At the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Bond Street about a quarter of a block ahead of me, three young men waited at the crosswalk for the light to change. Two were dressed in thug-casual regalia: sneakers, baggy pants, baseball caps askew, and hoodies up to obscure clear lines of sight to their faces. The third wore only the cap and hoodie; he was in a wheelchair and was missing his entire body below the waist.
The man in the wheelchair shifted slightly toward me, and I gasped. Oh, my God, I thought, they’ve finally cut Eggy in half.
Because of the cap and the hoodie, I couldn’t be certain, but the guy in the wheelchair sure looked like Eggy, the paraplegic who lived with his mother around the corner from my old apartment on Hoyt Street. After Clayton, my landlord’s former worker, was no longer permitted to roam freely through the streets of Brooklyn, Eggy assumed the job of sweeping up in front of my neighbors’ townhouses and moving the recycling to the curb every Friday evening. He performed his duties assiduously in all weather, and starting about one hour after he finished, he was likely to be rolling through the neighborhood thoroughly buzzed on something.
Eggy was a wraithlike presence in the neighborhood, materializing with a startling “How you doin’, Pops” to let you know he was lurking. He was prone to surprising me late at night during steamy negotiations on my front stoop with women I’d taken to the Brooklyn Inn, his sudden appearances helping them make up their minds to just go home. Once, after Eggy and I together watched a woman with whom I had been making out hail a taxi cab and leave, I asked how much of the proceedings he had witnessed. “I saw a lot, Pops,” he said. “A lot.”
My understanding is that a drug deal arranged by his brother had gone bad, and Eggy tried to protect his sibling by stepping between him and a gunman who was seeking redress. The bullet severed Eggy’s spinal cord and left him paralyzed below the waist. Because of the protective impulse that cost him so much and his slightly addled demeanor, I judged him to be at heart a gentle soul, but maybe I’m condescending to his handicap. Certainly, he could be aggressive if he wanted you to give him a few dollars and was snappish when he was drunk, especially when he and his brother hung out on their front stoop with their boisterous thug buddies, their intoxicated swagger shabby and toothless in our now thoroughly gentrified neighborhood. The young men, at least, treated Eggy with deference, which was kind of nice to see because they were the only ones who did.
Eggy never appeared healthy. His skin tone tended to be either ashen or green-hued and sometimes he seemed close to death, very frail with ugly sores on his arms, face, and head. When I’d bring him out a beer while he was sweeping up or when he’d enlist me to haul him in his wheelchair up the three front steps to his building’s vestibule, I would ask how he was doing. “Not too good, Pops,” he’d usually say. From what he told me and what I surmised, his life cycled through periods of substance abuse, illness, hospitalization, recovery, and relapse. Cruel as it sounds, the way Eggy held on made me think of a distressed plant in a college friend’s dorm room, noticed only when it seemed just about to die, and then nourished with water that did nothing but prolong its slow demise.
I was afraid for Eggy, because I had a perhaps overheated idea of how his prospects might get worse. Anyone who rode the subways regularly in the 1990s is likely to remember the man missing his entire body below his waist who rolled through the train on a skateboard. He could open the heavy doors between the moving cars, and when he entered, he’d croak: “Help. Help. Help.” It was unsettling to watch: People who recognized the voice girded themselves, while people who didn’t would first look around to see where the voice was coming from, and then look down, then look down further until their faces twisted with horror when they first apprehended and then made space for this animate torso skating by. No other spiel was required and the straphangers grabbed for their billfolds so decisively you’d think the money was on fire in their pants. It wasn’t just the testament in flesh of unspeakable pain they responded to, or the plain pathos of the beggar’s supreme degradation – it was that the sight of this half man stretched their conception of what is possible in this world. Before seeing him, I could not have conceived that a human being existed in such a state, and probably would not have believed it had I been told.
I asked a friend of mine then in medical school for an explanation of how someone could live through such injury. He chuckled at my incomprehension, and with relish related – in that cocky, shock-the-civilians med student kind of way – the grim facts of what had probably happened to the man.
Paraplegics have to be careful. Since they can’t feel anything, they don’t necessarily know if they have an infection or an abscess. If they’re on drugs, they may not care that they have a problem. What may happen is that their lower bodies begin to decay almost as if they were already dead.
My friend had encountered such a patient during his emergency room rotation, her body so rotted through that when they cut away the gangrenous flesh and cleaned her, her pubic bone was exposed. The stench, he added, was hellish. Doctors might be able to preserve vital organs if they’re intact, cutting away the lower body above the hips, shoving necessary working parts up into the abdomen, inserting a shunt of some sort to expel waste, and then closing it all up. During rehabilitation, the patient is fitted with a prosthetic device.
“And then, apparently, they give him a skateboard and a subway token,” I said.
My friend snorted, and said that if that’s how he was living, the man would soon die. “The operation is called a hemicorporectomy,” he said, explaining that it was radical, but not exactly brain surgery in its surgical complexity, more just a matter of reconfiguring the working parts. With a smirk, he added: “We’re just meat, you know.”
