I remember when I was a kid, my parents drove Volkswagen buses. Early adopters, I guess. At that time, there were few such vehicles on the road, so it was unusual to see another one. And, like Harley riders, the drivers of Volkswagen vans would give each other a little wave as they passed each other. There was a bit of the counter-culture in driving a Volkswagen back then, a tacit community of like-minded drivers. Sadly, with the proliferation of vans, both mini and otherwise, that community is a thing of the past.
In recent weeks, I’ve encountered a similar thing when encountering other wheelers. No element of counter-culture I suppose, but an acknowledgement that we are members of, if not an elite class (as I like to think) or a secret society (hard to be secret in a wheelchair), at least a minority. We share a field of knowledge that other, those “muggles,” can never understand.
So, how do we greet each other? As I was “rushing” to my departure gate at the Atlanta airport a few weeks back, I passed another wheeler hurrying in the other direction. We exchanged small waves and brief smiles. On the same trip, I saw a young woman who had been in some sort of accident – a bandaged knee, a bandaged elbow, and probably other wounds not visible. Car accident? Skateboard? Drunken brawl? She was on crutches when I first noticed her boarding my flight out of a tiny airport in Florida, and then again at the gate in Atlanta – this time in an airport wheelchair. I rolled past her, and said something brilliant, like, “Boy, this sure changes how you travel, doesn’t it?” To which she, oddly, said nothing, looking embarrassed. Again, a week or so ago, I was at a local hockey game and saw, at the end of the wheelchair row, a woman in a wheelchair. I left to go to the men’s room and when I came back, she had for some reason moved over into my spot. She saw me, and returned to her spot. As we were leaving, we exchanged one of those little almost surreptitious waves.
I remember the same type of waves between Volkswagen drivers – sort of sheepish, as if we didn’t want other people to see us doing it. It’s the same with wheelers. It’s not like we all know each other. And it’s not something to base a relationship on. But passing that guy in Atlanta there was a tiny element of familiarity. An unspoken, “Hey, brother.”
I’m not on the street very much, and maybe it has something to do with the fact that Portland is not a wheelchair friendly city. But seeing a fellow wheeler is, for me, a rare event. I almost feel like a dog who can’t help wagging his tail- or his whole body – when he sees another dog. In any case, it is a treat for me to encounter one of my peeps on the street. Pardon me for being uncool and waving.