Joe Reed lost his limbs as a toddler and grew up abused by his foster mother. That didn’t stop him.
The woman in the blue coat wants some earbuds. Joe Reed, wearing gold-rimmed aviator glasses, a “Joseph” name badge hanging from his blue Walmart vest, wheels over to the glass case in his red power wheelchair. Using the stump that’s his right arm, the 33-year-old fishes the keyring out of his right vest pocket, then leans forward in his chair, balancing precariously on the two leg stumps that end just above the knees, and maneuvers the key into the metal lock. He puts the metal sliding lock in one pocket and the keyring into the other. Then he slides open the glass door, gets the ringbox-sized bud case, hands it to the customer, and then restores the case to its locked position: slides the door closed, re-attaches the metal clasp and locks it before putting the keys back in his pocket.
A few minutes later, the woman returns from a trip to other parts of the store to check out. Reed rings up her earbuds, a loaf of bread, a multi-pack of paper towel rolls. He bags it all, takes her payment, and opens the cash register. “Here you go, miss. Two-eleven is your change,” he says, handing over two dollar bills, a dime and a penny.
I watch the sequence in mild disbelief. How did he pull that off? And why does it seem suddenly so unremarkable for a man without hands or feet – his arms end just past the elbows, his legs end just before the knees – to perform task after task, most requiring a high level of dexterity, with better precision and speed than those of us who have full use of all limbs? He uses the two arm stumps, which are basically rounded blocks of flesh and bone, as if they’re hands, grasping objects and doing things like texting or seasoning and cooking steak and shrimp without special accommodations.
His duties as a sales rep in the electronics department keep him plenty busy. Reed and his wife, Precious, were both hired by Walmart on Oct. 10, 2016, shortly after moving to Milwaukee with their three children, now ages 10, 8 and 5. The couple both tried and failed multiple times to land work at Chicago branches of the retail giant. Precious eventually had to quit due to complications from diabetes, but Reed remains, working his way up to his current wage of $11.93 an hour and earning the respect of his co-workers.
In making his rounds, he greets every co-worker, always with deadpan humor. “This is Stella,” he tells me. “I call her Grandma. She be trying to steal my wheelchair all the time. She don’t like walking!”
Next comes LaToya, who warns him pre-emptively: “Don’t call me Teresa!” “Teresa,” Reed replies. She shoots daggers. “Don’t make me get out of this wheelchair,” he tells her. “I know where you work!”
A young man in dreadlocks, “Trel,” blindsides him, throwing an affectionate shoulder block. Reed riffs: “Lil’ Dreddy, soft as a teddy!” He waits a few seconds, then exclaims, “like a Care Bear!”
A coworker with braids, Eddie, heads out of the store at the end of his shift. “I’ll trade you my wheelchair for your truck,” Reed hollers at him. “I’m good, bro,” Eddie replies calmly, laughing.
Reed rarely stops moving, and even more rarely stops talking, conducting a one-man comedy routine directed at colleagues, customers or no one in particular. His booming baritone laugh can be heard from three aisles away. Often, the joke’s directed at himself.
“The man with no hands always got a plan,” he thunders at one point. “Nub Zero, da no-legged hero,” he says a few minutes later, invoking the hashtag he often adds to his frequent Facebook posts.
Terrie Allen, 27, works with him in electronics and says she looks forward to the daily jolt of life. “He always has the customer laughing,” she says. “He brings a real good energy. He doesn’t let anything get in his way or stop him.”
She remembers when she started, and he alone took care to train her, introducing himself with signature wit. “Call me Mr. Nubz,” he told her.
Reed also works a part-time job setting up appointments for real estate agents, for which he earns $11 an hour. He hopes to move up to a better-paying job at Walmart, and has ambitious financial plans. He’d like to raise enough money, from his own savings and a GoFundMe campaign, to retrofit a van he bought into one he can drive. Currently, he takes a publicly funded rideshare van around, but has no way to get his kids to and from places. Precious doesn’t drive.
Every adage about ability-over-disability and the primacy of attitude in the face of adversity applies with him. He’s a guy who caught gangrene when still in diapers, resulting in the loss of the body’s four most important appendages before he had teeth. When he thinks about the things that make him stand out – the unshakable optimism, the how’d-he-do-that physical feats, the commitment to give his kids a stable, two-parent upbringing he never had – he understands it’s because of, not despite, his horrific childhood in the foster care system in Chicago.
