Dexter Benjamin delivers packages for $12. He changes lives for free.
By Grant Davis
Bicycling Magazine, March 2000
Dexter Benjamin has a problem. On this frigid New York afternoon, his Motorola cell phone hasn't worked since 2:30. No phone means no customers for his fledgling bike messenger business, B&L Courier Service. Earlier today, he used the last ten minutes on his prepaid calling plan and has since been forced to rely on his beeper and the army of Bell Atlantic pay phones planted throughout Manhattan.
He stops his bike at the corner of Eighth and Fifty-Second. His dark eyes scan the intersection for a pay phone to answer his beeper. Searching desperately, Benjamin wonders aloud with traces of his native Trinidadian accent still audible, "How can I make any money when my customers can't reach me immediately, man?"
A minute later, he finds a phone. The order is from a loyal customer; it's the day's last delivery, a 10-block jaunt to a midtown Manhattan graphica house. Benjamin's 6-foot-2, NFL linebacker size frame hops aboard his battered Dura-Cycle fixed gear track bike. He cuts east one block, then sprints south down Seventh Avenue for more than two and a half miles, catching every traffic light as it turns green at each block - a signal system designed to keep autos moving at 30 mph.
He rides with ease and aggression, sometimes seeming a natural part of a peleton of multi-ton cars and trucks. Other times he dodges and slices the New York traffic, breathing diesel exhaust from buses while dodging pedestrians ignoring "Don't Walk" signs. He sprints through rapidly closing passageways between yellow taxis, barking warnings to drivers, fighting for his space.
When Benjamin arrives at the pick-up, he unties the two strips of inner tube securing wooden crutches to the right side of the bike's top tube. Then, balancing on the handle of one crutch to free his hands, he bends to lock the bike to a signpost.
The ease with which Benjamin utilizes his crutch makes the wood seem like an organic extension of his Lycra-clad stump.
Pedestrians walking by break out of their protective New York City scowls to watch Benjamin’s fluid dance between bike and crutches. “People always smile when they see me, says Benjamin with a gleaming smile of straight teeth that breaks up his long face, “So I’m always smiling, too.”
Standing balanced on one crutch, he digs around in the pocket of his neoprene cycling jacket for a tissue to blow his nose. In another life his muscular, athletic build and model looks may have landed him an ad campaign for Polo Sport or Tommy Hilfiger. Right now, he’s honking snot from his nose on lower Broadway. His mucus comes out littered with black particles. Benjamin looks at it, then clears his throat and mouth of the same grit and spits it out on the sidewalk. “This isn’t Trinidad,” he says simply.
After readjusting his bag, he pulls the other crutch back under his armpit with his stump—not much weaker-looking than the thigh on his intact leg — and heads into the office building to pick up the delivery taking long, loping steps with his crutches.
If Dexter Benjamin has his way, he’ll go down as the most famous bike messenger in New York, knocking off 1984 Olympic track cyclist Nelson Vails. Ask any New Yorker if they’ve seen Benjamin, and they’ll reply that either they’ve sighted him firsthand or have heard him talked about with the reverence usually reserved for Jerry Seinfeld sightings.
“Yeah, I’ve seen the guy, says Lauren Parker, a production manager who works in midtown Manhattan. “You see him and then a couple of seconds later, you stop yourself and say, Holy ****! Did I just see that?”’
Ask most local bike messengers about Benjamin and they’ll more often than not tell a story about how this one-legged blur shot by them as if they were standing still. “He s faster than most of us with two legs, says a messenger for Breakaway Couriers. Another messenger calls Benjamin the epitome of faith and courage with the best part being his independence: “I gotta give the man props.
At 37, Benjamin is retirement material in a shrinking industry filled with twenty-somethings. He laughs dismissively when asked about changing careers. “I’ll be a messenger until I die, he says, “And when I’m gone, I’ll take messages for God in heaven.” When asked if he honestly pictures himself delivering packages at age 70, he scratches his short hair and looks away as if to convince himself before answering, “I’ll still ride as long as I have the strength. I’ll do it as long as God lets me. I love to ride.”
Unspoken, perhaps, is the admission that without his bicycle, Benjamin is a one-legged man who walks with crutches. His pride and self-esteem are interwoven with his ability to turn a crank faster than millions of people living in New York City. Without his bike, he’s anybody.
Benjamin’s muscular left leg, which looks powerful enough to replace the landing gear on a Boeing 727, has been his bread and butter since he lost the right leg in an accident in Trinidad on a Sunday after-noon in January, 1983.