Maybe it sounds naïve, but I didn’t know. I didn’t even suspect. Until I found out about hemicorporectomies, the deepest thought I had given to paraplegia was during stoned, squirm-inducing late night bull sessions during my student days, when some jackass would ask which handicap I’d wish least to have. Learning about hemicorporectomies added a dimension of awfulness to my conception, as did the epidural anesthetic I received during surgery on my left knee and foot. I felt what it’s like to lose all mobility below the waist, and also heard the sound of my bones being cut through with a power saw while feeling nothing. Did the epidural experience give me any insight into the lot of someone who is permanently paralyzed? I realize it wasn’t exactly The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, so I will leave it at this – for several disconcerting hours I was unable to move my legs even with a supreme exertion of effort, and just as bad was that when I touched my cock, it felt like a measly wattle of flesh instead of what it normally feels like: the red hot epicenter of the entire universe.
When the traffic light changed, I crossed Atlantic and followed the three men, shadowing them from the other side of Bond Street. I tried to conclusively discern the identity of the one in the wheelchair. I still couldn’t quite make out his face, and wasn’t certain it was Eggy. Whatever had happened to this person, it was the worst thing I could imagine a human being who had once been whole living through. On the one hand, I liked Eggy, and if this terrible fate had befallen him, I wanted to connect. Tell him I’m sorry about what happened, or something. But what was he going to answer? “It’s okay, Pops – it wasn’t all your fault.” I was convinced I was just a few steps away from encountering someone I knew who had had the lower half of his body cut away and discarded and I was going to have to make small talk.
I was only a block from home, and wondered if I should just turn around and hide in my apartment for ten minutes. The traffic lights would change a few times, pedestrians would move along, the streetscape would recalibrate, and there wouldn’t be anyone around I knew who had been cut in half. The prospect of never seeing Eggy again, despite the proximity of his abode to mine, was not so farfetched – New York dematerializes people like that. I know, because for more than a decade I lived a block away from someone whom I dreaded encountering; yet in all that time, I never so much as glimpsed him on the street. The rub was that every time I walked past his block, I would concoct scenarios in which we met and then rehearse the withering remarks I’d prepared about our conflict. As time passed, our imagined encounter ossified into a sequence of fantasy as delineated as the memory of an actual experience. Because our meeting never transpired, to this day every time I pass his block it seems as if it is about to, which never fails to make me feel a bit ridiculous.
By not saying hello to Eggy here and now, I would be turning the streets around my old apartment into another fantasy haunted locale. Every time I passed by Hoyt and Wyckoff streets, I would imagine I was about to meet Eggy in his wheelchair with a hemicorporectomy and would worry about what I was going to say. I am, I wanted to believe, too evolved to let that happen at this point in my life. So I resolved to get the deed over with, to cross Bond Street and offer my hand to Eggy. I reminded myself that I’ve traveled in the Third World, that I have seen horribly damaged people in hospitals and nursing homes, that I have seen enough pain and suffering to prepare me for this moment. But what do you say to someone who has been cut in half?
Still wavering when I reached the corner of Pacific Street, I tried to urge myself into the crosswalk. Just then, the man in the wheelchair faced me and adjusted his iPod. He wasn’t Eggy! He looked like a lot like Eggy, but he wasn’t Eggy. God hears from me infrequently, but I never neglect to express gratitude for benign anticlimaxes, and as I thanked the deity, I felt my pelvic floor muscles unclench and my body start to tremble slightly.
I turned left when I reached Dean Street. What luck, I thought, that it wasn’t Eggy. Now I could just feel bad for the guy in the wheelchair, like a good New Yorker convey some noncommittal compassion telepathically in his direction, and be done with it.
Then something occurred to me: Maybe Eggy is dead. Why not? I would have to ask one of my former neighbors if anything had happened to him, and began to imagine what I might find out – certainly nothing good.
As I walked, I remembered the last time I had seen Eggy. It had been about a year ago, after he’d materialized behind me on Wyckoff Street and asked for help up his front stairs. He looked awful. We exchanged long time/no sees, and I caught him up on my life – I’d moved out of my Hoyt Street apartment to live with my girlfriend on Atlantic Avenue a few years earlier. We got married. We have a son now, and I’m very, very happy being a family man – the old days sure seem like a long time ago.
Eggy congratulated me, and without smiling said: “Surprises me, though. You always was a loner, Pops.”
That was a blunt distillation of my essence more fundamental and incisive than anything that had been mentioned by the many dear friends who had toasted me at my wedding. I hauled Eggy up the stairs, then maneuvered around him and back onto the sidewalk. When I looked, he was smiling, but just a little. I told him to be well, and held back my own smile until I was down the block. My bemusement changed into something else after I rounded the corner of Hoyt Street, passed my old apartment, and started thinking of the past. Gotcha, Pops, I could imagine him thinking.
Apparently, he saw a lot.
Albert Stern has told stories at spoken word venues such as Speakeasy, LES Stories, and The Liar Show. He has published two essays on this site, The Circle Be Unbroken and The Subway Game; his writing has also appeared on Nerve and Fresh Yarn. His third one-person show, Benefit of the Doubt, debuted at the Berkshires Storytelling Festival and will appear in New York in this winter.