Here’s the thing. The days I spent with Joel Pinkman were not date dates. Not really. And yet. I think he thought of them as dates. You always hear old men talking about their girlfriends who aren’t really their girlfriends. It didn’t matter to him that I look more like a boy than a girl. A little blonde shagetz, he would joke. Never shiksa. I think he liked to look at me, liked my company, and so these were dates to him. I didn’t care. He was paying me fifty dollars cash to push him around the Upper West Side in a giant wheelchair for three hours. Two twenties and a ten.
Before we started having our Sunday dates, I never went into The Home on the weekend. The coffee shop was closed so I had no business there. It was always so crowded with families visiting bubbe or zayde. Too many strangers and their bored offspring. I always felt jealous of these hordes. Was I not family to the old people? I made their coffee every day. I fed them, listened to their stories, made them laugh, and watched them die.
Pinkman would always be reading in bed when I got there at eleven o’clock. This was an act, a carefully constructed scene. I called this act Pinkman at Home, or, Retired Board of Ed Social Studies Teacher Joel Pinkman Takes in the Classics on a Sunday Morning. He would feign surprise when I knocked, and casually drop his book onto his lap so I could see the title when I reached him. Always something literary, but sexy too. In Search of Lost Time. Madame Bovary. He loved French whores.
“Jesse, did you know French whores read books back then?”
“Yes Joel, those French whores were clever ladies,” I would answer, pushing the red button to get the nurse to help me roll him out of bed.
Pinkman didn’t care that it was December and cold out. He never let me cover him properly for our walks. I was afraid he’d get sick and die like everybody else in The Home. He didn’t like to cover up his legs. I should say leg because there was only one, now paired with a bandaged stump that was still healing. I don’t think they changed the bandages on the stump often enough. And the foot on the remaining leg was not fit for the public. Old men don’t take care of their feet, which after a lifetime of walking have usually been reshaped to look troll-like. Pinkman’s foot belonged to this brotherhood of old troll feet, and the sight of his yellowing, jagged toenails made me sick and nervous. It was the remaining five toenails that made me want to cover him most. I was sure they had some kind of disease. After the nurse and I rolled him onto his wheelchair, which was technically a wheel-bed, I would try to cover up the whole mess with a blanket from the linen closet.
“It’s December, Joel”
“No damnit. I want air! There’s no air in this fucking place! I want to feel air!” he would yell with his head back and his eyes closed.
It was an ongoing battle which I think he enjoyed because it drew me closer to his body, and I think his body was lonely, and welcomed any kind of attention it could get.
“I can’t let you freeze.” I would say, covering up the good leg and the stump.
“Fuck you.” He would apologize later.
We would compromise and keep the blanket over his crotch, but rolled up pretty high so that the rest was visible, dirty bandages, the toes, everything. It was obscene but it was his calling card.
Getting an elevator was the worst. We had to wait until we could get an empty one, and this took forever. Once in the lobby, he would begin to groan and moan. This was a constant and would get louder out on the street, when we started to hit the bumps. Not so bad on 106th street, except for one big bump when you got to the Access-A-Ride pickup place. Pinkman would wait for this bump and scream, so loud that the other wheelchair people lined up there would look over at him in unison with blank faces. Behold, the martyrdom of Joel Pinkman.
106th street crested in the middle so it was pretty easy to get down to Amsterdam. Crossing Amsterdam was a bitch, though. You had to really move. I would wait for the light to change and start running, which would make the wheel-bed bounce a lot, but it was the only way to escape deadly lava flow of yellow cabs rolling at you, unable to stop itself. I knew that if I didn’t run with Pinkman, we might both get hit. If he got hit and I didn’t, I would get sued by the family, and maybe even The Home. This is what I thought about as I ran, listening to him scream after every bump. I thought that if I didn’t make the light, I could dive behind the wheel-bed to save myself. Maybe the metal frame would slow the car down, and he would be ok too. Or not. Either way, I had to run, even though running meant inflicting pain on him from the bumps. But he could see the cars coming just as well as I could, despite the Mets cap pulled over his face. I think he appreciated the running.
