I wasn’t prepared. I was not prepared at all for how loud the subway was, how dirty it was, and how it shook as if it would fall right off the tracks. It smelled and was covered with graffiti. My first New York subway ride was in 1985, with a new friend in the tender first week of college. It brought a moment that will stay with me forever.
The black man near me on the subway was enormous. He had the biggest arms I have ever seen in person. He sat calmly as we rattled along, and when we reached our stop, he followed us closely.
He followed us in his wheelchair, with his huge arms and his Vietnam fatigues. He had no legs. He followed us and shortly outpaced us, arriving at the bottom of a long long flight of stairs.
This was New York before clean subways. Ronald Reagan was president. Ed Koch was mayor. John Gotti was about to have his men gun down Paul Castellano at Sparks steakhouse. And I was about to encounter the strongest man I’ve ever met in a moment that would probably not happen today, in the land of ADA accommodations, blade runners, electric wheelchairs, and plentiful elevators.
At the bottom of the grimy, oily stairs, he turned to me and said “could you get my chair?” Before I even had a chance to say yes, he somehow swung his body and planted his hands on the filthy cement. As we looked on in amazement, he swung his torso up each stair, following with his arms and then up the next stair and the next stair and the next. I had to run with the wheelchair to keep up with him. When I reached the top, he climbed back into his chair, said thanks, and rolled away, leaving us open mouthed, watching him move down the dark sidewalk.
The story of meeting the Vietnam veteran in his chair in my first week of college foreshadowed my story and has taken on new meaning as my legs have slowly weekened. I think again and again of him swinging himself up those awful stairs. Why did I find myself getting off at the same subway stop near anyone so remarkable? Was he real? Did it really happen? As I struggle to keep up my strength and composure, how can I ever approach despair in the face of this memory?
The answers to these questions are the stuff of this ongoing journey. I do know one thing for certain. No matter how strong, we all come to places where we need help to move on. There are many, most known and some strangers, who carry my figurative chair up the stairs when I get to a place where I feel like I can’t possibly go further. My strong and beautiful wife, my family, my friends, my wonderful law firm, my partners at the MS Society, and all of you who react to these words are carrying something with me. You notice, listen, wonder, encourage and nourish (with turkey today).
Without you, I would be sitting at the bottom of those stairs in a dark place full of noise and danger. Because of you, I am lifted up and can bump forward on this journey. We will soldier on. I am so very grateful that you have been at these various subway stops with me. Thank you. Today, and every day.