“Everything I’ve gone through,” he says, “has only made me a stronger person. I’m considered disabled. That doesn’t mean I can’t get up and do something. I’m a double amputee and I work two jobs.”
The scar is about the size of a teardrop, visible just past the end of Reed’s right eyebrow, in the space between his temple and cheek. He doesn’t remember his exact age when he got it, but does remember that he had just returned from church at Monument of Faith in his native Chicago. Something he did, or was perceived to have done, angered his adoptive mother, such that she grabbed a high-heeled shoe and whacked his face with the pointy end.
Her name is Ellen. Most call her Cookie. Reed calls her Mom.
She and her husband, Michael, started fostering Reed when he was 7 years old, adopted him at 14 and raised him until he left at age 20. They moved a lot. Reed has encyclopedic recall of his addresses. 640 E. 87th Pl., 8746 S. Burley Ave., 5722 S. Wood St. The list goes on. Each address is in a rough neighborhood, and each address was the site of physical abuse by Cookie, according to Reed.
Cookie acknowledges that she hit Reed, but strongly denies it went beyond spankings. But Reed recounts specific incidents that speak to a pattern of violence, and his stories didn’t change in multiple tellings over the course of several weeks. He says he doesn’t begrudge his adoptive mother – they’re still in contact and mostly friendly – but wants the full extent of the abuse to be aired publicly.
“You never know how many people out there in the world are going through the same things I did,” he says.
She often used electrical cords for the indoor beatings, Reed says. In the car she preferred The Club, the anti-theft metal rod popular in the 1980s and 1990s.
With his adoptive father – whom Reed says never touched him but also never intervened – away for long stretches at work, Cookie also tasked her son with household chores. He cooked her meals. He cleaned the house. He did the laundry. He pushed her in a wheelchair, a particularly surprising task given that Reed has no arms or legs. He became expert at maneuvering with prosthetics.
“I was a husband without the sexual part” to Cookie, he says. Like Cinderella, he was responsible for all of the work in the house and absorbed all of the blame for slights real and imagined. Cookie denies this, too, saying his household duties revved up when she was convalescing from surgery or other health maladies but weren’t the regular system of forced labor he describes. Again, he sticks to his story.
His path to that fate owed to a complicated family situation thrown into disarray by medical maladies. At age 2, he was diagnosed, too late, with meningitis. Gangrene set in. Doctors at the University of Chicago had to remove both hands and both feet to save his life. His birth parents – they weren’t married; he lived with his father but his mother had legal custody – lost custody for bureaucratic reasons he still doesn’t understand.
Medical trauma became personal trauma when he and most of his siblings became wards of the state. Along with his three brothers, Reed was placed with a woman he remembers as Mrs. Trice. At 7, Reed and his siblings were each sent to different homes in what was described as a temporary move. Two weeks later, they were told that the situation was permanent, and they would not be reunited.
For Reed, that meant life with Cookie. Abuse wasn’t unfamiliar to him – he had experienced some at the hand of Mrs. Trice and her husband. But Cookie took it to a new level. “It was at that point,” he says, “that I knew what real abuse was.” He often thought of suicide.
“What I was going through, no human should have to go through that,” he says. Early on in his stay, a form of Stockholm syndrome set in. “I was too scared to say anything,” he says. “I just gave up. Every time I said something, no one believed me. I basically had no one in my corner.”
Kim Young met Reed at church when they were kids and regularly visited him at Cookie’s house throughout their upbringing. As a child, she found it odd and offensive to see her disabled friend pushing Cookie in her wheelchair, and always admired Reed for his ability to stay positive despite the daily barrage of insults and abuse by Cookie. “He was like her servant and her punching bag,” she says.
Reed describes making dinner one night during high school. Their house had a healthy mouse population, with traps laid throughout. Seeing those traps gave him an idea: That might work to poison her. So he cut up the pellets into a fine powder. After sprinkling it into Cookie’s lasagna TV dinner, he had a different epiphany. He imagined the police arriving to find her lying dead on the floor, and him alive. He knew that regardless of what he told authorities, they wouldn’t believe him. He decided life in prison was not something he wanted, especially with no arms or legs. So, just as he was serving Cookie the lasagna, he pushed it onto the floor. She beat him again for that, he says.
