Terminal Stage

So what is the news that isn’t news? Well, that you and United Airlines have been seeing a lot of each other lately. Are you dating? Just good friends? Have you gone all the way? Is Hawaii all the way? Thing is, it doesn’t matter.

Note that the actual trip, the purpose behind it, the unexpected pleasures and unintended benefits of my visit to Phoenix, Arizona…all of that was splendid. Yes, it came a bit too close to my flight home from Hawaii. So what? Even the Mission Palms Hotel seemed less bothersome. All the young, tanned corporate types that flock to the place for one meeting or another, well, they make me feel old. But not this time. I got to know the waitresses in the restaurant. Even the high bed didn’t frighten me so much as I rolled into it each night. Possibly, I’ve gotten the technique down. Possibly I’m dealing with the anxiety better…less imaginings about slipping off the bed and getting trapped on the floor. That and a particularly enjoyable evening with my sister, brother-in-law and old Phoenix area friends, everyone getting pleasantly silly.

So I was feeling rather rosy waiting for SuperShuttle in front of the Mission Palms. The airport is only 10 minutes away. Vans are remarkably punctual, arriving on the minute, depositing me at Phoenix airport with sufficient, but not excessive, time to catch any flight. The Mission Palms is rosy, pink in an orange sort of way, very southwest, and we were all of a piece, the hotel, the day, the 90°F breeze…and I was breezing home.

Except that I wasn’t. The 2:45 pickup time came and went. So did 3:01. So did 3:15. By this time I had hauled out my iPhone and was getting a real-time account of my van’s lateness. Where’s my van? That’s the name of the spiffy app I had downloaded from Messrs. SuperShuttle. The phone’s screen provided an answer of sorts. Providing you know the map of Phoenix and, moreover, have an intimate knowledge of the driver’s intentions. How many passengers did he have to pick up between there and here? Had he changed jobs mid-ride, now giving guided tours of the irrigation canals of Tempe? I phoned the 800 number. The driver was 0.66 miles away, it developed. No more than five minutes, said the operator. It was almost 3:30 PM. My flight would leave in less than an hour.

Oh, good to see you, you always get me…. This from the driver. His hydraulic lift extended, descended and scooped me up. He continued in this jaunty, lighthearted style. Driving my wheelchair inside, I noticed two other passengers already buckled in. Were they as nervous as I, or was this all imaginary? No matter, the airport being so close. We were rolling and this would only take minutes.

But not when half the roads in Tempe are closed for a desert triathlon. We had turned toward a bridge over the dry Solt River, given up, tried another, found that blocked as well. Where’s your wife? Left her at home, this time did you? I vaguely recalled this tardy, yet chatty driver. A guy who looked black, yet slightly different. Venezuelan, it turned out. With a house in Hermosillo, Mexico, and this odd commute to and from driving a van in Phoenix. Whatever. Being highly annoyed and rather anxious about my flight, I did what any self-respecting introvert always does. I clammed up. What could I say to this guy? Except ‘how’s the van business?’

It developed that he had more than this one shuttle. He operated several vans…Denver, Minneapolis. I nodded into the rearview mirror, wondering how we could be 45 minutes late. He dropped two passengers off at Southwest Airlines. We wound between the earth-toned Phoenix terminals, finally making it to United. As he lowered the lift, I asked about the lateness. Should I have ordered an earlier van? I like hearing myself say this, all diplomatic and cagey. You’ve got plenty of time, he said. Order yourself a cappuccino while you’re waiting, he suggested…plenty of time. Wheelchairs board early, I pointed out. Don’t I know that, he said, driving a wheelchair van? I gave him a tip for schlepping the bags up to the counter. I hated myself for doing this, but no sense in alienating the guy. I would likely need his help in the future.

Perhaps the reason that United had shut down its curbside baggage check-in was that they were not checking bags. I was too late. Although the agent did make an exception. The plane was boarding, in fact. I could hear both ends of the agent’s brief conversation with people at the gate…a power wheelchair is on its way. Someone at the other end audibly groaned. I counted every second going through Security. I cringed rolling up late to the gate.

My seat number was 30F, not a good number as numbers go. The usual question…did I want an aisle chair…took on a new residence. Instead of an automatic no, I volunteered to ride in the thing, if this would speed up boarding. I posed this question to the staff. They shrugged. Instead, a bulkhead seat magically appeared in row 7. Perfect. And no, I told the flight attendant. No need to make all the passengers move so I could sit on the aisle. It didn’t matter. Surely now things were on a roll. The flight attendant buckled me in. I grabbed my pant leg and lifted the paralyzed leg against the bulkhead. It wasn’t long before central Arizona was shimmering beneath us.

