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Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Why Baltimore is Not The Third Ring of Hell - Thoughts on Where Live...

I have defended Baltimore since before I moved here. I grew up riding horses and working in a local grocery store in Ithaca, New York. I went to college at Colgate University in a town that contained more farm animals than people and enjoyed my only collegiate “city” experience in a place called Wollongong, Australia, that no one has ever heard of and that I couldn’t pronounce properly until last week. When I was accepted to Teach for America in 2000, I selected Baltimore as my first choice out of fifteen possible places to end up. My riding instructor in Ithaca had lived down here in the early ‘80s, she worked at Pimlico and lived on North Ave. She was appalled by my decision:

“Why on earth did you choose Baltimore? The people down there are unfriendly. Parking is a pain, my car was impounded twice, and someone broke into my car to steal horse blankets.”

I had my reasons, though. And even though I’d never so much as visited “Charm City,” I never second guessed my choice. 1. I wanted to get out of rural New York before developing that weird upstate accent where the “a” is replaced by a nasally “eh” sound. 2. I have multiple sclerosis and needed a city where I wouldn’t need to rely on public transportation and/or my legs to get me places. 3. I wanted access to a qualified neurologist (since my previous doctors had recommended two specific drugs that simultaneously combated not my disease but each other). 4. I didn’t want to be in a different time zone than my family and friends. Baltimore was the perfect choice on all fronts. I explained my rationale to my riding instructor, and countered her arguments with:

“Ithaca is filled with crunchy tree huggers, parking is a pain in any city, I don’t know what ‘impounded’ means, and your car is a stupid place to store horse blankets anyway.”

Four years later I stand by my decision. Yesterday when my friend characterized Baltimore as “the third ring of hell”, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of anger; especially since he spends his free weekends in New York City. As I reflect upon my most recent trip to New York over Labor Day weekend, I recall $20 enchiladas and shot-glass-sized margaritas at a sub-par Mexican restaurant but most especially, I remember my experience in New York’s Penn Station.

While I’m not wheelchair “bound” at this point, I’m definitely wheelchair reliant, so I had my wheelchair with me for the weekend. When my cab dropped me off at NY’s Penn Station, I assembled my chair and plopped my backpack in the seat. I pushed my chair across the sidewalk to the station doors and discovered that there was no elevator near the entrance. I’m sure there is an elevator somewhere, I just couldn’t find it and I was trying to move at a calmer Baltimore pace. Consequently I was running late. I thought I’d carefully maneuver my chair backwards down the escalator, but it wasn’t moving, and the stairs looked like an MS deathtrap. After I’d politely begged a muscular stranger to carry my chair down the stairs, I (awkwardly) reached the main level of the station. There I discovered that my train was already boarding (ten minutes early). A hoard of people gathered in front of the only down escalator that led to the platform. I, still pushing my chair, reached the hoard and packed myself in among the other pushers and shovers.

When I reached the ticket collector I asked him for help – I’m not good at taking myself down escalators, much less myself and a wheelchair. Ticket man said no, he had to collect tickets. Meanwhile my chair and I were blocking the line: no one else could descend the escalator unless I moved. The line of people seemed extremely irritated with me at this point and I heard small “hmpf” and “tssk”-type noises while my eyes started to burn. I calmly explained my situation to ticket man – that I had MS, that I couldn’t find the elevator, and that I was literally stuck between the increasingly impatient mob of people and the escalator. He reluctantly agreed to help (he had no other option - I was honestly stuck) and took my chair down the moving steps while I willed my face to return to its normal, less humiliated color. Once my chair was safely deposited on the correct platform, I grasped its handles for stability and pushed it shakily towards the “handicapped-friendly” car. I finagled the chair over the foot-long gap between platform and train, and hung a right into the car to find a seat. There I discovered that the “handicapped friendly” car wasn’t friendly, rather completely inaccessible. The little area for luggage/wheelchairs was taken up by a new set of seats, and my chair was too wide to fit down the aisle. Once again I was stuck. And the “tssking” “hmpfers” were breathing down my neck. Desperate to remedy the situation I pulled the wheels off, folded the wheelchair as much as possible, put the body of the chair on the seat and collapsed onto the floor. Then, happily, the impatient crowd stepped around me and located seats where they could intently focus on text messaging their friends.

At least fifty people stepped around me, oblivious to the sniveling heap of girl on the floor. At least a dozen of the fifty looked visibly annoyed. Of the group, only one stopped to help. I tried to tell him everything was under control, but the wheelchair on the seat was his cue to ask twice. A few minutes later, wheelchair carefully stowed in the shelf on the other side of the train, he and I sat across from each other and talked. I apologized for being such a basket case and for the wheelchair grease on his jeans, but for the most part we just enjoyed each other’s company for the three hour train ride.

How can a group of people be that frantic to leave a city? I understand impatience, I really do, but when it interferes with basic human compassion I start to worry. And, as I battled the crowd and the stagnant, humid air that circulated throughout Penn Station, I thought I had descended into my own “third ring of hell” and started to appreciate Baltimore just a little more. No one’s ever shoved me or my wheelchair to get somewhere three seconds faster. The red caps at Baltimore’s Penn Station make sure that my bag and I reach an appropriately accessible car, and the elevator to the platform is easy to locate.

Besides the smoldering humidity, there’s something different about the atmosphere here; it’s warmer, yes, but the warmth is measured by more than just a thermometer. Warmth, in my opinion, is a Baltimore taxi driver linking my arm to get me safely to the door of my row house, or the hostess at Koopers seating me as quickly as possible because she knows I can’t stand up for too long. It’s the customer service representative at BWI running me and my wheelchair to my gate so I wouldn’t miss my flight, or the Safeway employees helping me get my grocery bags to my car. It’s someone at the pool helping me assemble my wheelchair, or my favorite bartender at Max’s handing me a barstool before I accidentally wobble into an innocent stranger. People here don’t seem as brusque and rushed – maybe that’s where the “charm” comes from. My riding instructor was right about the parking here, and I never leave anything valuable in my car, but I stand by my initial decision, and maintain that Baltimore is not unfriendly.

The guy who helped me on the train last week lives in Maryland. I can’t say I was surprised.

1 comment:

Mike P. said...

Aeeeiii... I do find that Christmas time creates a rush. Fortunately, I am not using a wheelchair at this time, but when I did for a few weeks, I was almost killed in a parking lot. Some idiot in a Mercedes was doing 25mph past the front of a Borders.