Phoenix and Shuttles

The SuperShuttle airport van that Jane and I saw moments ago has disappeared. Not surprising, Roble Avenue itself being remarkably empty of cars at this hour. It is the seventh hour. And less than 36 hours since I blew in from the Pacific Northwest. The idea of returning to the airport is not a pleasant one. The idea of having to chase down Messrs. SuperShuttle is even less pleasant. But the van is gone, that is the simple fact, and what is one to do but frantically punch numbers into the mobile phone, hoping that a dispatcher will appear at the other end before the driver is en route to San Francisco Airport? My apartment is half a block off the street. The residence number is not even visible from Roble Avenue. So there is room for confusion. But not room for error, not in a reasonable world. For have I not carefully entered the necessary information into the SuperShuttle website, years ago? And now, emerging like a breaching whale, my van, appears from the next driveway down the street. I wave frantically, the driver turns in my direction. I can relax now. I can even sleep, but not until the night, after my bookstore reading. That is what this is all about. I am heading to Phoenix for an author’s appearance. To entertain the assembled multitudes, both of them, at Changing Hands Bookstore and try to sell a few copies of ‘Dance Without Steps.’

Fortunately, the van driver is not the surly Slav with the broken seatbelts. In fact, everything is civil and smooth from here on out. And because fate is what it is, naturally as I make my way to my coach seat in the rear of the airplane, the flight attendant stops me. Someone is offering me a seat. And, yes, as was the case 36 hours ago, that seat is in first class. Thank you, I say, once again. The kind offer comes from a British woman. I tell her about Jane, as though this explains everything. She writes down the name of my book. What the hell. I am on a roll, I am on a flight, and before I know it, I am up on a small stage and reading from my book.

I know many in the audience. Which is to say, I also do not know many in the audience. And this is the strangest thing of all. Strangers, people with whom I have no connection, have actually left their homes, driven to this bookstore and voluntarily decided to listen to me read. For which one can only be grateful, not to mention pleasantly surprised. Here they are. Here we are. And what was supposed to be about a 20 minute presentation has drifted toward one hour. People keep asking questions. And the answers appear to be in the book. So I keep reading. And it is all most gratifying. Maybe I have produced a book, after all. Really, it is only in such an exchange that this becomes apparent, the idea that these disparate pieces have coherence. That they work together has always been a hope, but now it seems a fact. And coherence, the sense that there is some theme to life experience…well, this fills me with hope. The bookstore reading area is full also. The proprietors have had to bring in a few extra chairs.

I spent the next day lazing about the environs of Mill Avenue, a commercial district near Arizona State University. In the late afternoon my sister and I go for a swim in the hotel pool. The lower Sonoran Desert was never intended for urban life. One senses that most acutely at the airport. Pavements baking, air lifeless with dust, the rock slopes of the distant mountains inert as the moon. And on the edges of all this an air-conditioned city, its water supply pumped hundreds of miles and up and down several mountain ranges. So it’s all apparent from the moment one hits the ground. And then quickly forgotten, such is the artificial completeness of the place, particularly as my sister and I swim the hotel waters. And throughout the experience it never enters my mind how many inches of pool evaporate each day. All hotels have pools, it seems. What keeps water in them…well, it must be gravity.

And on the last day, despite the hotel’s roll-in shower, my sister’s dropping by to help put on my socks…all the ease, I am grouchy. Enough with airports. But soon I am back on a United Airlines plane. And though not in first class, damned if I don’t find myself with a bulkhead seat, a sympathetic ground crew having shunted several passengers out of the way to make this possible. And here we are, San Francisco, and it’s all over.

