Being in the hospital for a week had stressed me out. Sure there were the physical things, the could-have-died –from-sepsis nightmare and the accumulated bills and all the usual. But there was also the overwhelming financial panic of missing (another) full week of work. Rents in the Bay never cease to rise and ours had just gone up a stomach-clenching $200 a month. We pay crazy money for a shoebox one bedroom and count ourselves lucky to have it – wheelchair accessible* and pet friendly are rare attributes. (*When movers aren’t blocking the elevators which they were today. Both elevators. Both times I needed to make use of one this morning. Score an added 18 minutes of wait time.)
Last night I had trouble going to sleep. I was worried about my physical stamina to return to my commute, excited to be out in the world again, and looking forward to catching up with my work friends. The hospital marks are fading fast, a few yellowing bruises from failed vein sticks, a delight in flavorful food that also contains nutrition. But it never occurred to me to dread what really happened: a complete public transportation meltdown.
Having consulted a Sunday bus schedule I thought I had to be at my stop by 9:25 am to make the right bus to the right train – arriving on time after time away feels important to me. So I am hustling, walking the dog, taking my pills, packing some food, eating breakfast, all going well. I get to the bus stop at 9:21 – Sweet!! But then I check Nextbus.com and find out my bus must have already started the route and passed me by, because the next one isn’t for 29 minutes. Crap.
Ok, let’s take advantage of this sudden time gap. I turn around and wheel back up the block to Grocery Outlet, grabbing some snacks for the week ahead at work, a frozen entrée or two, a large volume of healthy drinks to help me flush these poor kidneys of mine. It’s Sunday morning, still early, so there’s one line open and we’re all sprawled back towards the freezer case waiting to check out. My partner texts and offers me a ride, which I enthusiastically say yes to! Time in the car with my baby in the morning is a lovely way to get going and gives me a few more minutes with her in a work day that contains too few of them.
I wait by our car and then she loads my wheelchair in. At the last minute before she drops me at the Ashby BART I think to check on the state of the elevators – there’s a number to text to find out which elevators are out of service. This can prevent the heartache of being dropped off at a station that proves useless because I can’t get to the train platform! It is no guarantee that my arrival destination will indeed have working elevators, but it is a helpful guide. The response text informs me that Powell Station has BOTH elevators out – there will be no exiting at the closest station to work. I’ll have to go one station further than wheel uphill up four blocks.
The train pulls in at Montgomery Station and I am psyched. I’ve texted with some friends, checked Facebook, listened to my book for almost forty minutes and I am in the zone. I am even smug about being a knowledgeable & experienced wheelchair commuter, able to choose the precise train car that puts me in the best place for the train transfer and then for the elevator once I arrive at my destination. Knowing the individual station layouts is key – some stations require me to push myself the full length of the platform, a full city block, to get from the platform elevator to the street elevator so I can conserve my energy for the push to work by making smart choices in advance. Plus I need a car with not too many bikes (they often block the doors and make it unsafe for me should I need to evacuate a car), no one else in a wheelchair in the designated spot (only one of us fits per open train car door), and general BART rider considerations like yelling people or super stench or sticky floors.
So I get off the train and turn to my left with only one car length to push before the elevator takes me up off the platform. I look up and see that the doors are open and waiting for me – awesome! But look, there’s something on the ground and it really looks like pee. I slow down just in time to avoid a rush of water cascading down the front of the open doors. I just keep watching, rather stunned, as it becomes clear that more liquid is pouring down through the elevator shaft, and there’s just too much of it to be someone taking a leak into the elevator door jam (which happens – often). I hit the button to call the Station Agent. One time, two times, third try someone picks up. I tell him about what I’m seeing and he says he’ll be right down to look. As I wait more drops come through the shaft in front of the now closed doors. There’s a puddle of water on the floor I’ll have to roll through and get all over my wheels to enter the elevator if he says it is safe. Plus there’s a steady sprinkle still falling, so mystery liquid will hit my head, shoulders, arms. I’m bracing as if I was about to get doused in the Thieves Downfall during a caper through Gringotts.
