Wheeling NY City

By Laurence Parent.

Day 1 – Wireless Quest

A lot can happen in three years. As I wheel my way to get my Metrocard, I come to a shocking conclusion. Even though so much has happened in my personal, academic and professional life within the past four years, the most radical change in my everyday life is my new dependence on my iPhone. My iPhone has changed my life. Four years ago, I would have come to New York with a cell phone without access to the Internet. I would have survived. I guess.

One of the first things I did after crossing the American border yesterday was to subscribe to a 24-hour data package to have access to the Internet on my phone. $7.99 for 50Mo.

I have been in New York for less than 24 hours and my top priority is getting an American SIM card so that I can have access to the Internet on my phone. Central Park and Greenwich Village can wait. I found a company that seems to offer good data plans. The design on their website is appealing. Maybe their customer service is not too bad. From what I could see on Google maps, the store is wheelchair accessible. It is located in Harlem, more than 11 kilometres from my apartment. I looked at the subway map and tried to figure out how I could get there. Less than 25% of NYC subway stations are wheelchair accessible. If the subway map is complicated for many newcomers, wheelchair users face an even more complicated map. Understanding it requires particular skills such as patience and sang-froid. Mastering it probably requires intensive study and hours of fieldwork (because the map doesn’t say everything). I have heard many horrible stories of wheelchair users trying to navigate the NYC subway system. Jason DaSilva, whom I had the luck to meet in Montréal recently, made a great op-doc documenting his attempt to get to Manhattan from Brooklyn using the subway. His op-doc powerfully demonstrates the poor accessibility of the NYC subway. As a wheelchair user, the message I got from watching it was that I would need to carefully study my route before riding the subway. Spontaneity would not be an option.

My brain is tired. I figured that I really need to get a SIM card and a data plan before getting stuck in the subway. I will take the bus to Harlem. As a wheelchair user living in Montréal, I have always been amazed by how bus drivers treat me in the States. Public buses are a safe space. As silly as it sounds. I have never felt out of place on a bus wherever I was in New York, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco and Honolulu.

I decide to get my Metrocard at Bleecker street station, the nearest wheelchair accessible station. The possibility to be able to get to where I need to go in Harlem from Bleecker street station doesn’t even cross my mind. Sometimes things are just too beautiful to be true. Your self unconsciously protects you from thinking about it. Finding the accessible entrance to the station will already be an accomplishment in itself.

It is only the second time that I’ve wheeled on Mulberry street and I already know which sidewalks to avoid. I am already creating my new maps, discovering the geographies I will live with – live in ¬– for the next two months. I cannot believe how many inaccessible sidewalks I have seen since yesterday. I have seen two on Broadway near Penn station. How is that even possible? It is not like that in Montréal. There are curbcuts – well, poorly maintained curbcuts – everywhere! What’s wrong with NYC?

It is true that there is the Van Horne overpass I can’t use. Because there is no curbcut. And this one stretch of St-Zotique Street I have been avoiding for the past 12 years. Because there are no curbcuts. Maybe Montreal is not doing better than NYC. Maybe it is just me who doesn’t know how to navigate the ableist design of this city yet.

The first entrance of Bleecker street station I come across is not wheelchair accessible, but there is a sign indicating where the elevators are located. This sign may seem like the very least the MTA can do. But I am positively surprised. I haven’t asked for so much. I am used to dealing with lack of information on accessibility options.
Bleecker_street

My phone guides me to the accessible entrance. Having a map on my phone has one considerable advantage: instead of looking like a lost tourist, maybe I look like a busy New Yorker?

***

I buy a 30-day unlimited Metrocard with the objective of using as much public transportation as I can in October. It is part of my fieldwork.

