Wheeling Around San Francisco

Let me set the scene: I’m in San Francisco the city by the bay--the hilly city by the bay—where Tony Bennett left his heart and where others, like me, left their shoe soles. I’m here with my mother for a holiday. My mom has walking and balance issues so she can’t walk far or easily. A reality I had forgotten until we took the not-so-long walk through the lobby and down the corridor to our hotel room. We did reach our room, but only after several rest stops. Afterwards, however, the idea of taking that walk again so horrified Mom that we were facing the very real possibility of spending our holiday in the hotel room. We called down to the concierge to find a wheel chair. (Yes, I know I should have thought of this earlier, but dang, I forget from visit to visit exactly how much is too much walking.) Anyway… The San Francisco winter weather is treating us just fine. While everywhere else in the country is facing record cold temps, ice storms, snow, wind, San Francisco is blissfully sunny, clear-skied and warm—about 70—glorious. Mom and I have walked everywhere—rather she rides and I push. Pushing a wheel chair has opened my eyes to some realities. For one, it is almost impossible to differentiate between crazies who are talking to invisible friends and the so called normal people talking on cell phones. What’s more: chivalry is dead, opening doors is passé, inviting a woman, or women and a wheelchair go first is a lost courtesy; and something about being in a group or on the phone (which is the same as being in a group) makes people oblivious to everyone around them: they congregate in the middle of sidewalks; block wheel ramps at curbs; reverse without making warning beeping sounds; stop suddenly—don’t you think pedestrians should use traffic hand signals?

Mom and I have a list of must dos which includes riding a cable car. As it happens, we stopped for lunch at the Buena Vista, which is across from the cable car turn around. Mom was worried about riding the cable cars, afraid they wouldn’t let her on with the wheel chair. Not only did they let her on, the cable car operator hoisted the wheelchair onto the cable car for us and led mom to a nice seat, all the while telling her to take her time, that we weren’t in a rush. At our stop, Powell Street, he said, “don’t worry about the chair, just take care of your Mom…take care of Mommy.” At the curb, a homeless guy set down his cup so he could set the wheelchair brakes, pull out the seat, and arrange Mom’s feet on the pedals. His thanks were smiles and goodbyes. I didn’t even think to tip him and he didn’t act like he expected one.

Often when we walk, we are met with smiles and pleasantries as people step aside and make way for us. Often we read the puzzlement on those same faces as they try to figure out why mom is in the wheelchair. Other wheelchair riders check us out, too. One guy put his hand out to slap five as he cruised past.

Last night we went to a show called Beach Blanket Babylon which was a delightful spoof on current affairs and great fun. It has been running continuously for over 30 years—hopefully it will run for 30 or more more. Afterwards, we walked up to a busy corner to flag down a cab. Almost immediately a cab pulled to the curb. As I stooped to set the brakes on Mom’s wheelchair, an older man with his wife and daughter jumped inside. “That’s our cab!” I called. The man’s wife looked at me. The man closed the door. The cab driver shrugged. The light changed and the cab was stuck there, waiting, while we glared at them. (Mom is a champion glarer.) I could see that the cabbie was telling the man that he had been waiting for us. I am sure Mom’s glare will stick with them—it should. Fifteen or so minutes later, I was still standing in the street with my arm up, mom sat beside me in her chair, when another couple stopped beside us. The woman walked farther out into the street and began waving. She knew we were there. She knew it was our spot. But she figured she could out jump us to the cab. She didn’t know me: I moved out in front of her. She didn’t know mom, either. As the cab pulled up, Mom pushed forward in her chair arms flapping, lunged—she was inside, sitting down, giving the woman a “cheaters never prosper” look before I even had the chair folded up.

Today, I pushed Mom up Grants Avenue to Chinatown. (Sounded like a great idea at the time.) Turns out the Arches welcoming visitors into Chinatown really are up, up, up. At one point I was pushing the wheelchair with all my might and my body was almost parallel with the ground. I was practically kissing the pavement, was definitely eyeing it. Mom sat clutching the handles of the wheelchair and making small gasping sounds.

We finally reached a summit where I tried to act cool while gulping in air. Fortunately only a few blocks farther up and on a flat stretch we found the Chinese Emporium/Bazaar Mom’s friends had suggest she visit to buy bugs encapsulated in resin and made into bracelets (don’t ask). The way back down the hill, as downhills do, looked even more steep and treacherous. I swung Mom’s chair around so she was facing uphill while I walked backwards downhill with my back against the back of the chair. Leaning back hard on the chair, I baby stepped down, all the while praying I didn’t lose my footing.

I’ve had time to consider wheelchairs during all of these ups and downs. Next go around I want the kind with handbrakes, not just the wheel lock levers. (I need more control)…and while electric chairs don’t work for Mom (there is a reason she doesn’t drive a car) I would like a remote control, shock absorbers too, and a basket.

Part way back down Chinatown hill, Mom asked to stop for postcards. So, when we spotted a 7-postcards-for-a-dollar stall I stopped. I set the brakes and turned the wheels toward the building. Just to be sure, I stayed on the downhill side and leaned forward, over Mom’s head, to pick cards so she could make her selections. Several people were heading up and down the sidewalk. Our being on the sidewalk didn’t seem to bother them. They all managed to walk around us, even though it meant moving to the curb to get around a signpost, too. We were choosing card 4 of 7 when a 60 something woman stopped in front of Mom and started complaining that she was blocking the path. “This is a sidewalk,” the woman ranted. “You need to move this chair out of the way so I can pass.” While she raved her companion silently stepped around us, and the pole, and made his way past. With hands on hips and a glare on her face the woman waited while I dug in my heels, undid the brakes, swiveled the chair around, and backed it into the shop and into several displays.

Which leads me to this evening. We took a cab back from dinner. The pedals to the wheelchair came off during transport. The cab driver helped me get them back in place and wished us good night. The cabbie had missed the entrance so we were about a half a block up the street. I tried to push the wheelchair, but it wouldn’t budge. I checked to see if the tires were flat. I checked to see if something was tangled in the wheel. I tried to hoist up the back of the chair and muscle it to the doorway. Then, out of the shadows a man stepped forward. “Hold on,” he said, and bent to see what the problem was. He chucked. “I got it.” Turns out the arm rest had come out of place some how and was interfering with the wheel. He politely asked Mom to lift her arm. Fixed the armrest, tested the wheel, explained to me what had happened and waited to see that we were ready to roll. Then asked, “Can you spare some change?” That was one tip I was especially pleased to give.

Pushing a wheelchair around these past couple of days has given me a lot to consider about humans and civilization and about the true meaning of civilized human being. Mom and I didn’t stop at one San Francisco cable car ride, we took two. On the last one we road all the way to the end of the line. The brakeman/ticket taker (I’m not sure what his official title is) carried Mom’s wheelchair down for me and also gave Mom a hand stepping down. When I thanked him for his help, I nodded toward the cars he had stopped so we could get mom settled in her chair again. “We’re holding up traffic, “I said. He smiled. “That’s all right,” he said. “They can wait. One day, it could be their turn.”