Facing The Dakota, a short walk from the corner of 72nd and Central Park West in Manhattan, lies Strawberry Fields. This special section of Central Park is dedicated to the memory of The Dakota’s most beloved former occupant, John Lennon. It also happens to be the first place I ventured to on my first trip to New York City.
Strawberry Fields is a small corner of the massive expanse that is Central Park, but I could tell it is well-loved by New Yorkers and tourists alike. Near the entrance, artists and photographers set up booths to sell their wares, pictures of John Lennon mixed with images of the city that loved him so much. The main attraction in Strawberry Fields is a a circle with the word Imagine at its center, both made with mosaic tile. As I approached the landmark, a former Midwesterner looking for his big break began singing his rendition of “Strawberry Fields.” My mother and I smiled to ourselves at the coincidence. I spent a minute waiting for the crowd of sandals and strollers to clear so I could take a picture. My first picture of New York City, “Imagine” encircled in fresh roses.
As a person with cerebral palsy, I am well-acquainted with pain and fatigue. However, since turning 27, my life had become a cycle of working past the point of exhaustion, using my weekend to give my body recovery time, and waking up on Monday to repeat the cycle. I felt like something was wrong. I didn’t know what needed to be done, but I knew something needed to be done. After searching in vain for a doctor who treated adults with CP in my state, I expanded my search to the entire country. So in early June, I found myself in Manhattan.
While in New York, I received life-changing news, and I saw as many sites as my body would carry me to. I made many memories I shall cherish forever. Not many can say they saw a musical on Broadway and watched it sweep the Tony awards from their hotel room that same night. My mom left the city convinced that I need to marry into an Italian family — Italian food cart and restaurant owners were always giving us extra food. Out of all the memories I left with, what I cherished most was getting to experience what it feels like to be one among the masses, rather than an exception.
Now don’t get me wrong, I learned that the Northern version of “Bless your heart” is “God bless you,” but when compared to my interactions with people I come across at home, these double-edged blessings were few and far between. Awkward staring as I passed people in the street was nearly non-existent. New York is a feast for the eyes, ears, nose, and taste buds. Food carts were on every major corner, people were walking faster than I’d ever seen. Horns blared, subways screeched in and out of stations, riders packed themselves tighter than a can of sardines. I was serenaded with “Ain’t to Proud to Beg” by a trio of men looking for cash on the subway. The first sight I saw at Times Square was a man donning a speedo, sparkles, and a unicorn horn.
Everyone moved with purpose. Given all the distractions and the mood of being on-the-move, people approached to point me in the right direction (I was almost always going the wrong way), rather than to point out I was a different degree of normal. I loved it. I am so used to maintaining the delicate balance of educating others and advocating for myself, it was a relief to not have to launch into an explanation, or bite my tongue. For once, I saw what I felt on the inside reflected to me — normalcy.
I came to New York seeking answers and experiences I’d never forget. I left feeling validated for having questions and blessed to have had as many experiences as I could pack into two weeks. Most importantly, I left knowing I no longer need to imagine a place where I could be myself, swagger and all, without carrying invisible armor. In the immortalized words of John Lennon, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” My trip gave me renewed hope that someday, I will not have to prove my normalcy to others. For this, New York, I love you.
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Photo by contributor.