Ticket to Ride

photos/Doug Bruns

Ticket to Ride
The many small triumphs of Michie O’Day

by Elizabeth Peavey

You may have seen her around town before — a petite, trim woman of a certain age, makeup and short-cropped hair always just so, rimless glasses, broad smile. But you’re more likely to recognize her conveyance: a recumbent three-wheeled cycle tricked out with a blue-and-yellow twirling whirligig and a neon-green flag. Perhaps you’ve spotted her slowly but surely making her way up Congress Street, peddling around the Eastern Prom or Back Cove, or parked outside Hannaford or Whole Foods. A closer look reveals the diamond-shaped, caution-yellow sign hanging on the rear basket that depicts a cyclist above the word “DEAF.”

Deafness is not the only challenge Michie O’Day faces, and overcomes, daily. Due to complications from one of several major surgeries she’s undergone, O’Day, who’s 56, cannot walk more than a few feet without the support of a walker or walking poles, furniture or friends. She does not drive anymore. Before the trike came into her life, she relied on car services or friends for rides. With the trike, she sports around Portland and beyond with complete independence — grocery shopping, going out to lunch, riding to Higgins Beach to gaze at her beloved Atlantic. The trike has given her a sense of empowerment she hadn’t felt in years.

“Frankly, isolation is one of the biggest challenges of living with a disability,” she said, “especially for me, with my combination of deafness and mobility issues.” Though it may take her an entire morning to run an errand others could complete in minutes, she relishes her freedom. “I do it,” she said, “because I can.”

Michie (pronounced Mickey; it’s an old family surname) has a genetic condition called neurofibromatosis (NF, for short). Hers is a rare strain, known as NF2, that causes benign tumors to grow in her brain and around her spinal cord. She was diagnosed when she was 26, and has since been examined at hospitals all over the country, received radiation treatments, and had too many MRIs to count. She’s logged nearly 40 hours on the operating table.

Maintaining balance has been a challenge since her first neurosurgery, in 1983, when she had a tumor removed from her acoustic nerve; she became deaf in one ear and her vestibular function was compromised. An active young adult, she had to give up skiing, hiking and biking. She was still able to enjoy the outdoors, snowshoeing or taking her dog, Doc, on brisk walks with only a hiking stick, or no support at all, in any kind of weather. But in 2008, another neurosurgery left her right leg paralyzed. “This was not expected,” she said. “But with a lot of work and rehab, I was able to regain most of the use of that leg. I was glad to get out of a wheelchair, but recovery was not one-hundred percent. The long walks I’d loved since I was a teenager became a memory.”

Michie lost the rest of her hearing at age 39. A Southern girl, she retains a bit of a drawl. Sometimes she has trouble gauging her volume, but she’s not afraid to ask if she’s speaking too loudly or softly. Because she became deaf relatively late in life, she does not read lips and only uses sign language on occasion. Late-deafened adults “really fall through the cracks,” she said. “We’re not a part of the Deaf community, but we can’t hear our hearing friends and families, either. And since I’m still a member of the hearing community, unless the other person knows ASL, writing is easier.” Her preferred means of communication are an iPad with a remote keyboard, Skype, texts, and good old-fashioned pen and paper. She’s a great cook, loves a bracing martini, and has a wicked wit. We spend a lot of time gossiping about Portland restaurants.

I first met Michie after a Brown Bag lecture I delivered at the Portland Public Library in support of my book Glorious Slow Going, a collaboration with the painter Marguerite Robichaux. Michie told me after the talk that a profile of Marguerite I’d written some years earlier for Down East magazine was one of the reasons she decided to move from Washington, D.C., to Maine. The other reason: she’d been a fundraiser for nonprofits in D.C., and when she was no longer able to work, she began to reinvent herself.

