I met Shauna Janssen this summer at Encuentro in Montréal. The working group I was in, Performing Disability, pointed out, quite loudly, that one of the spaces chosen by Encuentro was physically inaccessible. Shauna was one of the people responsible for the organization, and she showed a genuine interest in the work of the Performing Disability working group. We exchanged a couple of emails but we didn’t have the occasion to meet up after Encuentro.
As I wheeled in one building on the New York University campus for the first time, I ran into her. When you meet someone from the same place as you in another city, let alone in another country, you already have something in common: neither of you is at home. Seeing familiar faces, even when they are not that familiar, is great. We chatted a bit and agreed that we would try to hang out in New York during the weekend.
Two days later, Shauna invited me to visit the 9/11 Memorial with her. A lot of her work has to do with cities and the construction of sites of memory. I accepted her invitation, as that kind of visit would surely be more interesting in her company.
We agreed to meet at the intersection of Greenwich and Fulton at 1pm.
As I approach the site where I am supposed to meet Shauna, I lose my Internet connection. Google maps is extremely slow and indicates that Greenwhich and Fulton do not cross each other. Oops. I have an idea of where the 9/11 memorial is located. The new World Trade Center, the fourth tallest skyscraper in the world, is a hard landmark to miss. I text Shauna to tell her where I am, but my phone won’t send it. My cellular connection is also gone. I wheel by a city map and I stop to take a look since Google maps doesn’t work. I take a photo with my phone, thinking that this map could be useful later.
A few minutes later, I get to Versey and West Broadway. I wait for a good 10 minutes, still unable to send texts. Here am I, in one of the busiest and wealthiest financial districts in the world, and it’s just as if I was in a remote area.
I try to be as visible as possible so Shauna can see me easily. There are a lot of people, a mix of workers and tourists. My eyes try to scan Shauna’s face through the crowd. She has a better chance to locate me – my toxic green wheelchair helps, and yes, “toxic green” is the official name of the colour of my wheelchair. (Wheelchair companies are not known for their creativity. When they propose something a bit more audacious, I like to encourage them.)
There is still a lot of construction in the area, more than 13 years after the destruction of the World Trade Center. A few meters from me stand two soldiers on duty. There are many police officers too. It is definitely not the best place to relax in New York.
My phone finally sends out my text and Shauna answers saying she will come meet me where I am. My eyes can take a break from scanning the crowd. I look up to the top of the new World Trade Center. The sky is a perfect blue. A passenger jet flies behind the tower, which obviously makes me think about the images I have seen thousands of times on television. Thousands of times, or maybe even more.
Shauna and I finally make eye contact through the crowd. Soon we are on our way to the memorial, which consists of two square pools where the Twin Towers once stood. As we approach the first one, I hear the sound of water but I can’t see where it is coming from. The names of the people who died on the site are inscribed on the parapets surrounding the waterfalls. From my perspective, all I can see is the parapets.
Shauna takes a picture with her phone to show me what it looks like. At the same moment, a police guard approaches us. For a second, I thought we had done something wrong. Maybe we aren’t allowed to take pictures? But it turns out that the police officer is just nice. He tells me that I will have a better view from the corner of the pool. We thank him and follow his suggestion.
He’s right. I can see something from here. I don’t get to have the full view but I see something. I still have a better view of the parapets, which most people don’t seem to pay too much attention to. The waterfalls are more spectacular.
Shauna and I talk about the memorial and other things as we walk/wheel through the site. We decide to go have lunch together. We’re going to walk north and find something on the way. Navigating New York’s sidewalks feels a bit easier already. It’s been only a week since I arrived and I think I have started to overcome my shock at noticing the lack of accessible curbcuts at many intersections. It now feels a bit more familiar. I try to avoid these situations by memorizing the places I can’t go, although I am aware that my brain can only memorize so many. I haven’t been in this part of the city yet so Shauna and I are discovering it together.
As we talk, we are constantly looking out for the curbcuts as well as for wheelchair-accessible restaurants. Shauna points out that many restaurants are not accessible, which is true. From my perspective as a wheelchair user living in Montréal, I feel like finding a wheelchair-accessible restaurant is easier in New York. I guess I am just so hungry for access that as soon as I see something a little bit better, I get excited.
When both of our stomachs suddenly require us to stop somewhere, Shauna suggests a Chinese restaurant she went to a few days ago. It happens to be accessible. As soon as we sit at a table, a waitress comes to give us our menus. A few seconds later, she is already ready to take our orders. We haven’t decided on what we will eat and it seems to bother her, so we make our choices as quickly as possible.
As we are waiting for our food, Shauna asks me “Do you love Montréal?” She knows that I will be conducting interviews with disabled people and asking them to talk about their sense of belonging in their city, so it makes perfect sense for her to ask me that. Not many people have asked me that question before. “I can’t say yes. And it’s hard to say no,” I reply. This is the most honest and heartfelt answer I can give her. I return the question. She loves Montréal. She left the city for a few years and came back. She is looking forward to going back tomorrow, even with the 12-hour train trip that awaits her.
In the middle of NYC’s Chinatown, I can wheel “home” in less than 10 minutes. The apartment where I will be staying for the next two months already feels like home in some ways.