After Amsterdam it was all uphill to the bookstore. First, a stretch I called No Man’s Land, the pre-Columbia University neighborhood with no stores, no shops, not much to suggest civilization. Pinkman endured quietly. He was waiting to get up to the school, all the young people. Until the college students appeared, he would fall into a coma-like state, his head rolling forward to his chest, but flipping back again when I had to take a curb at the cross-streets. When he screamed, people would look at me, the abuser. This was his intention.
When the first college students appeared, up by about 110th Street, Pinkman perked up. Before lunch, we always went to Labyrinth Books on 112th, just past the Post Office. It was always the same thing, squeeze the wheel-bed in through the front door with him yelling orders and up to the register where the hipsters would be waiting, trying not to look at his toes.
“I’m here. Are you thrilled?” he would say to register kid. “Pinkman account. P-I-N-K-M-A-N. I want my order. Pinkman. Is it there?”
He would make me wheel him into the store to look around, which caused traffic jams by the book displays. This ritual was purposeless, never leading to any purchases, all of which were done by phone ahead of time. But he liked to talk to anyone he could. This lasted about ten minutes, until he demanded to be wheeled around to the front again to pick up his books. More Zola, perhaps some poetry by Baudelaire, no doubt written for a French whore. The register kids would have the books in a bag for him by the time the wheel-bed was facing front. By now the whole downstairs of the store was filled with angry disgusted people, trying to get around us.
“ Get my wallet Jesse.”
Pinkman kept his wallet where it would normally have gone, were he not an amputee. In order for me to dig it out, I had to get my hand down there in the sheets of the wheel-bed by his ass. He would lean forward, but never far enough.
“Can you find it? Got it? We’re holding up the line.” His eyes would follow my hand, watch my progress as I dug around down there. The wallet was old and brown and fat.
I knew they hated us in Labyrinth. I knew they couldn’t wait for us to get out. I tried to let them know with my expressions that I understood, but Pinkman monitored my face so that it was impossible to get in even an eye-roll. He wanted me on his side all the way. Rolling him out took forever. But it meant that lunch was coming. Free lunch.
Le Monde is one of those corporate tourist trap French restaurants. There is a chain, and they’re all the same, all meant to look like the Folies Bergere. Full of models from Connecticut and snotty European men with greasy pony-tail hair. I hated this place. And yet it always felt like a haven, because I was always hungry. The only good thing about this place was one waitress. Older than the others, voluptuous. Long skirts, a peroxide buzz cut, tattoos. Pinkman always caught me looking at her.
“There’s your girlfriend. Say hello. Maybe she likes boychicks like you.”
Getting Pinkman settled by a table was a trick. I think he was a rolling health violation and if the city inspectors would have been there, he would have been asked to
leave. The blonde waitress never came to help us, even though I’m sure they put us in her section a couple of times. I told myself that it was because of Pinkman’s lower body, not indifference to me. She smiled my way from time to time, and Pinkman never missed an opportunity to embarrass me when she did.
“Your girlfriend’s saying hello! Aren’t you going to wave back?”
The way the tables were set up, we always got a table for two, and they would help me angle the wheel-bed so that he could eat, which left his foot sticking into the aisle, and pointing at the center of the table right next to us. Customers always asked to be moved so they just stopped seating people there. But the foot was visible from other tables, and I could see the disgust on people’s faces. And, ever the teacher, Pinkman talked too loud.
“Proust used to throw dinner parties from his bed. He entertained everybody from his bed. Just like me!” He would look around to see who was listening.
“I bet Proust invited whores to dinner in bed, Joel,” I would tease.
“So what if he did, is there anything wrong with that? Do you have a thing against whores?”
“No Joel. The whores were different back then. They hung out with princes.”
“You’re damn right they did. They served a social function.” He was indignant.
I tried to let the decorations at Le Monde trick me into thinking I was in Paris, but it never worked. All the fake signs in French. Who were they kidding? The cafe au lait wasn’t bad though. It came in a white au lait bowl with lions’ faces for little handles. This was the best I ate all week. French onion soup with melted cheese floating on top that stuck to the sides of the two-toned brown crock. Goat cheese salad drenched in herb vinaigrette. A basket of frites with a fat little ketchup bottle and tons of salt. Tourist food. Pinkman would go for the Sunday special, duck breast with potatoes. The French know how to cook potatoes. Even the pretend-French.