Was he 16? Or 17? Reed does not exactly remember. He does recall that he was in the back of Cookie’s car en route to or from church. They were near an abandoned drive-in theater in South Chicago when Cookie, stopped for some reason, inspected his wallet and found a $100 bill. She immediately accused him of stealing, as she often did. He fiercely denied it, saying the cash was a gift from their pastor’s brother. She pulled over and swung at him with The Club, hitting his arm.
“Enough is enough,” he remembers telling her, his voice tense with emotion. “You’re not going to be putting your hands on me no more. I’m older now, therefore you’re not stronger than me.”
She swung again. This time, he caught the weapon with his stumps and snatched it away from her. He rolled down the window and tossed it from the car. She rolled down her window and tossed his wallet.
“Go get my Club,” she yelled at him.
“You get my wallet and I’ll get your Club,” he screamed back. They did retrieve Club and wallet, but life changed forever.
“From that day forward,” says Reed, “she never put her hands on me no more.”
A few years later, at age 20, he made another, final break. Reed was still living with his adoptive parents, largely because he had few options. He’d gone to four high schools in Chicago. He was expelled from the third when a teacher claimed he hit her. Reed denied it, but he was still forced to leave, this time landing at the fourth school, an alternative school.
During that turbulent time, he met a young lady named Lore, known to all as Precious. When Reed made his move, he got his first taste of the honesty that defines his now-wife. “I told him if he wants to be with me, he gotta act right and get good grades,” Precious says. Teachers noticed an immediate transformation. “Whatever you’re doing, keep it up,” Precious remembers one telling her.
She came from a world apart from the one Reed knew. Both her birth parents were around and available to her and her four younger siblings. In 2004, Precious asked her mother, also named Lore, if they might take in Joe at their west side Chicago house. She agreed.
On a weekend when Cookie was out of town, Reed thoroughly cleaned the house, did all the laundry and the dishes, packed his belongings and left his key in the mailbox. He left no note. Only his Social Security card and birth certificate, which Cookie kept locked in a safe, remained at the house. Precious and her family arrived in a van. Reed closed the door and started a new life.
When March 7, 2005, came, his new family surprised him with a party to celebrate his 21st birthday, a departure from his past life. “Her mama really cared,” Reed says. “I hadn’t really experienced that before. The mama in my life was the complete opposite.”
Too soon after she entered Reed’s life, Precious’ mother died when a blood clot went to her heart, on Feb. 23, 2006. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” Reed says. “We buried her on my birthday.”
Reed heard a lot of stories about how he came to lose his limbs, and how he came to be a ward of the state. One that particularly irked him had it that he was found in a Chicago garbage can, an amputee baby left to die by his parents. The stories and the mysteries lingered for decades, with little way to be proven or refuted. There were only a few people alive who knew the real story, and, on a fall day in 2008, one of them was on the other end of the phone line with Reed.
It was his birth father, Joseph Leonard Gohagan. Reed, Gohagan’s firstborn child and only son, was sweating and stammering and mumbling. He calls it the most emotional and nerve-wracking moment of his life. His father, speaking from his home in Milwaukee, was incredulous.
“Yeah right, you gotta stop playing games with me,” Gohagan said to his wife when his son introduced himself. When Reed could barely muster a whisper in response, Precious intervened.
“Boy, speak up,” she told him. “You had me pay that money. You better talk!”
The call came after an extensive search, funded by Precious’ debit card, that led first to the wife of his cousin, who said Gohagan would be ecstatic to hear from him. “Oh, we’ve heard so many stories about you,” she told him. “Your father’s been looking for you for years.”
Once the nerves settled for both men, they talked for nearly two hours. Gohagan, an engineer with the commercial developer Hertz Investment Group, confirmed to Reed that he had indeed been searching for years, but finally gave up because lawyer bills became too steep. He filled in gaps about Reed’s adoption, saying that he did everything he could think of to gain custody but was denied. Reed filled him in on the horrors that came in the foster system, and on the abuse by Cookie. “He was ready to go to Chicago and whup her behind,” Reed says.
Now, Gohagan takes a more measured tone. “I focused on him being a survivor,” he says. “Joey and her had a level of togetherness even after all that. I try not to go back in the past. It doesn’t help to get upset about the past when you can change the future.”
Neither man came into the conversation knowing what it would bring. They emerged deeply bonded as father and son, elated about their connection after 22 years apart. “It’s just so weird, it’s like nothing ever happened, like we never left each other,” Gohagan says. “We just picked up all those years and we bonded automatically. It’s pretty awesome.”
