I worked for a paralyzed man who taught me how quickly freedom could be taken away. If only my addiction had been willing to listen.
When I was 24 and living in San Francisco, I had just begun dabbling with speed and had no idea how quickly and ruthlessly this drug would take over my life. In the meantime, I needed a job and was sick of retail or waitressing. One day I casually looked in the local paper.
Video director looking for assistant the ad said. Hmmm. Sounded interesting. I called, got an interview for the next day and took the train into the financial district at 8 in the morning. The video director lived in a big loft on Folsom Street where I knocked on the metal grate door, waiting for what felt like ages for it to open.
I was still up from the night before and the night before that. My eyes burned. The sun was coming up. I looked down and noticed that my hands were a little swollen. They felt tight. I chewed on the inside of my cheek. Finally the door opened. A frail young man in his late twenties with gnarled, bent hands sat in an electric wheelchair.
“Hiya!” he said with a smile. “Good morning!” He was wearing a silly knitted hat.
“Uh, hi.” I tried not to look surprised. I was just starting to come down and my palms felt moist, my mouth dry and my back ached. I didn’t want to betray my prejudice. I had never worked with a handicapped person. Hell, I didn’t even know one.
For a cripple, he was really fucking happy. It was disarming. I could walk fine and was 100 times more miserable.
“Come in,” he said and with that, he whipped around in his wheelchair and started to zip through the large loft.
I took a deep breath and followed him inside, where the aroma of warm oatmeal and peas hung heavy in the cold air. There was a large rack that I would later learn was for stringing him up so he could have the lost experience of standing again—a scary contraption that would crank up a swing seat until his legs were straight and perpendicular to the floor. We went into his bedroom, where the smell of stale urine hit me like a right hook. Thank God the majority of my sense of smell was already deadened by regular meth use.
“This is Anna,” the man said, gesturing to a tiny ex-dancer with skin the color of wheat toast and dark hair in a messy bun. “She’s one of my assistants—she’ll teach you what to do.” I later found out that on the days Anna wasn’t working for this man, she worked at a hospice for AIDS patients.
“Have you ever done any nursing?” she asked me in a high-pitched voice.
“No,” I responded. “I’m kind of a…no.” They didn’t need to know what an entitled asshole I was. “I thought this was an assistant job.”
“It is!” she chirped. “You are the personal assistant to a quadriplegic.”
“Ahh. Okay.” I wanted to bolt out the door at the moment but for some reason I didn’t. I was intrigued. Could I do this job?
“Have you ever dealt with shit?” the man asked bluntly. He was dead serious.
My brows furrowed. “Well I—I have a cat.”
“Good enough!” he said buoyantly. For a cripple, he was really fucking happy. It was disarming. I could walk fine and was 100 times more miserable.
“Look, I like you,” he said. “You’re funny. I know you don’t have any experience but just give it a shot. If you can’t hack it, no problem. Okay?” I saw hope in his eyes.
“All right,” I reluctantly conceded. And with that, I was hired.
I was given a set of keys and instructed to watch Anna go through the routine one time before I was on my own. After that, I started showing up at 8 am sharp every morning, when my boss was still in bed sleeping. I’d wake him up and pull the covers back. Most mornings, the pee bag attached to his catheter would have leaked onto the bed and he’d be lying in his own cold piss for hours. I’d stick a towel under him and begin the morning ritual: first I’d stretch out his atrophied legs, which were stick-like and as narrow as those of a malnourished child. They would shake as I pulled them straight but I’d hold them until the trembling stopped and they were limp again. I was heavier then, with a heaving bosom and thick thighs, all of which I needed in order to have the strength to hoist his Auschwitz-thin body over my shoulder and into the chair.
Then we would do his morning arm exercises, where he would push against my hands in a circular motion and I would resist. We always had to have music for this activity. He loved Hendrix—a fact that was evident from the huge Hendrix posters that adorned his dark smelly bedroom.
“My legs is broke—they don’t work no more,” he’d joke in a terrible African American accent.
Whenever I came to work, my problems—all the petty shit that I was distressed over—seemed so insignificant. Because at least I could walk.
“Are you knocking boots, Amy?” he would ask me.
“Knocking boots?” I would respond breathily as I pushed against his feeble-looking but surprisingly strong arms.
“Getting laid! Making love. Having sex.”
“Oh. No, not really.”
“Better get on that shit. You never know when all of a sudden....BOOM, you’re in a chair.”
I would say nothing. And then:
“God I love Jimi!...Foxy Lady, doo doo doo...”