For dessert, we both ordered from the Les Tartes section. We got a bunch of them to share, lemon, chocolate, apricot. And another round of au laits. He wasn’t supposed to eat sugar but I looked the other way. He was dying of diabetes.
“Too late,” he would say with a shrug, pointing to the stump. “I may as well.”
Pinkman’s life was a life of the mind. His body just got in the way. On our dates, I agreed to ignore his body, to suspend any differences that might separate us. He wanted to know things about me, and even though I could have told him to back off, I kept talking, let him pry a little deeper every time. The truth is that I wanted somebody to ask these questions, and he was the only one asking.
“So how will you live?”
“What do you mean, Joel?”
“Without a husband? Who’s going to take care of you?”
“I will, Joel. I’ll take care of myself.” I’m not sure I believed this.
“What about your mother? Your father?”
“What about them?”
“Aren’t you going to break their hearts? No grandchildren?”
He didn’t care one way or the other about the gay thing. I was in the habit of saying queer. I never liked the other choices. My obvious queerness was never a problem for him. It hardly ever was for inmates at The Home, most of whom were Jewish and therefore not crippled by the whole gays-will-burn-for-all-eternity thing. I loved them for this. Yet the questions kept coming.
“But why queer? Did you know that used to mean something very bad indeed?”
“Yes, I know. But we use it. I use it. I like it.”
“Is it like when the blacks use the N word? All the kids today?”
“Sort of, yeah. Like that.” Even though, not really.
“So you’re insulting yourself? Do you hate yourself?”
“No Joel. I like myself. And I don’t want a husband. I can take care of myself. Just like the French whores, Joel. They didn’t need husbands either.”
At this he would laugh—really laugh—and when he did I could tell he lived for this kind of sparring. During these moments, I could almost picture a young Pinkman, out on a real date, keeping some poor girl on her toes.
Even though it meant that I would be free soon, I didn’t ever want to leave Le Monde. It was warm in there, and leaving meant more hard labor. It meant apologizing to people on the street for running them off the sidewalk with the wheel-bed and to Pinkman for every hurt I caused him.
Going back was worse than coming up, even though it was mostly downhill on Broadway, past Tom’s Diner, past No Man’s Land. I could get up a good head of steam and really fly down the sidewalk with the wheel-bed. The problem was that if there was no flat part to slide down at the cross-street, that left us flying over the curb, slamming down hard. Once I almost dumped Pinkman onto 108th Street like a bricklayer dumps a pile of bricks. The wheel-bed flew into the air, tilted down sharply, and then jammed into the street. It stopped and Pinkman kept sliding. But he didn’t go all the way down. Some benevolent supernatural force kept him up there, except for his leg, which dangled over the edge like a broken tree branch, his toes submerged in the puddle. I had to ask strangers to help me level out the wheel-bed and get it going again. He yelled at me the whole way back. That night I kept waking up from the sound of my own teeth grinding.
When we got back to the Home, he always had me wheel him over to the aviary down the hall from the lobby. This was a floor-to-ceiling extravaganza, filled with fake branches and flowers and way too many finches. The birds had adapted to this prison by lining up on the topmost branch and dive-bombing, one by one, to the bottom, only to hop back up and get in line again. On Sundays, this Sisyphean bird show was the main attraction at the Home, and it was impossible to wheel him close to the glass thanks to all the other wheelchairs already parked there. Sitting there, in the back, he would begin to talk at the top of his voice just to piss people off.
And so would begin his slow push to the front. He didn’t really need me for this, because he could wheel himself forward on the smooth hospital floor. If the person in front of him was asleep, he would ram the wheel-bed into the back of the chair until its occupant woke up, confused and afraid.
“Wake up! God damn old people! You’re already dead! Coming through!!”
It was a lot for him to go from the real world of sun and air and the street back into this world of stagnation and fluorescent light. I could still hear him yelling as I walked out through the lobby to the front door when it was time for me to go. When they told me that he’d died after a second amputation, I was happy to think that he’d finally broken out for good.