Their conversation ended with an invitation by Reed for his father to spend Thanksgiving in Chicago at the home of his wife’s family. Gohagan came with his wife and sister and brought an early Christmas gift for Reed and Precious.
“When I met him I was amazed at his abilities,” Gohagan says. “Nothing hindered him whatsoever. He’s a very amazing man. I’m very proud of him.”
The reunion set in motion a relationship that, eight years later, culminated with Reed and his family moving north to Milwaukee to escape what felt like endless cycles of negativity in Chicago. Gohagan had long ago bought his three-bedroom duplex on the far Northwest Side just in case one of his children would ever want to move in with him.
Also in 2008, Reed reconnected with his birth mother, then living in Atlanta. She has 11 other children. “My mama is a rolling stone,” Reed says with a smile. Not long into their meeting, tempers flared. The woman got violent with her long-lost son, and Reed knocked her TV to the floor. She called the police, and Reed spent the first and only night of his life in jail.
“It took only one time going to jail to say, ‘That ain’t never happening again,’” he says. Reed has since improved relations with his birth mother, but she hasn’t been anywhere near the influence Gohagan has. “He’s done more for me than my adopted mom and dad did combined,” Reed says.
The smartphone spasms to life, dancing on the coffee table to a Euro techno ringtone. Reed gathers the phone with his two stumps, steadies it in the crook of his left elbow and, using the button-like appendage on the right stump, silences the alarm. It’s time to pick up the kids.
He waddles over to his wheelchair, hoists himself onto it and maneuvers it toward the door, his right stump controlling the joystick. Soon he’s leaving the living room, which like the rest of the house is immaculately clean and orderly, and exiting the two small ramps on the front steps of their white duplex with brown shutters and roof. He zips east down Florist Avenue as snow flurries dance in the 12-degree air, passing duplex after duplex that define this part of town.
A yellow bus stops a bit east of 109th Street, and three kids pour out. “Wait!” screams Reed as his daughter Lore starts to cross the street, her braids spilling out of her stocking hat, a pink Trolls backpack over her polka-dotted coat. She regroups and joins her brother and sister. They cross together. “Where’s your hat and gloves?” Reed hollers at them. He’s not the best example, wearing only a black sweatshirt without a hat on this frigid January day, their first back at school after holiday break. Son Joseph Jr., in a Paw Patrol backpack and white stocking hat, walks up and hugs his father in the wheelchair. “I love you, Daddy,” he says. “Love you, too, son,” Reed replies. “I don’t have any homework today!” the boy exclaims.
Every morning, Reed accompanies his kids to the same bus stop for the ride to school. He can do the afternoon shift as well since today’s one of his two weekly days off from Walmart, where he works usually about 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. On work days, it gnaws at him to miss this afternoon time with the kids, and further fuels his desire to start his own business someday, where he can set his own hours and arrange work around the kids’ schedules, instead of the other way around.
“I promised myself I’d be involved in all my kids’ lives,” he says.
He’d like to change his name back to Gohagan. And he’d like to get his family into a house of their own, down the street from his father’s on Florist.
Reed stays in touch with Cookie, saying the two laugh about the mistreatment she inflicted on his childhood. He says that time has taught him not to hate her, but to feel some degree of pity for her, knowing that her mental state had to be so scarred that she chose to lash out at those who could least defend themselves.
“Life’s too short to be bitter,” he says. “I’m not going to pretend I was a goody two-shoes. Did I get in trouble in school? Yes, I did. I had so much anger built up from how I was raised. But does that make what I had to go through OK? Of course it doesn’t.” ◆
Postscript: Just before this story went to press, Joe Reed received tragic news while working his Friday night shift at Walmart: Dontrel Burnett, the baby-faced, dread- locked co-worker he affectionately called “Lil’ Dreddy” (soft as a teddy), was shot dead in Menomonee Falls. Demetrius Q. Gordon has been charged with the killing after allegedly following Burnett, who was in a vehicle with Gordon’s ex-girlfriend on Interstate 41. Reed took to Facebook with tributes, writing that Burnett was the first person in his life he’d lost to gun violence. “You were my 1st friend that I made when I moved to Milwaukee and afterwards we became #Brothers #WalmartBrothers #Family.”
Photos by Sara Stathas