Who put the ‘temp’ in Tempe? It is everywhere, this sense of the temporary. This university town, the main suburb to the west of Phoenix, is home to my sister and brother-in-law. So, what is there to do but visit? Especially on a February day of warmth, dining al fresco, reading in the afternoon brilliance of the hotel’s Spanish-style courtyard. And relishing this, my life.
I am caught up in Leo Litwak’s novel ‘Home for Sale.’ I wish it had not slipped out of sight, as all of my possessions do. But now I am utterly caught up in this tale of Detroit, which is full of the paradoxes a conscious person faces. How do we observe the world and try to understand it, while plunging into its mire? Or miring in its plunge? I am entranced by this, my friend’s latest book.
So entranced that I barely notice that my ankles are showing signs of sunburn here in the courtyard of the Mission Palms Hotel. Oh, well. I will move in a moment. Trouble is, reading in the sunny warmth is so pleasant that I forget about the ultraviolet radiation long enough for my legs to turn a distinct pink. Besides, a crowd is forming. Actually it is the un-forming of a morning seminar, the corporate participants streaming into the Arizona air for a break. I can’t blame them. The air is stunning. More than warm, it is also pure. A stiff breeze has blown across the Phoenix Valley, as though to tidy things meteorological. It is now perfect, and a bunch of people in suits and plastic name badges are standing around me, enjoying this, the Sonoran desert winter. They seem relieved to be outside. I would be relieved to see them out of their suits. Don’t they know where they are, Resort Land?
My friends Joe and Pam are staying at the hotel, an unplanned and quite enjoyable bonus. They are running a medical education course, and I keep running into them in the lobby, in the courtyard. So now, this being the noon lunch hour, I go running in their direction. After all, even doctors have to have a break, and this is the logical time. Which, once I am in the seminar room, proves to be somewhat inaccurate. Instruction is barreling along until 1 PM, it seems. And as I half anticipated, this means me.
Sometimes it’s nice to be drafted. That’s what Joe is telling me. Not if I will be his medical subject…but when. There is some discussion of going back to my hotel room to get a crutch. But not much. I am on, that is his point, and in a matter of minutes. Sure enough, a couple of the more burly doctors of the hundred in the room lift me onto the small stage, and away we go. A brief discussion of the neurology I ‘present,’ then a brief treatment for painAnd the first thing I know, my back and shoulder feel better, and disproving the old adage, there is a free lunch. I enjoy this with the medical instruction crew in the warming sun. What a day.
And now it is another day, not to mention another week, and I can’t help wondering about this need for meteorological warmth, how it seems all tied in with the mother or the lack of her. It is an intermittently rainy day in Menlo Park, and I am dashing for the train. I have a plan, admittedly vague, to get help along the way. Thing is, there’s no one around the apartment just now to help me get on my coat. And when I say ‘coat,’ I mean the British winter variety. By my standards, it is cold, around 50°F. The rain itself is cold. The wind is cold. Moreover, I really don’t relish this trip. I feel like a kid who wants to get sick enough to stay home from school.
Nevermind, for now I am bouncing my wheelchair down Live Oak Ave., hurtling trainward…and hailing a workman. Home conversions seem to be a favorite Menlo Park pastime. In this particular instance, a small army has converted a bungalow into a moon crater, then replaced it with…well, one can’t say. Doubtless there will be a home here soon, two stories, and several million dollars in someone’s pocket. For the time being, I just want this plumber or electrician or carpenter to put down his impressive toolbox and help me get my winter coat on.
I have a briefcase on my lap, loaded with reading, not to mention things I forgot to unpack from my Phoenix trip. It’s easy to lower this to the wet pavement. Then, train time being of the essence, I ask him to
help me lower my foot plates…then stand. Naturally, he doesn’t quite know how to do this. And I haven’t had the sense to just say ‘wait’ and do this myself. Either way, I have to keep up the sort of soothe-the-able-bodied patter. Just a second…getting over my center of gravity…a little push. Once on my feet, I also have to instruct in the art of jacket/coat donning. The right arm first. And something isn’t working. My paralyzed thumb catches in the lining. This is why I have a splint for my neurological right hand. I am not wearing it at the moment. More’s the pity.
