I bought it at LexCare Pharmacy, on the corner of Lexington Avenue and East One Hundredth Street. It was the most—all right, I’ll say it—spiritual I’d felt picking out a commodity. The package boasted of WhisperFlex™ design and a SteadiGrip™ base, and said, “Easily folds & unfolds in about a second.” A free wrist strap was included. I touched its cool steel shaft, its rubberized foot. Tried to imagine how it would feel as an extension of me.
It’s not like I’d entered the pharmacy unaccompanied. The walker had come with me. Horribly squat (I was so short I’d had to buy the “demi” size), it got caught between the aisles on a hanger decked with scrunchies, causing a clatter, and the cashier glared over.
I felt I could never unbend myself enough. The cane seemed to promise that. After all, I’d stood for decades—stood up straight, with my weight going into my feet and my legs supporting me—for years. I fucking loved standing. I was twenty-eight.
Afterwards, I trundled back to the subway at 103rd. There was no elevator, which meant I’d have to fold my walker and carry it down as I clung to the banister, leaning against the grimy tiles, taking each step slowly. Somebody might help me. The faces would hold (if anything) confusion, skepticism, impatience, or pity—the mother of self-loathing.
Who wants to need help? To assist means “to second, to succor, to support, to relieve, to promote,” or “to stand with.” What I actually wanted was to stand on my own. But when something irreplaceable is almost gone—like the Amur Tiger, or rain in L.A.—an emboldening sense of doom takes over. I’d learned my walking was a finite resource; I had thirsted every day since then. On the subway ride, the cane lay folded in my lap. Screw you, I said to life. I’m going to drink up all of you I can.
The wheelchair sat in the corner of our Harlem apartment like a third roommate. The building was a walk-up, and our irksome first floor neighbor had prohibited us from leaving the chair folded up in the stairwell, calling it a fire hazard. Whenever I had to go out, my partner had to drag it down two flights of stairs and then practically carry me down as I clutched the banister and leaned hard against her shoulders.
When we’d signed the lease, before we knew I was sick, the place had seemed perfect. It was, as StreetEasy had promised, a “Pre-War Charmer.” But now that charm translated to thirty-six steep steps, a narrow hallway, and me stuck inside all day, eroding my stomach lining with handfuls of Tylenol, trying to write a dissertation while my partner worked twelve-hour days a train ride away. The morning the wheelchair had arrived—in a huge, heavy box that belied the word LIGHTWEIGHT—it had seemed to guarantee freedom.
The first time I sat in that cheap folding wheelchair, my partner took a picture. I’m in an undershirt and boxers, swollen and disheveled. There is a look on my face of relief like I used to feel when, after freezing for twenty-five minutes with grocery bags in both hands, I’d watch the bus headlights, the orangey-gold of prescription pill bottles, come hurtling out of the five o’clock Chicago dark. Deliverance.
But the world, as wheelchair users more seasoned than I could attest, is built for those who stand upright and walk on two feet. A short list of places that excluded me from access: staircases. Most subway stations. Building lobbies with only revolving doors. Neighborhood bodegas. Most of what I once called “nature.” I would not have guessed how many of those buttons bearing the stick figure man in a wheelchair were broken. Could not have imagined the phantom pain I now felt on my wheels’ behalf as the cobblestones roughed them up or the shame of delaying the whole bus so the driver could release the ramp, fold up a row of seats, and hook me to the wall with filthy straps. I never learned to ignore the stares. When it was crowded, rush hour, I’d think, Who am I to go anywhere?
The word my reduced-fare MetroCard assigned to me, DISABLED, seemed increasingly like shorthand for “takes up too much space.” And unlike wheelchair users who had spent years learning to maneuver over curb cuts, around sharp corners, and through narrow corridors, I was a klutz. One time, waiting for the bright red hand to turn into a walking white man, I rolled over a toddler’s foot. Once, at the Museum of Natural History, tourists with cameras swarmed around me, while I, flush with the display case, found myself in a staring contest with the common wombat.
Something about being at the same height as the objects for sale in shop windows sucked all the flâneur’s delight from my life. Escapist consumption, that most automatic desire of the middle-class American, was no longer an option. One time I invited a friend for a coffee and heard the barista ask her, as I strained to take my wallet out, “What does he want?” My wheelchairness, it seemed, subsumed my life experience, my mind, the fact that I was six months away from earning my PhD at a top university. The chair was a sinkhole into which each legible detail of my self disappeared, leaving only a dummy, a husk of debility.
