Train Days

I have had this idea, had it for quite a while, and now as I emerge from the Caltrain station in San Francisco, there it is staring me in the face. It is the bicycle shop. Well, more than that, a parking-cum-repair operation. The place is more or less out of bounds for me. I am hardly a bicyclist. And the fact that I once was makes it all the more difficult. After all, in between my able-bodied youth and the present there was this interim phase of disabled tricycle riding. Which came to an end 10 to 15 years ago, depending on one’s reckoning. The wildcard being when it should have ended, that pleasant street roaming. Though it got awfully difficult as muscles in my shoulder failed, my torso weakened, and so on. Anyway, goodbye to wheels with spokes. But not quite, for now I am pulling on the door to the Caltrain bike station. Inside, someone sees me. A burly guy opens the door. A rough and ready bicycle repair person.

My question is simple enough. Could I park my wheelchair inside? This begs the more obvious question: what would I do without my wheels? Well, this is all theoretical. But I do have the idea that someday I might train it into San Francisco with, say, Jane, park the wheelchair for a spell and crutch to a rental car. And as though to complete the thought, ZipCar is plying its wares just outside the bike station. As well it should. This company stashes its cars for hire all over San Francisco…with customers booking online, then unlocking the car of choice and speeding off. Such a sensible concept. And, yes, the man in the bike station tells me. Leave your wheelchair here anytime.

The outcome is oddly irrelevant. More important – that I asked. Odd how questions of ego strength and personal worth can sprout from nothing.

Over lunch with my friend Jerry, discussions focus on my upcoming book. In particular, bookstore appearances. Jerry has done a few and offers his approach. In our conversational back and forth I am aware of one nagging reality. People have a hard time hearing me. I speak softly. Yes, there will be amplification when the bookstore thing gets going, if it gets going. But there is also more to my low decibels than low decibels. Low presence somehow being at the heart of it. Note that I am working on this. And the bike station was a good place to start.

Caltrain is always a good place to end. And so I am back, lifted aboard by the hydraulic slingshot built into each train’s wheelchair car. It is a cold February day in San Francisco. The train seems a warmer, better place to be. Moments before departure I see the mechanical wheelchair lift lowering again. A man on a scooter…which is something of a misnomer, but never mind…bursts through the electric doors and rolls past me. The man is wearing a cotton T-shirt, remarkable attire in 52°F weather. His vehicle is enormous. I suppose such quasi-wheelchairs are perfect for those who are truly semi-ambulatory. One steps onto a platform, sits down, then steers with a fairly conventional motorscooter handlebar. The only problem is size. I inch forward slightly, knowing there is only so much room in the disabled space. Despite this, he runs into me.

‘Your wheels stick out in the back,’ he says.

‘Yes,’ I tell him, ‘they are attached to my wheelchair.’

What more could anyone say? Except, of course…could you roll forward even more, please? He doesn’t say much of anything now, just bashes to and fro, occasionally plowing into my back wheels, the ones that stick out so extremely. Not that they don’t, of course. I often bash into things around my apartment, such as walls.

Now another man approaches. He too is attired for warmer weather, Bermuda shorts and T-shirt and an insufferable grin. I encountered him only last week, on another train about this time of day. I was stashing something in the car’s rubbish bin and more or less nudged him out of the way with my wheelchair. He was smelling heavily of alcohol. I decided to steer clear of him. But why is not entirely certain. He even offered to dispose of my rubbish for me. My dismissal of him now seems rather prissy. On this day, as the slow afternoon train rattles south, the man has an animated conversation with the conductor. She is open, accepting, quite happily engaged in chatting with him. A role model, she is. After all, this is why they call it public transportation. And with so much of America retreating into its gated communities, the public keeps getting farther and farther away.

Not me, not at least on this, the next day. I am heading to Caltrain headquarters, there to deliver a summary of the monthly meeting of the Citizens Advisory Committee. It is an astonishing thing to be chairman of anything. I take this as an honor, truly. Somehow, it seemed a poor job for me. But this is not been the case. I enjoy it, remain uncertain of its efficacy, the committee, that is. Yet one never knows. In any case, I stand by ready to deliver my 45-second spiel. When the agenda gets around to me, I roll forward and hold forth. I even make a small joke, not terribly well received by the Caltrain Board, but that is no matter. Being the thought that counts. Once done with my monthly assignment, I roll out the door and down the street to the local Peet’s Coffee. Not my local outlet, this being San Carlos, but not to worry. I get pleasantly caffeinated, read appropriately themed material…the monthly bulletin of the National Association of Railroad Passengers…then destined to be run out of town on a rail, head back to the station.

There is a rule about the number of wheelchairs that supposedly fit aboard a Caltrain car. Knowing most of the train guards, at least by sight, this code tends to get bent. Which is a good thing, particularly on this one of the coldest days of the California coastal winter. The overall situation introduced by a familiar conductor who quietly says that there are already two wheelchairs on board. They’ll make room, he adds. A mensch, this guy. And sure enough, once the lift has deposited me in the car, the two existing wheelchair passengers have already turned sideways. I back into place. We are now three in a row, all facing sideways, the window to our backs. Hurtling south.

The man beside me is in a self-propelled wheelchair. He is probably Hispanic, and his legs are abnormally short. I say hello, adding that it’s cold out there. He does not seem to hear. A mile or two later, I feel obliged to repeat myself. No response. The man’s legs are short because, I believe, his disability has been with him since childhood. Depending on what part of the world saw his birth, the possible culprits could include polio. Perhaps spina bifida. But somehow I am certain he has grown up with this. Why he can’t hear me is unclear. I even think of saying ‘hace frio,’ but it is unclear if this would offend him. Of course, there is no real reason why it should, yet I am not certain.

I turn to the young man in the anorak. His is a well seasoned electric wheelchair. The thing has been banged around quite a bit. The kid’s face is constantly and involuntarily mobile, drifting from smile to grimace in the way of cerebral palsy. For a moment I feel very foolish. For I don’t know what to do. Again, I just want to say hi. Yet I am afraid that this will oblige the young man to speak…and speaking may be difficult, even impossible. I don’t want to embarrass him – or this is what I tell myself. Perhaps I am the one who is afraid of being embarrassed. The truth is that I am simply out of practice. In another era I was quite comfortable with people who had all sorts of disabilities. I stumbled on. And even if I’m not quite sure what’s appropriate…call it politically correct…as the three of us ride sideways, straight down the San Francisco Peninsula, something else emerges. I feel we are together. Veterans of, or partners in, a certain kind of heartbreak. Next to me, the young man spasms, both arms jerking in front of him. I know what this feels like. A milder version of this still happens to me. I am luck
y to have more of my neurology intact. But I am much luckier to have my life intact. And so we roll toward San Jose, sideways.

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