Well, maybe not quite. The wheelchair has not turned up. I am traveling with a lightweight power wheelchair. The batteries come out, and once removed, the chair frame itself folds. At one point, there was much discussion about which wheelchair to bring to Arizona. I favored the big heavy mother, the one with the tilting seat and contoured back support. My sister and brother-in-law told me no, that with temperatures in the realm of 43°C, 110 Fahrenheit, my plans to transport the big wheelchair via the city bus system were sheer madness. Not that the buses don’t run, but waiting for the buses…well, that in the Phoenix of late May, not a good idea. So, okay, I have this lighter version, uncomfortable, and now, judging by the time elapsed, badly delayed.

I have been through this many times before. No one seems to know what to do with the wheelchair. Even at Walla Walla Airport, with all of two flights per day, I had to yell at the baggage handlers to retrieve the thing before it disappeared into the little terminal. And now? Any moment, says the flight attendant. And after any number of moments have passed, she asks the pilot for help. By now, it is a new pilot. While waiting for the wheelchair, the crew has changed. Many things have changed, judging by my watch, perhaps the seasons.

As I say, this is not my first experience with a delayed wheelchair. And I have learned enough not to be silent. The trick is to be vocal without being excessively querulous. The latter does not help. Also, it makes you appear vaguely demented. And for another thing, the pressure points are few and far between. There is no one to complain to but the cabin staff who know nothing about the whereabouts of the wheelchair. So when the customer relations guy from United Airlines finally comes on board, I pull my punches. I throw them, which is good. But not too many. And not too far.

The wheelchair, he explains, is coming back through Security. How did it get on the wrong side of Security, I ask? That’s where the elevator is, he says. I say nothing. Which is brilliant. Because the pilot has overheard and openly guffaws. Plenty of elevators this side of Security, he says. And being about 10 bureaucratic levels higher than the customer relations guy, any number of points have gotten scored without me saying a word. Which may explain why Mr. Customer Relations gives me a coupon for a free flight. The wheelchair turns up eventually, of course. And I turn up at SuperShuttle for my van home.

I have become savvy in the ways of wheelchair travel. But what I value more is my perspective. The setbacks. What is one to make of them? Not too much and not too little, that is the essence. Look at what disabled life used to be. Taking a power wheelchair on an airplane was, only a few years ago, risky and fraught with unknowns. Today it is better, simply better. A wheelchair goes missing for an hour or so in a huge airport, then gets found…and I live a good life in an advanced society. Where everyone takes it for granted that a trip from a city in a harsh desert 800 miles away is a matter of 90 minutes. And these days I am part of that ‘everyone.’ I take it for granted too. But perhaps not in the same way. We are rich, we middle-class Americans. And disabled people increasingly are able to partake of the privileged life. Not taking things for granted, this is important to me. Not being taken for granted, that is the opposite, and I fight that one too. Which is more difficult. Knowing how to complain is very important when you are in a wheelchair.

I guess that he is an East African, the guy currently greeting passengers at the SuperShuttle stop. He gets my reservation number. And because I am tired, I get in his face, subtly but quickly. I do this simply by asking the right question: where is the wheelchair van? Should be here in five or ten minutes, the man says. I am implacable. Where in the Bay Area is it, I ask? He promises to phone the dispatcher. I sit down beside the baggage guy United Airlines has dispatched to me. What a boring job he must have. I would send him away to help other passengers, but no, something tells me to hang on. While we wait, a succession of SuperShuttles come and go. Passengers are fierce about their destinations. Walnut Creek. Fremont. They are determined. Let me out of here. Enough of this. Home. And in this regard we are all in the same boat. I want out too. It’s just that the company only has a couple of vans with wheelchair lifts. And despite my reservation, they could be anywhere, these vans. I could be anywhere too, from the perspective of SuperShuttle, having waited for my missing wheelchair for an hour. And here we are.

And finally here is the word from the dispatcher. No van. Get a cab, the man tells me, and SuperShuttle will reimburse you. We now switch gears, the baggage guy and I, to wait for the cab…which takes another half an hour or so. And also takes $140, Menlo Park being where it is. My body is not what it was. I no longer spring back from such rigors. But in the end I am home and the trial is, at least for the moment, over.

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