The walker was better, on days I could manage it, mostly because of the unspoken—probably even unnoticed—distinction able-bodied people make between those who stand and those who can’t. Unlike the cheap chair, it rolled smoothly and was light to carry. It evinced from onlookers a mix of bewilderment and awkward respect. But it was also worse than the chair: it made me feel elderly, gender-dysphoric, not least because it was made for old ladies. (An ad in the SpinLife catalogue, which now arrived monthly—did they assume that, now they’d got me, I’d be a client for life?—showed a septuagenarian with coiffed bluish hair and a grin of not-her-real-teeth, who posed on a path with her walker and a sprightly bearing that announced, “There’s life in the ol’ girl yet!”) No, I longed for a cane. How many fistfuls of orange, liver-killing Methotrexate, how many self-injections of tumor necrosis factor inhibitors made from Chinese rat DNA, would progress take?
It took years and each mobility device—the wheelchair, the walker, the cane—altered not only my body, but my relationship to place. For one thing, I perceived the ground beneath me differently with each. In the chair, rough pavement shuddered my carbon steel frame; the nubbled curb cut jolted my wheel bearings. With the cane, I felt the resistance of asphalt shoot up the shaft and echo against my hand with every step. I looked back on a dirt path and saw my footprints starred with the asterisk of the cane’s three-pronged base. People perceived me differently, too. I was sick/stoic/weak/tragic/weird/awkward/brave/fake. The usual glance would flick down to my feet, up my legs and torso to my face, and then—mystified, dissatisfied, indifferent—flick away. Children in strollers englobed me in their fishbowl stares, and I felt held.
In the wheelchair or hunched over the walker, my body had hardened into a symbol. I no longer knew what it meant. But the cane was a sign I was learning to read: polysemous, multiple-meaning. As the asterisk leading my footprints attested, it was a prefix that inflected every step I took. Inflected with what? Steadfastness, security, a cool steel masculinity, weakness weaponized into capacity to attack whoever might mess with me. It sent a signal: move over, make way. It told the ground, I’m not fucking around today. It warned others I might cut an inefficient figure, like a knight in chess. It was a token of membership in the United Church of Crip, the equivalent of a cross necklace. When we walked, it made a sound like a knock on the door of the earth.
Wending our way asymmetrically down the streets of Manhattan, the blue cane and I drew commentary. “You’re too young for that, buddy!” called out a bald construction worker eating lunch. “Well, look at you, all matchy-matchy,” teased one middle-aged Black lady, struck by the fact that the cane matched my sneakers. “What’s wrong with you?” demanded a sullen preteen on the six train who resented being asked to give up his seat. “Sucks that you hurt your foot,” a new colleague offered. Said my rheumatologist, shaking his head disapprovingly, “We need you to kick that cane to the curb.” (What, I wondered, did he mean by “we”?)
Before I was disabled, I was trans, which meant I was no stranger to feeling read—vociferously, incorrectly. How many times had I untucked my shirt to hide my hips; or nodded with faux knowledge as cis guys assumed I, too, had been a Boy Scout; or dropped my voice to prevent a customer service associate from calling me “miss”? I had learned early that how an accessory looked and how it felt were not the same. Maybe that’s one reason why it took me decades to figure out that “looking pretty”—by which the women in my life meant donning makeup and a dress—made me feel dead. Likewise, the more people offered their two cents on my cane, the louder the clatter in the change drawer of my brain became. What did all this currency add up to? What about my body did I value?
Why did I love the blue cane? Was the actual object of my affection:
privilege (getting a seat on the subway; cutting the line)?
the security of the threatened (always carrying a weapon)?
a stand-in for the missing phallus?
the self-righteousness of illness?
I can’t disentangle these threads from the seamy underside of my feeling, yet they strike me as decorative, neither its warp nor its weft. To me, the blue cane is a shuttle, crossing the taut dense threads of pain with ability, stitching the one to the other inseparably. Each gesture has a texture. Some are rougher than others, and every step asks something extra: the creak of the knee joint, the stiff lifted ankle, the swing of the cane, the click it makes on the cement, the transfer of weight. The bright blue rift it slices in the day each time it lifts makes visible two sides of a contradiction, holds them in momentary suspension. Disabled/Able. Dying/Alive.
I could be both—for a good long time, I hoped. The cane was a mark of my privilege: not to be sicker. The ability, still—again—to touch the ground with my feet. It was what no lover should ever have to be: a pain absorber. It stored up an ache it could not communicate. A word, like the body, in a language nobody else spoke. Thanks to it, I held my pain outside me, chill and shiny. Carried it unuttered, like a new name.
