I hate flying. Like, I really hate flying. Words like “nerves” and “anxiety” don’t even come close to covering it. “Sheer terror” comes much closer. And my fear has nothing to do with thinking the plane might crash–that possibility doesn’t even bother me. So what if the plane crashes? I imagine it’s a pretty instant death on impact. (If I’m imagining that wrong, please don’t tell me.) No, my fear is about the fact that my chair will be broken every time I fly, and I’m just waiting to find out how bad it’s going to be this time. Hopefully it’ll just be minor, mostly cosmetic stuff. But is this going to be the time that the plane lands, and I’m left without an operating chair? No mobility, no way to leave the airport? There’s no emergency service to call in those situations. It can easily be weeks until anyone comes to even look at the broken chair. Weeks that I’ll spend wishing the plane had just gone down!
I haven’t flown since college, and that was ten years ago. When I moved to Portland, somebody asked, “Are you going to take the train up to Seattle for the holidays?” I was confused. People travel by train? In the 21st century? In the United States? I had no idea.
Turns out, people do travel by train! I travel by train! I love the train! I can stay in my chair, so nothing is getting broken–not the chair, and not me. I can even move safely and easily inside the train–dining car, bathroom, the train is my oyster! It’s a lovely route between Seattle and Portland, lots of pretty coastal views along the way. The station is loaded with charm and magic, straight out of Harry Potter. And it’s the most relaxing thing in the world to settle into my lil’ nook in car three and lose myself in a book, until the rhythm of the tracks usually lulls me into a nap.
Cue my extreme disappointment last week, the day before I was scheduled to take the train for spring break, when I got an email from Amtrak. Due to mudslides, the trains weren’t running, and “alternate transportation” would be provided. There was a phone number to call and discuss this alternate transportation. I immediately called it. I assumed they were putting people on busses, but would the bus be accessible? Would I be accounted and provided for?
The phone number was just Amtrak’s national number. After repeating “agent” to the phone tree–sorry, Julie, her name is Julie–a few times, and waiting on hold for nearly half an hour, I finally got to talk to a human. This human confirmed that “alternate transportation” meant bussing.
“Will the bus be wheelchair accessible?”
“Yes, it’ll pick you up at the same time as the train would.”
“Ok… but is it wheelchair accessible?”
“Just like the train, same time….. oh, wait, did you say wheelchair?”
“Yes. Is the bus wheelchair accessible?”
“Oh…. Let me check on that…”
<another ten minutes on hold>
“You purchased an accessible space on the train, so your needs will be accommodated for.”
“Great. What does that mean?”
“It means that they’ll accommodate for your needs.”
“Is the bus accessible? Is there a lift to get my chair and me onto the bus? Is there a designated space for my chair, where it’ll be secured to the ground??”
“Well, you might not be the only passenger in a wheelchair, you know.”
“Your needs will be accommodated for.”
“They’re not going to try something crazy, like thinking they can just carry my chair onto a bus, right?”
“Well I don’t know about that. I just sell tickets!”
“Can you transfer me to someone who can answer my question?”
“How about Portland? Can you transfer me to the Portland Station? So I can talk to the people who will actually be there tomorrow?”
“Yes! Portland! I can give you the station’s phone number.”
She sounded very relieved to be getting off the phone.
I called the Portland number….. and it rang, and rang, and rang. Nobody answered, no automated message or voicemail kicked in. It just rang…. I hung up and called back. And again. At some point, I got a busy signal! (Sidenote: when was the last time you heard a busy signal??) Then I became very persistent, figuring that when they hung up from that call, they’d be able to take mine next…. Nope. Eventually the busy signal turned back into endless ringing. I called throughout the afternoon and evening. Nobody ever picked up.
The next day, I showed up at the train station hoping for the best, because what else could I do? I was there several hours early, because Train Day has become a tradition with my friend Jill. We always hang out for a while before I leave, and it’s always an adventure, even when we just hang around the train station. (Everyone there knows our tradition. The coffee shop guy welcomes us back. The guy loading bags onto a cart asks if I’m heading to Everett. The train station is our Cheers bar.) With hours until the trip is scheduled to start, I figure they have plenty of time to figure out what they’re doing with me.
I asked the guy at the ticket counter about the busses and accessibility.
“Yep, the busses will be pulling up here, and taking everyone where they need to go.”
“And is there an accessible bus?”
“Oh… well…. let’s see here….”
He stumbled around and looked at his computer screen for a while.
Finally he asked, “Could you travel tomorrow? The trains will be back up and running tomorrow.”
“No….” (Seriously? I’m here with my luggage. I have a ticket to travel today. It’s your job to transport me today. Do you job, please.)
“Ok. Well come back at about 2, and we’ll figure something out.”
“K. Come back… here, at 2? To this counter?”
“Oh, you know, here.” He gestures to nowhere in particular.
As we walked over toward the baggage check, Craig the red cap crossed our path. Perfect! Craig always comes through for me.
We asked Craig about accessible busses, and he assured us, “Oh, we’ll figure something out. Worse comes to worst, we’ll get you your own special cab, just for you.” That didn’t sound so bad! Hearing that there’s a Plan B made me feel a little better, but… why didn’t there seem to be a Plan A? Why was everyone confused when I asked about accessible buses? Mudslides happen and train tracks get shut down semi-regularly around here. I couldn’t possibly be their first passenger with a wheelchair in this situation!
