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wheelchair and cane

In a Wheelchair and Hungry

Senior critic Robert Sietsema got in a bike accident that temporarily required him to use a wheelchair. As he found out, eating looked a lot different when he was in pain and unable to walk

It was a mild Tuesday evening in late May when I found myself furiously pedaling down Ninth Avenue in the bike lane through Chelsea, just as the shadows began to reach across the avenue. South of 17th Street, I began changing lanes when a yellow cab came flying across my path out of nowhere.

Thwap! As the cabbie hit me, my ass took out his rearview mirror, leaving it dangling. The next day, a mirror-shaped bruise appeared on my butt. Rather than flying through the air as TV stunt doubles do, I’d simply collapsed into a heap with my bike under me. The bike was unharmed, but I sustained six fractures: three of the pelvis, two broken ribs, and an obliterated elbow, requiring a reconstruction operation a week later.

For anyone who has been wondering where I’ve been, or why I was posting on social media from Bellevue Hospital, this was the reason. Since it happened, I’ve been largely out of commission, unable to traipse around the five boroughs and beyond by bike and train to dine at restaurants in my regular fashion.

View from my hospital room
View from my hospital room

Following the accident, I spent three days on the 15th floor of Bellevue Hospital, with a magnificent view of the East River that I was too drug addled to enjoy. As I was wheeled into the hospital’s trauma center in excruciating pain, I remember a nurse asking me, “Do you want fentanyl or morphine?” I picked the morphine because of its literary associations, and soon, the ceiling was rippling in waves as I gazed up at it from my stretcher.

I immediately began worrying how soon I’d be able to get back to work. It turns out, though one’s mobility may be severely curtailed by an accident, a fervid interest in food remains. I found myself hungry all the time. Weren’t the oxycodones I was popping supposed to suppress the appetite?

It’s been a difficult seven weeks or so, and as it turns out, navigating meals using a wheelchair and then a cane is a sharp departure from when I was more mobile. I experimented with food delivery at first. Then, venturing out in a wheelchair, I quickly found out how “accessible” restaurants are for dining out in one. (Most, as it turns out, are less than ideal.) What I wanted to eat, too, changed at times. Familiar foods became more desirable; at the height of my pain, pizza and sandwiches reigned.

In the beginning, I measured out my days with hospital meals. On one occasion, a dinner plate held sliced roast beef and gravy, a dome of mashed potatoes, and chopped-up greens that weren’t spinach. Arrayed around the main plate like planets circling a dying star were a red delicious apple, a small iceberg salad, a single slice of brown bread wrapped in plastic, a cup of coffee, and a carton of milk proclaiming it came from Cream-O-Land, a country found on no atlas.

Roast beef dinner at Bellevue Hospital
Roast beef dinner at Bellevue Hospital
Bellevue’s Moonstruck Diner is open to the public.
Bellevue’s Moonstruck Diner is open to the public.

The hospital food was actually better than expected. Standouts among the 10 meals I ate there included a minestrone with a gluey broth and pipes of stunted ditali and a spaghetti Bolognese that entailed a few strands of spaghetti concealed under a mountain of plain ground beef. Where was the ragu, I wondered?

When I returned a week later for my elbow operation, I discovered there were regular restaurants open to the public in the hospital complex. What a strange spot Bellevue’s Moonstruck Diner would be for a date! A branch of a well known chain, it is located at a bustling corridor crossroads, and boasts plenty of booth seating and the usual beguiling display of pies and cakes. A breakfast that included juice, coffee with refills, two eggs, excellent hash browns, and bacon, sausage, or ham set me back $8.25, which is a good deal even by contemporary diner standards.

It was initially a mystery where I’d end up after being discharged from Bellevue, since I live on the third floor of a walk-up Village tenement. It seemed like it might be awhile before I could go home and bound up those stairs. For the near future, I would need to use a wheelchair, gradually supplementing it with short hops on a punky black cane they’d given me as I waved goodbye to the hospital.

My Lynbrook back yard, down a few excruciating steps
My Lynbrook back yard, down a few excruciating steps

I ended up moving into a stone-faced bungalow in Lynbrook, Long Island, not far from the Queens border on the flight path of jets from Kennedy Airport. The place had been temporarily vacated by its owners, who’d gone on an extended vacation to the former Yugoslavia.

Important rooms like the bedroom and a fully equipped kitchen were all on one level, and there was a nice patio in back filled with trees and birds merrily chirping, down a few steps that seemed in my current condition to be as unclimbable as Everest. It would be a week before I could painfully clamor down them and relax in the backyard.

From there, joined by my companion Gretchen, my first food move seemed obvious: delivery services such as GrubHub and DoorDash. I must sheepishly admit, I’ve almost never ordered food for delivery, figuring it’s always more fun to eat out. Who wants hours old sushi and wilted salads, anyway? I set out eyeballing eateries not too far away, though found my choices mainly limited to Greek, Italian, and Chinese.

A couple of meals delivered from a Greek restaurant proved disappointing. The bread dips and salads were spot on, but anything featuring meat or poultry turned out tired and desiccated; a serving of pork gyro was dry as newspaper. Ditto for Chinese restaurants, though they made unfailingly fine fried chicken. Indeed, further experiments proved that settling for food delivery required compromising one’s concept of freshness.

