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ACCIDENT AS TEEN HAD A POSITIVE SIDE

A few months ago I was waiting on line for coffee at a shop in Times Square when a fellow in a wheelchair came in.

New York is both a city of strangers and a place where you're constantly running into people you know. You can spend a lifetime learning the etiquette of eye contact. I had a feeling I knew this guy but I wasn't sure. And then he said, "Bob?""Jerome! Hey, man, how you doing?"

Early in 1987 I had done a story on Jerome McGill. He was an 18-year-old high school kid trying hard to overcome the terribly debilitating effects of a shooting five years earlier.

The face looking at me now was 26 and remarkably relaxed. A big, friendly smile. We had a quick conversation and Jerome gave me his card. We agreed to set aside some time to talk.

The shooting had happened very early on New Year's morning, 1982. Jerome, 13 at the time, was walking with a friend on the Lower East Side. They were heading home from a New Year's Eve party in Greenwich Village.

From nowhere came a loud bang. Jerome would later say: "I didn't feel much at all. I knew I had been shot. I kept thinking, `Wow, what is my mother going to say?' And I was hoping I wasn't going to die."

The bullet damaged his spinal cord, causing permanent paralysis. The doctor who supervised Jerome's rehabilitation said, "In a millisecond he went from being a normal kid to being a quadriplegic."

The shooting was never explained. No gunman was ever caught.

Jerome was left with only very limited use of his arms and hands and with extended periods of depression and despair. "I felt," he said, "that I was the unluckiest person in the world to have this happen to me."

At 13, the grandiose dreams of adolescence vanished. Other kids could look forward to college and adventure. For Jerome it took a tremendous effort just to learn how to feed himself cereal.

Always sensitive and introspective, he now felt vaguely ashamed and totally dependent. As he phrased it, "There is something about your situation that makes you feel like you are less than the others around you."

When I first met Jerome, he had gotten past the despair and was learning to handle the depression. He was a senior in high school and he was taking acting lessons with the National Theater Workshop of the Handicapped. He was trying to convince himself that the possibility of a career as an actor was not absurd.

"If I really, really try," he said, "I think I have a good shot." A stricken look crossed his face. He paused, upset over his choice of words. "Good chance," he said. "Excuse me."

The card Jerome gave me said, "Jerry McGill, Production Manager, The 52nd St. Project." For reasons too complicated to explain, the office is on 42nd Street. Early this summer I went to see him.

The 52nd St. Project runs theater workshops for kids from a tough neighborhood on the West Side of Manhattan. It's run by a MacArthur fellow named Willie Reale. Jerome's job as production manager is, basically, to do whatever is needed at any given moment. That could be stage-managing, running the sound board, writing, directing, teaching or simply keeping the kids quiet.

"I'm in the nucleus," said Jerome. He also said he used the name Jerry now, and seemed to indicate that it helped distance him from what he refers to as his "accident."

Jerry's advance from despair to production manager of a theater group was long, arduous and never certain. More than once Jerry got it into his head to just let the bullet win.

"But," he said, "there were always people around me driving home the idea of never giving up. In a weird way it was my accident that put me in touch with more positive people than a lot of inner-city kids tend to meet. As they helped me to become more independent, the whole self-esteem problem began to wither away."

Jerry's goals have shifted. There were not a lot of roles, as he put it, "for black actors in wheelchairs." So he turned to writing. Yesterday I learned that he is leaving the workshop and moving to Los Angeles. He has a screenplay completed and he wants to sell it.

His dreams have reconvened. "I'll do any kind of work to get myself established," he said. "And besides, I don't want to spend another freezing winter in New York."