San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Wheelchair Travel: Going as Cargo

“I can’t do it!” I bawl. I am scheduled to make a 12-hour flight to Seattle the next day. I have the flu. It will cost a pretty penny to change the reservation. There is only one other thing I can do: request wheelchair assistance. Little do I know …

We arrive at the San José airport, where I am summarily deposited on a concrete slab in the outer vestibule and left to wait a half-hour for the wheelchair to arrive. When it finally comes, the man who brings it dumps it into a corner and leaves. I transfer my aching body into it, where I sit facing the wall for another 10 minutes.

A skycap finally comes to pick me up, whereupon I am rushed through a portal designed for pieces like me and hurried to my gate. Nobody has treated me badly, but I am starting to feel like a piece of cargo.

When I get to my stopover in Atlanta, a young man with a wheelchair, whom I hereafter think of as “The Pusher,” is waiting for me in the corridor. This time, it is not a real wheelchair, but a device that can be maneuvered only by The Pusher. Now we must head to customs. Along the way, we run into a family whose father is pushing a little girl in a stroller. She and I give each other big smiles as we whiz along, and that’s when I realize the truth. I am not in a wheelchair; I am in a stroller!

On the way, The Pusher begins to tell me how he had a stomach problem the day before and needs to go home early. Now I feel guilty that he has a stomach problem and is pushing me because I have a stomach problem. It is all I can do to refrain from suggesting that we take turns pushing.

When we get to the customs area, The Pusher and another person have a discussion about “where to put her.” He finally takes me to an area where there is a whole line of people in wheelchairs waiting at one station, parks me there and leaves me. I look down at the long room of stations manned by customs officials. It is practically deserted. Yet, here we all are, crowded into a “special assistance” area. We all smile at each other and roll our eyes. Hey, wheelchair solidarity.

It doesn’t take me long to discover that I have been put into a group of foreigners entering the United States, all of whom must undergo a lengthy process, including fingerprinting and a lot of talking. We are all pushed together in a clump, so an attendant decides to impose some order. Assuming that we, being foreigners, are all somehow incapable of speech, she forms a line and arbitrarily puts me at the end of it.

Sometime later, much later, the order-loving girl finally rolls me up to the station, manned by an officer in a dark blue uniform, and, having gotten rid of the last of us, abandons me there. I hand him my passport. His eyes go round.

“You are an American citizen?” he gasps.

I guess I haven’t entirely lost my spirit of irony, for I answer, “Yes, I am, and I am at the end of the line.”

“Oh, ma’am, I am sorry!”

The poor man has taken me seriously. He is, in fact, so disconcerted that he comes out from behind the counter and wheels me out himself. He parks me and just leaves me sitting there in the middle of chaos. I look across the way and spot a man in a wheelchair who is similarly parked and confused, though he has an equally confused wife to help. We smile and wave at each other. Wheelchair solidarity again.

Eventually somebody comes to get me. He puts me into an elevator, takes me to the main terminal and parks me in front of a station where another seven or eight wheelchair people are parked. One of the attendants proceeds to line us all up in a row, facing the main terminal lobby. A big, healthy-looking woman, a Delta employee, walks by and hollers at one of the attendants, “I see you got yo cho-cho train!”

Eventually, The Pusher with the stomachache arrives, and we are on our way again. We take the airport train and go through security. At some point in this process, he turns and asks me a question. He has to ask me three times because, what with my flu fog, his thick southern accent and the oddness of the question, I can’t understand what he is saying. Finally, I get it. “What is your heritage?” he wants to know.

I look at him blankly. It must be that he has until now assumed I am a foreigner, perhaps because I am wearing a long skirt and a shawl. Then he scolds me for not explaining that my black computer case going through the machine had a computer in it. I just look at him blankly again. He probably thinks I have Alzheimer’s. I definitely should not be making this trip.

At long last, we arrive at my gate. I am on the last leg of this unspeakable journey. He leaves me there by, of course, another woman in a wheelchair. That’s when I realize I have spent the whole day without once visiting the bathroom (cargo doesn’t go potty or eat). I decide to leave my bag in the chair and make a run for the bathroom. I stand up, and the whole room turns upside down as one of my legs buckles under me. The woman in the wheelchair calmly issues me orders to hold on to the chair and sit down again. I do so. She then most kindly hands me her cane and instructs me to use it to get to the bathroom. I do so. Wheelchair solidarity.

Sometime during the four-hour trip from Atlanta to Seattle, I manage a decent nap, and, when I awake, I find the dizziness is gone and my mind is clear again. At the end of the flight, I stand up with the rest of the passengers and walk out. My new Pusher is waiting at the door, and I dismiss him.

As I turn to walk to baggage claim, I see the kind lady who lent me her cane. She is still in a wheelchair, and I am not.

Oh, how I wish she could get up and walk out with me.

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