“Don’t touch me!” the man in the wheelchair shouted to stop me from placing my hand on what used to be his left arm.
“I’m sorry -- I was just -- ”
“I know what you were doing,” he said calmly. “You were showing me you care. I get it. But you have no idea how much pain I’m in. Don’t feel bad. People are always touching me -- and because my left arm is gone and most people are right-handed, well.… Doctors, believe it or not, are the worst -- always touching me there. You’d think they of all people would know better. But they don’t.” He laughed.
A few minutes earlier, I walked into this pharmacy to fill a prescription, annoyed at having to go. But my dentist said I had a gum infection and that I needed an antibacterial mouthwash. Damn, I thought, of all the things I needed to do today, now this.
The place was small, and this wheelchair-bound double amputee sat parked in front of a row of empty chairs. I decided to stand rather than navigate my way through the narrow space between the chairs, some people sitting near me and the guy in the wheelchair.
“Sir,” he said, motioning with his head to an empty seat, “You can sit here.”
In yet another addition to the growing list of brain-dead, things-I-wish-I-could-take-back-but-somehow-managed-to-escape-my-mouth, I responded half-truthfully: “No, thanks. I’ve been sitting all day.”
Did I just say to a guy sitting in a wheelchair that I’d rather stand because “I’ve been sitting all day?” Yes, I did. Now what? Well, at that point, I said to myself, I’m all in. I doubled down.
“But,” I added, “I suppose you’ve been sitting all day, too -- so I think I will.”
To my great relief, he laughed -- a real, down-home, full-throated laugh. The pharmacist watching the exchange laughed, too, as did the handful of customers waiting to have their prescriptions filled.
I sat down, and the man -- whose name, I learned, was Michael -- and I started talking.
“Did you have an accident?” I carefully asked.
The story was beyond tragic. Sixteen years earlier, he was riding his motorcycle when “an old lady fell asleep” and ran head-on into him. He lost his right leg and his left arm. More than a dozen surgeries later, he remains in constant pain. He was sucking on something that resembled a Tootsie Pop.
“It slowly releases a medication that gives me enough relief to handle the pain.”
He sued the old lady. But she had neither insurance nor assets, and there was nothing to recover.
“Do you have health insurance?” I asked the 40-something-year-old bearded man.
He did, but his deductible left him owing $3.5 million -- and counting.
“Do you have $3.5 million?” I asked.
“Does it look like it?” he laughed.
Before the accident, he was “quite the athlete.”
“Not on any team. I was in college when this happened, played lots of intramural sports. You name it -- baseball, basketball, water sports, I did it. Loved sports.”
“Are you able to work?”
“Probably. But if I do, then my benefits get cut off.”
He was on government assistance, but the conditions -- at least for maximum benefits -- excluded work and placed other restrictions.
“The moment I get married, everything changes. My benefits get reduced. F--ked up, but that’s the system.” He laughed again.
“Are you in a relationship?”
He had been dating about a year before the accident, and he and his girlfriend were still together.
“She manned up,” I said.
“Got that right. Not part of the 99 percent.”
“Ninety-nine percent of the time the relationship ends over something like this,” he said. “Look, I understand. This is a tough deal for a wife, let along a girlfriend. But God gave me a good one. Believe me. I’ve got a good one.”
He excused himself to go outdoors for a cigarette. The pharmacist, a young woman who had been watching and listening to our conversation, said: “Michael’s a good man. You made him laugh.”
“He seems happy,” I said.
“He is. Never complains. Never feels sorry for himself. Sometimes he comes in here just to talk. But I’ve never seen him laugh like that.”
That night, to prepare the next day’s radio broadcast, I watched cable news. The lead story was about Occupy Wall Street -- a group that seems to consist of mostly young, able-bodied, able-minded people with their well-honed sense of entitlement “protesting” against a country that much of the world would lie, cheat, steal and kill to enter. They finally issued their list of 13 demands. These included, but were not limited to, a “guaranteed living wage income regardless of employment.” Such a life would provide the Occupy folks plenty of time to think up more demands -- while sitting around all day.
Was Michael watching, I wondered. Not likely, I decided. He was probably somewhere appreciating the outdoors with his girlfriend -- smoking a cigarette. And laughing.