A one-legged bicycle messenger navigates the streets of Manhattan
By Anusha Shrivastava
He lifts himself onto the bicycle seat, tilting the machine a notch so that his left leg, his only leg, supports his body. He tucks his crutches inside rubber loops he fashioned himself and attached to the rod extending from the bike's seat to its handlebar. He shifts on the seat until he is comfortable, and certain that his body is aligned just so with the cycle.
Dexter Benjamin, a tall, muscular man, lost his right leg the day he snatched a toddler from in front of a delivery truck hurtling down a hill in his native Trinidad. "I never focused on the accident," Benjamin said. "Two days after I came home from the hospital, I tried to ride my bicycle using my left leg and fell. I swore I would ride it again and again until I got it right."
In the 18 years since his accident, the crutches have kept Benjamin from falling down. In his American life, his bicycle keeps him employed as a messenger ferrying packets from business to business in Manhattan.
Benjamin was born into a poor family. Abandoned by the boy's father, Benjamin's mother remarried when he was 8 and, at that point, he was sent to live with his grandparents. Benjamin was not interested in school and dropped out that very year. At 10, he ran away from home. At 13, he got sent to reform school for knifing a grown man. As a man himself, he has married one woman, conceived three children, then lost her because -- he admits this -- he was cheating on her.
"He is very attractive and gentle so it is easy to love him but then you realize that he is using his handicap as a shield against any criticism," his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Lisa Benjamin, said.
The couple met in this country, the place to which Dexter Benjamin first journeyed in 1986. He arrived as one among the throngs of foreigners participating in the New York City Marathon. He clocked seven and a half hours in the race.
Taken by what he saw and heard and did, he opted to stay in New York, believing he could make a better life for himself here than back home.
His immigrant's tale is rife with its own troubles. Most recently, Benjamin was accused and acquitted of a hate crime, of repeatedly hitting a transsexual, a man who chooses to live as a woman, in a crowded subway car. "The next time someone hits me, I'll ask them if they are straight or gay," Benjamin said, smiling and giving his account of things. The man weighed 300 pounds, Benjamin said, and began pounding on him because his bike hit the accuser's leg.
"He looked like a man with no lipstick," Benjamin said, adding that he was the person under attack.
Had Benjamin, 39, lost the case, he would have been deported to Trinidad. Instead, he is remaining here, running the four-person messenger service that he started in 1999 and which has suffered its share of ups and downs.
Benjamin's sister, Cheryl Chandler, 41, said her younger brother had always been industrious, even if he was not the model citizen on other fronts.
When he dropped out of school, he began riding a donkey cart in Mornediablo, a farming community, collecting old bottles that he could sell for the equivalent of 5 cents. "He was always a hard-working boy but he is also rebellious and very independent-minded," Chandler said.
As a child, he also cleaned other people's backyards. At 13, a farmer hired him to sell coconuts and he seemed pretty steady on that job until the day a customer refused to pay in full. Benjamin slashed the customer across the forehead and, for that, ended up at the vocational reform school. There, he discovered his older brother, training to be a chef. Benjamin, for a time, began taking cooking lessons too. "I love food too much to be around it all day. Look at the fish tank," said Benjamin, pointing out an empty one in his living room. "I ate all the fish when I was starving one day." It was a joke.
Eventually, he studied masonry at the reform school. After four years of confinement, he was released and accepted a mason's job. That lasted until, at 21, he lost that right leg and headed for New York.
Early on, he panhandled at Grand Central Terminal. He took in $75 on the good days. A house-painting job in Brooklyn brought him $300, which he promptly invested in an old cycle that he adjusted for his own use. He removed its right pedal and had a mechanic move the crankshaft, the mechanism holding bike's chain, from the right to the left side.
"My old bike was transformed into my right leg, an extension of my body," Benjamin said. "My balance improved with practice."
Another Trinidadian hired him as a messenger in Manhattan. Within a few months, Benjamin set up his own courier service, charging $9 per delivery and earning $700 per month, he said.
Soon after his new business seemed stable enough, Benjamin married Lisa, a woman he met on the train. "We got married in City Hall and went to McDonald's for lunch. It was the best hamburger I ever ate in my whole life," he said. Apart from a wife, the marriage provided him with a green card and, thereby, legal status in the United States.
Two children later, Lisa Benjamin walked out. In response, he said, he wrote a good-bye note to his children and swallowed 12 sleeping pills. The next morning, his roommate woke him up. "I was upset. Even my suicide attempt had failed," Benjamin said.
His luck changed when a reporter from The Daily News wrote about Benjamin's bad luck, and told readers where they could send money on Benjamin's behalf. That was in 1998. Benjamin bought three more bicycles and started afresh.
The same year, he met Beverly Harris, a social worker, on a train. Harris found him a subsidized apartment for the disabled on Roosevelt Island, helped Benjamin get modeling assignments, even bought him a bus ticket to Florida two years ago to visit his children.
Before returning to New York, he had impregnated Lisa Benjamin. Even so, he is divorcing her to marry Harris this year. He also plans to take up a more stable job.
"I might work as a doorman. I'm nearing 40 and, if I don't switch careers soon, I might have to cycle my way into heaven or try to sneak in by delivering messages to God."