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The Hard Math of Two Wheels and One Pedal
DEXTER BENJAMIN says that he is the only one-legged bicycle messenger in the city. Absent any special-interest group for one-legged bicycle messengers, it is nearly impossible to challenge him on this claim. Besides, who would deny him such distinction?
To find Mr. Benjamin, you walk down West 37th Street, past the cheap restaurants that cater to garment workers who push around bolts of cloth, past a man named Eddie selling dresses off a rack on the pavement. At No. 327, you enter a room so narrow and tight that when someone eats a tuna fish sandwich, everyone can imagine the aftertaste.
Four businesses - three messenger services and a driving school - operate in the grimy office, an arrangement that requires the courtesy of cheek-by-jowl cohabitation. When teachers lecture students on the finer points of parallel parking, the messengers and dispatchers across the room soften their banter in deference.
Three wooden crutches propped against a cabinet signal Mr. Benjamin's corner of the room. He scavenges them for spare parts, he explains, as he leans back in his chair to reveal a long stretch of space where his right leg used to be.
The telephone beside him is loud in its silence. Business is slow for his company, B and L Courier Service, he says. Very slow.
Using his crutches, he swings his way through a gaggle of idle messengers and out onto West 37th. There, locked to a pole, rests his crudely customized bicycle, with one pedal and two black strips of tire tubing that he uses to secure his crutches when he goes out on a run.
Another messenger shouts "Hey Dexter" as he whizzes past. "Hey-hey," Mr. Benjamin calls back, feigning recognition. In the subculture of city messengers, he knows virtually no one, but everyone seems to know this 6-foot-2 amputee called Dexter. "I'm the only one-legged bicycle messenger in New York City," he says, shrugging. "In 20 years, I've never seen another."
There is not enough paper in one notebook to tell his story, he says. He was born in Trinidad, grew up to be a strapping, two-legged athlete in Trinidad, and lost his leg in a bicycle-meets-truck accident in Trinidad. He was 21 then, and with each successive operation, his stump got shorter.
"I've been through a lot with this damned thing," he says.
He came to New York to participate in a marathon, decided to stay, and before long was leaning on a crutch and panhandling in Grand Central Terminal. He spent many nights sleeping in a shelter, and more than one dawn wondering who would stoop to steal a one-legged man's shoe.
Another Trinidad native, Steve Alexis, eventually hired him as a messenger. "He could walk with crutches," Mr. Alexis says. "I figure if he rides a bike, that's even better."
After learning to shift his weight for proper balance, Mr. Benjamin was soon darting through Manhattan streets in a triumphal blur. "I love their reaction when I pass them," he says of others. "They're seeing something impossible."
KEEPING his balance on a bicycle has been easier than maintaining it on the ground. His estranged wife lives now in Florida with their children. His relationship with another woman ended last year. His insurance company refuses to pay for a prosthetic limb with microprocessors and sensors that he says would change his life. ("You could cycle with it.") His cellphone service has been cut off. His one knee aches.
And there was that subway tussle with a 300-pound transsexual a few years back. He was eventually acquitted of a hate crime in one of the more unusual trials of 2002, but he still owes thousands to his defense lawyer.
"It's been a hard road," he says.
Still, Mr. Benjamin has learned to laugh at circumstances so difficult they approach the absurd. He recalls one of the many times his bicycle was stolen, and for once he and the police found the culprit as he was walking the hot bike through the Upper East Side.
Why was the thief walking the bike? "It had just one pedal," he says, smiling.
As Mr. Benjamin lingers near his bicycle, a man appears and teasingly asks him what he's up to. "Somebody stole my leg," he answers. "I'm trying to find it."
Hahaha, comes the awkward laughter.
He ties his crutches to the bicycle with those strips of tire tubing, and mounts. His left sneaker finds the toe strap of the only pedal. Then, with leg muscles that aren't as strong as they used to be, and with that bad knee, he powers the bicycle forward.
For a moment he wobbles. But soon the city's only one-legged bicycle messenger finds his balance again.