I arrived in the city by the bay and was quickly overwhelmed by the bustling of activity that seemed to be happening on every street my eyes could behold. I’d barely been unpacked when I set out to begin one of those many, many tasks that must be done when 500 of your friends are coming to town. I set out from the hotel and headed up to the closest McDonald’s, ADAPT’s staple food, to arrange for some lunches.
As I left the curb, I noticed a small neon box counting backwards from 10, and I remember wondering what its purpose might be. I quickly forgot about the box when I encountered cable rail lines that caused me to need to stop each time and lift the front of my wheelchair so it would not get caught in the rail. When I got about 8 feet from the opposite corner, it had started to occur to me why the box was counting down, looked up, and it had turned 0. I quickly looked to my right, just before I felt the car hit me, and the wheelchair catapulted into the air, spinning 360 degrees several times, and then landing on my two wheels, like a cat.
Needless to say, I was okay but my wheels didn’t make it. In fact, I believe they took the brunt of the impact and probably saved my life. They would not however, spin anymore and thanks to cell phones, I was able to reach my friends at the hotel who promptly came and picked me up. ADAPT however, is an endless network of opportunities and within a few hours, we had arranged for one of our folks still to arrive to bring a spare wheel and get me back on the road.
Two days later, the troops started to arrive. I ended up going out to the airport to help usher folks in and welcome them to California. It was a pretty easygoing assignment until one of my favorite Kansas soldiers rolled up to me and asked where did I want to put his folks for pick-up? I checked my list, and checked it twice. Oh, had he forgotten to call and let us know about the 15 people he would be bringing from Kansas? The more the merrier, and we’re ADAPT, and so we adapted.
The next morning, Sunday, came early and as part of the leadership team I needed to be downstairs early. I knew the calm and serenity of the hotel was about to end because not only were our guys going to be coming downstairs soon, we would also be joined by local folks. Before I knew it, the onslaught began. Amidst all the seemingly chaotic activities that morning, the troops were packed up, lined up and waiting to head out for the day. Little did I know that this was to be my own personal day of inner reflection.
Much like a symphony, we moved 500 people over, under and through the city as we made our way to face the monster we had all crossed the country to confront. The people of San Francisco had agreed to a bond that would cost the city, to spend $600 million over the next 10 years to re-build what we called the “Lagunahondasaurus,” a resort sitting on top of a hill, surrounded by quaint shops, luncheonettes and life.
The couple hundred of local Californians who too were outraged joined us for the day that began with song, testimony and commitment to never give up the fight to stop the atrocity. And then, this is where my own self-measurement process for the day, began. I did not know that Stephanie Thomas, in her manual chair, would be leading our march up the gigantic hill, and really didn’t know that I would be right behind her, in my manual. It’s probably good I did not know until that moment because I would have been overwhelmed with self-doubt because I know I was barely able to go 50 feet up that hill and keep the front of my chair down just a few days earlier when leadership had made the earlier trip.
As a soldier, you don’t question, so I figured the rest of the leadership must have faith that we could do it and so we lined up and began our assent. As we started to push, I began to think of the people locked away on top of that hill who had never been asked if they wanted a new “Laguna Honda,” or for that matter, where they wanted to live. I began to think of the 1,000 people inside who we never really got to see because most of the grounds, the beautiful statues and gardens were only accessible by stairs. I thought about the man I had met near the hotel who was using a cane but had no trouble keeping up with me. He told me what it was like to live there and how he had been treated. He got out, but mostly because of his own willpower. He said life in the community was tough at times, but he’d been through hell, so this was a “piece of cake”.
I don’t know if it became harder to keep the front of the wheelchair down or to continue pushing even though every muscle in your body screamed out for relief, but I know what started happening next probably made it possible for me to make it up that hill. Walking along side of us was the Laguna Honda Administrator. He began talking to Stephanie and me, trying to justify his shameless salary, trying to justify the lies told to the people of the city and lack of telling them that the bond money could have been used to create thousands of community alternatives and then he probably did the best thing he could do to aid our efforts. As the hill became steeper and harder, he began making motions towards us asking if he could “help us.” We both gave him such a look that he didn’t come within 3 feet of our chairs and it was just the little “push” we needed. And then, we were at the top and I personally knew I would never be the same.
