Thursday, March 06, 2008

I came back to California in 1980. The first thing I did was go to the Center for Independent Living. There, I found listings for accessible apartments, personal attendants and help getting my benefits straightened out. I also found a community. Folks who were maybe not exactly like me, but who knew the terrain. They were deaf, or blind, or used a wheelchair or may have had difficulty walking and still managed. I learned about this new community at the wheelchair repair shop that CIL operated. Wheelchair repair was our barber shop. Often we would just hang out there. Not needing any work done on our wheelchairs, just there to hang out. We talked about what then Governor Reagan was doing to programs we depended on. We planned our responses. Organizing van rides to Sacramento. Gathering money to bail out fellow community members who had been arrested doing civil disobedience. There I learned how to be an advocate by listening to my sisters and brothers. Learning from those pioneering advocates like Ed Roberts and Judy Heumann.

That wheelchair repair shop was run by Andy. When Governor Reagan's cuts caused CIL to discontinue their wheelchair repair services. Andy got a job at Shield which was a medical supply company that was trying out a wheelchair repair service at the time. I went right along with Andy. Getting my new batteries or getting my front wheel forks straightened out after hitting a pothole a little hard. He helped modify my chair so it was more comfortable or more useful. The wheelchair repair shop there wasn't quite the hub of our community anymore, but we still connected with each other while waiting for our batteries to charge or for Andy to weld the new modification on my lap tray. I got to be friends with many of the other wheelchair repair technicians. There was Paul and Chuck and Gail and many others. Paul is in intensive care right now at Summit Hospital. He has some kind of undiagnosed infection and I'm not sure if he will recover. Chuck is retired. I'm not sure what happened to Gail and many of the others.

Once Shield made it too difficult to work at their wheelchair repair shop. Andy decided to start his own place and Wheelchairs of Berkeley was born. It started out in a small storefront on University Avenue. Later, it moved to a larger site on University and finally ended up on Shattuck across from the Berkeley Bowl where it has stayed for what, more than 10 years? Andy opened two more shops. One in San Francisco and another in San Jose. The San Jose shop never really took off. I believe the San Francisco shop is still there. The wheelchair repair shops slowly changed. Some people didn't like the changes Andy was forced to make. Some for financial reasons others because Medi-Cal and Medicare regulations changed. His shop got a little less friendly a little less flexible. Some wheelchair users moved on to a place in Emeryville that felt more like the old Wheelchairs of Berkeley. I stuck with Andy, a little out of loyalty, a little out of habit.

Andy still gave me a friendly hard time every time we saw each other. Making jokes about the latest blow up in our community. I didn't see him as often anymore. I mostly had my wheelchair worked on by employees. Some I knew almost as long as I knew Andy. Others became friends, maybe not close friends but still friends. I probably got better treatment than other customers just because everyone had known me forever it seemed. Yesterday on a local Berkeley disability list I found out that Andy had sold his interest in Wheelchairs of Berkeley in November last year. He is now living in Oregon looking for a new project, a new direction for his life. I'm not sure if people will get this, but I'm a bit in mourning. A huge chapter in my life is ending. I e-mailed Andy and thanked him for all these years. I wished him well and told him I'd love to keep in contact. I'm not sure we will manage to stay in contact but I hope we do. Today I'm feeling a little wistful for those times when I had community. When we were fighting the good fight together.