Hero with fresh mozzarella from Sorrento’s
Hero with fresh mozzarella from Sorrento’s

Don’t get me wrong, there were culinary highlights during my stay in Lynbrook. Some visiting Eater friends brought bagels and smoked salmon from Russ & Daughters. Others ferried sandwiches from a terrific sub shop called Sorrento’s in Long Beach, and provided pupusas from a nearby Salvadoran café that didn’t seem to be on Yelp.

And our culinary fortunes mostly looked up when our hosts came back from their trip, and cooked a succession of homemade Balkan meals, including stuffed cabbage sarma, white beans boiled all day with pig parts called prebanc; and palacinke, crepes to be slathered with jams brought from Belgrade.

Joe’s cheese slice
Joe’s cheese slice

But I’d have to say the best food in Lynbrook came one day after a wheelchair spin, where I happened upon a very old establishment called Joe’s Pizzeria. The plain cheese slice was perfection itself, with just the right amount of cheese, a crust that was a mellow brown, and an agreeably plain tomato sauce. The heroes were great, too, and from that point on, when I wanted something really mood-boosting, I’d head for Joe’s. I was learning that injury engenders a desire for the most familiar foods, well prepared.

Our stay climaxed with a big thank you meal for our hosts at Peter’s Clam House, entailing a ride in an SUV, a zigzagging roll through the parking lot in the wheelchair, and lots of clamoring around on the cane inside the restaurant, since the wheelchair couldn’t be maneuvered in the packed dining room. I popped one of my dwindling supply of opioids to dull the pain. At this quintessential Long Island restaurant, the food is never quite as good as you’d hoped, but pick anything involving clams and you’ll be perfectly happy.

A glowing two story restaurant structure at sunset.
Peter’s Clam Bar

My dining prospects improved after moving to an apartment in Jackson Heights, inside a very Rosemary’s Baby-style building with an ancient, cage-type Otis Elevator circa 1920, the doors of which closed with a long bang like a rifle shot. Though the halls of the apartment were too narrow to use the wheelchair, thus forcing me to up my cane game, food in the immediate proximity turned out to be exuberant. Wheeled about over uneven sidewalks and going no further than a quarter mile, I began to rediscover the amazing culinary riches of Jackson Heights.

I was only a block from Northern Boulevard, where a renaissance in South American eats — principally Colombian, Peruvian, and Venezuelan — is underway, just as the neighborhood got its first new American bistro, the Queensboro, joining old timers like Salamanca, a Castilian restaurant that stuck to traditional Spanish fare, where priests were often seen dining with parishioners.

The Iraqui—can you get one of these in Baghdad?
The Iraqui — can you get one of these in Baghdad?

Every day brought a new adventure, and I realized why I’d become obsessed with eating the broadest range of foods in the first place. One afternoon I visited a couple of Colombian places that specialized in lavishly topped hot dogs. At Le Perrada de Chalo, furnished with rough-hewn tables flanked by tree-stump seats, the weenies had international themes. The Iraqui ($4.99) proved irresistible, garnished with pineapple, cheese, several colorful sauces, boiled eggs, and crushed potato chips. As the toppings struggled to assert their flavors, pineapple always won.

Northern Boulevard is also more or less the northern frontier for Thai food in Middle Queens, which includes Elmhurst and Jackson Heights. There’s a place called Black Thai that features an interior jumbled with statuary and other objects, all of them painted black. The menu offers an exciting version of drunken noodles, curries that pack some heat, and a piquant duck salad that also features pineapple, a fruit that was proving ubiquitous in the area.

I depended on my wheelchair for these expeditions, and I was soon to discover how few restaurants are really wheelchair equipped. Sure, they might have a grab bar in the bathroom, but the entrance therein was often too narrow, the toilet too low, or the sink spigots unreachable. My biggest obstacle often came at the front door of a restaurant where a steep, crumbling ramp made it difficult to get over the sill; inside, the tables were too close together for a wheelchair to get by. I was receiving a crash course in the obstacles that discourage the handicapped from dining out, and I felt like a second class citizen. Hadn’t laws been written to address these problems?

As the weeks wore on, walking with a cane became easier, and soon, I was hoofing it to 37th and Roosevelt avenues, both restaurant hot spots. Friends visited, and I would take them out for a Jackson Heights meal, finding more gems than I’d imagined. It was a win to once again visit new restaurants worthy of sharing. Indeed, in three weeks’ time I ate in nearly 30 restaurants, over half of them new to me. The best of these will appear in a Jackson Heights map soon.

Neighborhood hangout Cannelle Patisserie
Neighborhood hangout Cannelle Patisserie

But my greatest triumph of mobility so far came when Gretchen and I walked to a place that was less about expanding my palate. At Cannelle Patisserie, a picture perfect French pastry shop illogically situated in a fading strip mall a few blocks north of Northern Boulevard, we sat and relaxed as we had in pre-accident days, sipping cups of coffee and enjoying several of the patisserie’s signature products, including a raspberry almond croissant and wedge of buttery and crumbly gateau Breton.

It’s now been seven weeks since my bike accident, and I can walk a half mile or so, though my hip and groin still hurt with every step. I’m confident that in a month, I’ll be able to walk again without my cane, too. Soon, I’ll be able to re-assume my daily routine of long trips on the subway and extended treks in search of interesting and delectable meals. But whether I’ll ever ride my bike again, after an accident of that magnitude, is still an open question.

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