Goodbye car, you served me well

Here I am sitting at the wheel chair lift at the rear of my 1993 Buick which died this month at State College PA and is, as I write, now a paperweight-like compressed object already sold by the wrecking car company that bought the car. The odometer reading at the car’s death was 160,084 miles.
I bought the used Buick Skylark on Valentine’s Day 1998 when I was working as a technical writer at the pharmaceutical company then known as Glaxo Wellcome. I was living with my now former wife and two daughters in Durham, NC. At the time, I had not graduated from a front-wheel drive power operated vehicle (POV) scooter—easy to take apart and put together, but incapable of going up hills.
Shown above is a descendant of my first rear-wheel drive scooter which I purchased sometime later when I was a contractor at an electric meter factory writing a manual on how to communicate with an electric meter, using communications protocol to take readings, to have the meter phone 911 when the building is on fire, and to do other intricate things not yet devised but requiring hours of meetings while two geniuses from Moscow and their Russian interpreter to figure out how to get all digital meters to communicate. The meetings were in the conference room in the factory down the hill from our offices, and the engineers and I would go down together and then they would push me back up the hill.
One of the engineers was married to a woman who had multiple sclerosis (MS) and as her disease progressed she required more sophisticated mobility devices. The engineer brought in his wife’s Electric Mobility rear wheel drive scooter, a scooter I purchased on the spot with a modest down payment and monthly payments. The Electric Mobility scooter served me well, eventually letting me ride around the Grand Canyon close to the rim. Wow. Alas, not only is the scooter history, but so is the company that made it; Electric Mobility went out of business this month. But, I digress.
The immediate car need was based on the fact that my wife Diana had a job in the opposite direction of my job and with two young children to take to soccer, softball, to this and too that and for everyone’s sanity, I needed a car.
At the time, exhaustion was a major part of my daily life and my weekends were spent recovering from the work week. Diana decided the time had come for me to buy a car. I agreed but did not care what it looked like as long as it was able to accommodate a Class 5 hitch, required for assembling a wheel chair lift like the one in the photograph. I did not yet have the money for a wheel chair lift, but I figured I would begin the process of preparing for a lift.
I was too tired to go car shopping. Diana called from the used car dealer and said she had found this Buick Skylark. “Buy it,” I said. She insisted I look at the car before I bought it and I did.
For months after purchase, I spent considerable time first getting the hitch, then the air shocks, and finally the lift. The lift was installed by a man who did not know what he was doing. I drove the car with new lift into the garage, where my daughters Joanna and Amelia greeted me with enthusiasm for my latest assistive technology acquisition. Amelia, the family’s eagle eye observer, said, “Dad, the car is on fire.” I looked. It was and as I followed the flames to the engine, Joanna and Amelia helped me put out the fire. The repair work required was extensive and the restored Buick still did not have a lift that worked.
By this time, I was at the electric meter company full of a lot of electricians. I bullied and paid one electrician to hook up the lift. At the time, the number of capable people working with disability devices was limited. Much of the early period in my now 18-year-old disability consisted of persuading people, like electricians, that they could work on a disability problem because, as I said to the electrician, the principles of electricity do not change simply because the lift is a disability device.
On Thanksgiving Eve, 1999, a deer jumped over my car doing extensive damage to the engine. Joanna and Amelia expressed concern for the deer, who ran into the forest and I amused the two policemen who arrived on the scene when I requested that they search the forest to see whether they could see an injured deer in need of medical attention. They searched and told my daughters, who had by then arrived on the scene, that the deer was all right.
I should not confess this, because you might doubt my sanity, but when the deer jumped and I saw it, for an instant we established eye contact and I felt as if we had shared each other’s souls. Readers who have hit deer may recollect the disorientation that comes when Boom/Crash happens and may be understanding.
The following year, I drove the once fire-deer-ravaged car to San Jose, CA without incident and until this month my Buick was astonishingly well-behaved. Returning to the East Coast, viz. San Jose to Philadelphia, the car acquired an air conditioner in Boise, ID which leaked continually.
Leaks in the body and loss of rubber seals around the doors meant that Buick was continually being flooded and I spent a great deal of time putting towels on the floor, washing and drying them, and replacing them. Mold was a frequent automotive odor and Amelia once said, “Every time I smell mold, I think of you.”
For seemingly ever, I drove the Buick from Philadelphia to North Carolina and back, seeing my children, relocating my mother to the Blumenthal Jewish Home for the Aged in Greensboro and visiting her, and attending Joanna and Amelia’s graduations. The Buick relocated me to State College, PA and took me to Altoona last year where I did some work for the Blair/Clearfield County for the Blind.
Recently, a friend seeing this photo asked how I was able to get from the rear of the car to the driver’s seat:
I drive my scooter to the ramp
·        insert the key into the controls
·        depress the toggle switch so the wheel chair ramp descends
·        ride onto the ramp
·        swivel the seat 180 degrees
·        stand up
·        push the toggle switch up so the ramp ascends
·        hug the side of my dirty car with my clean clothes and body (not to mention my virtuous mind)
Then, I hang on with my fingertips to the strip above the doors:
·        moving with a less than perfect gate
·        throwing myself into the driver’s seat (the door having been opened in preparation)
·        taking gasping gulps of air until my breathing slows down
·        inserting the ignition key so the car starts, and closing the door,
I then drive following a procedure on file with the U.S. Office of Patents office under “Solkoff’s Dreadful Driving Technique.”
Because I have not been dutiful about rehabilitation and movement, my body cannot handle many (sometimes any) stops between here and there. I need a disability van.
This one would be perfect.
Sadly, the Buick that served me so well is dead. Long live a disability van.  Hint. Hint.
–Joel Solkoff

