Friday, February 5, 2010


I was at Starbucks, fiddling around with some editing, when a man in a wheelchair and a younger woman came in. They sat down opposite me, at the table reserved for handicapped folks. 

Bill, a guy who works at the library here in Chelsea three afternoons a week, and I usually fight for that table because it's larger and near an outlet. In fact we've struck up a friendship over this particular spot which we, I must say, consider ours. Outlets are very important and there aren't that many. He spreads out his accounts, plugs in his laptop, goes over his money. As he says, he has a right to it because he has breathing problems.  

But Bill wasn't there, and I'd taken the table opposite it, and said hello to the fellow after she pushed him in and went to get their muffins. He nodded back and I asked how he was, and he made a Pfffft noise accompanied by thumbs down and then gestured. "Do you want me to come over there?" He did. 

She explained that he has aphasia, which was quite apparent, and he pointed to his right side, ", no, no." I sat with them until she got ready to leave for a class that evening. (She's a science writer as well as his caregiver. His wife is a social worker.) And we managed  a good, long conversation, during which he found many words and told me a lot."Did you have a stroke?" "You must be frustrated." "Yes, yes, yes," especially since he has a PhD in philosophy."Do you mind if someone guesses at what you're trying to say?" She told me that he was fifty-five when it happened and he told me that he's sixty-three now.  

I learned, though not in this order, that he was born in Germany, came here when he was three, "Holocaust," speaks German, French, grew up in Newark, "then, good, now, pffft" which is certainly true because it's become a poverty stricken city with a lot of crime. I think he went to the University of Chicago, then to Columbia and followed his favorite professor to SUNY Stoneybrook. That he got married when he was fifty, and his wife was forty-three, the aid said. (Her last name is Martin. His first man is Steve. That's all I can remember of those details.) And that he'd had a lot of girlfriends, "one hundred." "How old were you for the first?" Well, he was seventeen and she was fifteen, Jane (not Joan) Sokolov, in high school, though he visited her in Chicago when he was nineteen. She was an actress, briefly, not too good, lived on 11th Street, Greenwich Village. He was extremely happy when I figured out what he was saying and added that I'd lived on 11th Street, also.  "One hundred?" He smiled. I was flabbergasted and should have asked why he finally got married. 

I suggested that he might write poems, since he used to write, which lead to them talking about the aphasia group where he met a seventy-seven year old doctor, Leonard Zion, dead, who was able, slowly, to write a book of poems that was published for his friends. Steve has a copy and they'll put it in his backpack so I can take a look at it if we meet again. And he conveyed how bored he is by the films they see in another aphasia group. "Tom Cruise" was followed by a no, no, no.

When I told her that she has the best job, she agreed. Evidentially he's made progress in speech since she's been working with him. But the body, "Pfttt, no, no, no."            


  1. Wow! I used to work with a couple of quadriplegics - their plight is enormous.

    Reading this story reminds me of a book I read last year. "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" written by the editor of Elle magazine, Jean-Dominique Bauby, after he suffered a massive stroke that left him with a condition called locked-in syndrome. It's a remarkable book.

    Beautiful post.

  2. thank you, dutchbaby, I'll ask for it at the library....

  3. Oh yes, I second dutchbaby's recommenddation.
    A comment you left on Cuban's blog intrigued me, Melissa, so I came and read your last 3 posts. Knowing you are a photographer influences me to say that your writing is a lot like looking at a photograph. You simply present the story without trying to direct the reader's perspective. I enjoying reading you.

    Oh and, I hope that you do find your way past your coping techniques.

  4. A wonderful story here, Melissa.

    I hope you see this man again and can share more with him. It seems doubly tragic that such a talented person should lose so much of his bodily ability.

    I imagine you really brightened up his day.

  5. Thank you all for reading...I appreciate it...seriously....

  6. another fine post, melissa. never sentimental or overreaching, but always truthful and unadorned, you invariably warm my heart.