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Monday, August 18, 2014

What's under your shirt?

Mandatory touristy photo :)
Warm is not an adjective often used to describe a San Francisco summer day. But when I took the kids to Alcatraz last Tuesday, it was delightfully warm. We had braced for swift breezes and furious fog by wrapping our limbs in jeans and long sleeves. When we realized we’d over-packed, jackets were stuffed into backpacks but we were stuck with jeans wrapped around our legs.

Once we were on the ferry, the orientation video gave us an overview of the island’s notorious history as a maximum security prison, about the returning ferry schedule, about the steep hill we’d have to climb—equivalent to a thirteen story building—to reach the location where we’d pick up our audio tour. “Ugg,” was the response from R when he heard this. “I’ll never be able to make it.”

But there was an option for people with disabilities. A little electric shuttle runs from the wharf to the prison building. Since seating is limited, I told R that he may have to ride it alone and C and I would walk up and meet him at the top. While he didn’t like the idea of being alone on at the top while he waited for us, he liked the idea of waiting alone much better than the prospect of hoofing it up the steep road together.

SEAT on Alcatraz
When we got off the ferry, we were welcomed by an mucky ocean smell and a docent who gave us an overview of our visit, including the really important stuff like where the bathrooms and drinking fountains were located. As he spoke, I spotted the shuttle to our left. It looked like a little train from the zoo with its open sides and flat roof. Since R doesn’t have a wheelchair or crutches or some visible disability, I anticipated that the attendant would probably ask why we needed a lift. “Do you think you’re old enough to answer her questions on your own?” I asked R. He said yes. He is eleven and a half after all.

“I have a chronic heart condition and I’ve had five heart surgeries,” he told her. She waved us through. “Can they come, too?” he asked pointing to his brother and me. She said sure. Oldies and people with wheelchairs filled in around us. Just before the shuttle began to putter up the road, I heard the attendant say: “It’s the child,” and out of the corner of my eye, I saw her gesture toward us. I can only imagine that someone wanted a ride, she declined their request, and then they pointed indignantly towards us with a snarky comment along the lines of: “What’s wrong with them?”

I felt angry, wishing they had asked me directly in their self-righteous tone of voice because they thought we were taking advantage of a service we didn’t need. I felt embarrassed because we look normal. I avoided eye contact with everyone we passed, but felt accusatory stares as we rolled towards the top.

R looks like a regular kid. His big blue eyes are like his dad’s. The arc of his eyebrows match mine. He likes the San Francisco Giants and reading. He likes garlic toast and Tabasco. He plays little league and wants to be a professional pitcher someday. He has a crush on a girl at school and goofy teeth that an orthodontist is ready to crank into neat rows. He also gets tired very easily, but no one can see his heart defect.

Don't we all have stuff hidden from view--stuff we don't like, stuff we don't talk about, stuff we conceal under clothing or hats or makeup? Our scars make us who we are and sometimes they are visible and sometimes they're not. A shirt hides R's scars. But on days like that, his healthy appearance made us stand out. I only wish that I hadn't been so bothered by other people's reactions.

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