Benjamin’s story: Cycling to his uncle’s house to work as a carpenter, he was rolling down a steep hill. As an oncoming water truck sped around the corner at the bottom, a boy darted into the vehicle’s path. Benjamin realized that the truck driver couldn’t see the boy and—in a split-second decision—darted toward the boy. He threw himself off his bike and pushed the boy off the road.
His right leg was hit by the truck. “Boom! My leg is all broken bones and blood,” Benjamin remembers, “But I never thought my life was over while I was lying on the ground looking at my leg... just different.” The next day, his right leg, with a crushed knee and lower half, was amputated.
He’d entertained Olympic hopes in boxing or the shot put; those dreams died, but Benjamin’s athletic career took off after the accident. Roughly a year after he lost his leg, he entered a half-marathon in Trinidad. He ran the 13.1 miles on crutches and finished second in the disabled category, behind fellow Trinidadian Anthony Phillip, a marathoner with a prosthetic leg who had secured sponsorship from the New York Achilles Track Club to run the New York Marathon.
Recognizing another great athlete when he saw one Phillip recommended that the club sponsor Benjamin as well. In 1986, it did; Achilles invited Benjamin to run the New York Marathon and sent him a plane ticket along with a stipend for expenses. He flew to New York the first time he’d ever been in a plane or left the island and finished the race in seven and a half hours.
He returned to Trinidad with the memory of hundreds of thousands of cheering people lining the race route. When he returned to run the marathon the next year, he stayed:
“New York back then seemed a better place than Trinidad to further my athletic career.”
But the sponsorship money from Achilles evaporated once the marathon was over, and Benjamin found himself looking for work as an illegal immigrant with no place to live. He ended up panhandling in Grand Central Station and spending his nights at homeless shelters throughout the city.
“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” he says. “Even with one leg, I never had to beg for money before. I left a place where I never had to ask for anything, where I could always pay. And I come to America. I run the marathon and then I have nothing. (Well not quite nothing: "Some days, I would make more asking for money than I do now on my bike. On Wednesdays I could expect to clear $75, and on Fridays over $100... and some change,” he says with a bittersweet laugh.)
A solution to his beggar status came from an unlikely source, considering his handicap. In the late 80s a scarcity of fax machines and e-mail combined with a booming economy to make the refrain “$100 by lunch” a reality for New York City’s fastest messengers. People with the ability to read and ride a bicycle could earn a decent living by delivering letters and packages. A Trinidadian friend who owned a courier service told Benjamin about the opportunity, and he quickly cobbled together $400 to buy a bike.
But before he could even begin his new career, he had to learn to ride a bike again. Cycling with one leg introduced a new set of physics. Benjamin s first attempt to make a right turn landed him on his butt: “I made the turn as if my leg was still there, and lost my balance.” To learn how to turn he practiced riding in ever-tighter clockwise circles. He used rocks to set up improvised slalom courses in Central Park to practice weaving in and out of tight situations like those he’d expect on the streets. He also developed his own emergency stop system he takes his foot out of his toeclip and presses it against his front tire.
After a week of practice, he was on the job. Unlike his current customized bike, which features a left-side drivetrain with a 49-tooth chainring connected to a 15-tooth fixed gear (“That way the pedal comes up to meet me”), no right-side crankarm and a rear hand brake, his first bike had a traditional setup with the chain on the right side. The only tweak: The right pedal was removed.
“I lost a bike a year for six years straight,” he says. “All somebody had to do was put on a pedal and he could ride the bike. Now it’s not so easy.”
His Dura-Cycle cost him about $700, and he put another $700 into retrofitting the drivetrain and swapping out the stock sew-up wheels for clincher rims. His simple U-lock appears laughable in a town where Kryptonite’s $90 City-Chain is the norm. “This bike was stolen once,” he says. “But I found it, and the man who took it tried to sell it back to me. I said to him, ‘Who else rides a bike with only one pedal and the chain on the left? Me that s who.”’
When Benjamin is on his bike, his face is nearly always in perma-grin mode. The smile masks the difficulties of making a living as a messenger. More couriers are competing for the shrinking parcel business. Overnight delivery services cost less than many couriers, and advances in digital film promise to further reduce the need for couriers in the graphics industry long a staple in the courier business. Consequently, life is far from cush for those who pedal for a living.
Messengers are responsible for providing their own gear from bikes to cell phones, and if the gear stolen, the job is gone, too. Messenger companies in New York typically charge $12—$20 to deliver urgent local packages that can’t be sent electronically. The messenger usually nets half the charge; on a good day with 20—25 deliveries, he can walk away with just more than $100 half what messengers made 15 years ago, in a city where it costs anywhere between $400 and $800 to simply share an apartment. And benefits like health insurance? Forget it.
And the situation won’t improve. Competition among New York’s 400—700 courier services (a constant flux of independents like Benjamin make it impossible to post a definite number) keep delivery charges low and force messengers to take what jobs they can get.
