I never learned to drive a car. To get around, I took the bus or walked. I did a lot of walking, not for exercise and not to save the environment, but simply to get from one place to another. Still, I figured all this use of my legs would serve me well as I slipped into old age.
Life, however, delivers unexpected twists. Due to a condition called POEMS Syndrome, I can no longer walk and instead get around in a motorized chair that I’ve dubbed “Herbie.” Traveling in this fashion has given me a fresh set of viewpoints.
Let’s start with snow, as in the recent April blizzard. While the streets and sidewalks in my Dinkytown neighborhood were generally cleared in a timely manner, there was that ridge of piled-up snow between streets and sidewalks. This ridge can be a real problem for me where it covers those areas at the ends of blocks where the sidewalk slopes down to facilitate wheelchairs and bicycles.
Thanks to all those kind souls who have helped me push through snow collected in these slopes.
Speaking of bicycles, I wish cyclists would ring a bell or call out a warning when they whoosh past me from behind. I try to stay to the right and travel in a straight line, but sometimes cracks in the sidewalk cause me to veer. A collision with a passing bicycle hasn’t happened yet, but I fear it is coming.
On the other hand, I always hear skateboarders coming up behind me and can navigate accordingly.
Then there’s the matter of standing ovations. At the theater, I’m usually in that open space in the very back of the auditorium. If the audience stands to applaud at the end of the show, I can no longer see the stage. If it’s simply the leading man and leading lady coming out for a quick bow, well, I guess I can miss that. But in the case of concerts, the curtain calls can inspire a whole new number, and while the audience is oohing and aahing and clapping in unison, I’m blocked from the view and find myself wishing I’d brought along a periscope.
Now comes my pet peeve — those high tables and chairs that enable diners to eat in such an elevated position they can swing their legs while consuming a helping of General Tso’s chicken. I can push aside one of the chairs and motor up to the table, but the food is awkwardly positioned near eye-level and I feel like a dog eating scraps off the master’s table.
Please, can’t we at least be given a choice of tables at normal height?
Opening doors can be a real hassle. I’m usually able to push through doors when I exit — but opening doors toward me is a tedious and tiring struggle. Bless every shop and cafe that has those squares you press that open doors for you.
There are advantages to being in a motorized chair. I always have a place to sit. So, for example, I don’t mind so much waiting in long, slow-moving lines. Also, many people, perhaps feeling sympathy for my condition, show me special kindness. But such concern really isn’t necessary. I feel fine and my mind is still active enough to usually finish the crossword puzzle in the Saturday New York Times. And I work in ink.
Then there are dogs. I’ve always liked dogs and the feeling seems to be mutual. As I motor along the sidewalk, dogs on leashes often pull themselves over to me for a friendly, curious sniff. There’s one dog in particular. Just a little, white fur-ball. But when he sees me coming, he squirms with delight and tugs his walker over to me so he can clamber up my legs and give my face an enthusiastic lick.
His walker will say something like: “No, no. Don’t bother the nice man.”
But I don’t mind a bit. His four good legs and my two damaged ones may qualify us as different species, but for a moment we become equals. Two travelers making their ways down the sidewalk of life.
Alvin Easter lives in Minneapolis.