Sunday, January 5, 2014

Hell On Wheels

A decade before my illness, I had my first experience with one of those electric carts for disabled shoppers. My late mother, Beverly, dealt with scoliosis most of her life, and began using a walker in her seventies. One day she got a hankering to go to the local Kmart, so off we went, and upon arrival, she decided it would be fun to drive a cart around the store. I had my doubts. Beverly had never been what you would call a “savvy” driver. Many of our all-time favorite family stories revolve around her creative approach to owning and/or operating moving vehicles.
          For example, there was the day my mother decided to drive from our Cincinnati suburb to Dayton, where my older sister lived at the time. She took the exit for Interstate 71 North, but when she spied the road sign that proclaimed Columbus 95 mi she panicked. “Oh, my God! We’re trapped on this highway all the way to Columbus! I don’t want to go to Columbus!”
Fast-forward thirty-five years to that day at Kmart. Though I knew my mother’s electric cart adventure might turn into one of “those” stories, I got her situated and showed her how to work the forward and backward hand controls. Within seconds, she’d bulldozed an entire underwear display rack, sending a polyester tsunami of bras and panties into the jewelry department. She gasped. “Oh, hell, Susan! I think that was the reverse!”
As much as it pains me to admit, I have now had a few motorized cart moments of my own. Ironically, my favorite occurred in that very Kmart just weeks ago, while I was Christmas shopping. You may wonder why I use a cart if I have a prosthetic leg. The answer is complicated, and I’ll devote many blogs to what it’s like to live with a prosthesis, but for the purposes of this particular story I’ll sum it up this way: the leg hasn’t always fit correctly and had a tendency to fall off at inopportune moments; it is exhausting and time-consuming for me to walk through a big store; and if it’s crowded, riding in a cart is the safest option. Before I get to my Kmart Kristmas Kart Katastrophe, here are some of my other favorite motorized memories.
About two months after I got home from the hospital, I decided to make my first solo visit to the grocery store. It was a very big deal, one that required advance planning, stubbornness, and luck. I had just received my first temporary prosthetic leg, a very low-tech contraption I barely knew how to wrangle, and was using crutches to keep me upright. I made it down the steps to the driveway, opened the car door, hobbled inside, drove five minutes up the road, made it safely from the parking lot to the entrance of the grocery, found a motorized cart, fell into the seat, unplugged the cord, hoisted my dead-weight fake leg on board, drove off slowly and cautiously to the customer service desk where I left my crutches for safekeeping, then headed to the produce section, where I promptly backed into a display of hothouse tomatoes.
“Oh, shit!” I hissed.
Yes, I’d become my mother. It was a humbling moment.
Let me be honest. I rely on these mobility carts and they contribute to my independence. But I hate the suckers. I’m only now letting go of the embarrassment and shame I’ve felt while at the controls of one of these things. I admit that in the past I've avoided eye contact with people smiling down on me with empathy or granting me access to the soup aisle with the flourish of a matador. Now I just try to smile back. Some days are easier than others.
There is one aspect of motorized shopping that I despise more than words can express, and that is the shrieking alarm that activates whenever the cart is put in reverse. The decibel level is more suited to a sixteen-wheeler backing into a loading dock, and in my mind, the cringe-worthy sound warns shoppers to grab their children and seek shelter in the nearest alcove because the out-of-control disabled lady is about to crash into their asses.
But since I need them, my retail choices are no longer based on location, merchandise quality, or price, but on whether they have a stable of motorized carts. If I pull into a familiar store and find most of the handicapped parking spots filled, I turn around and leave. There won't be any carts available.  If it’s a store I haven’t shopped in since my illness, I will call in advance to make sure it’s not a wasted trip. Unfortunately, more than once I’ve shown up at a pre-certified shop to find every one of their carts out of order, heaped together in a corner near the Coinstar kiosk, electric cords lifeless and flaccid, as disturbing a sight as the “Island of Misfit Toys” from the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer cartoon of my childhood.
While driving a cart, I have been known to avoid acquaintances I haven’t seen since my illness, just so I won’t have to answer their inquiries. It’s difficult to respond with the usual “I’m fabulous! Crazy busy!” as I’m reaching for the marinated artichokes from a seated position. It’s even worse when someone I haven’t seen in years approaches with a look of horror and I have to explain what happened to me. Seriously, sometimes a girl just wants to grab laundry detergent and milk and go home without being asked to bare her soul.

