Not every story assignment turns out to be a life-affirming exercise. Milwaukee writer Dan Simmons has written about a lot in his time here - from a doctor who treats bonobos to changes in the housing market. But Simmons’ most recent assignment for Milwaukee Magazine turned out to form a connection for which he says he will always be grateful.
The piece profiles an employee at a local Walmart. That may not sound like the makings of a promising feature, but it’s the employee he’s following that makes this story unique. Joe Reed is working the register and with no arms or legs, effortlessly completing all of his tasks to help a customer with greater ease than most able-bodied people.
Reed, now 34, lost his limbs as a toddler due to meningitis. He grew up in Chicago in two different foster homes and an abusive foster mother – but Simmons can attest that he’s never let anything stop him.
"Not only is it remarkable that a person with these challenges can do this, what is also remarkable is just how routine it seems to Joe and how unimpressed he is," says Simmons. "One thing I didn't want to happen in writing the story is for that sense of wonder and amazement to go away. I didn't want it to become normalized, as it quickly does when you're with Joe, because he does make the extraordinary look and seem sort of routine."
Reed says that finding out he was going to be featured in a magazine was "one of the happiest moments of [his] life." He continues, "A lot of people that have grown up in the hood don't really have the chance to get recognized for their talent that they have - especially when you have a disability."
Reed says it was "torture" growing up in the Chicago foster system. His second foster mother (who adopted Reed) was physically abusive and made him do nearly all the housework and care for her - a daunting reality for a child, nevertheless a double amputee.
"I think about [my childhood] everyday because it's part of me, it's part of what molded me, and it's part of what made me who I am today," says Reed. "I made a promise to myself with the way I was treated, that if God blessed me with a family I'd make sure I'd be there for all my kids - no matter what I had to do."
Reed now lives in Milwaukee, works two jobs, and is married with three children. He even reconnected with his biological father, who Reed says never stopped looking for him trying to get him back.
One key part of Reed that Simmons couldn't help but learn from was his relentless optimism. "Meeting Joe and seeing his ability to navigate daily life with these incredible physical challenges, but then also keeping such an optimistic and fun-loving attitude despite life really mistreating him to an extent few of us have ever encountered, is just inspiring," he says. "It's readjusted my philosophy about always finding the bright side of things."
Reed hopes that his story can help inspire others who are facing their own challenges in life. "It's easy to give up - anyone can give up anytime. But the best part about not giving up is you keep pushing and you strive for greatness," he says. "Anything is possible if you put your mind to it. The only disability you got is in your mind."