Harry The Wheelchair Hippie

August, 1972. Friday Shabbat Services.

It was a little Synagogue in North Eastern Queens. One of many in the area.    

The City

He was in a wheelchair. He had been there every week for a month. Every week, he drooled, pathetically, asking her if they could go to the deli together after Saturday morning services and get a bagel. She always laughed and said no. 

She sat with her family in a rear pew. They were making an attempt to try to be more Jewish. Provide some support for the dynamic young rabbi from Las Vegas, of all places. 

It was mostly dull. She read the announcements and the temple calendar. What made it fun was people watching. Who was with who. Who showed up and who didn’t.

The wheelchair hippie, as they called him, would roll behind the last pew and transfer himself into the end seat. And they would talk. He was 29, she was 24. 

He had long black hair, a beard and a moustache. He was an absolute mess. He looked like a very large Rasputin. She couldn’t tell if he was fat or thin. His face was strong, but he wore baggy clothes mostly to hide his diaper, he said. Yuck. In order to speak, he had to unscrew an enormous orthodontic brace on his mouth. 

She liked the hippie, even though he was disgusting. He talked about being in some kind of hospital, rehab he said. Probably a junkie who got hit by a car, her dad said. Her parents hated him. Harry the Hairy hippie, they called him.

She was not married. No boyfriend. She was zaftig. Brown hair, brown eyes. The good men were already snapped up. She worked in the City. Bus, first, then the 7 train during the week. Then weekend services at Temple, where she was inevitably stuck with Harry, the crippled wheelchair bum. Embarrassing. How could she meet a nice young man with this carnival sideshow freak around?

He would ask for her number, while wiping his drool from his mouth. What in the hell happened to him?

He was highly intelligent. He spoke of a girl in Philadelphia who didn’t follow him to Baltimore and broke his heart. Maybe he became a junkie after that? 

Did he fall off a subway platform? Was he hit by a bus? Beaten by dope dealers? Who knows. He knew his prayers though, barely intelligible as they were.  

He rambled on abouthow he missed working out and running. It seemed ludicrous. He spoke about some studies at some University somewhere. It made no sense. He talked about traveling around Asia. 

She would chat about Harry at home. Her parents would chafe. They called him a self-inflicted wound. It was funny.

They were really worried that their daughter would end up with Harry the shitty wheelchair bum? She scoffed in her mind.

Every week at Temple he would hit on her. Tell her she was beautiful. How he missed Jewish girls and their unique beauty. He said he wanted to ask her out, but he could barely walk or talk and he couldn’t drive. Maybe they could go to the deli one morning and get a bagel with lox cream cheese spread. She always brushed him off. 

He spoke about how beautiful she was. Some mystical tripe about dreaming her before he ever met her. He talked about being in some strange land, sleeping under the Southern Cross, and how he imagined a girl just like her.

It was romantic, but annoying. Girls don’t dream of being hit on by Quasimodo.

The end came during Friday services at Kol Nidre. 

He held her hand for just a moment. It was strange, as if he desperately needed some human connection, as if it were a lifeline, and her parents saw him grasp her hand.

After services, outside, her parents confronted him in the dark in the Temple  driveway. 

Her dad was an imposing man, over six feet. He was a dentist. He had been a dentist in World War II and the Korean War. He was proud of his service.  

“Son, I don’t know how you got like this, but you look like shit. You probably were hooked on drugs and you screwed up your life. It’s sad. But from now on find somewhere else to sit. We aren’t your fucking family and my daughter isn’t going to associate with a pathetic hippie bum.”  

Said her dad, pointing his finger as he towered over the crippled hippie.  

“Maybe when you get out of your little rehab, you can repair your life. Move back in with your family.” 

Said her mom.  

She drew back, remembering him saying that he didn’t have a family and he lived alone somewhere upstate in a big empty house that he hadn’t seen in years. Probably a cock and bull story. Junkies were notorious liars.

“I’m sorry. I hope you’ll be OK.”  

She said, avoiding tortuous eye contact.

Harry hung his head. He muttered some apology. Probably long practiced from years of disappointing people.

The rabbi raced over. He looked very hurt. “What is hurtful to yourself, do not do to your fellow human being. That is the entire Torah!”

He shouted at her family.

“Shame on you!”

Yelled at by the Rabbi on Yom Kippur. Not a good scene.

They saw Harry again on Saturday, he sat alone in his wheelchair on the far side of the temple, he avoided eye contact and he turned his head… and then, the next week, he was gone. 

A month went by. Then a couple more weeks. She wondered what happened to him. She rode the 7 train, reading her book. Bored to death, but thinking of the sad, disgusting young man in the wheelchair. 

Veterans Day week, the JWV had their annual to-do where they called up some bored Jewish active duty soldier or officer and recited his exploits. 

The rabbi summoned up a tall attractive strong black-haired young man. He was clean shaven, wearing khakis and an Army Sweater covered with ribbons and badges. 

“Look, a caduceus!” Said her dad, all excited. 

The rabbi introduced the handsome young doctor who waddled up on wooden crutches. 

Her face fell when she realized who it was. Harry the wheelchair hippie… and she had crushed his soul… when he had desperately, hopelessly loved her. 

“Everyone, this young fellow, Captain Harry Levi, was hiding in the back since July. He is an Army trauma surgeon who was sent to rehabilitate at the LaGuardia VA hospital. His helicopter was shot down in Vietnam in June while he was on his second tour. Look, it’s like a revival! Harry can walk again! Hallelujah! Heal! See Rabbis can do it too! By the by, Harry is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, for you Philly Skimmers here and he went to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore to study medicine. What a mensch!” 

Said the rabbi.  

She stared straight ahead, furious at her parents. Angrier at herself. What awful tricks God plays on us when we have shameless vanity and show cruelty to the unfortunate.

A nice single Jewish Doctor. Every Jewish girl’s dream, ruined.

A badly wounded Veteran and they had all laughed at him, mocked him, shit on him. Her dad looked sick and he began to tear up. He had humiliated a fellow veteran and everyone knew it.

She got up from her seat. 

“Nice work, Mom and Dad, nice work! We are all wonderful people.“

She said bitterly.  

She walked down the aisle and she stood in front of the entire Saturday morning Shabbat congregation. She faced Harry and she gave him a gentle hug.  

“Harry, I’m Rachel. Let’s go get that bagel.”  

“I love you, Rachel.”  

He said very clearly.

And they walked out into the winds of Long Island Sound to the little deli.

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