by Liz Henry
It is a delight to predict what might be needed and produce it on demand, like magic, from a bag. My desire to be prepared is both for my own sake and to be impressively helpful in an unexpected way, which is no less satisfying for being loaded with gendered burdens. In The Swiss Family Robinson, a horrifying but hilarious book where every possible and impossible animal (penguins! ostriches! beavers! wallabies!) is shot on sight by a creepy family marooned on a South Pacific island, the mother of the family is always called “the mother” by the narrator, like the gross stuff you find floating in homemade kombucha, or a fantastic alien hive-queen. The cool thing about “the mother” is that she has what her family calls a magic bag. This womb-like, infinite, everlasting sack produces seeds for planting and to tame wild birds, pins and needles and thread, string, scissors, kitchen implements, other bags, and all sorts of small domestic tools which she flourishes to her husband and rambunctious children at every opportunity. Many people have pointed out the problems of women tending to carry other people’s junk, as this takes up space in your carry and in your consciousness and is all about being useful to other people while they get to be self-centered—footloose and fancy-free. True. But I have to just roll with it. My answer to “What has it got in its pockets?” is usually “A lot of junk in the trunk” because of a painfully deep love of the Magic Bag Moment, but also because of chronic pain and disability that motivates me to have everything on hand to forestall pain and disaster, which always looms.
If I lose my stuff, I can’t always count on having the energy to search for it or replace it. Age and mobility mean that I might have a wheelchair or mobility scooter and a cane, as well as two pairs of glasses. There is no possibility of gracefulness, so I may as well go for the full camper van. Since I often need help, my scooter helps me put favors in the bank, becoming shopping cart, shelf, jacket-hanger, giant purse on wheels; even sometimes entertainment for kids when I’m willing to give driving lessons. Being the magic bag can be a good part of interdependence, rather than a sucker’s game.
Carrying things has another dimension to me, the legacy of reading a lot of science fiction, of 1970s and 80s cold war nights huddled in bed imagining my post-apocalyptic survival path every time a plane flew overhead. Given that I might survive the blast radius from the nuclear weapons dropped on downtown Detroit or Houston, what things would help me survive the fall of civilization, perhaps as a scrawny, yet plucky, 10-year-old scribe? The roll of duct tape and set of lock picks in my laptop bag have their roots in the comfort of going to bed with an astronaut ballpoint pen, flashlight, and Snoopy transistor radio under my pillow. Also very helpful if your bed suddenly wafts you to a remote island, or you walk between two very old trees in a dream and are whisked through a magic portal into another universe. If you have these kinds of fears, it’s merciful common sense to assuage them.
Here’s what I carry in my vest pockets. It’s a men’s 26-pocket vest with RFID pouch, from Scottevest. This is my solution to the problem of pants pockets being less helpy than you’d want if you’re a wheelchair user. I have also tried wearing a fanny pack as a sort of jaunty bandolier, but settled on the vest, which works out very well. Its pockets are nicely various and it’s cleverly sewn to distribute the weight of pocket junk around your body rather than hanging off a single point like a badly designed bra that ruins your shoulders. However, it is not designed with boobs in mind, and the “woman” stuff Scottevest offers is like, barely anything, with a paltry amount of pockets. They are missing out on the women front. I need something that would fit on Nausicaä from the Valley of the Winds, not a vest for a 5 foot high flat chested guy. Still, pretty good, and contains:
- Retractable gel pen, Pilot Precise V5 RT, in special pen pocket!
- Duct tape wallet, tattered, includes useful CopWatch legal advice card for being a douchebag when you get arrested
- Keys, including tiny LED light, hackerspace keyfob, and Utilikey
- Emergency dollar bill for the bus
- Painkiller in a pet ID collar pouch/pill bottle
- Handkerchief (I like dainty ones with lace edges. I have hellish allergies)
- Phone, handy for bus schedules and blowing up Ingress portals
- Field notebook with graph paper, for note taking emergencies, poetry writing, or entertaining small children with cartoon drawing exchanges at dinner
My goal with my backpack is to have something as small as possible, because however big the damn backpack, I’ll fill it up like a hamster stuffs seeds in its cheek pouches. It has to fit an 11-inch Macbook Air and a power supply, and have room to stuff in some things, but not so much room that I could cram the whole world in. I also like this backpack to be built for a small person, since I’m 5’3” and a “regular sized” dude-centric backpack hangs down past my butt, and yet the backpack should not be bright pink or covered in Dora the Explorer characters. It should also have a built-in padded compartment for a laptop. Here’s what I habitually carry in my backpack:
- Paracord wrapped around the carrying handle, and a rubber-wrapped metal cable tie
- Some sort of keychains with carabiner (Things to fasten things to other things)
- A titanium spork. This comes in remarkably handy, and is comical to whip out!
- Work badge and LED flashlight (I have one with Ed Snowden’s face on it. What?!)
- Emergency money stash
- Emergency headphones in case of conference call or someone chewing loudly
- Minty gum
- Retractable pens and various sharpies
- My business card and some cards describing my mobility scooter, good for when people stop me on the street to ask details about the scooter, which happens many times a day
- Fun stickers to give to people (Firefox, GrowStuff, Anarchafeminist Hacker Hive)
- Distance-seeing glasses, because I can’t handle bifocals yet but need them
- Big notebook for to-do lists and poetry writing
- Stamped envelope with notecard in case I want to write a letter
- An EpiPen, in case I eat a walnut accidentally and need to inject myself
- Giant Anker battery charger for phone, useful for Ingress
- Little bag with spare handkerchiefs in case of serious allergy business, like if I touch something that once had pollen or dust on it and then touch my face and my face explodes like a snot volcano; I get the vintage lace hankies off eBay! No more accidentally washing Kleenexes. Handkerchiefs are great. Other people often need them so it is good to have spares!
