New York, New York

Visitors in Brooklyn

Your apartment’s never smaller than when guests arrive. New Yorkers find solutions (couches, floors, friendly neighbors) but until we all snag that classic six, our entertaining’s best left to public spaces.

I had dinner on 47th St. with a friend from high school, his sister Sandra, down from Alaska, and an ex-girlfriend I hadn’t seen in 10 years. After dinner I offered to take Sandra back to her hotel in Brooklyn.

On the A train, she told me about the interconnectedness of things, the coincidences that she had ignored prior to the death of her mother, and the slow, painful way she had built friendships with her brothers since that death, two years ago. She talked about wanting to go on the John Edwards show to see if she could speak to her mother’s ghost. I wanted to talk about the strangeness of seeing the ex-girlfriend, how awkward it felt to see her after a decade, how I’ve thought, for the last 10 years, that this woman would have no feeling for me but a type of hatred. Instead, the conversation was amiable, vague, full of jokes, free of recrimination. But Sandra’s story seemed more interesting than my own, so I kept quiet.

As we got out of the train and walked to the hotel, Sandra explained the room on the 6th floor wasn’t hers. Her best friend Katherine was a study assistant to a quadriplegic man visiting New York for a law students conference at Brooklyn Law School. Sandra was crashing in Katherine’s hotel room during the visit. She asked if I wanted to come up and meet everyone.

The hotel was a new, low skyscraper near Jay St.; the carpeting was drab and the room was ugly, heated about 30 degrees above the hallway. The quadriplegic’s wheelchair was black, bristling with levers; a large battery sat at its rear base. ‘Hey,’ said the chair’s occupant. ‘I’m Sam. How are you?’ He wore a matching brown suit coat and slacks with a mock turtleneck sweater. I introduced myself and sat down.

Sam turned to Katherine. ‘She get the shit?’ He spoke with a slight slur and a Southern accent. He had limited use of his right arm, and would throw his wrist onto a sort of steel joystick assembly in order to move around.

Sandra said, ‘I got the shit, you junkie.’ Katherine put a towel on his head; it fell to the floor, and she put it back on.

‘Well, fucking come on then,’ he said. He turned to me, his head moving unevenly. ‘Where you from, Paul?’ I am from outside of Philadelphia. ‘My Dad’s from Philadelphia,’ he said ‘I used to go up there when I was 18. Girls there would do anything. They were nasty.’ His body was thin and angled, put together too loosely, his bones obvious under the suit. His arms and legs were thin and shrunken. His ears stuck out from his short haircut, and in this way he still looked like a Marine.

‘Huh,’ I said, picturing him as a brash, well-muscled young shithead, out for pussy in South Philly. I’d lived near Philadelphia for years and had never met the girls who would do anything, or even something. Too shy.

‘Yeah, God. We would do some shit, you know—Katherine, the herb.’ Like Sandra, Katherine was attractive, about 25, with a large smile. She threw ‘fuck’ in with every other word: ‘So we fucking get on the fucking elevator and the fucking thing makes a noise like a fucking bomb exploding, and I’m like, fuck.’ I’d been filled in on Katherine’s life coming up the escalator in the lobby: smart, loving, history of drug abuse, would do anything for you, stretches of homelessness on the east coast, truly decent, pulling things together, a lousy boyfriend, a new baby. ‘Once it took me years to track her down,’ Sandra said. I looked at Katherine and had trouble seeing the human being under everything I’d heard.

Sandra went to her large knit bag and pulled out a Ziploc baggie and a glass pipe. ‘My brother hooked us up,’ she said. I opened the windows as she stuffed the pipe and passed it; when the pipe came to Sam, one of the two women would hold it as he inhaled, covering the small hole on the side of the pipe with a finger. I felt like I should volunteer to help, but the idea of sticking the pipe in his mouth repulsed me.

‘I have to prepare my notes for tomorrow,’ he said. He listed several cases—A vs. B, C vs. D, E vs. the State of Georgia. He inhaled about five separate times, the rest of us inhaled once or twice to our preference, and after a few minutes he said, ‘Let’s go get drunk and watch some fly bitches strip.’

Sandra rolled her eyes. ‘You can do that yourself.’

‘Yeah, fuck that,’ said Katherine.

‘There’s none of it since Giuliani,’ I said, wondering what it would be like to go to a strip club with Sam. Probably no different than any other visit. No one would bat an eye as long as he kept drinking. ‘We could go to a bar, though,’ said Sandra.

‘Yeah,’ said Sam. Except this hotel is in a wasteland of government buildings; the closest bar would be a long walk by electric wheelchair; also, it was chilly, and I intuited that Sam couldn’t take much of the cold. The best nearby bar was Boat, across Atlantic, out of reach. I explained all this, knowing that I didn’t want to deal with the logistics of going; at some level, I was uncomfortable, shy in a high-school way that shamed me. What will people think?

We decided that Sandra and I would go out, buy some beer, I’d walk her back to the hotel, and then I’d go home—it was about 11 and I had to be up early the next morning. The phone rang. Katherine picked it up. ‘Your van is finally here,’ she said.

‘Let’s all go out then,’ said Sam. We put on our coats and left, the motor of his chair making a low, churning noise as it traversed the patterned carpet.

‘I can barely steer this thing, I’m so high,’ he said, weaving around the hallway and bumping into the walls. We entered the elevator. I looked down at Sam’s head. He was balding, probably around 30 years old. I felt uncomfortable, not sure what to do both with his handicap and the manly banter. I was surprised that he was a pot-smoking sexist—unsurprising behavior for a law student, but surprising for a quadriplegic. I found myself thinking in pop-psych concepts as the elevator descended: ‘All that male posturing is his way to prove he’s normal. But the balls on him—he can only move one arm, barely, needs two people to take care of him, and he’s getting a law degree and going to conferences in New York City and talking about strippers. He’s doing pretty well, if you think it through…’

We got off at the garage floor and found our way to the front of the hotel, where a minivan waited with a ramp unfolded from its side. Sandra offered the driver a lift but shook his head and told us he would take a cab.

Sam wheeled into the empty passenger’s side of the front; Katherine drove. Sandra and I sat in the back. It took a few tries to get the ramp up and the doors closed: everything was motorized and required toggle switches to be pressed in a certain order. I liked being in the minivan; I’m never in cars in the city, and Katherine swore angrily at the taxicabs as Sam commiserated. ‘You’ve got a green light, motherfucker!’ he yelled.

We turned left and left again, onto Court St. I directed them to Apple Tree, the 24-hour-deli closest to my house. Sandra and I went in and found some Miller Light for Sam and something stouter for herself and Katherine. We needed to buy bottles so the beer could be more easily held to Sam’s mouth. I bought some pretzels and a soda.

We went back out and they drove me the remaining dozen blocks to my street. I helped them navigate the small mess of one-way streets until they were pointed back towards the hotel. ‘You’ll see it in a moment,’ I said. ‘It’s the biggest building up there.’ I opened the minivan door, gave Sandra a kiss on the cheek, told Katherine I was glad to meet her and touched her on the shoulder, wished Sam luck at his conference, hopped out with their warm goodbyes, and went home, turning around once to see them on their way.


TMN Contributing Writer Paul Ford is the author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, a novel that was originally serialized here on TMN. He was formerly an editor at Harper’s Magazine, was an occasional commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered, and is now sole proprietor of (which has a Facebook group). More by Paul Ford