Sunday, March 7, 2010

Transit Nightmare

This is a story of my late night attempt to use Edmonton Public Transit (ETS). I am a fan of public transit, comfortable with the system, but during the day as a rush hour commuter. This is a story of missed signals that is so painfully funny that if it happened on daytime television, we'd all be rolling on the floor laughing.

I must give some context for this story. Two weeks ago on a Sunday afternoon my son was hit by a car when riding his bike. His shoulder was seriously damaged and he underwent surgery that night at the University of Alberta hospital. I am happy to say he is now at a rehabilitation facility and well on his way of recovering use of his arm. I am now relieved enough to write lightly of my trials as a mom visiting her son.

I live in northeast Edmonton close to the Belvedere Light Rail Transit (LRT) station, and the University of Alberta hospital has a convenient station on the same line. When I got news of my son's injury, hubby and I rushed down to the hospital on the LRT. No use, we thought, of making the tangled journey by car, or worry about parking. The trip on transit was fast and efficient. When we got to the hospital, my son was already wheeled in to surgery, and was expected to be there for some time. I decided to stay, and I sent hubby home. He promised to pick me up from the Belvedere station when I was ready.

I was still dressed in my Sunday best, including girly-girl shoes not meant for much travel; but then I didn't have very far to walk, did I? I found the visitor's pod with a stiff couch and a television with no cable. I settled in and made calls to family on my blackberry until it ran out of juice.

I now had three strikes against me for a late night Canadian winter; light clothing, dead blackberry, and wobbly shoes.

The surgery took longer than expected, lasting seven hours. It was 1:30 in the morning when I came out of rumpled slumber and got a good first look at my son as they wheeled him back to his room. The orderlies gave me a moment to hold my son's hand. I looked him deep in the eyes and told him it would be all right. After they got him settled in his room, I bustled with the necessary things. I asked what he needed. His chief concern were his clothes, blood spattered. The hospital would burn them unless someone took them home. I offered to wash them and I told him I would see him the next day. He asked if hubby would be taking me home. I told a white lie. Yes, of course he is picking me up (from Belvedere station). We said our last endearments, and I picked up the two hospital bags of clothing. I called hubby at a phone booth and asked him to meet me at Belvedere, and I made my way to the hospital entrance closest to the transit.

Are you keeping track? I am now a sleepy bag lady, in light clothing, a dead blackberry, and wobbly shoes.

The first entrance I tried was locked for the night, so I made my way to the doors farther south. I crossed the now barren street and made my way to the empty station. I bought a ticket. And I waited. I read the poetry etched in the glass panels of the shelter. A cold wind blew through the cracks between the delightfully etched panes of glass. I huddled under the cattle heater. I shivered. And I waited.

It must have been about twenty minutes when I realized something must be wrong. I went to the free transit phone to ask about late night travel times. The reception was so bad, we couldn't hear each other. As I huddled closer to the mic, I noticed posted travel times over the phone. Uh, oh. LRT service ends after 1:30. I needed a new plan. I thanked the fuzzy lady for her inability to help, hung up, and headed back to the hospital.

Phone. Must find a pay phone. Call a cab.

I tried one set of doors back in to the hospital. Locked. So is the second set. There is no pay phone on the exterior of the hospital. The only open entrance, declares a sign, is on the other side of the huge building. And I am in my girly-girl shoes. I look back over at the transit station, at the only pay phone in shoe distance. I make my way back to the station.

I call directory assistance to get the number for a cab, and murmer the number under my breath so I don't forget. I put my last change in to the phone, and the machine eats my change. No call.

I am now desperate. I call 411 and ask for help. The phone has eaten my last quarters and I need to call a cab. The operator patiently explains their policy; no free calls. If I give her a number she can charge the call to, she will gladly reimburse me for my lost quarters. I tell her I can't charge it to my home number; there is no-one there to confirm the charges. Hubby is waiting at Belvedere station. I give the only other number I have memorized. I ask the operator to charge the call to my daughter. I make the call.

I hobble back across the street with my bags. In short order a cab is at the hospital entrance. I have a pleasant late night conversation with the cabbie and he takes me to my patient hubby waiting at the Belvedere station. Twenty dollars and twenty minutes later, I am back in my warm bed, rubbing my sore feet.

The next morning, my daughter checks in with me. What happened? Uh, oh. She had feared the worst from that late-night call, and worried all night if everything was OK. Well, sort of. I have a flash of role reversal. I get these flashes more and more these days.

To add insult to injury to my intimate relationship with the University of Albert LRT station that night, ETS was testing the system. I watched three trains pass through without stopping, my lonely shivering bag-lady self having no effect on the drivers.

This city is becoming more cosmopolitan by the day, no longer a rural outpost. Surely it is time to offer round the clock LRT service. Ridership may not pay at first, but surely to save a stranded passenger or two, it is worth it?