08/20/2014 05:14 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2014

Around the Curbs

For the past three months I've been rolling a walker down the street and around curbs, in and out of buses and airports. The walker was needed before I admitted it. (In that I bet I'm not alone.) Eventually I got myself to a surgical supply store with a grand stock of articles you hope you won't need. "I'm looking for a walker," I said.

"They're toward the back," Andy, the salesman, said, and started toward the rear.

I thought of my uncle who past age 100 reluctantly gave in to being helped by a walker and then multiplied what he had by three, with one downstairs, one upstairs, and one more in the car. If he got used to three I figured I should get used to one (before 100).

Andy and I reached an aisle with a dozen walkers in a line. They've become surprisingly prevalent, like wheelchairs, making one wonder if the population has suddenly gotten disabled. And not among just old folks, either.

"There are quite a bunch," I blurted out.

"Yes, sir," replied Andy, tolerating my obvious conclusion. "You've never used a walker before?"

"No, I just use this cane -- which I bought here."

Andy nodded.

"But I need more stability."

"That's what these do."

"Which do you like?" I asked.

Andy motioned me to a sturdy-looking, sleek black walker with "Nitro" painted forcefully on the side. "It's the newest model. Strong wheels, a seat where you can sit, a pocket in front, brakes to stop the thing. It folds, so it takes little space. The height is adjustable."

I ran my hand over the Nitro Rollator, as it's called. It felt fine (for a walker).

The phones were insistent. A lot of people apparently need things you don't want to need. "Try different ones," Andy advised, heading to a phone. "Walk around the store a little." (Like trying on shoes.)

I timidly approached Nitro and a couple of other models and undertook a trial spin around the store and out on the sidewalk. Nitro turned easily, bumped stoically over the broken sidewalks that New York City provides. It seemed up to the job.

Andy greeted me back inside. "What did you think?"

"The Nitro seemed good. I like the name. I guess it's your most expensive one."

'Umm," he said. "Well, it's something you'll only buy once."

"To be hoped!."

Andy sweetened the deal by advising that the all black model came as well in red and black. "You have that in stock?"

He checked and shook his head affirmatively. And soon out came Nitro in shiny black and red. Fitting for a gentleman.

I told Andy that I'd come back for another look and a second opinion with a friend the next day, That's what I did. And then I walked out with my friend and my red and black Nitro.

At home my cat Amy offered the walker her own appraisal and decided it held little interest for her. But on the street the Nitro turns out to be a movie star. "I haven't seen one like that," I hear. "My mother has one but not as nice as that one." Friends have dubbed the Nitro my Ferrari.

The walker doesn't do stairs well, which gives me an excuse to avoid subways. And my apartment building has heavy doors downstairs, which I negotiate by backing in. Otherwise, the Nitro helps out when shopping, as the pouch accommodates a couple of grocery bags. If i were in the land where guys liked guys using a walker, it could serve as a pickup device.

If this sounds like making the best of a not great situation, it's because the walker grew from the department of hard choices: stay home or continue with a cane to stumble and sometimes trip on the sidewalk. Several years ago my balance began to grow worse; that led to medical exams (neurological anomaly), physical therapy (which I'm not sure is helpful) and, after some resistance, to using the cane from Andy's store.

The walker is now part of the furniture, something I was glad to have on a trip to Europe this summer, I nervously told it goodbye as I checked it with baggage on the flight home, and smiled with paternal relief when it circled in good shape around the baggage carousel at JFK. I wish Nitro had been made in the U.S.A. and not China, but at least I know it's successfully logged a couple of very long trips.

Stanley Ely writes about long distance travel in his new book, "Life Up Close," in paperback and ebook.