Elizabeth Lanteigne sucks at a straw in a plastic cup. "Jim Beam and ginger ale," she says. "It's for my arthritis. My doctor says it's okay." Every blood vessel and bone in her pale right hand is visible through her skin. She is 86 years old, but since retiring from her job as a clerical supervisor at the Juvenile Justice Center in 1982, she has returned to the office three times to work on special projects. These days three compression fractures, which doctors discovered in her spine February 19, keep her bedridden. Although she cannot prove it, Lanteigne says she suspects her vertebrae were damaged during an incident eight years ago, when she was knocked unconscious while riding a county bus. She puts down the cup on her bedside table. A cane leans against the table and a metal walker lies on the floor nearby. "My husband was French, and he called me 'ma chérie,' but I'm a tough old horse. I've worked with pain for years."
Like many elderly people, Lanteigne has had a difficult time on public transport. She has been attacked, insulted, thrown, jostled, and trapped. But like very few others, she has fought back. Not only did she recently win a $35,000 settlement in a lawsuit against the county that resulted from an accident in a public elevator, but the transit agency on February 25 also agreed to change its train-alarm systems after she complained. Lanteigne had said security officers failed to respond when a fellow passenger injured her. Following other complaints by Lanteigne, the county has cleaned up and told drivers to shut up while on the road.
Over the years Lanteigne has alternately praised, chided, and cajoled county bureaucrats. Her correspondence shows her tenacity and wit. It is a lesson to younger folks. In a July 1995 missive to Metro-Dade Transit, Lanteigne wrote, "I have always commented on the cleanliness of the station; conditions have been deteriorating." She went on to describe a urine spill, blood-tinged trash, and a sickening stench in one of the Brownsville Metrorail station's elevators. Metro-Dade's Facilities Maintenance Chief Roberto Aleman responded with an apology. In August 1995 Lanteigne wrote back to congratulate the transit authority for a fine cleaning job. Then, in September of the same year, Lanteigne penned a third message complaining about deep puddles of water on a station platform. "Here I go again," she began. "If there was a broom handy today I would have swept the water on to the rail." Before the end of the month, Aleman had sent a reply with a promise to repair the leaky roof.
On May 22, 1996, Lanteigne had an accident while riding in a Brownsville station elevator. County files include no letters about this incident, but she describes it thus: "I got on and everything was fine, but after the doors opened and I started to step out, the elevator suddenly dropped down a few inches and I went sprawling." Lanteigne raises her right hand to her face, lifting a strand of her thinning gray hair, indicating a patch of shiny, too-smooth skin on her forehead. "Can you see it?" she asks. The fall lacerated her forehead, she asserts. The wound became infected, requiring surgery. Lanteigne sued, but not before writing Metro-Dade Transit on another matter in December 1997. This time Lanteigne was peeved by out-of-service minibuses parked in handicapped spaces at the Dadeland South Metrorail station. She received a response by mid-January. The vehicles were moved. In August 1998 Lanteigne filed suit against the county over the elevator mishap. "If only they would have paid for my glasses -- they were new -- I would have left them alone," she says. (The suit was settled recently, with the county and two security firms agreeing to pay Lanteigne for her trouble.)
In late July 1999, shortly after the transit agency introduced its low-rider buses, ostensibly intended to be handicap- and elderly-friendly, Lanteigne sent a review. "I hope the designer of this monstrosity is made to endure a very long ride," she wrote, displeased with the absence of convenient support poles in the buses' interiors. She also complained the new buses jerk excessively while moving. She displays photographs of the buses' interiors, indicating places where support straps should be hung. "When you try to get out of your seat, there's nothing to grab hold of," Lanteigne comments. Then she shows a picture of a very healthy and robust man sitting in a seat designated for the elderly and handicapped.
Manny Palmeiro, a transit agency spokesman, protests that Lanteigne's complaints about the buses are unfair. "The low-floor bus was meant to help the elderly and the handicapped.... There are support rails and poles all over the place," he says. "There has only been one report of a bus accelerating or stopping suddenly in the month of November, the most up-to-date record we have."
Lanteigne had another unpleasant experience on October 22, 1999, at about 6:00 a.m. After boarding a bus at the Dadeland South station and greeting the regular passengers, she dozed off. She was awakened by the sound of her tote bag striking the floor. "It was filled with snacks and a coffee thermos, so it made a lot of noise," recalls Lanteigne. A man was sitting in the spot where her bag had been, and several suitcases were in the aisle in front of her. Then the man began jabbing her with his elbow. "I shouted for him to stop, then I let him have one, too," she says. Soon another female passenger stepped between the man and Lanteigne. With the woman's assistance, Lanteigne made her way to the emergency intercom to call for help. Although she pressed and pressed the button, yelling, "Car 147! Car 147," there was no connection. At the next stop, the man got off and got away.
Lanteigne's next literary campaign aimed to make the county explain why the emergency intercom failed. She wrote county transit on October 30, but says she received no answer. On December 6 she licked another envelope, this time enclosing photos of her bruised arm. Again there was no answer. She mailed a third note January 8, 2000, this time adding a warning: "Do you wish me to retain an attorney?" Still no answer. Finally on January 30, she penned a two-page epistle to Mayor Alex Penelas describing the incident, demanding an explanation, and enclosing copies of all of her previous correspondence about the matter. On February 8 the mayor informed her that a copy of her letter had been sent to the county manager. Lanteigne says she is still awaiting a reply.
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Spokesman Manny Palmeiro acknowledges there was a delay, but provides new information. He says a reply was sent on February 25, four months after the incident. In that letter, transit director Danny Alvarez explains train intercoms are inspected daily. The train operator likely failed to see the intercom light flashing on his display panel when Lanteigne pressed the button for assistance. "To avoid this situation in the future," the director wrote, "MDTA is planning to enhance the intercom system by adding an audible alarm in the train operator's cab."
Just when you think you've heard all of Lanteigne's transit blues, she comes up with another verse. On January 21 she boarded the Number Three elevator at the Brownsville Metrorail station, the doors closed, and the car began moving. Then it stopped. She was trapped. With her train due in minutes, Lanteigne began frantically pressing the red emergency intercom button. After two minutes she heard a distant voice. "Where are you?" asked the speaker. Lanteigne replied with her location. Three minutes later the doors opened. The next day she informed a transit security guard about the incident and was told the emergency intercom is wired to the downtown offices, miles from the station. Palmeiro confirms the report. "It's more efficient that way. The officer could be anywhere in the station," he says. "It's the smartest way to do it."
But it was a rough ride on a bus this past January 24 that still causes Lanteigne the most discomfort. Around 6:30 a.m., she contends, she experienced a repeat of the 1992 accident in which she injured her back. While she was riding one of the newfangled, low-rider buses, the vehicle hit a bump. Weeks later Lanteigne was in the hospital for x-rays. "After that, on Wednesday [January 26], I couldn't even put my stockings on," she says. Then Lanteigne attempts to prop herself up. She presses down on the bed with both hands. Her bespectacled face flushes red and her body trembles as she rises. Through her bifocals she squints, her hazel eyes welling up. "The back goes snap, snap, snap, and each snap is very painful," she comments.