When I was fresh in New York, a friend who witnessed my openness on the streets said, “You’re a weirdo magnet.” He was right. The people in the worst psychic pain, the horniest and kinkiest, the loneliest — if any troubled souls were near, they found me. Over time, I learned to move with demonic speed and focus, sporting a no-time-for-nonsense expression. But lately, I’ve slowed way down because of broken bones, weeks on crutches, and now, a cane. Once again, strangers are talking to me.
The years between openness, speed, and now a civilized pace, have altered whose radar for me is activated. At the health food store, where one of my crutches crashed against a mom’s leg, she picked it up and said, “Don’t worry, I’ve been there and those things have a mind of their own.” Two minutes later, as I came hopping around a corner, a yogic senior stopped in shock at the sight of me and she said, “Oh, you poor thing!” I know she meant to be sympathetic, but for the record, I prefer encouragement over pity.
Carrying bags on poles is a bad combination, and has lead to depending on the kindness of strangers. The first one was in the stationery store where I receive my packages. In a slight Irish accent, a woman said, “I insist on carrying that bag for you.” She walked me home, opened both outside doors with my keys, got in the elevator, and came inside to place the package where it could be managed. In the few minutes we spent together, she described her own broken leg, the titanium, the twinges in cold weather, being unable to work during six months of recovery, going down stairs on her rear in the snow and the humiliation of looking like she wet her pants. She lived in New Jersey and until that very day, had not been to the city in over thirty years. I felt like I should invite her for a cup of tea, but opted for profuse thanks and getting my feet elevated.
I tried to maintain independence and at least choose my own produce, but now, everything is delivered. This attachment melted away on a really hot day. A man about my age asked if I needed help to my apartment. Even though I was carrying two bags, sweating, struggling, not to mention in pain, I said, “ I’m good, thank you,” all the while thinking, “Ugh, leave me alone.”
As I lurched away from him, he called to my back “What are you doing for exercise?”
I stopped and leaned on a fence. “Physical therapy.”
“You know what’s best? Swimming.”
“I’ll swim when I get back to the gym.”
“Which gym? The Y on Carmine? That’s where I go. Let’s swim together,” he said with a gummy smile.
“I belong to Printing House,” I answered without thinking.
Grimacing like he’d tasted something rotten, he said, “Try the Y, it’s about fifty bucks a year. Those corporate bastards that bought the Printing House gym will cripple you if you let them. Here, gimme those bags.”
“Thanks, I’m almost home,” I said, on the verge of collapse.
Fifty feet closer to my apartment at a red light, another guy came up to me. This one said, timidly, “I’m in physical therapy right now, and I just want you to know that you will get better.”
Daily, there’s another encounter. On Hudson Street, a neat, thin, dark skinned man stopped all pedestrians coming toward me with outspread arms so I could get through a narrow stretch. When I thanked him, in an embittered tone that didn’t match his actions or words, he said, “There are still some nice people on this planet.”
The sight of crutches can part the masses — “Lady comin’ through and lookin’ good on crutches” — but at times they make no impression. On my behalf and much to my embarrassment, my aunt got angry at a flock of oblivious teenagers blocking the sidewalk. I will admit to pointing with a crutch, and to hailing a cab, too. But I really try to use these devices for support only, because deep inside, there might live a crotchety old woman whose company I would not enjoy.
This personal challenge is big enough to know that aside from the commitment to healing like a pro, in an examined life, there is still plenty to uncover. But one thing certain is, just when I began to consider whether or not it was time to leave New York, by the disablement of the old speed demon, I’ve fallen back in love with the City and its unstoppable array of humanity.