Long before I broke my leg, I shelled out for two tickets to the Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma. Four hours of gourmet grazing with an occasional pause to sample a wine, port or microbrew. There was no way I'd get through this on crutches. My son put it succinctly: "Mom, you suck at crutches." No argument here. Not only would it be challenging – and exhausting - to navigate the show, it would be impossible, with both hands pressing down on the crutch-handles, to feed my face.
We decided to rent a wheelchair.
The show was held under a big white tent outside the Petaluma Sheraton Hotel. Le tout-fromage Californien was there: Cowgirl Creamery, Laura Chenel, Point Reyes Blue and many smaller, but no less inspired cheese makers. There were pungent blooming rinds, feisty blues, camembert wanna-bes and brie-manqués, old-school cheddars wrapped in black wax, new-school tomes coated in coffee grinds, goat crottins rolled in lavender and thyme, mini-mozarelles marinating in extra-virgin olive oil, crunchy parmesan crackers, delicate mini cheese cakes and unexpected luxury chocolates. If you wanted actual lunch, you could get gourmet pizza made fresh in a portable oven or crepes, your choice of ham and cheese or, for the true philistine, PB&J. The crowd consisted mostly of foodies, with the occasional cheese monger or specialty food buyer schmoozing and collecting brochures.
At first, the wheelchair experience was disheartening. We arrived around lunch time and the place was packed. I had a hard time learning to control the chair because I have a hard time learning to drive anything. Cars, sailboats, rowboats, ATVs, mopeds, wheel chairs... it's all counterintuitive to me. So I advanced tentatively, with my face just above the level of the average person's butt, stopping the chair with my good leg every twenty seconds or so in order not to run over anyone's feet. Getting close to a vendor display was a challenge, but if I managed to push my way in with my wheelchair, I was usually rewarded with an extra large sympathy sample.
The crowd started to thin by mid-afternoon, just as I was beginning to feel the cumulative effect of all those small wine and beer samples. (Can you get a ticket for drunk driving a wheelchair?). The chair is an inexpensive model, the kind with smaller elevated inner wheels that you turn by hand. It's a workout. When my biceps would start burning, my spouse would push me for a few yards. Sometimes, he'd stop without telling me. At one point, I found myself hurtling down an aisle, on a collision course with a lady almost large enough to block it entirely. Only when I turned around to tell hubby to slow down did I realize he was still three tables back, hovering over the cheddar samples. Good thing I'd finally figured out how to work the brakes.
We're keeping the chair until my cast comes off. It allows me to make dinner, which is tough to do while standing on one leg. We've also taken it on outings. At the movies, I get to sit in the handicapped area - lots of leg room and nobody blocking my view. We brought the chair along when we went to see a terrific exhibit of British 19th century art, The Cult of Beauty. After my husband dropped me off and went in search of parking, a nice man volunteered to push me up the inclined path to the museum. Later, at the museum café, I pulled right up to a table and dispatched Hubbie to get us capucinnos and warm bread puddings. When he returned, I confessed that there are advantages to this wheelchair business. (Rather George Costanza of me, I know). He joked that we should keep the chair to get good seats at the movies. At precisely that moment, a couple walked by pushing a tiny disabled boy in a diminutive wheelchair of his own. Suddenly, I felt like an impostor and my inner George Costanza went back to napping under his desk.
Still, there's no denying the chair's magic. People offering me giant cheese chunks, holding doors for me, helping me negotiate curbs, and handing me paper towels in the movie theater bathroom – the last time random strangers were this nice to me, I was pregnant with my son, so it's been about twenty years. It's not that I crave the attention, or that it makes me feel special. I am fortunate that unlike that little boy in the museum, I'll soon be back to standing on my own two feet. It's just that seeing people go out of their way for someone they've never met makes me feel just a little bit better about humanity. And I needed that.
The wheelchair of tomorrow is not a chair.