Philadelphia: Home After 19 Years.
Our first stop was my hometown of Philadelphia, to which I hadn’t returned since I was 19 years old. I visited myself more than anything else; finding my way via scooter to all the places I remembers from my childhood. It was a different trip than most. I didn’t go to those places I might have been inclined to visit had I been a real tourist. I went to my memories. I visited my past. I had been warned that it had changed, but I was more impressed with how much the same it was. There were specific exhibits, artifacts and paintings in the Museum I needed to see, I had to return to the Italian Market, Reading Terminal and all around down town; city hall, South Street, etc. As a teenager I had spent a lot of time downtown. I would take the train and get off at Reading Terminal. From there I could walk to shops, dance class or theater. From Reading Terminal through City Hall to the Museum, the SWP sold copies of The Militant, and cigarette companies gave out free samples of cigarettes and cigars. I have smoked on and off again since then; more off than on. Especially with the fibromyalgia, I can’t tolerate the poison for long. But, despite their arguments about personal responsibility, as their defense against law suits, my first cigarettes were a gift from the tobacco companies when I was as young as eleven years old.
Much of this colonial city is inaccessible, with only a few creative attempts at providing access. (Some cities apply more ingenuity than others.) Many shops, restaurants and historical sites are not accessible. Getting to the Art Museum, avoiding Rocky’s steps, was very difficult. There was no signage, and the handicapped entrance is around the back, up a long hill and through a parking lot, forcing me into the line of traffic of drivers search for or exit from parking spaces, which is very dangerous territory for people in wheelchairs.
One day Andy and I rented a car and went out to the suburbs where I grew up. One community I grew up in, was a planned integrated community, called Concord Park. My parents were very involved in the Civil Rights Movement and bought their first home there. We moved when I was five, but I remember putting streamers on bikes and having an annual bike ride every Flag Day. I remember nursery school, I remember my three best friends, (Sandy, Delia and Alison) with who I am no longer in touch, but my mom is still close with some of their parents. These were small track homes. After a while the white families moved out. Upon return, I noticed more white families, and so, the demographics change again.
The other neighborhood I grew up in is lush and looks a lot like Brentwood, but a huge home in turn key condition and manicured grounds still sells for under a million dollars, which is unheard of anywhere in Los Angeles.
Philadelphia wasn’t without its indignities. We had called ahead to be sure that “UTLA night”, one of the social events associated with the NEA convention, on the ship, The Spirit of Philadelphia, would be wheelchair accessible and were assured that it would be. When we got there and began to board, without the courtesy or discretion of preboarding, I found myself up the ramp but unable to make the transition to the ship without assistance. In line behind us, immediately behind us were over a hundred UTLA members waiting to board. We were irate, as other activists more annoyed than concerned, made their way past us, as we tried to negotiate with a rude young man in greasy clothes who claimed to be the captain, and spoke to me like I were an insolent child, not a patron, twice his age. He insisted his ship was accessible, despite the gap between ramps and his offers to lift me, which is not only undignified and humiliating, but unsafe and unacceptable. With a ramp full of people, I needed to turn around and find my way back to the pier. The “captain” threatened me should I hit him with my wheelchair as I tried precariously to maneuver through the situation he and his company had created for me. There is little room for interpretation. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) provides clear guidelines regarding accessibility. Lifting someone is not included within that definition. As it turns out, we were informed later, one of the decks was also not accessible. We demanded a refund, but were told that it was not available at that time; we would have to follow up the next business day. (To date, we have not been compensated, either by the union, who planned a public event in a segregated location, or the restaurant/ship at which these indignities were suffered.) We left, discouraged, outraged and humiliated. Devastated, and unsupported, I was unable to leave my hotel room for two days.
While in Philadelphia, I gave a poetry reading at Inglis House, a skilled nursing care facility for people with mobility impairments. This institution was quite large, with a few independent living apartments as well, that allow varying degrees of care and independence.
Inglis House has a weekly poetry group, a poetry journal and an annual poetry contest. I found them on the internet with a google search for “poetry” + Philadelphia + disability, and contacted them. I was invited to read and discuss my work for an hour. It was an amazing experience, reading to a community of people with disabilities, the safety of the ghetto. There is much controversy around large institutions like these, but for me, as a visitor, it was a relief being around other people with marginalizing impairments, and a physical plant designed for accommodation. The strain of trying to fit in, the balance between asserting my rights and alienating those around me, the pressure to maintain “the negative peace” is exhausting. It was wonderful just being a gimp among gimps and to hear from others equally angry and frustrated with lack of access, hostile indifference, daily ridicule and humiliation. Disability means existing and attempting to negotiate within a culture that one is not be a part of, or retreating to ghettos such as skid row hotels or convalescent care facilities which resemble gulags more than neighborhoods.
Andy and I returned to Los Angeles from Philadelphia, for a week home before heading out to Berlin where Andy and I would be active observers in the NEA delegation at World Congress of Education International, the International body of teachers’ unions, worldwide. We wanted to strategize disability access, give a heads up to the national leadership of the problems in UTLA and how they might present themselves at this event (two members of the HRC clique; “Camile” and “Mildred” were going to attend,) and follow up on the refund for the Spirit of Philadelphia.
United Air Lines damaged both my scooter and my walker, and we ended up spending the rest of the week fighting with the airlines (at first they suggested I bring the equipment in for inspection, and I had to remind them that they damaged my wheelchair and walker, how was I going to bring them in?!!!) Finally we got United to approve the purchasing of new equipment, and we worked with a local scooter dealer to get us a scooter just in time for the trip to Europe. Death of Charley, the scooter. The new scooter, a bit larger and more powerful, acquired the name “The Beast.” Nonetheless, travel stories, will still come under the category; “my travels with Charley.”