Like a name, the blue cane stamped itself over everything. It was my gait’s enabling impurity, which stood firm with pain’s authority: simply by existing, it was true. I loved how fixed yet loose its joints felt when I collapsed them, folding the top and bottom segments against the central shaft and binding them with the elastic, catching a glimpse of the black cord within. How the chrome edges of the segments’ open ends shone with an incision’s clean margins. How, released from the strap, it sprang back to wholeness and stood on its own.
When the cane stood closed, I pictured all the landscapes it had crossed stored up inside it. The hardscrabble hill crazed with brambles, the field pocked with hog wallows, the white granite steps of the Capitol, and the sand of an island with only gulls and a translucent tarp that flapped, driftwood-trapped, like the sky’s shed skin as the tide barreled in. Damp crackle of particles under the cane’s foot where a wave had just hit. I love you, I thought towards the ground. For you I was homesick.
For a long time, it was hard for me—a sometime historian, obsessed with origins—to relinquish the premise or promise of wholeness. I had to grasp that a fixation on beginnings, an insistence on proving one’s flesh (or one’s world) were once pure, was rooted in attempts to script the future. It’s the vow of revolutions: after the violence of fracture, a new coalition. Sacrifice as down payment on salvation. My body had revolted twice: first against femaleness, then against health. With each tap of the cane on cement, I sought to feel continuous, as pain strives towards a future cure by scouring its past for a cause. I was who I am, I told myself. Tried it backwards: I am who I was.
But the cane, with its reckless blue shine, undermined the lie of the past’s restoration. It was a visible token of inward decay. (Caption under the sacroiliac joint of my spine on the x-ray: “slow erosion.”) That was continuous. That was fact. The cane let me hold it—disenchantment— outside my body, lightly. It was a knowledge I could fold up for a while and put to one side, even as each gesture kept it close. Yes, I existed painlessly once, although I can’t remember when. I won’t exist that way again.
It took three years, four rheumatologists, ninety-two prescription refills, 110 refrigerated auto-injector pens, and four-hour IV infusions every six weeks—estimated cost without insurance: $14,000 each—for me to walk unaided. In the meantime, the cane accrued damage: scratches, nicks, the wrist strap frayed, the feet worn down unevenly, the blue chipped away, exposing a visible core, encounter and scar. In its own way, it became a body.
Now, on good days, I can pass as nondisabled. I can, as trans people say, “go stealth”—meaning I have the choice to hide the history of my body. On those days, my soles are awake to the most minute changes in texture or elevation. Sometimes I catch myself lifting my wrist, as if to adjust the cane so it can cross from street to curb, from loose dirt to cement. Or else, I step and a pain shoots straight through me, a gust that sets the bones of the toes, ankles, knees, hips, and spine clanging like bells. I clutch whatever’s nearest—subway pole, park bench—and breathe like one drenched in a downpour, umbrella-less.
On bad days or on days when I anticipate tough terrain—including staircases, crowded trains, long lines—I bring the cane with me. I own my dependency. I know ability is neither totally of me nor in me. Rich in loss, I have grown poor in shame. Besides, who exists unassisted? Even the cowboy riding off into the sunset, that icon of individualism, of American (cis, male, straight, white) “freedom,” requires his horse.
Still, the world is not a place I was born knowing how to love. My sickness confirmed for me the inaccessibility of a planet whose glaciers and palaces, jungles and yurts cascaded down my phone screen’s endless feed. I watched couples dancing at weddings and raucous, shirtless boys driving a ball to the net and felt that life was not for me. Recently, on a rocky Oregon beach, my lover bore me up a steep escarpment with terrible slowness, as pain surged up my legs and tears sprang to my eyes. I can’t be here, I thought. I can’t do this. This is the last time.
“Degenerative” is the word I don’t say aloud, but it hangs over such moments like fog on that Pacific Northwest coast. Sometimes all I can see clearly is that atmosphere around me: increasing immobility and rage that, even as I stand, the minutes drain the standing from my limbs. I know I have a future in which the wheelchair waits. How can I turn my dread into momentum? Where can I siphon my pain?
The blue cane is my answer. Yes, you’re alone in your body; there’s no cure for that. Nonetheless, the world’s kaleidoscope of contexts can be touched—piecemeal, perhaps, indirectly and never for keeps—but after all, the root of attention is the Latin tendere: “to reach for,” not “to reach.” It’s how the cane cuts a swath in the air I’m about to enter, a clearing—which is to say, the silence of a feeling. I can’t love this world unless I love incurability. Unless I become a disciple of slowness, of extension that seeks for each step without forcing an ending. Grateful, as I never was for health.