Shopping for Boston ferns 

There was one event that helped me to let go of my shame. My friend Martin and I needed to get ingredients for a cookout and went to the grocery together. Because he knew I was embarrassed about using a cart, he hopped on one, too. We spent the next half-hour selecting produce, racing through the bakery department, and laughing. In a turn of events I will remember the rest of my life, I had just made eye contact with a gynecologist’s wife I used to socialize with when Martin chased me into the pharmacy section shouting, “Don’t forget the KY Jelly! Get the economy-sized bottle!”
After surviving that level of embarrassment, what could possibly bother me?
Ah. Let’s go back to Kmart, shall we?
Yes, it was unwise to attempt last-minute Christmas shopping, but I really had no choice. Unfortunately, we were moving to a new house during the holidays, and life was so chaotic that gift shopping wasn’t a top priority. But eventually it was a do-or-die situation, so I set out to Kmart. Because they had motorized carts.
           Things got weird almost immediately. A woman talking on her cell phone was leaning against what appeared to be the store’s only available motorized cart, her rather large butt pressed against the wire basket. I tried to get her attention. “Excuse me, I’d like to use this.”
She turned briefly, looked at me, then went back to her phone call.
“Uh, excuse me. I need this cart, please.”
“Hold on,” she said into the phone. She turned around again and rolled her eyes, sighing, then moved just enough that I could lower myself into the seat without brushing my forehead against her right butt cheek. I fantasized about running her over, then putting the cart in reverse and running over her again, but somehow restrained myself.
So I cruised out into the Kmart aisles, alarmed to find the place packed with merchandise and irritable last-minute shoppers such as myself. The cart was exceptionally slow, which frustrated not only me but anyone stuck behind me. I heard many an impatient exhale as I chugged through the kitchen accessories and the curtain rods. By this time, I started to get a bad feeling. Maybe this hadn't been such a great idea.
I grabbed the step stool I needed. I found some glassware. I found a few little stocking stuffers. But I still needed to buy lights for our Christmas tree, as our stash was damaged during the move. Of course, the Christmas d├ęcor was at the very back of the store, in an attached greenhouse used for lawn and garden merchandise in warmer months. The cart began to whine and tremble, but I made it through the automatic doors to the greenhouse, grabbed a roll of 400 mini lights, and headed back into the main store. The cart died on the threshold, and I couldn’t move forward or backward. The doors began to open and close in automated confusion, banging up against the base of the cart over and over again. So there I was, trapped in the doorway, getting the crap beaten out of me by large glass and steel doors, my cart overflowing with merchandise made in China. 
I spied a store employee and called for help. He yanked me clear of the jaws of death and went to get another cart. Fifteen minutes later, he returned, explaining that he had to wait for one to become available, but that he was pretty sure this one had enough battery power to get me checked out and to the parking lot.
Not wanting to risk another dead cart – and since I was dangerously close to tears and/or hysterical laughter – I made a beeline for the cashier. After waiting another fifteen minutes, it was my turn to pay. With the cart parked in the narrow lane between my cashier and the cashier working the adjacent register,  I began to place items on the belt. Suddenly, the cashier beside me turned and jammed her elbow into the back of my skull. I was stunned -- a "bird-crashing-into-a-picture-window" kind of stunned. I saw stars.
“Sorry about that, hon! I didn’t see you down there. Could you move so I can go get a price check?”
Eventually I made it to my car and tossed my Kmart cornucopia in the trunk. Only after I was safely on my way home did I start to laugh. Oh, how I missed my mother at that moment! I wanted a few more minutes in her company so that I could tell her this story. She'd enjoy knowing the baton had been passed.

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