Novak Lives in a Wheelchair (part 1 of 2)

It’s 12:46 on Thursday morning, I am sitting on the futon by the window next to First Avenue. Outside somewhere, a saxophone is playing, wailing away endlessly to the accompaniment of a piano. It has the celebratory feel of the Saturday Night Live finale, when the whole cast stands on the stage waving at the audience and congratulating each other on taking part in such a hugely cool show. It’s one of those exclusive fraternity moments; looking at a club you wished you could be a part of, but knowing it’s not possible, and if it were, you would never experience what you think it is from being outside it. The saxophonist has the aching soulful cry of a craftsman with a powerful pair of lungs, riding the top notes where they unburden their speechless heart and speak to ours. It has been going on for a couple of hours now, where is it coming from? It’s not an apartment, is it a stereo coming from a parked car? Or something new that has begun to happen in one of the so many new cafés or bars around here? They open and close with the frequency of a Chinese fan in mid-summer.

I spoke to Novak today on my way to the dreaded Post Office (I’ll explain that later) for an undelivered parcel. He lives in a wheelchair on the busy intersection at the corner of 14th Street and First Avenue. He didn’t always need a chair, he has slipped to that necessity over the years by hammering his body with endless homelessness, alcohol abuse and the broken limbs, lumps and crevices that come from sleeping painlessly in his own waste and broken body parts for ill-advised lengths of time. I have seen him unconscious at all hours, and countless times, being loaded on to ambulances by resigned paramedics.

I saw him for the first time about eight years ago. He was sprawled like a rag doll on the ground in by the wall of a side street. It was a rabid hot summer’s day just like this one – New York has just endured fifty days with temperatures of over 80 degrees, most of which were closer to 100 degrees (the hottest run of all time apparently). It was a Sunday morning and I felt some compassion for him. In this city we see so much of this and there is only so much room to let this information in. I was due to pay some mind when I laid eyes upon the sorry sight of Novak in that heat.

“Hi, can I get you something? Coffee?”

He looked up at me as I leaned over him with hands on my knees. In an instant you could tell why he was in this predicament. There was no apparent embarrassment for his circumstances, or humility about requesting assistance. He seemed to see it in a sort of matter of fact way, he had drank a lot and fell asleep in his own piss, more excrement stains to add to his other ones, on a piss-stained street, so what!

“No!  I’d like a cold Coke”, he said abruptly, lying with his two hands beneath his head like a baby.

I was taken aback, one would think his reply might be “yes please” to what I had suggested. But he seemed to think it only right that I get him what he needed. Breakfast in bed, so to speak. He seemed to think the world owed him support for his lifestyle, and this – I thought later – could be why he has ended here; he would rather be here than have to appease someone else. For the most part, the stuff that happens to us happens because we can tolerate it – even if it’s just barely – and if we get too close to “barely” that’s our warning. We must retreat when “barely” gets too close, straighten up and turn around. Sometimes we can’t, those are the times when we need a good friend, a sibling, or a spouse, to pull us back. My guess is that Novak didn’t have that, so he let go. The reason he didn’t have anyone I don’t really know, but I may have sensed it that morning when he felt that I owed him a cold Coke.

(Next week I find out more about Novak)