Still Berkeley

The day begins, that is to say, the first caffeinated portion of it, with the conviction that there is something wrong with my tongue. Marlou’s brother died of a cancer that had its start on his tongue. And I can just feel where the tea has been inside my mouth. It has stimulated something, made me aware of some presence on my tongue. Which after rushing into the bathroom to have a look in the mirror reveals itself to be a small mark. One that is suspiciously close to where I recently bit my tongue. Not in the effort-at-discretion metaphorical way, but actually chomping down, probably distracted by some pressing thought or anxiety, a misguided attempt at biting something during lunch. The hand that feeds you. And this rushing to the bathroom, examining one’s failing body in the mirror…well, it does get the day going. That can be said. I awakened entirely too early. I have miles to go, and this feels suspiciously like a workday. All of it starting with my tongue.

Strange that I have never been inside the offices of LMI, my Internet provider in Berkeley. Thus, online commerce. But here I am now, not only in their building, but actually having a meeting. This represents an effort to overcome flounderings via e-mail….

And even as the above sentence appeared on my screen, something overpoweringly generational, and either shaming or humbling, one cannot say…but my computer automatically capitalized live meeting…because a Google search reveals, Live Meeting is the name of a company. A fact so widely known and embedded in the culture that some programmer has directed my wordprocessing software to put this in capitals. Live Meeting. Live Nation. Out of it writer. Me.

It’s good that we are sitting at a worktable, the programmer sketching things out on a sheet of paper. One of the problems is that I do not know a menubar from a sidebar. I can see how this sheer fact has badly confused things, not to mention considerably raised the tension level in my dealings with LMI. At times, I have felt downright churlish. One LMI guy wants me to list what I need in bullet points. Fuck that. I brood on this matter. In the end, I do the right thing, which is this thing, journeying to Berkeley. Meeting these guys face to face, and the web designer certainly is young. He is also good, pointing out contradictions in my ideas…is this website about blog or book?

In the end, something like a game plan emerges. It is almost time to go. Actually, it is time to pee, an event that precedes most of my departures. I head towards the toilet, and the programmer innocently asks if this is a problem. He is pointing at a step, one entire step, eight or 10 inches in height. And something like indignation, even contempt, swells within me. How can this be? This is Berkeley, birthplace of the disabled movement. This is where accessibility began. All pioneering efforts at curb ramps for wheelchairs, rollable places in general, and particularly accessible toilets…all of this came to life right here in this city, and in fact, much of it in this neighborhood. North Berkeley, O Pioneers!

I need to pee. And there is nothing for it but to go pedestrian. One of those moments when it is most important to be in charge, ascertain the dangers, map out the route, and ensure that the available crew is well trained. I instruct the web designer, step-by-step. I rise from the chair, an event that years of practice has taught me should occur without fanfare. It speaks for itself, this instant when the stranger in the wheelchair is suddenly vertical. A major transition occurs in such moments, and there is an opportunity to…well, I am not sure what. I assume that people’s assessment of me shifts when I rise, unexpectedly, to my feet. Doubtless a fantasy in many cases. Certainly, this young man is unfazed and trying to be helpful. He does just what I request, holding his arm ‘like a railing,’ as I explain, adding that my gait involves considerable leaning, i.e., balancing. He even offers to remain in the men’s room while I use it. At first, I resolve to usher him out the door, purely on a basis of embarrassment. But no, this place simply is not safe. It is hard to see what I will hold onto while I urinate. Can’t be helped. I pee, he waits, and then we are back out the door and heading for my wheelchair…irrevocably bonded through this Ur bladder rite. Never mind. Within a few minutes, the meeting is ended, really ended, and I am out the door. I have a lunch date. This is Berkeley, after all, and what is there to do?

Phila meets me at a newly opened outdoor café, run by a friend of hers. How can the day be hot? Except that this is April, the weather is changing, and the times they are a changin’ here no longer. Rolling my wheelchair across town, I look at the faces of people my age and recognizably Berkeleyan. Are they actually troubled or preoccupied? Ahead two people stroll along the sidewalk in a meandering and expansive style that blocks my progres. There is no rule for such circumstances. Wheelchairs are a minority, even here. Still, for the rolling mobility impaired person certain impulses naturally take over. The sense that I am slow in all other circumstances, so why not take advantage of some sidewalk speed? Coupled with the feeling that it would be nice to drive, were the complications not so many.

So what to do, coming up behind this chatty couple, making S patterns as they sashay along? No clear answer. Which is why time and place and personal inclination rule. I simply slow nearing them, get close and wait for one of them to notice me. One does, the woman. She steps aside, I am, overhearing the internal dialogue of extroverts, ‘he probably doesn’t have a horn on that thing.’ I say nothing, turn left at the corner, and by this time the man has solidified his position, yelling after me as I roll away ‘tell people when you’re behind them.’ Berkeley. The eternal soapbox, everything public space…not a bad characteristic in many ways. And I would actually stop to talk to this guy were I not already late for lunch.

Lunch with Phila, my friend of more than 30 years. Her partner is dying. I feel less than useless, offering only lunch companionship. I order coffee, dessert, and in extracting my wallet to pay for this, possessions go all to hell, scattering upon the floor, my mobile phone giving a telltale crack that signals its technological demise. A Hispanic busboy puts everything back together. My possessions, my sense of well-being, everything. No, the phone is quite fine. And now can he do one additional thing? My request falls not on deaf ears, but on low-English-comprehension brain cells. And somehow I panic at the thought that I cannot make my needs known. After all, he has been fiddling with parts of the wheelchair, trying desperately to understand what I mean. And now the wheelchair control is flashing. Surely this is his fault. But, no, in an angry, desperate moment, the fight-or-flight brain hormones subside and we get things sorted out. I ask him, and he tells me, the Spanish word for seatbelt. Which is what I wanted. Mine was dragging on the floor.

It is hot, and now I am dragging my way along Berkeley’s Shattuck Avenue, arriving at the BART station just in time to learn that the elevator down to the subway platform is out of service. Broken. And the sign announcing this, hand-lettered with a felt pen, is not reassuring. Another guy in a wheelchair explains where to go. The North Berkeley station. The disabled capital of the world, this town. And it has come to this. But everything has come to this. America believes progress is a product, a notion introduced more than half a century ago and now flourishing everywhere like ragweed.

Somehow, I am flourishing too. My death on the streets of Berkeley was greatly exaggerated. I was gunned down only a few blocks from here. Surely my shooters are dead. And I am worried about public transit.

At the North Berkeley station, someone has designed a special wheelchair entrance. Someone who has never been in
a wheelchair, for the electronic screen indicating fare paid is far too high for anyone seated and rolling to observe. I really cannot tell if I have paid or not, for there is no gate that opens automatically either. It is all a mystery. It always is. 

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