This poor workman is certainly working hard. He shoves his own hand up my coat sleeve in an effort to free the thumb. Meanwhile, I have to wonder how all this is affecting him. Most people are not used to seeing limbs that move under their own ghostly power, or do not move at all. There is a reason why an early horror film adopted ‘The Hand’…the apparently severed limb wandering about the plot in search of a throat to strangle.
And this is taking so long, I am seriously thinking about strangling someone myself. This workman would not be a good candidate, justice being what it is. The guy is trying awfully hard. Still, this is making me, or almost making me, late for the 11 AM southbound. This was such a stupid idea, this whole notion of stopping a stranger on the way. Not to mention the trip itself, foolish in the extreme.
And yet I do make the train, get on board and alight in Mountain View. At an awkward hour. As planned, I have a 11:30 AM lunch in a Chinese restaurant. I recall being there once before. Maybe five, even 10 years ago. The Han Gen beef proves to be a poor choice. I doubt that any local car mechanic has more oil than this dish. Enough to make the exit for the 12:20 PM tram rather dismal. I wait in the cold rain. The single car pulls in from San Jose, I roll aboard, and we are off. A sinuous course southbound, weaving around the motorway, US 101, skirting the end of the Moffett Field runway, then Lockheed Martin. Now all something of a museum to the manufacturing past, these installations. The tram line, only a few years old, has stations named in the IKEA style. Words plucked from thin air, almost, bearing absolutely no relation to the surroundings. Vienna? That’s the name of a station in Santa Clara, a shopping center and high-tech offices surrounding a neighborhood that is as un-Viennese as can be achieved anywhere on earth. My station, Fernden or something like that, also springs from absolutely no neighborhood association.
Once off the tram, I progress along a major thoroughfare, Tasman. Until the sidewalk ends. Shel Silverstein made much of sidewalk endings in his famous book. Here, it doesn’t matter where the sidewalk ends. It ends about 100 m from the tram station, and there is no apparent reason why. And there is nothing to do but cross the street and progress along the other side. I do this, tilting crazily at the driveways in and out of a mobile home park. None of this makes me love Silicon Valley. It is an industrial area, not designed for living. I am not surprised that there are no sidewalks at all lining Birchwood Street. After all, I have been here before. This is Disabled Van Land.
Ed, the consultant in this matter, has met me here at a specialty garage. We try out a succession of minivans, each of them modified to accommodate a wheelchair – but in various ways. The key distinction has to do with how much the vehicle floors have been lowered. Ed has recommended 14 inches. But once he sees me behind the wheel, changes his mind. From a Toyota, we go to a Honda. Here the floor is 12 inches down from normal. Not quite right. On to a Dodge. Ten inches proves to be the right amount.
Eyeballing each of these vans from the outside, I react with gradually diminishing levels of horror. Lowering a van floor more than a foot below its standard height ensures that the underside of your vehicle will drag on almost anything. The salesman mentions speedbumps as an example. How does one avoid a suburban speedbump? Take another route, he advises. At 10 inches below normal, this seems likely to happen less. Nonetheless, it will occur. I shake my head in disbelief but try to accept reality. I need a vehicle. At the moment, without my Ford, there are places I simply cannot go. My Jewish congregation in Palo Alto, for example. One cannot go backward. There is no holding on to 1995, year of my Ford. It is time, time for a new car.
At the end, we discuss money, and the van costs what I expected. Should I bargain? If so, how? Like many things in America these days, there are not a lot of options. The same holds for the trip home. I hurtle toward the tram stop. Within seconds of the traffic light, the one that all leads me across the street to the tram platform, approximately where the northbound sidewalk ends, my briefcase slides off my lap. I curse myself. Denounce the day I was born. Ridicule myself for gross stupidity. Carelessness, incompetence. I have time for all this, because my wheelchair is high, and to complicate matters, I have managed to run over the briefcase strap. While maneuvering backwards and leaning over to retrieve the thing, I hear the familiar clank of an arriving tram. I denounce myself further.
I wait 15 minutes. When the next tram arrives, I emerge from the shelter in time to get a good dose of cold rain. In hurrying to catch the tram, the briefcase slides off my lap again, and I almost miss the car. The driver is clanging a bell. I hear her, I really do.