- Tiny bag with various pills and medicine things
- Tiny bag with gadget or tech-related things
- Tiny empty folding bag for sudden grocery shopping
- Laptop charger
- Optional: wool sweater or flannel shirt, scarf, hat, and gloves
The tiny medical bag has:
- Toothpicks (I recommend Henry Petroski’s book on the history of the toothpick!)
- A tampon or two or five, depending
- Tiny container of shea butter
- Folding toothbrush and travel toothpaste
- Tiny Aquaphor (like fancier vaseline)
- Tiny Tiger Balm
- Actifed (see allergy problems)
- Benadryl (ditto)
- Earplugs in case of someone chewing nearby or a loud punk rock concert
- Allergy eyedrops
- Several kinds of painkillers, muscle relaxant, Ativan, and Tums
- Hair tie (cable tie can double for sweaty hair situations)
The tiny gadget bag contains:
- Phone charger doo-hickey and tiny phone cord
- Frankencord to charge any device
- Duct tape
- Itty bitty tweezers
- A paper clip
- Tiny four-in-one screwdriver (HP swag from some conference)
- A hair clip that has a hacksaw and a screwdriver built in
- Giant USB key that is also a bottle opener
- Mac video connector in case I emergency need to project something
- Very tiny pencils and a mini-Sharpie (Scribe power!?)
- An index card in case all other notebooks are lost and I need to write something
- Mac magnetic doohickey that lets you use new style power cords on old Macs
- TV-B-Gone in case of horrible public TVs and to make myself laugh by turning them off
- USB-powered LED flashlight, because it’s just cool
- Lockpicks, useful for feeling mildly naughty or impressing nerdy children
- Another damn Snowden light, why? You want one? I have a spare.
My main way to get around for the last year or so is a mobility scooter, a TravelScoot Jr. Deluxe. Before that, a Zip’r Scooter, which was about 95 pounds and broke often. Before that (and intermittently now) a Quickie Ti, very lightweight, nimble, and wonderful. The TravelScoot is 35 pounds, and I can take it apart and fold it up to fit into a car trunk quite easily. The lithium-ion battery is amazingly light and lasts all day. I have a pouch strapped onto the bottom of the scooter seat which always has a spare scooter battery charger cord and power brick. After cruising many bicycle and motorcycle shops I settled on a plain wire bottle/cup holder that straps around the steering column with velcro. Velcro straps and more giant rubber-coated cable ties are wrapped around the scooter frame, useful for fastening up my folding cane or repairing broken things. The scooter should have more lights on it, but doesn’t because I lost them. The TravelScoot is truly excellent, if you have good balance, can transfer and sit up independently, and your hands can both steer and squeeze a bike-style handbrake or two. It’s lightweight with only one small hub motor, but I can hang 50 pounds of groceries in 4 bags off its handlebars, in its undercarriage basket, and off the back seat, and still make it up an enormous San Francisco hill.
For times when I’ve used crutches, or with a walker or two canes, I have immediately found that carrying a drink is fucking impossible. So have a sturdy travel mug with a carabiner attached, and a cup holder on your gear. You can make great cup holders out of duct tape (which as you know, I have on me at all times). Can you just get people to carry your drink for you? No, because that is annoying and fussy and people can’t just do it without fussing. Screw that. Get a travel mug. My favorite one is an OXO kind that you don’t have to unscrew to drink out of. You push a button and drink; as usual with OXO things, good for arthritic hands.
When I’m traveling, it’s been a good idea to carry basic repair stuff for my scooter. Once I had to solder the motor controller wires in my Zip’r scooter in the Auckland airport and I was so glad I had packed a soldering iron (and extra fuses), you can’t even imagine the scene as I was determinedly stripping wires while crying like a fool in the Auckland International Terminal airport manager’s office from the ordeal of waiting an hour in the plane and then finally giving in to get into a nightmare “transport chair” and then being parked in some sort of holding pen of doom facing the wall, at which I then stole a pushable manual chair and fled the scene to the other terminal with people chasing me screaming “Miss! MISS!!!! You can’t do that!” I couldn’t do that now but I could some years ago, so I did.
It is humiliating, infuriating, and yet a point of fierce pride to steal yourself in the moments when people treat you as luggage. If you think about it, your everyday carry includes your entire body. If you have mobility problems then this becomes obvious. I inhabit my body with joy, but it is also my unwelcome baggage and a burden of clunky-legged ankle-boot pain. If I could be a spaceship instead, I would do it. The last trip I took, I didn’t bring my repair kit, and regretted it as no one in the entire of fake tourist town part of Whistler, Canada fucking owned a soldering iron and I had to rent a thing like an enormous dune buggy, which didn’t fit through most doors and could probably have taken me straight up into the mountains, skipping the whole “ski lift” step of the trip. Though, some super nice random guy from hackerspaces.org who was looking to find other hackerspace founders in Whistler came with a soldering iron to me just a day too late. (I love the Internet and recommend always carrying it with you.)
My scooter repair kit is a mini multimeter (fantastic!), the tiniest wee soldering iron, a small tube of solder, mini screwdriver, hex key, small wrench, electrical tape, and needle-nose pliers and I am bringing it to Paris next week. Wish me luck!
Liz Henry is a writer, poet, translator, and developer who lives in an earthquake shack in San Francisco with her partner and children. She enjoys bothering people in Bugzilla for a living.