Looking northeast across Boerum Place and Schermerhorne Street at MTA New York City Transit Authority HQ on a cloudy afternoon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In days it would be 29 short of a year.
24 degrees short of a circle.
But this was time. Not the soft, grainy, contemplative kind of time that meanders through an overturned hourglass or even that stiff New York time that’s stingy with its minutes and snaps at you like a rude customer. It was more like that crowded Saturday salon time that acts like the wait is just the price you have to pay to be beautiful. 3:36 was my Access-a-Ride pick-up time.
Access-a-Ride is a little blue and white van operated by a branch of New York City Transit Authority that transports the elderly and disabled to appointments around the city for the same price that it would cost a regular patron of public transportation to hop the bus or subway. Customers call in to schedule a ride to their appointments and destinations. In the process, we answer a survey of questions: pick-up address, destination address, appointment or pick-up time, cross streets, traveling with a companion, traveling with equipment, phone number, alternate phone number, etc.
I had never been to this location before, so I made sure to tell the operator that the entrance was on a different street. Too bad those instructions didn’t make much of a difference when I realized I had been dropped off at the wrong spot.
“3:36 p.m. is your return time,” the operator had said. “Please be outside at your scheduled pick-up time and allow the driver 30 minutes for delay.”
Although I will admit that it has improved a great deal since I started riding it as a preteen about 11 years ago, Access-a-Ride has never been known for its reliability. After being chronically late to many appointments due to late pick ups and trips across the city to drop off other passengers who sometimes lived in the opposite direction, I learned to tell them that I had to be at my destination at least a half an hour before I actually needed to be there. Some summers that meant I got to my jobs or internships extra early, but at least I wasn’t extra late.
In my teens, I hated it. I hated the assumption that disabled people had no lives and nowhere to be and should just be grateful to have some form of transportation. Even more than having to wait outside for it–did I mention outside?– I came to hate not ever being able to be spontaneous. I hated having to schedule my life around possible pick up times.
Doctors’ appointments don’t always end at 12:54. Sometimes there would be an impromptu event after school that I wished I could stick around for. I didn’t always know how long I was going to want to stay at someone’s house when I visited them, but if I was taking Access-a-Ride I had to come up with some sort of estimate. Most of the time I ended up being there either way past the time I wanted to leave or long before I wanted to do so, when I found myself having fun.
I went to high school in the City and I was often left standing outside waiting for my ride long after my scheduled pick up time and after friends and teachers alike had bid me farewell for the evening.
They would always give me a look mixed with guilt and pity before they left. “We hope it comes soon,” they would say.
“Thanks. Me too.”
I hated the sinking feeling that there was nothing I could do but wait.
On this last trip, I was being a law student. I had a job interview. During the interview, I was asked why I was interested in prisoner’s rights. I know I said some variation of it, but I wanted to say this: “Because I want to root for the underdog. I want to help those that society often throws scraps and bones or neglects. I know what it is to feel trapped in one aspect of your identity battling society’s limited expectations of you, to have to prove that you are worthy of human decency and respect and that your life is just as valuable as anyone else’s is.”
“3:36?” the security guard asked after I had finished with my interview and had been waiting in the lobby of the building for my ride because I had at least 15 minutes until my actual pick-up time. “So precise.”
And they were serious about their pick up times. It was printed on the pink carbon copy receipt I had from my drop off trip in military time, 15:36.
“Please be outside at your scheduled pick up time and allow the driver 30 minutes for delay.” Did I mention they want you to be outside? The elderly and disabled. Rain or shine. Sick or fine. January or July. And this was January.
There was heavy construction going on outside on the street of the building where I had had my interview.There were orange cones everywhere and men in hard hats and trucks and loud drilling sounds, as I prepared to step outside to meet my ride.
“Don’t go out there,” the security guard had said. “I’ll look out for you.”
“No, but they’ll leave you if you’re not outside,” I explained.
Did I mention that?
“Please be outside at your scheduled pick up time and allow your driver 30 minutes for delay.” Translation: Don’t mess around and come outside at 3:37. If we don’t see you, we’re gone, but be prepared to wait 30 minutes before you complain if you don’t see us.
I listened to the security guard and avoided the chaos of the construction site. I sat down on a bench next to the door and looked out for my ride, getting up every two minutes to check. The guard did too, periodically going to check the street corners.
In an effort to avoid the confusion that resulted since I had been dropped off at the wrong location, even though “the trip slip” (as they call it) had listed the right one, I called about 15 minutes after my supposed pick up time to clarify.
“Are you the 3:36 no-show?” the operator asked, with an unsurprising air of snark.
“What do you mean no-show?” I asked. “I’ve been sitting right here at the door since before my pick up time, for about a half hour.”
“Your driver left you,” she informed me with no change in inflection.
“What do you mean he left?” I asked. “When was he here?” “I’ve been here watching and had other people watching too. I didn’t see anything come and I didn’t get a phone call saying that they couldn’t find me.”
“They have your number, but they’re not required to use it,” in her not-my-problem voice.
“Then what’s the point of having it then?”
“You just said on a recorded line that you yourself were not outside.That you had people looking out.”
“I had people looking out because they didn’t want me outside in the middle of a construction scene on crutches.”
“I’m disabled, you know?” “You do know that this a service for the elderly and disabled?!” I wanted to yell at her, but I didn’t.
“You weren’t outside.”
I called back a few minutes later to attempt to work out a way to get back home. Stranded in Manhattan and dealing with the nonchalant attitudes of the operators, I was not in a happy mood. My tone wasn’t chipper enough for the operator, and she refused to help me unless I changed it.
But I didn’t know how to sound happier. I didn’t know how to calmly explain to her how tired I was of having things like this happen in 11 years of using the service, how I hated being treated like my life didn’t matter, how pretty much everything I did in life was an effort to prove how valuable my life actually is and why I shouldn’t be cast aside and underestimated.
I didn’t know how to calmly tell her how offensive it was to be told how to feel, especially when I knew in all likelihood that I was being lied to and that the driver had probably never shown up or hadn’t shown up at the right location. I didn’t know how to calmly tell her that people like her and situations like this were why I had been trying for years to squeeze in time during summer vacations and breaks from school to get my New York driver’s license and a car with hand controls. I didn’t know how to calmly tell her that standing on a soapbox all the time is exhausting, that I shouldn’t have to and didn’t want to constantly have to fight people, that I just wanted to be a 22-year-old young woman and at that moment she wasn’t helping me accomplish that.
I didn’t know how to calmly tell her that after everything that I’ve done to be independent and treated with respect and human decency, I felt like she was setting me back years when she was supposed to be helping me. I didn’t know how to calmly tell her that I wasn’t stupid and that I didn’t appreciate being condescended towards like a destitute child who should just be grateful for a broken, used toy. I didn’t know how to calmly tell her how ridiculous I thought it was to be required to give them– not one–but two phone numbers by which to reach me, only to be told that they were not required to use them. I didn’t know how to calmly express my deep-seated disappointment and frustration that my hometown doesn’t have a completely handicap accessible subway system that would allow me to travel freely and independently with dignity.
The truth is that the great city that never sleeps has actually been sleeping on so many people for so long, and sometimes I get tired of hoping that it will wake up. Please sign and share this petition to improve the Access-A-Ride service in New York City for the elderly and disabled in NYC.