We are sitting in the special assistance section of Penn Station, surrounded by a Lucite fence with a steel railing. We have a receptionist at the entrance and then another receptionist just for our section. Red caps are in attendance. We are waiting for our train back to Philadelphia, surrounded by a sea of empty chairs and a few other special needs passengers: a heavy woman with four mismatched suitcases, a veteran and his doting wife, and a red-faced woman with no smile. We have so much room here that we can put our luggage on the chairs next to us and I am able to read a fully opened New York Times while sipping a Café Americano. In the area next to us are the Acela customers, with their Louis Vuitton luggage and blackberries. They chat business with serious looks on their faces and keep looking at their watches. Our section is less crowded than theirs, with more space and empty seats.
We are in the oasis of Penn Station, the only area of calm, more like a train station waiting room that you would see in a small town instead of a big city. I observe the theater of the red caps in front of me, joking with each other, patting each other on the back. The receptionist is like their queen bee sending them off to various parts of the station but they always return to this island of calm. I turn and look at the sea surrounding us: hundreds of people, standing with their bags, strollers, and suitcases. Everyone is looking at the blinking schedule board to see what track their train will arrive on, so they can make the mad rush to its gate. There are National Guardsman, bomb smelling dogs, beggars and homeless men asleep against columns. There is construction going on in the men’s room – you can hear the sound of a drill from within it. There are pretzel salesmen and cell phone conversations, train announcements and the distant sound of Muzak.
I can barely hear my cell phone when it rings. It is one of my husband’s doctor’s offices, calling to ask questions about our insurance coverage. I walk over to the edge of our sectioned off area and hold the phone close to my ear. As I explain the insurance details, I notice movement right below me, just a couple of feet away. A nicely dressed woman sits on the floor, leaning against the Lucite wall that divides us. She eats her breakfast out of a paper bag, watching for falling crumbs. She moves slightly to her left to give me some privacy. I obviously have interrupted her breakfast. I end my call and walk across the clear expanse of our little squared off patch, back to Hal who is still reading.
One of the few benefits of having a disability is that you sometimes have the rights of the business class: you can wait in lounges such as the special assistance seating area, skip lines, and be the first to board planes, trains and buses. I allow myself to enjoy these privileges even though they are only my husband’s right. At first it took a while before Hal was willing to ride in a wheelchair at an airport but now, he too, appreciates the assistance and the reality is that he needs it. If we had not had a wheelchair when we flew out of De Gaulle airport one summer, we would have missed our plane. I remember when he froze in the basement of Penn Station during one of our New York visits. He just couldn’t move and our train was about to leave. He tried holding on to the wall but then his feet froze. I had to run upstairs to the red cap stand and get a red cap to come down to the basement and help us.
I still worry, especially in New York City, about people judging Hal’s level of disability. When we went to buy our trains tickets, earlier on this day, we were sent to window number eight, the handicap window, so we could bypass the long line of waiting New Yorkers. We stood at window number eight for quite a while before someone appeared. Hal turned towards the regular line and said he would go stand in it while I waited there but I wouldn’t let him, thinking it wouldn’t look right for a non-disabled person to be standing at window number eight if he left me there. I heard one of the ticket sellers say – “window number eight attendant needed” and a man came out from behind a door, like the Wizard of Oz from behind the curtain, as if we had interrupted him from something important he was doing, and grumpily sold us our tickets. I couldn’t look at the people standing in the regular line as we walked past them with our tickets in hand.