See the Cripple Dance: The Chariot and using public transit while disabled and crazy

The Everyday Witch’s Tarot re-imagines the Chariot as a badass witch in a black leather jacket, a classic pointy witch hat, and striped tights, riding a red motorbike, her familiar holding steady in the sidecar – this witch grips the handlebars with strong, sure hands but her face holds an expression of confusion, revealing her sense of uncertainty and vulnerability. She appears perplexed. There’s a fork in the road. Which way will she go?

Since using WheelTrans, a service for disabled folks in the city who can’t or who can rarely access public transit, I managed to stay off the subway in Toronto for over a year. This Summer, I hopped back on for one uneventful ride, and a couple weeks later, a more eventful one. In my remission, I’ve been walking much more than usual, but I’ve got ten thousand illnesses, and getting a break from one form of pain doesn’t necessarily give me a break from the others. I had an appointment in the morning that I’d intended to walk to, but irritable bowel syndrome made me late again, as it often does, and I realized I’d need to take transit after all. WheelTrans requires booking a ride at least four hours in advance, but it’s more reliable if you book at least a day ahead of time, as a same-day booking involves being added to a wait-list in which you may never come up, never get to your destination.

There are two signs on the witch’s path: This Way and That Way, black-and-white, one or the other. But I think she’s smart enough to know that no matter what the signs say, she’s got more than two options. If neither of those paths are gonna lead her to where she wants to be, why take them? She could keep straight ahead, turn around, make a new path. She could park her bike and walk somewhere, take a nap in the sun with her cat, or she could climb the trees around her and see what lies ahead.

Each time I need to use transit, I have a short speech (often a single sentence) prepared in my mind for times when the priority seats aren’t available.

I have a crip-ritual for times like these. On a bus or a streetcar: I step on, take a look around, and tell the driver I can’t deposit my change or token until I know I’ve got somewhere to sit. If nobody stands up and moves out of the way on their own (as is often the case), I say loudly, firmly, kindly, “I need somebody to offer their seat to a disabled person who cannot stand on a moving vehicle, please and thank you.”

Sometimes I say it a couple times. Sometimes the driver helps me out, adding, “I’m not gonna move this vehicle until this person has somewhere to sit.” Sometimes nobody helps, nobody moves. Sometimes I step off the vehicle and wait for the next one. Sometimes I get on the next ride after all, sometimes the one after that. Sometimes I go home crying, raging. Sometimes I yell. Sometimes I can’t be bothered.

The point is, I’ve got options.

The Chariot doesn’t necessarily indicate physical movement or travel, but I’d drawn it so much over the last couple weeks that I started connecting it to my experiences using public transit while disabled and crazy.

I was able to walk a few blocks to the Bathurst bus heading North for my morning appointment, and I prepared myself (emotionally!) for transferring onto the subway. It’s hard enough to get a seat when you’re disabled and nobody cares, and rides that involve transfers stress me out further because it only adds more opportunities for conflict, stress, and inaccessibility. And the subway is different than a bus or a streetcar. If I step onto the vehicle and nobody gives me a seat, the doors shut behind me, and I’m trapped. No escape.

But I couldn’t be late. Non-disabled people seem to have a tough time grasping the boring, ordinary fact that disabled folks have somewhere to be. That we have lives and plans and friends, too. That we have appointments to get to, that we work, that our time has meaning at all. There are times when I’ve sat on one of those underground benches for half an hour, watching subway cars pass every four minutes, and just waiting waiting waiting because all the seats were taken and I trusted nobody to give one up. But then there are those times when I actually for real cannot fucking be late. This was one of those times.

From where I stood (the benches are not the best place to wait for an empty seat – if I can stand for a few minutes, I’ll walk to the end of the platform, where less people tend to gather), I could see that the emptiest car in the row that was available to me when the subway came to a stop was still crowded, with many people standing. But I stepped on anyway. I made my little speech, speaking loudly over the noise and the headphones, enunciating clearly and confidently, “I need somebody to give their seat to a disabled person who cannot stand up on public transit, please and thank you.” The doors began to close.

In Dame Darcy’s Mermaid Tarot, a mermaid dressed in pink balances upon a seashell in the ocean, holding onto the seaweed-reins of two happy dolphins, also pink. She floats away from two castles in the background, moving on to new adventures, appearing delighted and untroubled – though we hope she’ll bring some trouble with her, wherever she ends up. She’s on her own and in control, making graceful magic with what she has access to. Imagine all the stories those castles on tiny islands hold – the rooms, the histories, the knowledges, the adventures. Everything you can’t fathom because you weren’t there.

“There’s a seat right here,” a man said, stepping aside. A few more people cleared a small path to reveal an empty seat on the subway car. An empty seat! The vehicle began to move before I could squish through the crowd with my cane and sit down, so I tripped a bit, but I was fine. I thanked him several times, and I thanked everybody who cleared the path for me. I fucking smiled and everything. I didn’t have far to go, and I thought I’d use the next couple stops to daydream. (In my diary, as I described this encounter, I wrote: Figured / hoped that was the end of it (when does it ever end?).

But then the man whose body had blocked my view of the single empty seat spoke again, “You know, you should really look around for empty seats before you start yelling at people.” He was standing in front of me, over me, looking down, headphones wrapped around his neck.