I wheel an extra kilometre to get to the M1 bus stop going to Harlem. Different bus routes stop there. The first bus to come is not the one I want. I look somewhere else to make sure the driver doesn’t think I want to board his bus. But my strategy fails. The bus driver already gets up his seat and activates the ramp. He is almost on his way to make sure I can get to the wheelchair space easily, when I get to the door to tell him, “I am sorry, this is not the bus I want to take”. I expect him to be pissed. But he says “Oh, I am sorry!”. He is sorry. And he is nice. That very moment, the culture shock kicks in. This would never happen in Montréal. Even the best drivers stay in their seats and will not do anything to help you get to the wheelchair space. Sometimes they might yell “Faites de la place pour le fauteuil roulant” (make some room for the wheelchair!) On extremely rare occasions, they are extra nice and acknowledge that I am not a wheelchair but a wheelchair user and yell “Faites de la place pour la personne en fauteuil roulant!” But that’s all. I have to do all work.

I know that I haven’t just met the best MTA bus driver in town. This short encounter with this bus driver reminds me why I feel like buses are a safe space in the U.S. cities I have visited.

A few minutes later, another bus stops. I look in the completely opposite direction, to make sure the driver doesn’t think that I want to get on his bus and it works.

The M1 is late. I decide to use my last expensive megabits of data to go online and check when the bus is supposed to be at my stop. According to the MTA website, the bus is three stops away.
M1-3 stops away

As I wait for the bus, I have time to study the bus map. I realize that I could have gotten on the M2 or M3 to get quite close to my destination. I need to change my mindset. I’m in NYC.

The M1 finally arrives. The driver does the exact same thing as his colleague did a few minutes ago. He activates the ramp, gets up from is seat, makes sure I have enough room to manoeuver. I think I am supposed to face the rear of the bus, like in Montréal. I hate that so I always face the front of the bus unless I am told to do otherwise. He doesn’t say a word about me facing the front of the bus and asks me if I want him to attach my wheelchair. I decline his offer and he doesn’t insist. I am all set to my journey to Harlem. It is going to be a long trip.

Madison avenue is busy with cars, cabs, buses and pedestrians. The bus is not very popular, which is great. I assume that the subway is busier because it is faster. Most people using the bus are old. The subway is not a space they can navigate easily.

Near 33th Street, I see a man using a motorized wheelchair waiting at the bus stop. Is this really happening on my first bus ride? Another wheelchair user in the same bus as me! This is not possible in “my” city. Montreal buses only have one wheelchair space. That guy would have been told to wait do the next bus.

Yes, it is really happening and I get really excited. The bus driver activates the ramp, gets up from his seat, makes sure the passenger has enough room. He knows how to perform his routine because he probably did it thousands times before us. In Montréal, I often feel like I am the first wheelchair user they have had to deal with. It often feels like a terrible rehearsal.

I smile at the other wheelchair user. He smiles back quickly. He talks with the woman who is with him. I am listening to music on my earphones so I cannot hear what they are talking about. I tell myself that I should talk to him about my research. Maybe he would like to participate! I try to find ways to start talking to him without being awkward and annoying. I know that, like me, he is probably annoyed by strangers’ questions all the time. I don’t want to be that annoying and invasive stranger. I know my disability card, especially my wheelchair card, gives me special privileges in that specific situation and that he would probably not be annoyed by my question. But still. I usually avoid talking to strangers because I already have enough of those who talk to me and make ableist comments. Talking to strangers is not something I can afford to do.

This time is different. I really should talk to him. I stop my music and remove my earphones. I hear them speak German. And then I see that they are looking at a tourist map. I must admit that I feel relieved. He is a tourist – not a potential candidate for my research. I don’t have to talk to him. Phew. He gets off near 80th Street. I guess he is going to visit Central Park.

At 108th street, another wheelchair user waits at the bus stop. The driver does the same procedure again. This time the woman, all dressed in pink, doesn’t really care about what is going on around her. She just wants to get on the bus and she is busy talking on the phone about her med prescriptions. She barely looks at the bus driver, who makes sure she is okay. She doesn’t say thank you. She has other fish to fry. She is clearly not a tourist. I guess she is embracing her right to be in her bubble and ignore follow humans? Maybe this is what equality looks like in NYC?

