The first time I ever went to New York City, I rode a bike across the Brooklyn Bridge. Something in that exercise made me realize that the city that had captured so much of my imagination for so long was just as accessible as any other place I had ever been or lived.
Even though I had seen countless movies and television shows demonstrating that New York accepts all types of folks, there was a moment in that bicycle ride that made me know it was a place that could accept me too. Ever since that day, a little part of me has been a part of that place.
Twenty years have passed since that bike ride into the city. Chance had it that in the years that immediately followed, I ended up spending a lot of time working in Manhattan and coming to feel even more a part. Since moving to Louisiana, my time there has been limited to occasional visits. So, in the week before Sandy ravaged the East Coast, my husband and I were both happy to be spending a weekend together in the Big Apple.
One week before the devastation, the weather was perfect. The air was crisp. The people were wonderful. The food terrific and the shows fantastic. Anyone who’s lived for long in south Louisiana knows the way Mother Nature can take charge and change everything.
The workshop that inspired our trip was a quirky gathering of folks from all over the world, and I knew none of them. But the general theme was such that I knew going in that most, if not all, would be my kind of people. I was not surprised to walk in for the first session and find an extra-large nametag, with the instructions, “Write your name and include an interesting detail about yourself on the nametag.”
Beside my name, I wrote the first thing that came to mind, in all caps: “LEG WRESTLING CHAMPION.”
I wore the nametag throughout the workshop. Other people had equally interesting details on theirs, and all provided a fantastic place to start a conversation. When the workshop ended, I decided to walk a couple of blocks to a nearby subway station to go back and meet my husband. I was walking alongside two other workshop participants. The more we walked, the more obvious it became that something about me was attracting much more attention than the two folks I was walking beside.
I’ve always found New York to be a friendly place but couldn’t figure out why so many people were speaking to me. Hawkers were trying to sell specifically to me. People were looking.
When my two new friends and I parted ways, I was still confused. I kept walking and the looks, greetings, and sales attempts kept coming. It was good natured, but intense, and I had never experienced anything quite like it.
As I reached the stairs going down to the subway, I glanced down. In doing so, I noticed the giant white sticker on my sweater.
“JAN – LEG WRESTLING CHAMPION”
In horror, I quickly peeled the nametag off and entered the subway, much more anonymous but feeling even more certain that New York accepts every one.
(In the weeks since, along with many of you, I’ve empathized with the people of New York and New Jersey as they struggle to recover from Sandy. Understanding what they’re going through and having just been there to see the city in such fine shape is a powerful reminder of our shared humanity no matter where we live.)