Michie moved to Stonington, the tiny town at the southern tip of Deer Isle, bought a cottage with a view and took up painting. That rugged, isolated stretch of the coast suited her. So did being an artist. Her landscapes and still lifes started to sell. Those were some of the happiest years of her life, she recalled, and she intended to spend the rest of her days there. But she gradually lost the ability to drive. (Asked how many cars she’s smashed up, she gave me a wry grin and said, “The only reason I can laugh is because I never killed anyone.”) The winding roads and steep hills of Stonington are forbidding to those with limited mobility. So Michie sold her cottage, packed up her belongings and set her sights on Portland.

She found a cozy condo in the West End, installed grab-bars, and decorated it with her art collection, some fine antiques and a few quirky flea-market finds. She set up an easel in the middle of the dining room and settled into what she expected would be an uneventful chapter of her life.

Then one day she was, as she puts it, “plodding” down Congress Street with her walker, en route to Rite Aid, when she stopped in front of Gorham Bike and Ski. The new models in the window dazzled her. Could there be a bike for me? she wondered, then dismissed the idea as ridiculous. She was 55 and hadn’t been on a bicycle in over three decades. There was her condition to consider. And the expense. She continued on, then stopped again a few steps later and turned around. It wouldn’t hurt to ask…

Not long thereafter, with the help of a generous friend, Michie was the proud owner of a 21-speed Sun EZ Tadpole recumbent trike. So much for the uneventful chapter.

One of the first things she did after acquiring the trike was take a safety course offered by CyclingSavvy, a national organization that promotes cyclists’ rights and teaches riders the rules and responsibilities of the road. That knowledge came in handy one day in April of last year, when Michie was riding on Highland Avenue in Scarborough. There was no bike lane, and the shoulder, which was narrower than her 36-inch-wide trike, was sandy and obstructed by recycling bins. “No way was I going to ride in that mess,” she said. “I was using the right portion of the travel lane. Cars had to pass me carefully, and a few did. No big deal.”

But to one Scarborough cop, it was a big deal. He drove up alongside Michie and yelled at her out the passenger window of his cruiser. When this proved ineffective, he pulled ahead and parked in the middle of the travel lane, lights flashing, got out of the cruiser and ran back to her, continuing to shout even after she told him she was deaf and couldn’t understand what he was saying. “Through pointing and gestures, he made it clear I was supposed to be riding in the shoulder lane, and that no part of my trike should be in the travel lane,” she recalled. “I told him, no, that was not correct, and that I had a legal right to use the roadway. Thanks to CyclingSavvy, I knew what I was talking about.”

She paused at this point in the story, then added, “Did I ever ask him to write a note to me instead of assuming I could read his lips? Nope. And I should have, but by that point I was angry, too. In his defense, he probably was concerned for my safety, and that may well have been the reason he pulled me over. But we were getting nowhere.”

Michie turned this aggravating incident into an opportunity to educate the police. With input from advocates at the Bicycle Coalition of Maine and the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, she wrote a five-page letter citing state laws pertaining to cyclists and roadways, and mailed it to Scarborough Police Chief Robert Moulton. This led to a constructive meeting between the advocates and the chief. Michie was later given the chance to address the police department’s staff; she discussed ways to identify hearing-impaired people and communicate with them effectively.

Still, education only goes so far. After much reflection on what happened that day, Michie decided to display the deaf-cyclist sign on her trike. She knows it could make her a target, but feels it’s important enough to warrant the risk.

The Bicycle Coalition thought Michie’s story would be an important addition to their educational program. They asked her to speak at their booth during the Common Ground Fair last year. That’s how Michie and I became friends. She discovered that I do private speech coaching, and we met several times over the course of a couple months. Most of my clients need help becoming confident speaking in front of an audience. Not Michie. She was assured in her message and comfortable talking about her disability. She just needed some delivery tips.

