People who accompany a guide dog, or most any dog for that matter, learn that the dog gets the limelight. I have learned this lesson in humility. I accept my role being Timmie to Lassie, Vanna White to Pat Sajak, Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes.
“What a beautiful dog,” is how Hector the paratransit driver greets Randy and me. I introduce us and Hector and I shake hands. “I think the middle seat will be best for you two,” he says. “We have two pick-ups and a drop-off and then you and Randy will be home.”
As we bounce down the road, Hector and I talk sports while the GPS gives directions and Randy sniffs for crumbs. When we hear we have reached our destination, Hector stops the van and consults his clipboard.
“Uh-oh,” he says. “The note here is that this rider refuses to ride with animals.”
“I’ll move to the back seat,” I offer, on behalf of Randy. “We’ll be out of the way back there.”
“No,” replies Hector. “You stay where you are. I will counsel her.”
Hector exits the van and says, “I made a mistake ma’am.”
“You bet you did,” comes the woman’s voice. “You didn’t back into the driveway like you’re supposed to.”
I’ll help you, ma’am” says Hector. “There now. My mistake, ma’am, is that there is a service animal on board.”
“I don’t ride with animals!” she shrieks. “I don’t ride with animals!”
“Now, ma’am, you sit up front with me,” says Hector. “The dog will be behind you. You’ll be up front.” The two stand outside the van. I hear it all. The woman rips Hector up one side and down the other. Hector mumbles apologies
The front passenger door opens and the woman plops into the seat. “No, I don’t need help with my seat belt,” she says. “And I’m going to lodge a complaint against you. I’m going to sit right here in this seat next to you and I’m going to call paratransit and lodge a complaint while you have to sit and listen.” Hector remains silent.
I am curious about the woman’s aversion to dogs. Perhaps she’s allergic. Perhaps she was attacked as a child. There are many logical, rational reasons for fear of dogs. But I say nothing. I don’t want her to rip me up one side and down the other like she did Hector. The woman pays no attention to Randy and me, at least she doesn’t say anything. Still, she might be giving us the stink eye for all I can see. Or be reaching for the Mace in her purse. I summon Randy to the footwell in front of me, instruct him to sit, insist he lie down and demand that he stay.
We ride in silence broken only by the melodious voice of the GPS. I keep one foot on Randy’s leash and one hand on his back. “You have arrived at your destination,” says the GPS voice called Stephanie or Allison or Jennifer. Hector exits the van but is back in seconds, alone.
We drive a little farther. “You have arrived at your destination.” Hector exits the van but, again, returns, alone. We drive a little farther, turn left, then right, then back up—beep! beep! beep!—until, once again, we have arrived at our destination.
“You don’t know what you’re doing,” shouts the woman. “You’re driving around in circles and picking up nobody. You don’t know what you’re doing, do you?” Hector remains silent. He exits the van and, this time, his door closes with a little more force. The woman mutters an oath under her breath which I won’t repeat except to say it’s a body part that all of us have. Then she tells her phone to call a “seafood restaurant on Lincoln.” I wonder if she’s afraid she’ll be late for her Saturday luncheon with her girlfriends or whether she’ll be late for work shucking oysters and slicing pieces of three fingers while doing what amounts to the worst job in the world for minimum wage but which she needs to keep to pay the rent on her crappy apartment.
I hear Hector’s voice approaching. He’s saying, “You’ll be fine, ma’am. You’ll sit in the back and the dog is in the middle, out of your way and he’s well behaved and he won’t bother you.” While I’m wondering what accounts for this animal phobic population, the door slides open and Hector guides this new woman to her seat and asks her if she’d like the footrest and she says yes and he asks her if she’d like him to put on her seat belt and she says yes. Then he resumes his place behind the wheel and off we go.
“How old is your dog?” the new woman asks. I tell her that Randy is eight and that we’ve been together for six and a half years. She says that’s nice and that she’s only going three blocks to her book group at the public library and the book they’re discussing is called The Woman in Gold and she listens to talking books because she’s legally blind but she never got white cane training though she’d like to and then she could walk the three blocks but now she uses a support cane and she’s afraid she’d trip over a crack in the sidewalk if she tried to walk to her book group with it and we learn all this in three blocks and then we reach our destination and Hector exits the van and the door slides open and he undoes her seat belt and the footrest pops up and she’s gone.
We continue in silence. I hear paper rustling in the front passenger seat and the smell of French fries wafts into the middle seat. Randy’s head pops up and I push it down. I sense, I can’t really say how, that we’re getting close to home and then Hector says there’s a moving van blocking the street and he’ll park and walk me the half block to my house. So I wait for him to exit the van and slide the door open before I release Randy and we bolt out the door and I take Hector’s arm and he walks me home. I thank him and tell him I think he handled a difficult situation professionally. “It’s all in a day’s work,” he says. “Some folks complain, others take it in stride.” We shake hands and he walks back to the van, to continue his long and silent ride with the woman who doesn’t ride with animals—until today.
Inside the house, I take off my jacket and Randy’s harness, toss him a biscuit and fish my phone from my pocket. I call the paratransit customer relations department and listen as the voice—sounding more like Gravel Gertie than GPS Stephanie—recites the automated mailbox selections. When she says, “To File a Commendation, press 2,” that’s the number I press.