Yellow Cloud

Steve waves to me across the empty queuing spaces just outside Security, and I’m thinking, gosh, it’s a small world. It’s a small plane too, making Steve’s appearance particularly welcome. I see him regularly, know him slightly, thus Peet’s Coffee, Menlo Park. Steve is a regular there. Irregular seeing him here, though. Turns out he has attended a conference in Phoenix. I have attended to my sister and family matters. And now we are heading home. When United Airlines makes the general call for cripples, a.k.a., preboarding, I grab Steve. He helps me run the gauntlet of wheelchair pushers who invariably arrive at such an occasion.

United Airlines has outsourced its cripple handling services to something called AirServ. It’s one of those highly efficient moves born in the mind of some MBA somewhere. And in practice it is risibly inefficient. But here they are, one woman with a folding wheelchair and two people assisting her, a total of three subcontracted, low-wage, cost-efficient and utterly unnecessary helpers. I have my own wheelchair which, thanks to the miracle of batteries, does not require pushing. And no, one of the United baggage handlers explains to the AirServ trio, no need to put the passenger in a manual chair. Steve carries my possessions on board. All is well. Or seems well.

Until the United flight arrives in San Francisco and reveals its curious nature. The airline has, after all, not only outsourced its disabled services – but its very essence. Yes, it has outsourced itself. United Express being the euphemism for SkyWest, a low-wage operator of regional, a.k.a. small, jets. This one taxis to the wide open concrete spaces near, but not terribly close to, a terminal. I urge Steve on his way, assuring him that there will be a long wait for my wheelchair. Actually, the wait is not so long. But the ramp is. It leads right to the ground, the concrete. I stagger down the ramp, walking the plank in a manner of speaking. While thinking that well, this is exercise. And the right kind. Walking. Up on my feet. All this has been deemed good by those gods of physical medicine who reign over my life. At the end, I collapse into my waiting wheelchair and speed off toward Gate 39.

As in 39 Steps. An iconic number, and one that should have sounded various alarms. But all this unexpected and challenging physical activity has kicked something into high gear. I am grinding through obstacles, immediate and anticipated. I want out. Out of the airport and home. Which is why it seems so confusing, the appearance of all these gates for Southwest Airlines. Until it dawns on me. I am in the wrong terminal. That is to say, United Airlines has dumped me here, far from my baggage. I backtrack, discover a shuttle bus…which involves a wheelchair lift…and transport to well, not Baggage Claim, but the nether purlieus of Gate 90.

This is the most remote and distant corner of the United Airlines terminal. I am feeling terminal myself by the time I get my bag. It won’t get me, though, that other thing noted by one of the guys who rolled my wheelchair off the plane, here in San Francisco. The rear light is cracked. Damaged in transport. Which I point out to someone in United Baggage. Oh, she explains, there is a form to complete. Worse, the form completion manager is someone else, and somewhere else, and we have to await his arrival. I am losing heart. Losing patience. Losing the will to do anything but what the baggage maven now offers. A $75 United Airlines travel pass. No form. No claims. And no guff from me regarding my damaged wheelchair. I hate these people. The Friendly Skies.

It is a long, bouncing, lopsided journey – my bag hanging off the right arm rest of my wheelchair – first on the airport’s automated train. Then on BART, the regional subway system, changing one stop down the line…all to get about a mile away. The Caltrain station. Where all these delays have added up to missing the southbound 5:15. I read my book. I nurse my wounds. Until finally, I am home.

And no longer under the gun…except for the three guns that have been hanging over my head ever since they fell into my lap. And the next morning, there she is. Jeana from a local gun shop. The fact that such an institution exists, a gun shop, never ceases to astonish me. But then I am tainted by years in Britain and an excessive load of life knowledge, vis-à-vis firearms. Which is why I have determined to avoid all discussion regarding guns and their disposition. I am doing what the attorney has asked. Getting a valuation. 4000 bucks. That is the simple answer. What they are worth. Would she like me to take the guns with her for sale on consignment? They are very popular, she assures me, rapidly appreciating. Really, I ask? Oh, yes, she says. And they could appreciate even more…depending on the election.

Slightly cryptic, this last reference. But entirely clear to anyone of the extreme right-wing persuasion. The possibilities fly around my brain like bats. Small dark thoughts guided by sonar. That, the right-wing wisdom goes, Democrats will attempt to restrict firearms, squeezing the market and increasing their value. Or these demon Democrats, determined to impose their caliphate on all things good and Christian and heterosexual, will spur the righteous to arm themselves. Thank you for the appraisal, I say to the gun lady. I write her a check for $30.

I phone the Menlo Park Police, explain my purpose and they are there within minutes. The woman officer extracts the three handguns, checks to see if a bullet remains inside…amid much spinning and clicking. Then reminds me that I can sell these, if I wish. Tempting, of course. The general plan had been, at one point, to sell the weapons and give the proceeds to the local high school. Sensible in its own way. But not in my way. She departs with the guns and a general observation concerning their disposition…how they will be tossed into a rubbish-burning incinerator, one that provides energy for the region. That steel doesn’t combust seems obvious. No matter. I play along. Playing along is often the best one can do.

Especially when nature invariably stages the best show of all…upstaging everyone and everything. Because just in case you thought that rolling out for lunch was an event, think again. More to the point, look up while you’re thinking. Because if you tend to be forever lost in thought, a sort of absent-minded professor on battery-powered wheels, you tend to miss things. Things like that giant tree, its nature currently obscured by, you guessed it, nature. A vast yellow cloud erupting from its branches like some little known form of chemical warfare. Not that it is war the tree is waging. But peace. Or piece of arboreal ass, one might say. Tree sex, in other words. All of this propelled by a dramatic gust of wind on a calm day. Pollen exploding from the tree, its yellow cloud engulfing me, leaving a coating on my wheelchair control. The tree? Probably a Monterey Pine. The meaning? Stuff happens. And some of that stuff is miraculous.

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