After leaving wooden crosses at the feet of the inaccessible Florence Nightingale statue, the 500 troops made their way over, under and through the city back to the hotel for a nights rest. As I sat on the subway platform, reveling in my own newly found inner-fortitude, it happened.
First I heard the crash and then the screams. I raced to the opposite side of the platform and there down on the tracks was one of our own. He’d gotten too close to the edge of the platform and had gone down. Not usually one to panic, I quickly asked several young men to go down and ask him if he needed any immediate medical help. Once we assessed he was banged up but not much more, we began to discuss the best way to get him out of there.
Some of us heard it before we saw it, but there was no mistaking the single beam of light snaking its way toward us in the tunnel. Everyone began screaming, including the rail employees, as the 6 young men jumped back up to the platform. Suddenly, above all the screaming, I heard one rail employee’s voice, screeching: “But it’s automatic! It’s automatic!”
I wheeled over to her and when I was unable to get an answer, I grabbed her shoulders, made her look at my face and asked the question. Through her tear-stained face I got the answer I was dreading, so I turned to a somewhat more composed rail employee and asked: “If no one is driving the train, is there some way to stop it?” He responded that there was actually an emergency employee on the train and emergency brakes and they were trying to reach him, but reception was bad.
And now you could see the train coming. I have never felt so helpless as I did at that moment. Then I remembered how our soldier must be feeling. So I went to the edge of the platform and talked to him. I asked him where he was planning to go to dinner that night and we spoke like two people standing on the corner just shooting the breeze with the clear intent and certainty that he was going to go to dinner that night. My peripheral vision now saw the train, rolling forward but we kept “chatting,” and then, just 75 feet from his head, the train stopped.
He went to the hospital to be checked out, his chariot went to the repair shop and the rest of us went back to the hotel. It was the end of day one.
The following morning, our target was a mere 400 or so feet away, so some of our perfectly lined up and raring to go troops reached the target before the back of the line even stepped foot off the curb. Within the hour we had successfully shut down all four corners around the majestic city hall building, yet we did not get a meeting with the City’s Mayor: One battle; not the war.
Just like clockwork, the soldiers lined up again the following morning. Once again we made the short jaunt just 500 feet from the hotel and once again, within the hour we had tied up all traffic around the State Office Building. Despite the leadership team’s negotiations for a meeting with Governor Gray, we were once again told “NO.” But no is not a word ADAPT really believes. I happened to be on one of those corners that was not very visible but we held strong. As it became later in the day, construction type employees were finished “quenching their thirsts” and came out to find out they were now blocked in, and that’s when things got ugly.
Several specimens, quite intoxicated, pulled their trucks that had been trapped between corners, up to our wheelchairs, pushed us while revving their engine, much like the primal beast thumping his chest to display his “might,” except for the fact that he was a drunk in a truck. When several of these chest-thumping “bystanders” decided to rid themselves of their empty bottles they chose those of us lined up in the street for target practice. One or two of them still had some good aim and for one of the first times in a leadership position, I found myself on my walkie-talkie begging my colleagues to send some of those California patrolmen back to protect our people.
As our brothers and sisters began being pulled from their chairs, drug down the street and just knocked over, some began jumping out of their chairs and climbing up the steps. It didn’t take long for a response and soon, over 100 people were arrested that day. I was number 78!
As I said before, “no” is a word ADAPT does not understand, and since the Mayor and Governor were chirping it in unison, we took our last shot and marched over to the United Nations Plaza, blockading it until a meeting was arranged with Josh Valdez, the US Health and Human Secretary’s Regional Representative for Region IX and the Region IX Deputy Director for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services to discuss the Civil Rights complaints we’d filed against the rebuilding of Laguna Honda. The battle rages on.