We recognize each other by our signs: a rubber-tipped cane, an orthotic boot, a slight but observable hitch in the gait. Our eyes meet briefly, maybe long enough to swap a "been there, doing that" glance. Sometimes, if the light is red or the pedestrian traffic sparse, we tell one another our stories.
"Tore my ACL! How 'bout you?" calls the lean, dreadlocked bicycle messenger on South 17th Street.
"Need to get two knee replacements. Not looking forward to it," says the 60-something woman as she plugs her parking meter.
"Accident. Ruined my right leg." That's the paunchy man on Ventnor Avenue. He hikes his pant cuff to show me the evidence.
I never knew there were so many walking wounded.
For nearly two decades, I've lived in a neighborhood where I can do most errands on foot. Over the years, I've earned a kind of local notoriety as the "woman who walks," a power-ambulator so brisk and purposeful that I often don't recognize a friend coming toward me or hear a familiar voice calling from a passing car. I'm mission-driven, ticking off tasks—post office, bank, food co-op, Staples—while composing menus or lesson plans in my head.
Then, early this summer, I fell (from a loft bed, onto hardwood) and cracked my kneecap into two rough pieces that had to be whip-stitched (in Krackow fashion, if that sort of surgical detail interests you) back together. My doctor released me into the world with a brace, a pair of crutches and a prescription for oxycodone.
That brace—an ankle-to-crotch immobilizer of black foam straps, Velcro closures and vertical stiffening rods, with half-moon-shaped hinges bracketing my swollen knee—broadcast my injury to anyone who glanced my way. "Um … black goes with everything?" a friend offered, side-eyeing the thing as it vanished under my skirt.
My crutches completed the tableau of brokenness. "No more stealth entrances," I joked as I butt-bumped from the second floor to the living room, a timpani of aluminum tubing, my computer-laden backpack thudding on each wooden step.
There was no way to conceal my crutches or—especially in summer, with short dresses and loose shorts—to smother my brace. So I did the opposite: I tricked them out flamboyantly, wrapping the verticals with bright duct tape. One friend bought me a neoprene pouch to hang from the underarm crosspiece; another donated a miniature disco ball to dangle from the hand grip.
My teenaged daughter's friend pronounced them "the dopest crutches on the block." My daughter herself cringed: "Ama, can't you at least take off the disco ball when we go out?" (Translation: Could you maybe, please, just for tonight, try to advertise your injury a little less?)
Had she forgotten about the eye patch? When she was 4, her pediatrician diagnosed amblyopia and prescribed a low-tech fix: a cloth patch that slipped over her glasses, shielding the strong eye and forcing the weaker one to do the work. We ordered a couple of the patches: purple with embroidered hearts, pink with a butterfly. When I pulled them from the envelope, I took a hard breath. They looked saucer-sized, big enough to occlude a quarter of my child's elfin face. She might as well hoist a neon sign announcing "Ambylopia!"
People stared. People flinched. People asked a lot of questions: "What happened to her?" "Is she OK?" And once, from a plucky 5-year-old at a Denver playground, "Does she even have another eye under there?"
I feared the patch might make my daughter unapproachable. But it was the opposite; her disability invited curiosity and closeness. "Did you know I wore a patch?" my favorite uncle confided at a family dinner. My mother-in-law, it turned out, had had amblyopia as a child. At the co-op, a neighbor pointed to her lanky daughter. "Yup. Patched for five years. Perfect vision, now."
Sasha's patch breached gaps of language and culture; when we traveled to Mexico and she twirled down Calle de los Cocos in her size-three sandals and mariposa eye shield, old women smiled and nodded and told us the words: "Ojo flojo," so much more musical than "lazy eye."
We were The Americans, with our gringa accents and our wallets full of pesos. But our daughter's frailty rendered us human. It made us kin. We, too, had missing pieces, eggshell spots that called for extra care. Vulnerability is an invitation. It's the opposite, a force field of self-containment, that keeps a crowd at bay.
My brace and crutches slowed me down and opened me up. Everything took effort: putting on underwear, fetching the newspaper, descending the porch steps. I crutched uphill and crossed Germantown Avenue, trying not to sink a rubber tip into the trolley rails or wedge it between cobblestones. I stopped to breathe, to wipe my damp neck, to ask for help with heavy doors. I met strangers' eyes. I said hello.
In Jewish tradition, when an immediate family member dies, the mourners wear a ripped black ribbon for the first thirty days. It's the externalization of a broken heart. But it's also a semaphore, a kind of "fragile; handle with care" sign, letting others know to treat you tenderly, to understand if you're snappish or anxious or suddenly overcome with tears.
My mother kept her ribbon on for months. And now, two and a half years after my father's death, she wears his platinum wedding band on a chain around her neck, visual shorthand for those in the know. "When did you lose your husband?" a woman will ask gently. My mother's story fills the space between them.
Without my brace, I'd never have learned about the neighbor who shattered her ankle while holding her 10-month-old or how she managed to cushion the baby as she fell. I'd never have guessed that the shopper behind me at the co-op had crushed both legs in a car accident a quarter-century ago. I might not have noticed the constellation of pale scars on my housemate's knee, nor heard how she worked her way back to agility and strength.
It's our frailty that binds us, more than age or race or class. We are bodies, first. We are bodies, in the end. Breakable (always), fixable (mostly), patched and propped, limping our iambic gait—ka-THUNK, ka-THUNK—a beat that mimes our hearts as they plug away in their tenacious, fragile huts of bone.