***

After less than an hour’s bus ride, I arrive in Harlem. The cell phone store is located a few meters away from the bus stop. The doors are wide open and I can get in without assistance.

It only takes a few minutes for me to be reconnected with the world again. With my 4G connection in my hand, I am now ready to set off on this NYC adventure.

I look at the subway map and realize that the nearest station is accessible! The subway can get me to Union Square, a busy station not too far from where I “live.” I text my friend Joëlle to let her know to worry if I don’t text her back in 1 hour and I get on the elevator going to the station. The elevator seems to be in very bad shape. But it works. Inside the station, I have another look at the map to make sure I am not going to get stuck. Everything seems fine.

I board the subway car as it arrives without problem. I have no words to express how this feels. It is a feeling I don’t experience often. A feeling I cannot experience back “home.” My research project is on disabled people’s sense of belonging in their city. And I don’t even know if I belong in Montréal. This question becomes even harder to answer when I feel like my presence is more welcome in other cities than in the one I am supposed to call mine.
PeopleSubway
The subway ride is so much faster than the bus ride that took me to Harlem. The train doesn’t stop at every station. I will probably be at Union Square in less than 25 minutes.

Next stop: Union Square.

I am quite proud of myself. I am good at understanding public transit systems. NYC is going to be fun. I know that options are limited but it is so much better than what I experience in my everyday life in Montréal.

The doors open. And there is a gap. There is a giant gap! Fuck! And I am alone. Well, alone with many strangers. The gap is high (about 15 cm) and wide (about 20 cm). I am worried my front wheels will get stuck in the gap between the train and the platform. This could be very dangerous. Everything goes fast. I have no choice. I look at the stranger besides me and ask for help. “Can you go in front of me and make sure I don’t fall?” He doesn’t really answer but he does what I ask him to do. I jump and all goes well. I don’t know if he really saved me or if he just served as a psychological aid.

That was scary. I wish I had filmed it.

The platform is crowded. There is not a lot of air to breathe. I quickly have a feeling that I made a mistake. I quickly have a feeling that there is no elevator to get out. And there is none. Shit.

I look at the map again for the hundredth time in the last 30 minutes and I see what I didn’t see before. Union Square Station is not accessible on the 6 line! How could I have missed that? The station is accessible on the L, N, Q and R lines. But not on the 6.

Shit. Bleecker station is accessible on the 6 line. But I doubt that the train I was in would have stopped there, as it would only stop at major stations.

A train identified as 6-express Brooklyn comes in. I figure that this would not stop at Bleecker street station. I choose to stay on the platform to find my best option to get out of here. I feel like I am in trouble and I think about Jason’s words “You’re going to have a rough introduction to NY accessible transit.” He could not have been more right.
I approach another stranger who looks like a local. As I move towards him, he gets away from me thinking that I want him to move out of my way. The scene is absolutely ridiculous and lasts for a good 5 long seconds. I laugh and tell him that I have a question. He laughs back and listens to my question. He tells me that he cannot believe that there are no elevators. And here I am having my first conversation about the inaccessibility of the NYC subway. It is only day 1. He doesn’t know what my options are. He has never thought about the accessibility features of the subway in the city he lives in before. He tells me that all trains on the 6 line are local. I am skeptical. But I need to believe what he says. Hoping that the next train on the 6 line will stop at Bleecker street seems to be my best option.

The train arrives and we both get on the same car. He looks at the map and confirms that this train will stop at Bleecker street. Maybe I can breathe now.

And a few minutes later, the train does stop at Bleecker street station. Despite what many would think of as a horrible experience, I feel free. That was scary…and fun!

I try to figure out how to get through the gate. There is a door with a wheelchair logo. It is als an emergency exit. I guess I am supposed to swipe my Metrocard to open it. It doesn’t work. Someone pushes the door for me and the alarm goes on.

This is going to be a great 2 months.

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