Our communication was a little awkward at first. We’d sit at her dining room table, keyboard in front of me, screen in front of her, and she’d read what I’d write, then respond. The awkwardness was caused by the fact that, though I make my living writing on a computer, I can neither type nor spell well — and do even worse when I can’t see what’s on the screen. So I’d flail away at the keyboard and she’d untangle my mess of letters. Michie recently told me she’s gotten good at deciphering my mangled messages. One night while having drinks at El Rayo, I apologized after my first margarita: “I’m slurring my keys,” I wrote. She grinned a bit dismissively and replied with her drawl, “You always slur your keys.”

Michie has since upgraded from the Tadpole to a red Inspired Cycle Engineering (ICE) trike, which she nicknamed Ruby. She’s put hundreds of miles on the machine. A 30-mile trek is not unusual for her, but there have been mishaps, like the time she was cycling in Falmouth and needed to use a restroom. She pulled up to a school, and as she prepared to get off the trike, she discovered that one of her two legs braces, which she stows in the baskets behind her seat, was missing. Her bladder would have to wait.

She backtracked along Route 1 to look for the brace, but it was nowhere to be found. She didn’t want to stop searching — the braces are quite expensive —but nature was calling. So she decided to continue on to Portland Foot and Ankle, on Marginal Way, in hopes they’d have a brace she could use until a new one could be ordered and delivered.

She’d made it as far as the Back Cove Trail when she felt the thump thump thump all cyclists dread: a flat. “Oh, great,” she recounted. “Can’t cycle. Can’t walk. Can’t hear. And can’t make a phone call.” She used her iPhone to e-mail Gorham Bike and Ski, but had no idea when her message would be read, so she texted a friend in Stonington to ask him to call the bike shop. Then she waited.

A number of cyclists and pedestrians passed without asking if she needed assistance, but she told me she wasn’t keen to hand her iPhone to a stranger, anyway. Eventually an older gentleman stopped and used his own phone to call the shop. Soon Fred Robie, from Gorham Bike and Ski, came to the rescue in his pickup truck. And the next day, the gentleman who’d called Robie found her brace on the bridge between Martin’s Point and Falmouth and took it to the bike shop for her to retrieve.

I’ve heard this story several times — it was part of the talk she delivered at Common Ground — but the cool optimism Michie maintained throughout the ordeal impresses me every time. As someone who has a meltdown at the slightest inconvenience — road construction, a line at the gas station, trouble finding a parking space — I can’t imagine how I would deal with so many challenges with such good humor.

Michie can laugh the whole thing off because the story has a happy ending, but also because she has an abundance of courage. I didn’t appreciate just how fearless she is until we took to the streets together and I triked a mile in her shoes.

We are traffic

I ride my bike around town quite a lot, and I’m pretty comfortable navigating the busy streets of Portland, but I take some things for granted. Perched atop my bicycle seat, I’m visible to drivers. Riders of recumbent cycles are much less so. And, of course, I can hear. When I asked Michie via e-mail why riding in the city doesn’t make her nervous, she responded: “The secret to my ‘fearlessness’ is that I don’t hear the big trucks, buses and angry honks. :-)”

I arranged to take a ride around Portland with Michie to better understand her experience on the road. We met at her condo. It was one of those brilliant autumn days — crazy blue sky, trees a-blazing, just enough sun to allow you to shed a layer or two. She was wearing her bike gear: Spandex shorts and a DayGlo vest.

Until this past summer, I’d been beating around town for years on an ancient mountain bike with two broken spokes, iffy brakes and slow, nubby tires. I’d been looking for a replacement, but couldn’t decide on one. “You absolutely should not be riding an unsafe bike,” Michie had scolded me. She loaned me the two-wheeler she uses as a spinning bike during the winter, and I’ve been riding it ever since.

Before leaving her condo, she turned to me and said, “I am the one who will control the travel lane. Is that OK with you?” Yes, it was.