The station agent arrives, takes one look, and says “I’ve never seen anything like this before!” He looks up, staring into the darkness from which drops occasionally still splatter. The elevator doors open again, revealing another puddle, right next to a great big patch of piss. He shakes his head and says that he has to close the elevator. I say something like, “nothing personal, but BART sucks as a commuter.” He replies something like “And you know they have the money! They want to extend the lines down to San Jose and grab up all that tech money but they aren’t fixing the system at all! Then people get mad at us!” I told him that a friend who now drives trains for BART has told me hair-raising stories of her days as a station agent. We sit there for a second, he’s apologized for how rough this is on me, we moan about Powell being out. He suggests I get back on a train and go to Embarcadero but that means more than a half mile all up hill to get to work and that’s beyond my capabilities today. We decide Civic Center is a better destination. Just as we break apart from our somehow uplifting moment of mutual humanity a man in an electric scooter gets off the train behind us and realizes he cannot use the elevator. He starts yelling, full throated yells, first at the BART employee and then at me, telling me to fuck off for not being angry at the guy. I said I was furious with BART but this man was not the focus, cause or scapegoat for my frustration. This sets irate white guy off even further and he sets off, following the agent down the platform. The agent turns around and looks me in the eye, and says something like “That made me mad, that he cursed at you.” I said “Me too.”
Irate guy in a power chair follows the agent all the way to the escalator. Then he comes back for me, where I sit alone on the platform. He comes right at me, and for a split second I had the terrifying thought that he meant to crash into me and send me & my chair down onto the tracks. He swerves just in time, yelling that I am a fucker and an asshole for not being angry. I assure him I am angry. His noise disappears off behind me, I can’t see where he is off to. So I nervously wait for the next train, relieved to get further away.
The train whisks me a few stops away to one I’ve never used before in a wheelchair. My anxiety level is really high about this – did I mention that my Clipper card said “See Agent” when I tried to enter, but there was no agent working at Ashby on a Sunday morning so I was technically turnstile jumping, having let myself in via the swinging emergency door. Was I going to have to explain all this to a possible pissed off BART agent to exit this station? I’ve been dressed down pretty intensely by BART agents unwilling to accept my stories of equipment failures, etc.
The door opens to the platform elevator and, you guessed it, it’s sporting a nice warm pee puddle. I know it’s warm cause I can feel some seep through the back of my biking gloves as my wheels turn through it. Lovely. But here we go, getting out of the underground where I have been trapped, that’s a good thing, right? After exiting I do a trim little circle, pee tracks glistening on the floors, and press the call button for the station agent. One time, 6 rings, no answer. Try again. Third try and a voice behind me says “What’s up?” I turn around to see a BART employee looking at me. I gesture to the pee (which I have since photographed during the wait to speak to someone). He mumbles an apology and has athe grace to look a little sheepish about it. I ask him for directions to the elevator that will take me to the street. It’s about a city block away, basically the length of the platform, and I groan at this news. But okay, getting close to fresh air and freedom! I have no idea where I will be on the city grid once that elevator brings me up into the sunshine, but it’s better to be up there problem-solving then be stuck down here in this urine soaked purgatory.
I put my back into it and push hard, rolling fast over the stone floors. Again the doors part just as I arrive – to reveal a woman bent down on the floor, scrambling at her multiple bags, some of which seem at the point of collapse or disintegration. She looks up and says “Sorry” as she continues to clock the entrance, then gets it all together and steps away. There’s lots of trash on the floor but the only pee is a small puddle in the corner, I don’t have to roll in it – BONUS! The doors close and that’s when the scent of human feces whaps me in the face. I think it’s in (wrapped in? hidden under? the bulging newspaper on the floor, but I am not going to confirm or deny this guess. I try and hold my breath and the doors open and I breath the fresh air of…the farmer’s market. I’ve come above ground at Civic Center in the middle of the food vendor end of the market and it smells amazing. Dosas and crepes and all kinds of good smells wash over me as I wait for the station agent to pick up again (my own personal rules for riding the BART are simple: if there is a mess in the elevator I will report it, every time. And if I get pee on me during a ride I don’t pay for it. Seems fair to me.)
Now, where am I? I glance at the Muni map but it’s not much help. I’m right on Market Street and the sign for Seventh is at my back, so it’s a mostly downhill roll towards work at Third & Market-ish. Am I strong enough to make that push, just under half a mile? I‘m going to try. I slowly roll through the people picking pumpkins out at stalls, queuing up for treats and vegetables and all the things I wish I was perusing instead of going to work.
At the edge of the farmer’s market the crowd abruptly shifts. Now I’m in the midst of the San Francisco that Mayor Ed Lee is trying to eradicate before the national eye of the upcoming Super Bowl falls upon the homeless and the addicted in huge encampments all around the flush offices of Twitter and the like. People are moving slow, blinking in the morning sun and getting moving with no real direction. I weave through and as I head towards the intersection my foot catches the back of a guy’s heel. He takes a moment to scream “You’re in a wheelchair man – you stop and wait for me” in my face but I hide in the audio blanket of my headphones, still playing my book, and keep moving. Now it hits me I might be in some trouble. It’s not as downhill as I thought and I’m going to get a workout going almost half a mile. And I’m not in a safe place. And there are needles and feces and unidentifiable things that want to stick to my chair and oh god, I want to not be here and I am too tired. So I start looking for a place where a cab can pick me up.
