Wheelchair Joey This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.


I'venever quite understood the whole racism thing. I grew up in suburbia, but in thepart of town considered the black neighborhood. When I was younger black kidswere no different from everyone else, and I was happy that way. It wasn't untilmiddle school and my encounters with Joey that I became aware of a difference. Iwas young and impressionable, and totally bought into what anyone who wouldconsider me "cool" was saying.

Joey was a 30-something-year-oldquadriplegic man who lived near me. I was considered a nerd and felt desperatefor guidance of some sort. Joey became my mentor. Before the accident that lefthim in a wheelchair, he was a rocker, and I spent hours by his side listening tohis stories.

"I tell you, Owen, I had it all. And the girls lovedme," he would tell me, while I emptied the bag of urine strapped to his leg.Even though he never graduated from high school, had no job, would get drunk andstoned all the time, and lived with his parents, I wanted to be just like theperson he used to be. He'd had girlfriends and lived the rock-and-roll lifestyle,but that ended when he was pushed off a porch and snapped his neck. He attemptedto continue his old life through kids in the neighborhood.

Joey wouldtell us how he used to make pipe bombs, so naturally we had to make a bomb andblow up a chunk of the street. But we didn't have the know-how or the supplies tomake a pipe bomb, so a gallon of gasoline would have to do the trick. Sadly, wepicked a bad place and set a man's lawn on fire. The police and firemen were onmy street that night, putting out seven-foot high flames and asking questions.Even though nobody knew exactly who blew off the gas bomb, most had an idea. I'msure people in that neighborhood could think only of Wheelchair Joey and his gangof misled youth.

Joey listened to heavy metal and sported Charles Mansonand Confederate flag t-shirts. Before I knew it, I was doing the same. Heconvinced me to wear the flag shirt in school the day we watched"Roots" for Black History Month. We laughed when I told him about thereactions I got, and then he congratulated me with a beer and some vodka mixedwith juice. I was happy as long as Joey thought I was cool.

The more ofJoey I saw, the worse I became. I started talking in harsh ways about minorities,acting as if I were better just because of my skin color. I didn't understandwhat I was doing, I did it for the feeling of acceptance I got from Joey. I waslike Joey's personal soldier, taking care of his lost youth while messing up myown. I didn't care who I made mad, or whose feelings I hurt.

Now that Iwas in with Joey, I could get other kids to help bring him more power over thesuburbs. This is where Jeremy came in. We became friends in seventh grade. He wasalready racist, and Joey liked him immediately. He was a bad kid, and heconvinced me to be even more hateful. Joey helped Jeremy get over his fear ofhaving open conversations about blacks stealing scholarships and jobs. I wouldsit back and listen. I don't know if I ever agreed with what they were saying,but I was definitely a part of it.

Or maybe I wasn't. Maybe I had beenpaying attention, but never actually related to it, and that was why it was soeasy to leave behind once I reached high school. Maybe I was just like thoseposers I'd made so much fun of the whole time I was in middle school. Butwhatever I was, I wouldn't be it for too long.

The summer before freshmanyear I met a girl at camp. I wish I could remember her name, but she had brownhair and was beautiful. She ended up dating another kid in my cabin whichsaddened me, but it wouldn't matter. What did matter was the music she introducedme to. Now, I believe that music does not make the man, but sometimes it helps. Iwas into metal and classic rock, but she had me listen to a band I had neverheard of, Less Than Jake, and I instantly loved them. When I got home, I ranright out and bought "Pezcore," which I still listen to.

LessThan Jake was ska music that Joey didn't like at all. When I had him listen, hetried to make me take it out and throw it away. For the first time, I disobeyedhim. I left it in knowing he would have to listen to it as long as I wanted. Eventhough this may not seem like a big deal, it sticks in my mind as the first stepI took to living my life for me and not to impress some old man who felt sorryfor himself.

I was no longer going to be Joey's pawn. Less Than Jake wastotally against racism, which led me to look at the whole issue from a differentperspective. I started reading literature about racism and its effects, andbecame angry with myself for being a part of it in any way. I felt ashamed forthe things I'd said, what I had let myself represent, and, most of all, for notthinking for myself. I realized who I was, and what Joey had molded me into.Acceptance was no longer a necessity; the only thing important now was improvingmyself.

Jeremy had moved away, but a few months into freshman year hecame back to visit. As we walked down my street, he wore combat boots and aswastika patch on his vest. I was embarrassed to be seen with him, and the factthat he yelled "Hail Hitler," and "White power" in mypresence disgusted me. I was relieved he was no longer living around me, and washappy to see him leave.

So there I was, just another person alone in theworld. I was totally independent, and stayed that way until I met Jeff. Westarted a band together and everything has improved since then. Even though he isracist, I don't let him influence me. I have seen where that path leads, and hateis nothing but a mask to cover one's own defects.

I owe a great deal ofthanks to that girl who let me listen to her CD. She doesn't know this, but thatsingle act helped me become a better person. She saved me from living my life toimpress others and not thinking for myself.

I try to avoid visitingJoey, but the other day he called saying he was alone and it was getting dark; heneeded someone to turn on the lights. So I took a walk to see the old friend whodid me no good. There were plenty of lights on, and I think he just neededcompany and someone to light his cigarette.

"So, how are thingsgoing, Owen?" he asked.

"Not bad. My band won the Rock Offcontest."

"I know. I read about it in the newspaper. Stillplaying that punk stuff, huh?"

"Yeah. I likeit."

"Yeah. Blow anything up lately?"

"Nope, Ikinda got out of that sort of thing."

"It was a lot of fun whenwe used to do that stuff, huh?"

"I guess." I disagreed withhim, but there was no point letting him know what I really thought of him. He wasno longer the idol I'd worshiped. I no longer needed his acceptance, and I thinkhe knew it. There were no longer any impressionable teenagers to satisfy his needto feel young again. He was alone in an empty house filled with things he couldbarely use. He was just a pitiful man, alone with no hopes. Joey's past wasfilled with failure and second chances he'd screwed up. He had no future becausehe didn't really want one. He was an invisible man in this world of objects andobsessions.

"Well Joe, I think I should get going," I said,looking at the ground. It seemed weird calling him Joe; he never allowed anyoneto

call him Joe. "That's what grown-ups call me. And I'm not agrown-up," he would say. But this time he just looked up and said,"I'll see you later, Owen."

I knew this would probably bethe last time I would see him; I would be leaving for college soon. I left hishouse feeling relief. It wasn't until that night that I saw what could have beenmy future; alone and living in the past with no one but myself to blame.

I am finally understanding what it was that made me who I am today. Iwonder if I knew then what I know now, would I still have done the same things?Or would changing my choices have altered who I am now? Everyone can ask the samequestions - take a look at the person you were five years ago, and compare thatto the person you are now. Look at what events led to a change in yourself, anddecide whether they were good things or bad. Try to pinpoint the one event thatmay have altered your existence.

I wonder if Joey knows that the path hetried to push me into was not a good one. I wonder if I have ever affected aperson's life. If I have, did I push him or her in a good direction, or was I aJoey?

And now here I sit at four in the morning, unable to sleep andpondering these questions. I have run so many variables, situations and peoplethrough my head that it aches. Maybe a person isn't supposed to know exactlywhose life they've made a difference in, or maybe I just haven't made adifference in anybody's life - yet.



This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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