Mind the Gap, Pops

He sat compactly folded in his wheelchair on the Greenbelt Metro platform — his joints rigidly articulated at knee and hip. Though seated, it was clear, were he a literal, fully-unfolded pedestrian, he would stand six feet plus. It had threatened rain earlier but was still just dry and overcast. “So far, so good,” he thought. He was hunched slightly forward, and his arms hung loosely placing his hands just below the rear wheel hubs. He wore odd looking bright red fingerless gloves made of leather with an inlay of some “secret-sauce” material on each palm. This material, when dry and pressed against the plastic that coated the chair’s outermost push-rims, would grip and not let go. When wet, the glove-rim reaction was Slick-50, but on a dry day, the wonders of shear-friction took over where his hands — which had no real grip strength — left off. His fingers were along for the ride, but of no real help. Still, with his bright red fingerless secret-sauce friction gloves, he was able to get around.

He could often be seen striking up conversation with an exotically tattooed and pierced part-time University of Maryland student who usually brought her bicycle aboard. Bicycles, actually. Sometimes she’d bring a sleek thoroughbred Specialized Roubaix road bike. Other times a sturdy quarter horse Felt cyclocross. This morning’s pedaled steed was a lime-green-framed “fixie” with liberally applied Florida Gator orange and blue accents. Its front rim was orange. Its rear rim was blue. Spokes were white. Tires were yellow. Shear understatement. She worked for Washington Express as a bike courier, and during her workday could be found executing perfectly balanced track-stands at many a DC intersection, waiting for the light to change or for bombastic drivers (who seldom seem to change) to clear out. Her name was Delia Spinoza, and they’d first become acquainted when he complimented her on her choice of frame accents years earlier. Each asked about the other’s origins, line of work, families, etc., and she was shocked upon first learning he had eight children – apparently, her ecological sensibilities had been offended. He calmly told her to relax, because they recycled, only bathed twice a month, and had solar panels on their roof. Later on, they both began turning up regularly for the area cycling club’s Wednesday evening group rides, and predictably Delia would take pleasure pointing him out to newcomers as “’Pops’ who has eight kids.” He loved thinking back on those days. April through September, 50-60 riders of all ages, shapes, and sizes, 30-40 miles depending on daylight. Leaving together from the Marriott parking lot, the large group (peloton) would soon split into a half-dozen smaller bicycle-trains known as pace lines, each pace line maintaining average speeds of 20+ miles per hour thanks to that magical 30+/- percent energy-efficiency boost from drafting. Each rider was expected to take his or her turn “pulling” at the front before “drafting” behind. He loved and could still “hear” the distinct siren whirrrrrrrr of properly lubricated spinning and enmeshed chain rings, chains and rear clusters. Wednesday regulars became known for their pace line utility. Delia was pixie-like  and could zip up hills. He was a 225-pounder who could rocket downhill, and motor full-bore on flats for miles. “Hammerheads” were seriously fast, raced competitively, could do it all, and were bitterly envied for it.

Their first meeting on the Greenbelt Metro platform in over a year and a half was warm. Delia’s confusion upon observing Pops was now riding a wheelchair was cleared away, albeit sadly, upon learning he’d been hit by a motorist, suffering complete paralysis below the chest. Speaking of pedaled steeds, his “Old Paint,” a smashed up Specialized Allez Elite, still hung on a garage wall bracket. He planned one day to strip it of any parts or accessories others could use. He’d already peeled away a few parts that now occupied prominent spots as desktop memoir-paperweights. Other parts yet to be harvested might ride again, once gifted to former pace line cronies, but he half expected there’d be no takers due to “bad mojo.” Since that reunion, no longer in the peloton, he appreciated their platform discussions more and more. Each looked forward to speaking bike, and she offered up the latest cycling club gossip. Desperately wishing he was back there, talking about there provided surprising solace.

This particular morning and hour, the platform crush was not too severe. He had attempted earlier subway commutes, but at those times, platforms were not just full. They were seething mosh pits of impatient, nervous, moody, hostile (late) metro-suburbanites whose erectly-postured, tunnel visioned lines of sight were easily a foot and a half above his head. His cruising altitude was 55 now inches — and quite below their radar. He’d been walked into, stepped on, tripped over, and profanely greeted (an added bonus) enough times to persuade him that non-prime-time commuting was the trick. Even so, wheelchair commuting was a daily slog. Boarding and exiting subway cars was precarious at best. Time being “of the essence,” he would have to quickly move through the opening of subway doors that remained open for too brief durations, flanked both sides by impatient pedestrian boarders, while battling the contra-current of equally impatient off-loaders afoot. Waiting anxiously at each subway line exchange, he would jockey to a spot he hoped would be dead-center in front of the subway doors. As the subway pulled in, his face took on an intensely competitive expression. His daughter had once been an adrenaline-amped elite gymnast. She would stare down the runway at the “horse,” before sprinting and stomping precisely on the spring board, taking flight, careening off the horse, twisting and spinning in space, and sticking her landing. As the subway doors opened he began his sprint. Picking up speed, bent slightly forward at the waist, when just inches in front of the platform-doorway gap, he abruptly and with an additional burst of strength pushed his rear wheels down and forward. Timed well, at speed, and with proper  “gap-minding” technique, his wheelchair’s front casters would rise and sail over the gap, and the rest of the chair behind and hauling him would bump aboard.

The same intense, time compressed anxiety would be replayed each time he exited the train. Perhaps to an even higher degree. On his first attempt at subway wheelchair commuting, his hands in an atrophied condition, when popping over the gap, his size 12 wedding band slipped off his size 10 ring finger and bounced ding-ding-dingingly away down the platform. He couldn’t see it. He could only sit and listen as its ding-ding-dinging grew ever more faint. Hope revived when a stranger stepped in front of him and asked with startling disinterest, “This yours?”

Over time, awash in a sea of adaptive challenges, he’d come to be a more confident wheelchair commuter. Technique and timing were honed and more instinctive. Entering subway cars from approximately the same platform spot each time had proven helpful as well. He usually posted-up near the front of the train where the operator would see him when craning his head out the side window (no doubt looking for flailing limbs caught between closed subway doors). Turned out a lot of commuters post themselves at favorite spots. It seemed many “regulars” had lost their appetites for the mosh pit, were far less hostile, had re-calibrated their sight line radars to capture 55-inch high rolling “bogies,” and increasingly were overtly helpful. His and their familiarity engendered something akin to community, and in an odd way, he was beginning to enjoy the ride again.

Published by cfheidel

Chuck Heidel here. Father of eight, married to lovely heroic Alice over 30 years. I'm a former midlife recreational cyclist, who was hit by a motorist while out riding in August 2009. Further validating Sir Isaac Newton's notions, the score that day was: Cars: 1. Bikes: 0, and I became a C7 tetraplegic, paralyzed from the mid-chest down. Author of WheeledWords: wheeledwords@wordpress.com.

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