The Disabled Flâneur

This post was originally published on this site


Berlin — A few years ago, the editor of a local travel blog asked me to meet with a group of disabled women visiting Berlin and write about them. The idea may have been what troopers they were, how inspiring. I pictured a flock of chipper women careening around, a plucky and determined crew, wheels spinning in the sun. I begged off the story, saying I’d be out of town. I don’t exactly regret it — it could have easily veered into inspirational mush. But I am ashamed of my response to the women.

I had little idea then about ableism, the marginalization, typecasting and dismissal of disabled people, how unknowingly it’s learned and internalized. I also had no concept of disability culture or community.

I just didn’t want to do the story because the idea of travelers in wheelchairs hit too close to home for me. In 2000, when I was 34 and living in Washington, D.C., a neurologist there predicted that I would most likely need to use a wheelchair someday — and I wept, not only at a future of limited mobility, but at the specter in my mind’s eye of a piteous, ruined figure in a wheelchair creeping along the Georgetown sidewalks.

I have an undetermined variant of muscular dystrophy, a genetic disease that steadily strips away skeletal muscle. For a year or so I’ve used a walking cane when I leave the house and I consider staircases and most chairs, which I can’t easily get up from, my nemeses. It’s difficult to go a lot of places I used to go, at least by myself — cinema, theater, cafes, readings. My upper body has been weakening for much longer than the lower, swaths of muscle tissue entirely vanished from around my shoulders, but it’s the lower body’s decline that most poses a disruption not just to my lifestyle, but a key part of my identity.

When I first heard my diagnosis, I felt morose at the prospect of rolling the pavement seated in a wheelchair, but I did see myself navigating the streets.

I grew up in a bedroom community in New Jersey on a street without a sidewalk. But when I enrolled in college in the mid-1980s, everything changed. I went to live in the North Bronx and fell hard for gritty, glamorous New York and its sidewalks teeming with life. From the White Castles, grungy Irish bars and sneaker emporiums of Fordham Road to the graffitied subway cars rattling downtown to the record shops and women’s bookstores of the Village, the Russian groceries of Ocean Parkway, the still-debased precincts of Times Square, even the water towers crouching on rooftops like guardian pets, I loved it all. I thrilled to the pulsing young energy of the city, Catholic schoolgirls on the buses chatting in Spanish, b-boys spinning on corners, midtown assistants in pumps toting their shopping bags from Strawberry past Chock Full o’Nuts, the Automat. I happily left the suburbs behind me.

Since my 10-year fling with New York, I’ve moved coasts twice and then to Europe, walking and being smitten with cities along the way — San Francisco and Boston, D.C. and Baltimore, Tijuana, Copenhagen, London, Paris and Dar es Salaam. I melded into crowds, learned neighborhoods and rooflines and travel protocols, feeding off the energy of the urban street, with all its fumes and traffic and millions upon millions of feet attached to millions of legs. I thrilled to the art of flânerie, mucking around idly via my own feet, every walk a treasure of idiosyncrasy and intimacy. I tromped alone through Copenhagen cemeteries, communed with the yellow bones in Paris’s subterranean city of the dead, retraced the London haunts of Woolf and Yeats, hiked up Lombard Street and hopped a cable car down. After my diagnosis, I took advantage of the delayed progression of my disease to continue hoofing through cities, seeking out style and soul. But my hips moved me along ever more slowly.

Ten years after my diagnosis I moved to Berlin, a misfit city among the elegant capitals of Europe. A city that’s been through hell and back. From the depredations of the Nazis, the strafing of Allied bombs, the brutalities of the Soviet invasion, the deceptions of the East German regime, the paranoia and torture of the Stasi — the city endured crisis after crisis for 60 years and the Wall for 30. Yet Berlin is a model of resilience, reinvention, regeneration. It’s an international, creative, open city. It’s a tough city, a city that stays true to itself; two days after last December’s terrorist truck attack on one of the city’s Christmas markets, the market reopened, as undeterred Berliners turned out for holiday glitter and Glühwein.

The city’s refusal to contract in fear and loathing enabled it to welcome some 65,000 refugees in 2015. This kind of tenacious city, with the skeletal remains of the former main train station, its parks adorned with “debris hills” made of World War II rubble, its museum walls fractured by bombs and scarred by shrapnel — a city that’s been down but never out — is the best kind of city for me. If a city could be a role model, Berlin would be mine.

Berlin is flat, but in some areas curbs loom forbiddingly high, and in my part of town many shops are set up from the sidewalk by a couple of steps, some more negotiable for me than others. The more enlightened shopkeepers have installed ramps or will grab one from inside the shop for disabled customers at the doorstep.

The art of flânerie entails blending into the crowd. The disabled flâneur can’t achieve that kind of invisibility. With my ability to do the city strut far behind me, my city existence, my ability to roam the streets and haunt the cafes, is sometimes contingent upon the good citizenship of others. If I go sprawling when the tram jerks forward (which has happened) or trip over a loosened stone on an unkempt sidewalk (ditto), I need assistance from strangers. My friends and I hang out in cafes and bars where I can manage the seats. My partner is grade-A certified to pull me up from theater and restaurant chairs. Still, I miss my extended solo rambles, rare these days.

Shrinking muscle and growing fatigue have diminished my ability to do other things I once loved, like dancing, cooking, baking, even driving. It won’t keep me away from the city streets and the sweet energy that’s found there, even if someday I “walk” by dint of wheels. I find the joy in briefer outings, learning to appreciate the beauty of the collage as much as the long take.

Being disabled means finding creative ways to do what you want to do, sometimes reimagining what those things are. I suspect the disabled women travelers I declined to profile could have helped me see this. My relationship with the city shape-shifts. I reconfigure my connection to the streets. I show up with my imperfect, resilient body in the streets of Berlin, my perfect imperfect city.