The Healing Powers of the Upper West Side

I wanted to hide from people while I recovered from a broken back, but walking around my neighborhood turned out to be the best medicine

06 Dec 2019 | 10:24

When I first saw the brace I was to be confined in for a month, I passed out. The humiliation of having to wear a chunky piece of plastic around my upper body hurt nearly as much as the car accident that caused my predicament. I had broken six vertebrae in my back and one in my neck. My brace was designed to guarantee that my spine wouldn’t move. It was a hard grey material, mirroring the shell of an enormous insect. To make matters worse, there was a metal plate holding up my chin and a thick strap around my forehead to secure my head in place.

Though I wanted to hide away from all people until my brace was removed, the doctor insisted that I walk as much as possible in order to heal faster. So, the first day home from the hospital, my mother and I were determined to head out from our Upper West Side apartment. We decided our destination would be Viva La Crepe, a creperie on Columbus Avenue, a few blocks from our apartment. The prospect of leaving the safety of my home, where no prying eyes could stare at me, was absolutely terrifying. To limit the amount of contact I would have with others, I made sure we went out at night, when fewer people would be around. Over my brace, I layered a tank top, long sleeve shirt and a chunky sweater. Finally, I ventured outdoors.

An Unexpected Sense of Bravery

The walk was easier than I expected. Most of the pedestrians I passed were too absorbed in their own world to notice the girl wearing a plastic box around her torso. Those who did notice gave me the classic “look, and look away”- just to look again. However, people were generally nice about it and gave sympathetic smiles if they noticed I had caught them looking.

When I entered the creperie, I was relieved to find it empty of customers. This eliminated my biggest concern: people. Especially people I knew. Along with this, the cashier was polite and treated me as if I wasn’t wearing an enormous appendage.

Having accomplished my first walk, I was filled with a sense of bravery. My mother allowed me to splurge at Lush on Broadway, one of my favorite self-care stores. We were looking for face masks when an employee approached us. She asked my mother and me if we needed assistance.

“We were in a car accident,” my mother blurted out.

I resisted the urge to bolt out of the store and never return. I feared that the woman would become uncomfortable at my mother’s sudden declaration. I was just about to change the topic when the salesperson melted with sympathy. She asked us questions and listened to our responses with great empathy.

When it came time to pay, she stuffed our bag with free samples. She gave me hair masks, face masks and the comforting knowledge that there were genuinely good people in the world who would treat me with dignity in spite of my injury.

Compassion ... and Bubble Tea

I slowly began to realize how accepting people truly were of my brace. Not once did I hear a disrespectful remark or a rude comment. In fact, I found that others were more compassionate than ever before.

Throughout the entire time I was wearing my brace, my mother and I would always stop by Tea Magic, the bubble tea shop on West 72nd Street, during our daily walks. It was far enough away from home that it provided the daily exercise we needed, yet it wasn’t too far that we found ourselves exhausted. And we also looked forward to the delicious bubble tea, which was especially useful for cooling down on hot days. It was our favorite place to go and we went quite often. In fact, we went there so much the man who worked behind the counter memorized my order of an iced peach tea with bobas.

When my brace finally came off, my mom and I decided to return to Tea Magic one last time. It was odd walking into the store clad in a tee shirt and shorts rather than the thick brace. I looked so different, I didn’t think the counter man would recognize me. To my surprise, he did. He seemed genuinely happy for me, beaming even, that my brace was off.

At that moment, I realized how lucky I was to live in this Upper West Side neighborhood. It would have been easy for strangers to have made fun of my gear or simply ignore me altogether. Instead, I was met with absolute warmth and true goodness of character. I will always remain grateful for the decency shown to me during one of the most undignified times of my life.