It is a clich, a commonplace: You don't know a person's life until you've walked a mile in his or her shoes. In my six weeks of getting about on crutches, with a broken foot, my long-held awareness of how easy it is to be perceived as different - in my previous experience, by doing or saying something unconventional or out of the mainstream - is confirmed. This time, though, the difference is of a physical nature, something that I can't, for the moment, alter.
Getting around is difficult on everything from a large to the smallest scale. With both hands occupied with crutches, carrying anything is a nearly impossible task. The four blocks to the subway now constitute a major excursion that leaves me exhausted, my previously underused arm muscles close to giving out.
And I learn some new facts about the underside of urban life - for example, that homeless people use the subway elevators as public urinals. Most mornings and evenings, the elevator's black rubber floor is an assault on the senses.
Getting around in this condition, I become aware of certain contradictions, both internal and external. I had thought that, in large cities, there is no longer such a thing as community. But complete strangers engage me, asking about my injury. I realize that I've become public property, just as pregnant women, whose stomachs strangers touch, often feel themselves to be.
At the same time, I often feel isolated and overlooked. When I enter a crowded subway car, people mostly ignore me, rarely offering a seat. Some, their faces buried in a book or newspaper, don't look up. Others look straight at me, but make no move to offer me their seat or otherwise accommodate me.
When I look back, however, I can discern my own unknowingness and guilty selfishness. In a city I used to live in, anxious to save the few minutes required by taking the escalator, I often got on the subway elevator even though a sign clearly stated that it was for those with special needs. Everyone else is doing it, I thought. Will it really help if I alone desist?
Another internal contradiction: While my empathy for the disabled and otherwise marginalized has increased, and I am reminded, as I so often am, how little it takes to cross the line from one world into the other, I also want to set myself apart from that group of people. I am afraid of being perceived as a freak, marginalized in some Darwinian kind of way, placed apart from the world of able-bodied people who move quickly, easily, and efficiently through the world, accomplishing things, looking normal, and blending in.
I'm acutely aware that I'm seen as different. When I pass someone on the street, their eyes travel down my body to locate the problem, then back up to my eyes; when they see me looking at them, they avert their gaze. Small children point at me and ask their parents to explain.
Fear of being marginalized is increased by the notice that street people now take of me. On a street near my office, a heavy, middle-aged woman with stringy hair sits on an upside-down crate against a storefront and begs for money.
When I pass her, she notices me immediately.
"What happened, honey? How 'ya doin'?" she calls out loudly.
Do those on the street relate to me because many of them are also disabled, either physically or mentally? Or do they more generally see me as one of them, one of the downtrodden, the disadvantaged, dependent on others' goodwill to get along?
As my foot heals, so the experiences of these weeks will change my old self. Will my awareness of an injury healed make me feel vulnerable, conscious of the ease of sustaining harm? Or will the knowledge of healing make me feel strong and resilient? Both, I suspect. The contradictions - the layering and shifting of different identities within both oneself and the larger world - remain.
*Susan B. Kaplan is a Boston lawyer and writer.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society