SEPTA GIRL: Poppin’ Wheelies


BY PHILLYGRRL Wheelies. That’s what some people on my morning bus call folks in wheelchairs. Usually it’s said in a negative context. Like, “Damn them wheelies, if another one gets on the bus, I’m going to be late.” Because you see, in order for someone in a wheelchair to get from the sidewalk to the inside of the bus, the driver first has to lower SeptaGirl_520.jpgthe bus and then lower a platform a ramp. Once the person is in the bus, the driver must then flip up one of the chairs and strap the wheelchair in place. It can take five minutes, if all goes smoothly. Usually it doesn’t. Here’s the formula. Zero to two wheelies means you’ll get to work on time. Three to five means you’ll more than likely be late. At least that’s what my seatmate told me in the bus last Friday.

One late night last week, I was running to catch the 44 when I noticed a white man in a red Phillies shirt rolling in his wheelchair in from the opposite direction. We both missed the bus. I spent some time surreptitiously examining his wheelchair. It was the type controlled by white tubes that snaked to his mouth. Later I found out it’s controlled by inhaling and exhaling. “Excuse me, miss,” asked the man, “what’s the time?” I told him. He sighed. We waited in silence for about ten minutes until he started saying a name. “Caroline, Caroline, Caroline.” He repeated the name half a dozen times in a firm, clear voice. I edged away nervously. Clearly the man was delusional. Then I noticed a tiny Bluetooth device wedged in his ear. The man kept trying to make the call. His phone wouldn’t cooperate.

“Miss, miss, do you mind adjusting my phone?” I leaned over and gingerly positioned the earbud towards his mouth. It didn’t work. I offered to call from my phone. He declined. Minutes went by. “Miss, do you mind getting the transfer from the pocket on the left side of my wheelchair and putting it in my hand?” I found the transfer and slowly placed it underneath his flaccid fingers. They felt like soft jello in my hand. I resisted the urge to flinch.

“How was the game?” I asked. “Who won?” He brightened and I bluffed my way through a conversation about the Phillies. When the bus came, it took him about ten minutes to get on. His wheelchair kept getting stuck on the ramp. Roll on. Roll off. Roll on. Roll off. There was audible grumbling among the passengers that was repeated again when his stop came. As he excited into the dark, I fretted over him and wondered at the combination of faith and bravery it must have taken for him to get on a bus and catch the subway to a baseball game. What happened if his wheelchair got stuck and his Bluetooth wouldn’t work? How long would he wait until someone found him? What if someone decided to take his phone and the little money he must be carrying on him? Wherever you are, Phillies man, I salute you and your courage. Roll on.

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