeating patterns.

Take University Drive, where the sidewalk narrows unpleasantly about 100 meters from the supermarket entrance. Northbound, my current direction, I literally have to steer into a privet hedge to get through. Southbound at the same spot, for some reason I repeatedly make a mistake, steering not so close to the hedge as to scrape my left wheelchair-controlling hand on the sharp branches…which tilts me off the footpath and into a dirt well at the base of a tree…hanging up the wheelchair on the drag-bolt beneath it. The latter is designed to slot into my van’s lockdown device, stabilizing me while I drive. However, when it catches on something unintended the bolt can stabilize me like a spinning top, the wheelchair stuck in one place and more or less twirling around an axis. It’s embarrassing. It’s especially embarrassing when one does the same thing time after time. I’ll try to remember this on the southbound trip.

For now, it’s all about patterns. Like George, the quasi-homeless guy who awaits my arrival outside of Peet’s. Time passes. In one epoch, George made it a point to open the door for me. This slightly annoyed me. Was I obliged to tip him? Did I require help with the door? Supposed issues, now forgotten more or less, certainly faded. For George has gotten older and no longer leaps to open the door. In fact, this very morning for the first time in living memory, George actually asked a passing customer to open the door for me. Living memory, incidentally, encompasses 10, maybe 15 years. Thus my life in Menlo Park.

Never do anything twice? How many times have I driven my chair over the crosswalk just outside Draeger’s entrance and been slightly alarmed at the rattling bricks underneath me? Why do the bricks rattle? Because they have been loose for…15 or maybe 20 years. Which seems strange, for there’s been major work at this junction. The whole street has been torn out, shut down, resurfaced at least once in that time. Maybe more. Somehow, with each street iteration, the Masters of Menlo have managed to restore the rattling brickwork to its original wobbly state. A true achievement.

Problem is, some of these patterns need to be looked at afresh. On this very morning, fighting my way through the privet hedge at the University Drive Narrows, a couple on the way to the farmers’ market observed that ‘looks like tough going.’ A good reminder. For it is. And although I made a little joke about wanting a flamethrower on the front of my wheelchair…well, it really wasn’t a joke.

It was a helpful suggestion. And maybe even to talk to the owner of the building, get the silly privet hedge cut back. Problem is, who is the owner of the building? How would I find him or her? An equally helpful suggestion, oddly on this very day, from someone at Peet’s. Why doesn’t the booming coffee bar have an automatic door for disabled people? In this particular instance, I honestly think that the idea has crossed no one’s mind. If there is a coffee retailer in North America capable of affording such a thing, it is Menlo Park’s Peet’s. People queue for their lattes here for something like 10 out of the 15 hours the place is open. Peet’s can afford it. The interesting question – will I ask about this seemingly simple amenity? Stay tuned.

More to the point, and chastened by the brain injury of my next-door neighbor who was hit by a car while bicycling to work…is the most ominous repeating pattern in my life. Menlo Park drivers. I really do try to be careful. Crossing streets in this town is, for some reason, quite dangerous. Appearances are deceptive. For the most part cars do not speed. And, in fact, there aren’t all that many of them in the town center, most of the time. During my hours, non-commute times, Menlo Park simply doesn’t have much traffic. Still, I creep into crosswalks, waiting to make sure a driver is actually slowing before I progress. Another pattern. For they often don’t see me, these drivers. And the most astonishing and lethal pattern of all, a surprising number appear to not see, certainly to not heed, an actual stop sign on Menlo Avenue. Which happens to be one of my major crossings. Starcrossed, it is. A good place to get crossed out permanently.

Which is the thing about patterns. They are full of life and of death. One has to live within them and for them and around them and in spite of them.

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