I could strangle him. I could kick him. I could stomp on his feet with my cane. I could scream. I could tell him to go fuck himself. I could tell him I hope he gets hit by a subway. I could threaten to push him onto the tracks. I could tell him I hope somebody breaks his kneecaps. I could tell him I hope he merely sprains his ankle and spends just a few weeks learning how to get around the city while disabled, learning how it feels to be uncared for and left behind. I could laugh at him. I could roll my eyes. I could stick out my tongue. I could bash in his teeth with the handle of my cane. I could tell him I have a forever-long chronic pain condition caused by prolonged exposure to chronic stress and trauma. I could cut myself. I could skip my appointment and cry until we reach the end of the line. I could use my mom’s go-to line, “I hope you never have to experience this yourself one day.” I’ve got options.

I’ve almost never gotten anywhere without a story to tell upon arrival.

Ableist interactions like this one happen to me all the time. There will always be somebody who doesn’t know what it’s like to be disabled, always thinks they have something useful to tell me, always thinks they know how to live my life better than I do, always thinks they know how I should navigate an inaccessible city and world (or always thinks I shouldn’t exist in the city or the world).

Instead I held my confident posture, kept a neutral expression on my face, no sarcasm in my tone, not even rage, and I said, “I wasn’t yelling. I was using a clear, loud tone to address a crowd, many of whom are wearing headphones, within a very short and potentially dangerous period of time. This is an issue every single time I use transit, and I’ve had time to learn which methods of communication are the most effective for me to get access to a seat causing the least amount of harm to myself and to others (I’m a witch, after all).”

He mumbled something unclear, sarcastic. I was grateful to have witnesses. I hoped they were learning something. I hoped it meant something to see this weirdo standing up for themself (or, um, sitting down for themself, as it were).

“How dare you have the audacity to believe you have anything to tell me about how to use public transit while disabled, as if I haven’t been doing this on my own for years. You can’t comprehend what it’s like to experience inaccessibility in this city all day everyday and to be forced to have these draining, invalidating, and infuriating interactions with strangers when I’m just trying to live my life and get from Point A to Point B without too much hassle. You don’t have the authority to tell me how to cope with a form of oppression that I experience and you don’t.”

I could hardly believe I’d brought this whole monologue with me and managed to get it out without crying or screaming or breaking down – it’s okay to cry and scream and break down, of course, but I just wanted to get through the ride relatively unscathed, and I was absolutely not willing to let this man ruin my day, to wreck my good vibes before showing up for an important appointment. I didn’t want him to spoil anything. Again, I was so glad I had witnesses – not because I was expecting trouble, but because, like I said, maybe they’d learn something, and maybe it’d even give them the courage to be clear about their own boundaries and knowledges in other situations, too.

I like being the weirdo who gives other weirdos permission to live.

What was it that made this conversation/interaction (rather than confrontation/altercation, the words I usually use in these situations) possible? How did I come out of it feeling like a whole human being, feeling unashamed and unapologetic (and how often are those feelings available to me)? How was I able to continue my day and not let this interaction trigger another depression or suicidal/murderous rage?

For me, the This Way That Way signs in the Everyday Witch’s rendition of The Chariot evoke the black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking described in diagnostic criteria for borderline personality disorder. I’ve spent so much of my life feeling there were very few options with which to cope with difficult, painful, and sometimes threatening situations and conversations, and tended to feel a kind of non-verbal rage, a desire to hurt somebody, anybody, or hurt myself, because nothing else felt possible. The pain was incomprehensible to myself, let alone anyone around me, and it felt/feels that much worse when my interactions are with men – especially when we are positioned in such a way that they’re either standing over me or cornering me.

In The Collective Tarot, The Chariot is re-imagined as The Conductor. The figure wears fishnet armour, delicate and tough at once, soft and protective at once. She holds onto a waxing moon, representing intuition, and a feather, rational thought. Her expression is one of snark and wisdom, glamour and age. Power. She might represent a point in borderline recovery when we realize we have more options than we once thought we had, than we used to have.

In Kitty Kahane’s Magic Mirrors interpretation of The Chariot, a turquoise creature bears purple crescent moons on their shoulders, wearing a crown and holding a wand. They are dressed flamboyantly, leading the way to unknown places. There’s a certain quality in the card reminiscent of shooting stars and carousel rides. The figure guiding the way holds an expression of calm discernment. This version doesn’t show a visible path. They can go wherever they want.

There are risks with The Chariot, of course – with power and confidence come arrogance and bravado, too. After a number of experiences with The Chariot in the weeks leading up the Autumn Equinox, I became more and more brazen until I finally got myself into some trouble. And then I drew Temperance. So, in my next post, I’ll be writing about how to mitigate bravado with self-awareness, and how to navigate uncomfortable moments in crip-time as an angry borderline.

2 comments

  1. I’m not visibly disabled and don’t needs mobility aids 99.9% of the time. I can’t stand on public transport and have gotten so many dirty looks for taking a seat on a crowded bus or train. I hate it when people make assumptions about the needs of another. I try to never take the priority seating whenever possible but sometimes I don’t have a choice. I walk to the start of the line to make sure I can get a seat.

    This post is a gift. Thank you. I am actually studying Beth’s Card A Day course at the moment & the Chariot was my card of the day yesterday. This post has given me a new perspective on it which I really appreciate.

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