“You move around very well. Is it MS?” This from the man seated beside me. From compliments about my ‘moving’ to diagnosis seems, well, just a tad forward. Like my relationship with United Airlines, I would prefer to date a bit before, you know. I tell the man that I have an injury. Oh, he assures me, he’s seen his share of those. Just had a reunion in his native Ontario, Canada. His football-playing classmates could barely get around, many of them. He was grateful for being so spry. The man asks my age. 66, I tell him. Oh, he’s got 10 years on me. I turn the pages of my magazine. He has the in-flight shopping catalog open. There is no in-flight entertainment. My fear: that I will become in-flight entertainment.

When he was a little boy in Ontario, the man volunteers, there was a blind man selling pencils on the center of his town. His mother pointed out this street vendor, urged her son to put some money in his cup and not take any pencils. However, she urged, tell the man that you hope some day he can see the beautiful cakes in the baker’s window. I say nothing. The New Yorker is looking awfully interesting, and I ruffle it, as though to get a better grip on the article before me. The man continues. He tells me what his mother told him: that crippled people were put on this earth to make us appreciate what we have.

When the sun slants at a certain angle, and the nation’s haze is wafting about below, the aerial view of northern Arizona is cruelly bland. Somewhere down there is the Grand Canyon, but you’d never know it. I crane my neck to no advantage. Impossible to say what’s out there. Impossible to say anything to this man. Who has, he tells me, launching into another story, recently witnessed this nine-year-old lad with cancer. He was bald, the little tyke was, but he was included in a charity softball game. Played his little heart out, he did. Quite wonderful, it was. I check my watch. The planes between San Francisco and Phoenix take unpredictable routes these days. Somehow it was more predictable in another era, flights neatly crossing the Sierra Nevada, particularly beautiful with snow. But there’s no snow. There’s not much of anything. It’s almost 6 PM.

The man is making a final stab at it. What kind of injury did I have? A spinal cord injury, I tell him, asking myself if my sense of boundaries isn’t a little wobbly these days. It’s like tipping the late and overly blasé SuperShuttle driver. The man tells me that he also sees evidence of shoulder problems, me wearing this splint on my wrist and all. I turn the New Yorker story to the last page, finding Tessa Hadley’s ending not very satisfactory. Still, things have ended with this man. I haven’t said a word for at least five minutes. Nor has he. Which is good. No need to insult him, and equally, no need to talk. At least he hasn’t pushed for my religious conversion.

We land. Although I am seated in the front of the plane, one of the flight attendants is quite keen on putting me in an aisle chair. I have to pee. I also may be indirectly responsible for slightly delaying this flight. So somehow I agree to get in the horrible chair and pursue urination at some spot outside of the plane. The aisle chair is more like a handcart than a wheelchair. The thing tilts back, and the occupant is rolled wheelbarrow-style through the plane. The stationary platform that projects in front of the chair to hold the passenger’s feet actually gets in the way of someone ambulatory. Once the portly uniformed attendant has got me in place, the tilting is even worse. He wants to put me in a real United Airlines wheelchair, he says. There’s no time, I tell him. Again, I am wondering about a certain over generosity regarding boundaries. We barely make it into the men’s room in time. Worse, I really can’t stand up from the silly aisle chair. This man has to hoist me, an awkward procedure that leads us both into an unwanted embrace.

I spot my wheelchair waiting just inside the baggage office downstairs in the terminal. I tell the attendant how to lift and tighten the headrest, currently flopping forward. He does this, or tries to. The headrest drops back into place, sticking out at 90°, an angle that makes me bend my torso forward to avoid this protrusion in my neck. I ask him to get help. He wanders out in search of a clerk. I stop one of the baggage room guys. No dice. Time is passing, and I’m dealing with the usual. Intermittently, someone with a heavy accent calls me from Serra Cab. Where are you, this person asks. I am in the midst of a highly galling effort to get my headrest vertical. I tell the driver he doesn’t sound like SuperShuttle, assuring him I will call back soon. The United Airlines clerk arrives, pronounces the wheelchair damaged, and asks me to wait for a damage claim number. Very well. Is there a mechanic handy, I yell after him?

Meanwhile, I have to get out of this aisle chair. I will sit in my wheelchair, head bent forward, but at least I will have something like transportation and get the hell out of this airport. Same problem, though, with the aisle chair. The attendant hoists me to my feet, but now it’s worse. I’m not over my center of gravity, and I tell him this. Move me to my left, I say. No, not your left, my left. Even though he is a big guy, I can see us both falling to the ground, I really can. Instead, I fall sideways into my own wheelchair, head bent forward at 90°. I get the claim number. I phone the cab driver, and he tells me to meet him at the SuperShuttle stop. Naturally, he appears as soon as I emerge from the terminal. Which is the correct word for everything now, this being the endgame, the last stage. My travels, for this time, being terminal.

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