Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Feelin’ Like Hazmat Blues

When my train arrives at the station, an ambulance will be waiting for me. And I’m feeling like hazmat again. I haven’t felt like that this bad in a long time, not since back in the Medi-car days.

All I need, when my train arrives, is a ride from the station to the university campus for my speaking gig and back. The people on campus arranging my trip had to hire an ambulance company to haul me. With no accessible taxis or anything like that in town, that was the best solution they could find for local wheelchair accessible transportation.

I wonder if it will be like that time I took the train to Syracuse and there was a van waiting for me there. It wasn’t an ambulance. It was a plain red van. But emblazoned across the side in big white letters it said INVALID COACH. I complained to the driver, but he said there was nothing he could do. He said all operators of wheelchair accessible vehicles were required by state law to have INVALID COACH written on their vehicles.

Back in the Medi-car days, like about 30 years ago, suppose you were a wheelchair cripple and you wanted to go get a haircut or something. You couldn’t use buses or trains or cabs so your only option might be to call a private Medi-car company. They all had embarrassing names like HANDICAB or INVABUS. And they had embarrassing vehicles with bright ambulacesque paint jobs that made it unmistakably clear that this was medical transportation. It was like they were trying to reassure a jittery populace that even though this cripple was leaving the house, he was doing so under the strictest medical supervision.

A trained EMT accompanied you to get your haircut. They made a simple ride into such a fucking production; it was like they were hauling hazmat. And forget about asking anybody on a date if you depended on Medi-cars to get around: “Hey baby, my EMT and I will pick you up at six in my INVABUS.”

And when the lifts on the Medi-cars went up and down there was always this shrill, staccato beep, warning all within earshot, I guess, of the extreme danger posed by a cripple going up and down on a lift. I knew a guy who got a new wheelchair that gave off that same warning beep whenever he backed up. (CRIPPLE BACKING UP! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!!!!) And the people who sold him the wheelchair refused to disconnect the beeper. Liability. I don’t know what happened to that guy. I guess he goes around annoying the hell out of people every time he backs up, whether it’s in church or at a funeral or wherever.

Cripples are familiar with all this cautious overkill. When I lived in government-subsidized housing for cripples, in every bedroom and bathroom there was an emergency switch that looked like a light switch with a string hanging from it and when you pulled it down an alarm blared throughout the building. The problem was, 99 percent of the time when the switch got pulled down it was because someone’s cat was playing with it. But the building management wouldn’t disconnect it. Liability.

My train arrives. Waiting at the curb is an African American man wearing a blue windbreaker with a patch that says Prompt Ambulance Services. He escorts me to a plain white van that doesn’t even say INVALID COACH. Inside the van, tucked along the wall, is a three-foot sign with the same Prompt Ambulance insignia as on the patch. The driver explains that the sign is magnetic. He slaps it on the outside of the van when it’s a medical ride and peels it off when it’s a regular ride like me.

This is what 30 years of activism has gotten us. Discretion. Porno in a brown paper mailer.


  1. I also thought it was strange that the van windows were so darkly tinted. Wouldn't want to see the smart ass cripple or invalid inside! Creeepy.

  2. Where do we start civil action to get fully accessible taxis part of the public transportation here in South Bend? How did y'all do it in Chicago? It's true that the only modes of transport here available for Mike are highly medicalized, and that's not fair to folks who live here and have to go through this experience all the time, so where do we start? -- Jenny Syverson (So great meeting you, Mike!)

  3. Start your own transportation business. I'm sure there are plenty of grant funds available.

  4. I once saw a very cute shirt for sale in my tiny size with a hazmat symbol on the front. My sense of humor is such that I seriously considered buying it, but upon contemplation had visions of parents yanking their children out of my vicinity, helicopters flying overhead, and ambulances and SWAT teams being called. Didn't have the guts.

  5. So many things:

    What?? A medi-car? I guess it has gotten somewhat better. I can't imagine having to ride in one of those.

    My scooter has that beeping thing! Its terrible! And that's exactly the feeling I get everytime I back up: beware all, I might embarass you with my existence! But then one time I wasn't drving too well and nearly ran into some woman, except that the beeping got her attention. So now I can't complain.


  6. Sometimes I take my blind ass and my two kids on fieldtripts for school that the bus won't get us to. (We have many field trips where parents are required to provide their own transportation. These are always events that are outside of transit limits.) So, I use a service called Ride Connection, because I'm too poor to cab it. Ride connections gets most of its volunteer drivers from the American Red Cross. The vans are white lift vans with big red crosses on the side and they say American Red Cross Medical Transportation on the side. So, my kids and I pull up to the dirt road and get dumped out at the U-pick farm or whatever. They have to slide out and take their carseats with them, because Ride Connection requires carseats and they don't require that the same van come and pick them up. Their classmates do a little curious stare-down and ask if they came from the hospital. But the parents just look away. No one wants to acknowledge the poor little seven year olds who have to chug around their own carseats and ride around town in the ambulance! Not to mention, that if I've resorted to using Ride Connection, I've already asked the other parents for a lift and (as usual) got nowhere with that. I think our big arrival spectacle (and us standing there on the side of the dirt road waiting for our ride at the end after they all drive past us) riddles them with guilt they can't handle or something. It's kinda hilarious.