There is a beeping as the ramp slides out, then the doors open. He rolls himself in. His legs are covered with a blanket. His dull blondish hair is in a ponytail and he’s got layers of clothing. Behind him is a younger man, no more than five feet six, no hair visible under his billed cap, with red marks on his face shaped like tiny cigars. He’s wearing a flannel shirt and pants torn at the knee.
I don’t know how to measure how old these two in the train with me are because life on the streets batters the skin. They are younger than me, I am sure of that, probably 20 years younger. Less than forty would be my guess. Somewhere between thirty and forty-five, no more. And the younger one could be in his twenties.
“It’s not working right. I can’t afford a new one. Something’s wrong with the wheel.” He’s backed himself into the wheelchair space and leans back so that the front wheels come off the floor and balances himself by holding the rail with one hand and putting one foot up on the rail in front of him. “Is it wobbling?”
His friend checks it out. “It’s just the bolt needs tightening.”
The ponytail man says, “I can take care of that. Just tighten the bolt, huh?”
“Yeah, the bolt on the top. How much does a wheelchair like that cost?”
“This chair cost $1800.” The way he says it you know that is an amount of money out of his grasp. However he came by this chair, he doesn’t think he’ll be able to get another if something goes wrong with this one. It isn’t one of those fancy motorized ones. He has to maneuver it himself. I’ve seen this man on the train before with a companion, not this young one. Someone older. Often, he is sitting on a max seat and the chair is in the space in front of him. Whatever makes it difficult for him to get around is not obvious, but something limits him, makes the chair necessary. Most likely it is diabetes.
“You live with that big guy, right? Where you live?” Younger man asks.
“At a motel out on 82nd.”
“How much does that cost?”
“We pay $400 a week.”
“$400. That’s a lot, man. You should move to my motel. It’s a lot less, man.”
“No, wait. Not a week. That’s every two weeks. Costs us about $200 a week. My friend, I live with, he gets $700 every two weeks. He was a logger and got injured. Now he gets $1400 a month. We been together for 7 years. He’s in pain all the time.” If he has any income himself, from Social Security or anything else, he doesn’t say.
I grew up in a mill town. I remember loggers with fingers and arms missing and deaf sawmill workers. I remember the fatherless children of timber fallers who were felled themselves, and never got up from the forest floor, and were laid to final rest in Juniper Cemetery, which was named after a tree no one logged.
The talk turns to heroin and methadone, to nodding off, and cruelty. “I never nodded off,” the young one claims.
The one in the chair says he sometimes still uses, but he gets the methadone. They talk about the clinic where they both get their doses. “That lady who runs the clinic. I knew her when she was using. How did she end up running a clinic?” Wheelchair man wants to know.
“She used to use? Oh, man. You know that bitch cuts people’s doses. Bitch. She’s a user. Bitch.” The younger man’s anger is strong.
I wonder if he will kill her some day. Or if someone else will.
The rain starts coming down in buckets and it’s 122nd Avenue and the man in the wheelchair gets off the train. He doesn’t have an umbrella or a raincoat, “Shit,” he says as he wheels himself away and reaches back to pull the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head.