Yes I said cab, not Uber, not Lyft. They aren’t required to take passengers in wheelchairs; they consider themselves exempt from those legal requirements. I mean hey, they’re just an app, right? No employees, no rules! So I’ll use another app, Flywheel, to summon a proper licensed city cab that is legally required to take my ass. And my chair. And if they do it as effortlessly as they have in the past I will tip like a baller.
So one more block, to turn onto Golden Gate across from the theatre and find an empty curb spot where a cab can load me in, away from the bikes and trolleys and buses and confusion of Market Street. I worked as a driver in the city for one of the driving services I can’t use any more, so I know how to plan this. Proud of my resilience, I take out my phone, open the app, type in careful directions (“right side of curb, directly before stoplight, etc.”) and watch the app fairies summon my pumpkin coach. Who does not arrive. Who calls to say he can’t find me and is cancelling my ride. Just as the second driver is making the exact same phone call, saying that he cannot see me even though the app says he is just down the block, it’s not worth it to him, he’s going to cancel too, I hear someone behind me scream. Now obviously I have already heard some screaming today, so perhaps this shouldn’t make me jump, but it’s a woman’s guttural voice, she’s behind me in my blind spot (no rearview mirrors on these things) and clearly running at me at high speed. Eyes wide I see her jump into the air and use a volleyball-spike type gesture to bat a startled pigeon out of the air. The bird lands on its side at my feet, just into the gutter, and looks up, feathers ruffled and now limping away.
I pull out my phone and call my partner and as her phone rings (only twice, she knows I am having a below average adventure) I start crying. Not little sniffs either, sobs that would humiliate me at another time. I just can’t hold it together and I tell her all of it. I can hear her voice clench and I feel awful for scaring her, but I need the company, advice and reassurance.
I look down at the ground and see wheel tracks in a stale pile of shit. Whew, not mine. I tell her where I am and that I don’t feel safe. I can’t think of three times I have ever said this, total, in my life. Not in New York, not in Oakland, not in Detroit, Chicago, Boston, Athens, Islamabad. Yes, that time in Karachi with the tear gas but rarely outside of that. She clocks where I am and tells me to get out of there. Promising to call her in two blocks of less, I hang up and roll.
In two blocks I am in a different world. I can hear amplified music and some clapping and shouting, see some sort of stage erected at the edge of the Union Square area. I get closer and realize I am seeing a huge street installation celebrating MAC makeup, with heavily made up attendants of many genders pulling people into chairs for makeup tips and product demos. I call my lover back to reassure her that I have survived. And then I keep rolling.
Past the Flood Building where her good friend has the most gorgeous office that he careful decorates with fresh flowers every week, to create a vibrant space for therapy work with his clients. Past the open door of the Doc Marten’s store, which lets out the distinct smell of leather – I inhale deeply and think of better times. Each happy thing I text to my partner, determined to find my way back to the optimism that returned after leaving the hospital three days ago. A fierce femme punk poet passes me and we nod to each other. We were both in the same show once, or performing at the same event, I’m not sure, but that little nod makes me feel human and visible again.
Now I am at the Powell Street elevator, closed for repairs for two days twelve days ago. Home stretch now, this is my usual route. Through the construction chute, sidewalk temporarily carved out by fences alongside the big dig, past the tourists stopping obliviously to stare down into the soil of the city while the rest of us scramble to get around them. Quick decision – go backwards uphill one block and work out my legs? Or rest my creaky knee and go the longer route forwards using upper body power? I want to use my walker to practice standing later, so I go with the upper body workout. Now it’s really familiar territory, I know every cut & curb, every sign and tree root on these blocks. Cross the intersection diagonally, it’s an “all cross” even if the tourists don’t know that and give me funny looks. One more block up a slant, so this one is backwards, kicking hard with my legs and watching reflections in the shop windows to see behind me. Final turn onto the sleepy high-end shopping street where my job resides – and I’m here. The heavy glass door to the building opens and as I ride the pee-free elevator up to the fifth floor I try not to think about how much work, energy and anxiety just went into getting me all the way across the Bay to answer phones. I try to think about having my rent handled and my sweetie grinning at me. That’s good enough.
I arrive at my desk, one hour late, and clock in. Nine hours later, we’ll try the reverse trip, but I am not going to waste a moment on worrying about that in advance. I’ve got this.