I was in Sacramento, on business. After a long day’s work I decided to go downtown to J Street for dinner. J Street is lined for several blocks with trendy restaurants and coffee houses. On either side of J Street (yes, H, I and K, L) are stately Victorian-style homes; some rundown and vacant, some converted to apartments, some restored by Yuppies to their former glory. This area of Sacramento has been moving upscale, but is still close to the mean streets of downtown. Young professionals sip lattes and eat tapas at sidewalk cafes while winos crouch in doorways of vacant storefronts, bumming for change.
As I cruised down J Street I spotted the restaurant I was looking for: a pan-Asian bistro that was getting rave reviews. It was a busy night and the only parking space I could find was on a side street four blocks away.
I parked the rental car and walked up J Street towards my destination, avoiding eye contact with some of the scarier looking doorway-crouchers. I was within a half a block now. I passed a man on the sidewalk going the opposite direction and it took a moment for my brain to register that something was amiss. He was a tall thin black man. His age was hard to discern but I guess somewhere between 55 and 65. He was wearing a woolen cap and dirty coat. None of this was strange for the area in and of itself. What was odd was that he was dragging an electric wheelchair behind him down the sidewalk. The wheels of the electric chair weren’t moving and the man had hold of the thing by one of its armrests, pulling it sideways with a grim expression that reminded me of Sisyphus, forever pushing his rock up the hill in Greek mythology.
The electric wheelchair was not one of the newer, lightweight models that seniors in Arizona zip around the shopping malls in. It was a bulky, heavy, old-style electric chair – the kind that the kids with MS used to have back at my high school in the 80’s. The kind that would have to be slowly lowered out of specially-equipped vans onto the ground using an elevator.
I stopped and turned around.
“Looks like that thing doesn’t want to move”, I said.
“Yeah,” he replied, “it broke down on me again. I just need to get it home.”
“How far do you have to go?” I asked.
“’bout six blocks.”
“How far have you dragged it since it died?”
“’bout two blocks.”
I could see that he was tired and sweating. But was this really his wheelchair? Perhaps he had stolen it in hopes of hocking it for drug money and then realized too late that it was not going to be easy to get away with. If I helped him, I might be an accessory – an unwitting dupe – to a crime. And what might happen if we got it to wherever he was taking it? What if it was a crack-house or gang-banger hangout? What if he was a psycho and had a knife? The mental worst-case scenarios began to spiral and escalate.
And there was my restaurant a half block away.
I gave my racing brain a mental slap and chastised myself silently.
“I’ve got an idea”, I said. “My car is parked a few blocks away, how about if I go and get it and we load your chair into the trunk and take it to your place?”
“Really? You would do that?”
“Sure. You wait here; I’ll be right back.”
I jogged down J Street, the way I’d come, found my car and drove back to where the man and his wheelchair had been. I could see that he was still pulling the chair along and I realized he had probably figured I wouldn’t return. He was at a point where the sidewalk intersected with an alleyway, so I turned into the alley with the rear-end of the car facing the sidewalk, and popped the trunk. “OK”, I said, “let’s get this into the trunk.”
When I travel, I typically rent Economy or Compact class cars. I don’t really like big cars. It suddenly occurred to me that this chair was not going to fit into my car. But I’d come this far, I had to try. The man looked surprised to see me again (and mildly shocked about the size of my car). He stepped away from the chair and I grabbed hold of it to pull it to the trunk. I yanked and it barely moved. Shit. This thing weighed a ton. It must have taken this poor guy hours to drag the thing two blocks! Now that he had stepped away from the chair and stood upright, I could see that the man was even thinner than he had originally appeared. His right arm hung limp at his side and his right leg drug on the ground. I realized that, along with pulling the chair, he had been pulling half of his body down the street.
I marshaled my strength and began muscling the chair towards the car. It was moving along now, though the wheels still refused to turn. They made little skid marks on the sidewalk with each tug. Now the chair was at the trunk and it was obvious it wasn’t going to fit. The only way I could see that it would work was if I loaded the chair upside down into the trunk so that the chair back was inside and the wheels stuck out. Perhaps then I could find something to tie the trunk lid down with. The man stood off to the side with an expression that betrayed both hope and skepticism.
I got my arms under the chair and lifted, trying to use leverage to tilt it upside-down into the trunk. “Damn, this thing is heavy!” I thought. I could see that it was the huge battery under the seat that gave it its heft. “Wow, you're strong”, the man said in earnest. “Well, I work for a construction company” I told him, skipping the detail that I actually run the computer networks for a construction company; a job which entails sitting at a desk all day.
I got the chair upended into the trunk. But all the weight was now at the top and halfway outside the trunk. The chair was precariously balanced and the slightest bump might flip it out onto the street. I searched around for something I could use to tie the beast down but they don’t equip rental cars with ropes or bungees. “Well, here’s the deal”, I told him, “This is as good as its going to get. We’ll just have to drive very, very slowly and hope it stays in.”
“Ok”, said the man in a dubious but hopeful tone.
As the car inched along at walking speed down the backstreets, I introduced myself. The man told me his name was Willy. He repeatedly thanked me for helping him, saying “I don’t know what I would have done.” I muttered something like, “Well, let’s just see if we get there.” I had noticed the man’s chair had a bumper sticker on it from a local jazz radio station, so I asked him if he liked jazz. “Oh, yes”, he said politely. “Who are your favorite jazz artists?” I asked. He told me he liked Kenny G. I told him I liked Miles and Coltrane. I doubt that he really listened to Kenny G and, I admit, I probably couldn’t identify Miles or Coltrane if you played either one for me. We were telling white lies to try to make each other feel more comfortable.
Willy directed me through the streets and we finally pulled up in front of his home, which turned out to be an assisted-living apartment building. “My apartment is on the first floor” he said. I whispered a silent prayer of thanks for that. The chair came out of the trunk much easier since gravity was now my ally. It was also much easier to drag the wheelchair on the linoleum of the apartment hallway than it had been on the concrete sidewalk. I got the chair into his apartment, which I could see was a one-room studio. Willy reassured me that he would be able to get the chair fixed.
He thanked me again, said he didn’t know what he would have done, etc., then looked at me and asked, “Are you a Christian?”
“I try to be.” I said. “I try to follow Jesus."
“Well," said Willy, “you did tonight.”