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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Eight


A Remarkable Person



Valerie Pepe has just published her second book, "Deformed: My Remarkable Life Continues," a sequel to her first book, "Deformed: My Remarkable Life."  I report this to you with admiration, even a bit of pride, as I've been Valerie's mentor and editor for a long time. She is one of the most disciplined writers and devoted students of writing I have ever had.


Unlike most of us struggling with the restrictions of COVID, Valerie has been navigating obstacles since she was able to walk on her own. Born with Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita (AMC), a rare congenital birth defect, she ambulates on crutches. The built world is not made for individuals with disabilities, Valerie always reminds me as she describes falling or tripping or waiting endlessly for paratransit to pick her up in the bitter cold. It's not easy to get around? Dear reader, that is an understatement. There have been infrastructure improvements since the Americans With Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990, but not enough.


I cannot remember the year I first met Valerie, even though that meeting was memorable. She was at the bottom of the staircase in a non-accessible satellite NYU location and she was incensed. She had signed up for my writing creative nonfiction class and, no, she did not want to take a class in another building that was accessible and they—the security—had better accommodate her and get her upstairs to Carol Bergman's class. I was already at the top of the stairs, heard the exchange—I think everyone in the building heard the exchange—and I rushed back down to amplify her request. It was unnecessary. Two security guards and a student were already on the case.


For all these years, until I moved out of the city, Valerie and I exchanged manuscript by email and then met at the Hollywood Diner on 16th Street & Sixth Avenue for our F2F editorial sessions. We always sat in the same booth on the South Side. I would usually order tea, maybe some soup, and she would usually order eggs and fries. She'd had a long workday at the New York City Housing Authority, and she was starved. Not to mention the calories she'd used up getting on and off the bus and walking two blocks from the stop to the diner.


"How many bags are you carrying today, Valerie?" I'd ask before even saying hello. We'd laugh  about our mutual bag affliction, and then I'd unpack myself and my bags, we'd order, and get to work.


There should be a plaque for Valerie outside this diner. The owner and the staff know her well. She started going there on 9/11 when her colleagues walked with her up Sixth Avenue from the NYCHA building and collapsed into the booths. She's been coming back here ever since, writing in her journal for hours, working on her drafts, and meeting me.


When Valerie lost her beloved father in October 2019, and her Aunt Theresa to COVID ,  I wrote to say, "The new book will wait." But instead of waiting, Valerie became even more determined, and more purposeful; she folded these primal losses into the last chapters of the book. She was writing for her father, her aunt, her wonderful mother, her best friend, Eunjoo, her boyfriend, Fernando, and everyone born with AMC, she said. Nothing, not COVID, not death in the family, would stop her.

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