Joe Reed lost his limbs as a tod­dler and grew up abused by his foster mother. That didn’t stop him.

Milwaukee Magazine - - Content - Dan Simmons STORY BY Sara Stathas PHO­TOS BY

A child­hood marred by am­pu­ta­tion and hor­rific abuse couldn’t seem far­ther in the rear-view mir­ror for the re­mark­able man who calls him­self “Nub Zero.”

By Dan Simmons

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, reat­taches 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.”

“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, dread­locked 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.”

Reed ar­rives for work at Wal­mart.

Reed with his wife, Pre­cious, and their daugh­ter La-Zaria, 8

Reed with his dad, Joseph Leonard Go­ha­gan

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