She grabbed a bag of gear and her walking poles, locked her door, and we took the elevator to the basement, where we made our way down a whitewashed corridor, past padlocked storage units and a row of bikes. She heaved open the large metal service door that leads outside and propped it with a cinder block. Then she turned the tumblers of her unit’s combination lock with not-so-nimble fingers and opened that door. Next, she stowed her walking poles in a long plastic tube (a repurposed art mailer) mounted on the back of the trike and slowly backed the thing out. It barely clears the width of the storage unit’s door. She secured her water bottle and put on her gloves.

Then came the trick of getting the trike out the service door. There’s not much clearance here, either, so this part of the routine requires lots of small turns. A more able-bodied person could just grab the frame and shove the cycle in the right direction. For Michie, it’s not that easy. Like so many little things in her life, it requires great patience. And once the trike clears the door, there’s the matter of pushing it up a steep ramp. She grabbed a railing with one hand and leaned into the trike with her body, leveraging all the weight she’s got, while I stood by feeling guilty. Though she sometimes gets assistance from neighbors, we had agreed that, save for one last push at the top of the ramp, I would not help today. I wanted to witness what she has to go through just to get ready to ride.

When it was finally up and out, she set the trike’s brake and announced, “We now need to do the shoe operation.” First, her plastic leg braces came off, then her Tevas, all of which went into the gear bag stowed behind the seat. She carefully lowered herself onto the seat, put on bike shoes and slid them into clips on the pedals. The helmet came next, then sunglasses. Rearview mirrors adjusted, she was ready to go.

Michie said it takes her about a half hour to get on the road. For me, it’s the time it takes to snap my helmet strap and open the garage door.

“Commuter Parking,” digital painting, Michie O’Day, 2013

Our trip began on the lovely, flat, wide streets of the West End. I followed at her right flank, where I stayed for the duration of the ride. She did indeed control the lane, allowing ample space between her trike and parked cars. Passing vehicles gently glided by. There was plenty of room for everyone.

I followed her down Vaughan Street, through the tricky, steep intersection of Congress Street and Deering and Cumberland Avenues, and we made a quick right onto Cumberland. Traffic was brisker here, the lanes narrower, the presence of parked cars more challenging, but when we had to ride in the middle of the travel lane, cars slowly swerved around us. We got to the light at State Street just as it was turning red, and waited it out. When we approached High Street, the lights were red for oncoming traffic and the crosswalk signal was flashing with well over 10 seconds to go. Michie slowed and came to a stop. Not thinking, I gestured toward the signal — a quick scoot and we could make it. She didn’t budge. Maybe she hadn’t noticed, I thought.

Of course, she had, but High Street is four lanes wide. She later told me she never risks getting caught in intersections. For Michie, there is no scooting. So we waited. A scruffy guy standing on the corner called out to her, “Nice ride!” I was about to tell him she couldn’t hear, but having seen him, Michie smiled and nodded. She’s used to the attention her trike gets on these streets.

We reached Portland High just as school was letting out. Traffic was a mess — cars pulled over at various angles, kids darting everywhere — but Michie handled it all with aplomb. She weaved around the jaywalking students and gave herself a healthy three-foot clearance between the stopped cars. We attracted another admirer as we waited to cross Franklin Street: a gawky, freckle-faced boy with braces. He was standing in front of us and kept sneaking sidelong glances behind. “Pretty cool bike, eh?” I said. He grinned. Michie smiled and nodded again, like royalty.

Things got tighter as we proceeded east. All the parked cars forced us to use the full lane from Franklin to Washington Avenue. We were averaging five-to-eight miles per hour, but not once did anyone display impatience — no honking, no swerving, no shaking fists or flipping the bird, behavior that’s common under ordinary downtown driving conditions. Michie waved a quick thanks when warranted, but was not dripping in gratitude. After all, we had as much legal right to the lane as drivers do. (In her cheekier moments, Michie sports a t-shirt that reads: MAY USE FULL LANE. GET OVER IT.)