Craig offered to take my bag, and we gave it to him. I walked away without a claim ticket, or any evidence that I ever had a bag. But it’s Craig, and it’s Amtrak, and for some reason we just trust this system that they always seem to be making up as they go along. Craig told me to come back and meet him around 2. “Meet you where at 2?” He made the same nondescript gesture toward the station in general. Ok…
Jill and I left to have our Train Day adventure. We picked a direction and walked, letting the universe take us where it would. And it worked! When the wind picked up and we were done with the outdoors, we stepped into what looked like a bakery. They greeted us at the door with “Two of you?” and we nodded. Next thing we knew, we were being seated under this tree….
We really didn’t intend to enter a restaurant, or an enchanted forest, but that’s where we ended up. So we went with it, and had an amazing brunch!
Back at the train station, Craig found us, and they finally decided that yes, they did have an accessible bus for me. I have no idea why that was such a big question mark, but whatever. They got me on the bus without drama, and we all headed to Seattle. Not nearly as charming and atmospheric as my train ride, but it got the job done.
Except my final destination wasn’t Seattle, it was Everett. So when the bus let everyone off in Seattle, my little circus started all over again!
“Where do I go now? How do I get to Everett?”
“There will be a bus.”
“Is it accessible?”
“Some of them are.”
“Is the bus to Everett accessible?”
“Tom will figure it out.”
“Where should I go now?”
“You can wait inside if you want. Or right here.”
I decided to stay right there, under their noses, where they couldn’t forget me.
A few minutes later, another guy came and sat down next to me.
“So I’m driving this bus over here to Everett. Do you have your own ramp that you bring with you?”
“No….” (He thinks I carry a ramp that will get me onto on of those giant buses with me?? Where did he think I was carrying this 30 foot ramp??)
“Do you stand up and walk onto the bus?”
“Well what do you usually do then?”
“I usually take the train!!”
“Well I understand that. But I don’t think this bus has a ramp for you.”
“So how are they getting me to Everett?”
“I don’t know. I’ll talk to Tom. He’ll figure it out.”
He and Tom walked around pointing at things and looking at clipboards.
A guy in red took over the spot on the bench next to me. Apparently he was the red cap, although the lack of a cap on his head seemed off to me… This guy pointed to the bus that the other guy had been talking about, and said, “I think that’s where they’ll get you on, right there.”
“So this bus does have a ramp?”
“It looks like it. Probably.”
“The driver just said that it doesn’t.”
“Well I can’t imagine what else that door would be for.”
(Why are we guessing?? Why doesn’t anybody know?? There’s a bus ten feet away from us, and nobody knows if it has a ramp. Nobody opens the door to see what’s behind it. The existence of a ramp is treated as an unsolvable mystery.)
Up until this point, I’ve been mostly maintaining my teacher voice. The voice that says “I’m not upset or angry. I’m calmly stating the expectation, because that’s my job, and you will follow through, because that’s your job. There is no ‘or else;’ you’re just going to do it. I’ll wait. I can wait all day.” But I can finally hear hints of my teacher-in-May voice creeping in, the one that isn’t so patient and has HAD IT with all of the stupid.
“Why is this so complicated?? I know that I’m not the first passenger to come through here with a wheelchair!”
“Nope, you’re not.”
“Then why is everyone acting like today’s their first day on the job?? Why doesn’t anybody know what to do??”
“Oh, because we’re just like a bunch of chickens with our heads cut off, running around here. Haha!”
“How am I getting to Everett?”
“I’ll go talk to Tom.”
Everyone seemed to have a lot of faith in Tom. But all I saw was a guy with a clipboard who liked pacing and pointing at things. I’m sure Tom is very good at his job, but his name was starting to irritate me.
The red cap came back and told me, “Tom’s going to call you a taxi. Or if he doesn’t, I will.”
He led me down to the other end of the curb, and we waited. I don’t know what we were waiting for, but at some random moment, the red cap said, “Ok, I’ll call.” I don’t know why he couldn’t call earlier, or how he knew that Tom hadn’t called. Whatever! He made the call. He wrote up a voucher so that the cabbie could collect his fare from Amtrak. The taxi took me to Everett.
(Sidenote: they definitely paid more to send me in a cab from Seattle to Everett, than I’d paid for my ticket from Portland to Seattle. Almost as much as my round trip ticket!)
The whole time they were scratching their heads in Seattle, I was mentally debating about how much I was willing to put up with before calling my dad. He was waiting for me in Everett. With traffic, he probably could have made it to pick me up in about an hour, maybe less. I was never in danger of being stranded at the bus station. But I didn’t feel a need to tell them that. It’s not my job to accommodate them and make their lives easier! I bought an accessible ticket from Portland to Everett. There was no reason for everyone to seem so surprised when I showed up expecting accessible transport from Portland to Everett.
I guess another one of my teacher faces is the one that says, “Looks like you need to solve that problem. I’m not doing it for you. Be a problem solver!” I wasn’t going to bend over backwards so that they could get out of providing me with the service I’d paid for. I wasn’t going to apologize for expecting the service I’d paid for.
I just want to point out two things:
1) It’s been 27 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, and I still can’t get a straight answer to a simple question like, “Is the bus accessible?” Even from really nice people, working in a well established system, disability is still a surprise that they don’t know what to do with.
2) For everyone that’s gung-ho about building walls, how about you leave Mexico alone, and do some wall building along the train tracks? Mudslides get in the way of train travel every single year. It seems like a predictable and preventable problem…
(You thought I was going to get through an entire blog post without a jab at our ugly, Trumpian society, didn’t you?)