Protect disabled, elderly from fires and disasters

From Where I Sit: My column in Voices of Central Pennsylvania, November 2010

My only experience with an earthquake was in the Silicon Valley of California.  I was staring at my broken computer when the earth moved beneath me. The following day The San Jose Mercury News put the earthquake on page one because of its intensity and also contained an editorial on the importance of being prepared.

My home (wife, two daughters, two cats) was back in North Carolina.  There I had worked in Research Triangle Park for two years (focusing on linking a computer to a telephone switch) had disappeared. Without warning jobs in documentation had become the moral equivalent of famine where two years previously had been feast. [At  a Northern Telecom job interview I had been told being a technical writer had secured me a guaranteed income for life (gold watch and all)] .

At the same time as my gold watch turned into costume jewelry, my ability to walk disappeared. I had gone from being able to jog on the beautifully wooded track on the corporate campus, to being unable to stand without holding onto something, to tripping on my toes and dislocating my right shoulder.


 An extensive search of databases showed San Jose, California, could not hire technical writers quickly enough. A longtime friend had extra room nearby and invited me to go west. I was hired immediately. I fell three times during a critical interview. My cane could not hold my weight. I had not yet acquired my first mobility device, a frontwheel drive scooter.


 After my third fall, directly in front of my prospective boss’ feet, Vicki, who was in charge of the corporate quality assurance team, said, “Don’t worry. We have to hire you.” The reason I had to be hired was that the company, a global leader in computer wafer inspection devices, needed a writer for its new product which could predict when a wafer in the production process would be faulty and remove it from its production line on a timely basis. What the company had not prepared for was any safety orientation for disabled workers.



 These details are relevant to the evolution of fire safety policies at Addison Court in downtown State College. They are relevant because first, until recently the idea of protecting the disabled and elderly from fire and other emergencies was low on our society’s consciousness. Second, limiting safety and access to one location and one building has long-term negative consequences to our country’s economy—an economy which to its detriment fails to make use of the talent of its disabled and elderly population.


 R e g a r d i n g safety at Addison Court, a residence for 90 elderly and disabled individuals, where as a result of faulty fire alarms about two years ago, we learned from Steve Bair, fire director of Centre County’s Council of Governments (COG) and head of Alpha Fire Company, the proper way of evacuating a building made of brick with adequate sprinklers:

Do not evacuate. Wait for the fire company to come. Evacuation of disabled and elderly residents (in a multi-story building), especially when they have power chairs, wheel chairs, and the like, can induce panic.


 More on this do not evacuate concept which the fire authorities refer to as “defend in place” later. It makes good economic sense to protect disabled and elderly individuals from dying or being hurt in a fire or in some other disaster. A larger question is whether this society has the will to pay for safety, the understanding of where safety belongs in our order of priorities, and the willingness to teach and implement concepts like “defend in place.”

The most recent available Census Department statistics for Centre County (based on a 2006-2008 estimate) shows a total population of a little more than 144,000; 45,000 residents are 45 years old and older. Nearly 16,000 residents range in age from 65 years to over 85. What is the cost to Centre County and society at large to keeping these 16,000 residents safe and productive if many of them require special safety procedures? Who should pick up the tab? IWe need to invest in quieter, gentler fire alarms so that residents stay in place until the fire trucks come.

Several subjects require elaboration on the webpage: direct your browser to future blogs on the following subects:

  • Administrative efforts to reduce panic.
  • The continuation of my meandering earthquake story and where it fits into a larger picture.
  • Plans to make Lady Gaga Fire Prevention Celebrity for Centre County.

—Joel Solkoff, author of The Politics of Food. For a continuation of themes raised in this column, see Joel;s blog at me how you liked the photograph of Lady Gaga and an illustrated critique of her disability-related video Paparazzi.