We took a left on Washington and a right onto Eastern Promenade, where an S-curve leads to Loring Memorial Park. The slope is fairly steep. I stayed behind Michie as she gave her granny gears a workout. We were moving at three miles per hour, which, on an upright bike, is almost like not moving. It was hard not to tip over, but I stayed at her flank. When we reached the crest, we took a breather.

“I miss listening to music,” Michie said, looking out over Casco Bay, “but I’ve got a whole jukebox right up here.” She tapped her helmet. Today’s song? “Ticket to Ride.” I told her I often get an earworm (a tune that gets stuck in your head) when I hike, most recently “Waltzing Matilda.” She looked at me in silence for a moment, said, “Too smaltzy for me,” and pedaled off.

We took the East End Trail and zig-zagged through the Old Port back to Congress. As we crossed the intersection by the library, two office workers on a smoke break took an extended look at Michie’s trike; one woman turned to the other and remarked, “Well, isn’t that convenient?”

When we got back to her condo, Michie suggested I take the trike for a spin, just to get a feel for it. I didn’t want to leave her waiting outside — there was nowhere nearby to sit — but she grabbed her walking poles, leaned up against a car and urged me away. Well, OK. Maybe just around the block…

The trike took some getting used to — the brakes and gears and steering mechanism are touchy — but soon I was sailing along like a pro (outwardly composed, inwardly screaming Weeeee!). To get a real feel for city triking, I headed back to Congress Street and hung a left toward Deering Ave. So far, so good. At the intersection, I prepared to take another left up to Vaughan and waited for the light to change. I was feeling a little vulnerable down there beneath the windows of all the cars and trucks around me, but otherwise doing OK.

Then I heard sirens.

Not this way, please, I thought, but sure enough, a fire truck and ambulance were approaching from behind. There was nowhere for me to go, so I stayed put. The emergency vehicles passed so closely on my left that I felt their breeze on my face.

When I got the chance to turn, I upshifted instead of downshifting into an easier gear to climb the slight grade ahead. I couldn’t push the pedals or figure out how to get back into the gear I needed without risking stripping them. I sensed the vehicles behind me, but the oncoming traffic left no room for them to pass. So I panicked. I dismounted as quickly as I could and hoisted the trike up onto the sidewalk. A coward’s escape? A know-nothing’s retreat? I don’t know. But it suddenly felt like I’d been riding a really long time.

When I got back, Michie was right where I’d left her, soaking up the sun. Soon we’d be sitting at her dining room table, drinking ice-cold Allagash Whites and recounting our ride. But first we had to repeat all the steps that got us on the road: down the ramp, through the service door, gear off and stored, trike into storage, walking poles out, doors shut and locked, hobble down the long corridor, up the elevator.

Isn’t that convenient?

Michie said that any day she can ride her trike is a good day, and she does so most of the year. She continues to advocate for safe cycling — designated bike lanes, clear signs and road markings, more education for cyclists and drivers — and also wants more attention paid to access. For example, the bollards that block vehicles from traveling on the Eastern Trail, which runs through Scarborough Marsh, are too close together for her trike to pass. On a recent ride, her companion had to lift the trike over the posts so she could continue. “Otherwise,” she said, “I would’ve had to turn around and go back home.”

Michie splits her time these days between riding and painting. Since her move to Portland, she’s lost some manual dexterity. It became more difficult to manipulate brushes, so Michie packed up her easel and oils and took up digital painting. She’s having a ball with it. Her first digital work depicted a detail from Harbor Fish Market’s storefront. “That’s a New Yorker cover,” she proudly said when she finished it. (She will just as proudly show you the rejection letter the magazine sent.)

“For years, I’ve said, ‘When I’m painting, I’m not deaf,’” she told me. “Now I can add, ‘When I’m cycling, I’m not disabled.’ When I’m cycling, I’m free.”


To see more of Michie’s artwork, visit michieoday.com.