MacGyver the Storm Drain

The storm drain in my alley needs regular help to keep up with its job. I noticed this during my first winter living here. The alley became a lake during a thaw and it took an auger truck half a day to get it draining. It was a huge operation. I felt a little sad about the money and waste that went into fixing a problem I might have been able to prevent. I set a personal goal to prevent our block from needing that service again.

When my city started an Adopt-a-Storm-Drain program, I immediately adopted that drain. The program let me name the drain, so I called it MacGyver, in honor of my recently deceased pet rat. I think MacGyver is a higher maintenance drain than some of the others, which makes my job extra important.

When MacGyver has a crisis, the alley floods, and then I run around giggling in my rain boots until I fix it. Unclogging that drain is one of the funnest things I do in life. MacGyver gets clogged with two main things: pine needles and ice. Pine needles aren’t the type of leaf one rakes, so sometimes it takes a heavy rainfall to get them all in one place.

Several months ago, there was a rainstorm so fierce that it clogged MacGyver with pine needles and then flooded the alley to the point that people’s trash carts started floating away. I threw on my rain boots, grabbed my tiny rake, and got to work. The water was so deep at the storm drain that it spilled over the top of my rain boots, which are a foot tall. It was tough to pull the clumps of pine needles away from the drain because of the extreme suction. I squealed with glee when a vortex formed in the draining water. And just like that, I likely saved one or two neighbors from catastrophic basement flooding. I may have even prevented flood damage to a neighbor’s car engine, because it was too deep to drive through.

This morning, Elysa brought it to my attention that MacGyver required my assistance. I could hardly wait to get to work. I grabbed my ice chipper, put on my rain boots and hurried out to the alley. This was a special opportunity. Breaking apart ice that’s under a puddle is a unique experience. I can’t really see the chunk of ice I’m working on, so I have to go by feel. Poking around with my ice chipper gives me a general idea of the shape of the ice.

my feet in rain boots, standing in ice water that's almost eight inches deep
Before: here are my feet standing in ice water that is almost 8” deep.

Finding a storm drain under four inches of ice is tricky. The first thing I do is get down to the pavement somewhere nearby. As a hard-of-hearing person, I get a lot of important information from the vibrations I feel through my feet. I’ve spent enough time with MacGyver to know how the ground vibrates nearby. Once I get my boot on the pavement and tap around it with my ice chipper, I have a pretty good idea where MacGyver is. I had to clear a few slots on the drain cover before the water started to flow. The initial trickle helped erode the ice and improve the drainage.

my feet in rain boots, standing next to my ice chipper on the storm drain I just cleared
After: here I am standing in the same place, on the newly visible storm drain.

I watched and listened to the draining water for almost 45 minutes before going back inside. Today has made me enjoy being hard-of-hearing. My deaf ways helped me find the storm drain, and I still got to enjoy the the amplified sound of the flowing water when I’d achieved my goal.

Queer Disabled Activism

I am genderqueer and disabled. I don’t consider these to be my main traits or even my most interesting ones. But when I interact with groups of people, they often feel like my only traits. I’m so busy trying to make space for my gender and my disability that I have a hard time finding room for my values, interests, and ideas.

My conspicuous gender nonconformity is one of the first things most people notice about me. Many people stare, point and laugh, throw things at me, or ask me misguided and intrusive questions. Sometimes random strangers come up to me and tell me they are totally fine with me being the way I am. Sometimes people make a big show of calling me a woman to demonstrate that they are OK with my beard.

There are some groups of people that are totally unfazed by my nonbinary gender. This is always nice, but it only helps so much. Transportation is a huge challenge for me. I’ve been treated badly because of my gender presentation while walking, biking, driving, taking the bus, and taking the train.

Bathrooms are also frustrating for me. When there are gendered bathrooms, I don’t look like I belong in either one. And I still feel awkward in lots of places that have a gender inclusive bathroom. Some gender inclusive bathrooms are labeled “family bathroom.” I’ve gotten dirty looks from people with children when I’ve used those. I used to frequent a building that had gender inclusive toilets at the end of a dark hallway in the basement. A few years ago, I attended a climate change preparedness training in a building that had gender inclusive bathrooms, but going the training didn’t give me access to the part of the building where these bathrooms were.

When I manage to safely get to an event that is attended by people who are respectful about my gender and that is held in a place with a toilet I can access safely, my next concern is disability access. I am invisibly disabled so I have to be very vocal if I want to be accommodated. I am hard of hearing and neurodivergent, and I have an assortment of ankle, knee, hip, and shoulder problems.

My hearing impairment is typically the hardest thing to get accommodated. I get nervous when I have to give my phone number to register for an event because I hate trying to talk on the phone. In most environments, I have a difficult time following what people are saying. Background noise is very hard for me to tune out. I rely heavily on visual cues, so I do best when I can clearly see whoever is talking. I can’t usually follow anything when multiple conversations are happening near me, so breaking into small groups to discuss things doesn’t work well for me. I am not fluent in ASL, so an interpreter would not fix things.

I have a really hard time asking for disability accommodations, because it makes me feel disruptive which makes me feel panicky. I have an easier time advocating for others’ access than my own. I usually miss a lot of what is said and keep my frustrations about it to myself, but I want to get better at asking for what I need. Whether or not I work to be accommodated, my disability plays a big role in my attempts to get involved in my local community.

Much of my activism is driven by my desire to reduce my community’s negative environmental impact. But I’m learning, after addressing my queerness and disability, I don’t have much energy left to express my values. Any activism I do is queer disabled activism before it’s anything else.

The Telephone “Game”

I hate the telephone game. That’s the one where a message is passed down a line of people via whispers. The first person whispers the message to the second person who then whispers it to the third person, and so on. The idea is to get the message down the line intact, but it usually gets changed as a result of people mishearing each other. I remember being required to play it many times during my childhood. Adults always made us play if we had to wait in a line for very long.

If someone wanted to invent a game that would make hard-of-hearing kids feel like crap while encouraging others to dislike them, I think they would have come up with this game. I hated being expected to hear people without being able to read their lips at all. I often couldn’t decipher any of what was whispered to me, so I had to just make something up to keep the game going. The other kids would get upset when the end message was too different from the beginning message too many times. Eventually they’d figure out that I was the one screwing it up, then everyone would get frustrated with me for playing the game wrong.

I wish I would ever have been allowed to opt out. My hearing impairment was documented. I hated playing that crappy game, and everyone hated playing it with me. I wish I had been allowed to quietly hone my mental math skills instead.

Raising Intensity

When I was 14 (and 15), I spent 8 months in the non-secure part of a large correctional facility. I was in a building called the “shelter.” I had been told it was a residential mental health care center, but it was the unlocked building on a prison campus. The shelter primarily housed discarded young people who hadn’t committed any crimes. It was bad there. It was a punishment-centered program, and I got punished several times a day for being hard-of-hearing and for experiencing side effects from my medications.

Twenty years later, I continue to experience PTSD symptoms from that placement multiple times every week. Sometimes it comes up in my weekly therapy. A month or so ago, my therapist told me that she thinks there are a few ways in which the Lino shelter is a little better than it was a decade ago, but they still do some really messed up stuff, such as “raising intensity.”

I came home from therapy, talking about how raising intensity is not a way to help anyone. Elysa asked about the practice, and I said, “Oh yeah, that’s when everyone stands in a circle around the accused and screams and swears at them and calls them names. Sometimes staff members even throw furniture. If you get spit on your lips from someone screaming in your face, you’re not allowed to wipe it away.” She was kind of horrified. I suppose that’s a healthier response than my learned indifference.