Big Apple messengers also face a jump in competition every summer when a new crop of rookies—college kids hanging out for the summer battle for work during the slowest part of the year when people prefer to walk their packages themselves. Says Benjamin, “They [the rookies] ask me if I know of anyone who’s hiring. They think they’re getting screwed out of work by their bosses, but there s just not enough work.”
Hard knocks aside, Benjamin quickly earned a reputation as a reliable and rocket-fast courier. His first week on the job netted him $17 nothing compared with his $300 panhandling weeks in Grand Central, but Benjamin didn’t care; he had restored his pride: “The day I got my first paycheck was the happiest day of my life in America.
Clients began to request him for more lucrative rush deliveries. He fell in love, got married and started a family. In the mid-’90s, using his loyal customers as a base, he started his own courier service with five messengers.
To the outside world, Dexter Benjamin was living the self-made American Dream. But he was losing control. His employees ignored delivery calls, stole packages, and took Benjamin’s beepers to start their own messenger businesses.
Within months his professional reputation was ruined. But that wasn’t the hardest part: “I was going crazy sitting inside answering phones. I had to walk up and down the stairs just to get rid of some energy.” Problem was, when he was walking the stairs, he wasn’t answering the phones. His company went out of business, and Benjamin had to start riding again to pay his bills. His marriage collapsed, and his two children moved to Florida with their mother.
Benjamin became the sole employee of B&L Courier. He has no plans for expansion for the rest of his career. Working alone allows him to pocket all his earnings, so he can make fewer deliveries and still earn a living wage. His cell phone runs him $125 a month his beeper another $25. His average of 60 weekly deliveries nets $500 after expenses. It’s enough money to buy cereal and bananas to fuel his 50-mile workdays pay the gym membership for his nightly workouts and help support his children.
He makes a living. He gets the adrenaline rush of cycling. And he’s addicted to his everyday dealings with people: “I love to see people notice me,” Benjamin says.
He’s constantly being stopped by people who just thank him for his inspiration. He remembers specific people—the Rastafarian in the Bronx who took one look at Benjamin and broke into tears then thanked him for making him realize how small his own problems were, or the drug addict outside Port Authority Bus Terminal who told Benjamin that seeing him helped turn his life around. Amputees or their relatives approach him and thank him and ask for his phone number. Benjamin always obliges.
Being in Benjamin’s presence, whether he’s whizzing by you or chatting with you, puts you under his inspirational spell. You begin to think there’s nothing the guy can do. He truly believes he’s a champion. And like any athlete who draws from his successes, Benjamin’s pride is tied up with a competitive drive that needs to be constantly recharged: “It makes me happy when I can catch some guy with two legs who thinks he’s fast. I do it for the look on his face when I pass him and he realizes that some guy with one leg beat him.”
But are games of chase-the-rabbit with other bike messengers enough to sustain a life? Maybe not.
Benjamin has set his sights on the track cycling events of the 2000 Para-Olympics in Sydney this October. “I’ve always wanted to try the track,” he says. “I think I would be good at it, but I know I need a coach—somebody to tell me what to do, how to sit on my bike, how to race. I think I could win it.” Win what? When asked what event he thinks he’s best qualified for, Benjamin purses his lips and shrugs his broad shoulders.
“I don’t know.
Later, you realize that Benjamin has no idea what events make up track cycling. The same optimism that carries him through his sprints around Manhattan has convinced or deluded him into thinking a gold medal is lust past the next stoplight.
With the Para-Olympics less than eight months away—and the U.S. trials in April—Benjamin is woefully unprepared. His only connection to the steep and fast banks of a velo-drome is his fixed-gear track bike; he’s never raced in one. He was a no-show at last June’s nationals in Colorado Springs, citing the cost of travel expenses and lack of help from Disabled Sports USA (DS/USA) in navigating the qualification process.
“I spent a year training,” says Benjamin. “But DS/USA doesn’t understand that I can t miss a week of work and not get paid. They gave me nothing.” Perhaps the most telling cause for Benjamin’s absence from the US. trials, however, is that he doesn’t want to become an American citizen. Yet he knows that Trinidad has no funds to compete in the Para-Olympics and no disabled cycling program to represent.
Kathy Celo, program services director for DS/USA, says, “Until Benjamin commits to becoming a U.S. citizen, our executive by-laws say we can t fund him. Money is always a problem for these athletes; there's no ‘athletes in residence' program for them such as those for the Olympic athletes". Celo notes that many amputee athletes receive training funds from prosthetic companies trying out new technology.
Benjamin’s determination to not use a prosthetic costs him more than money, according to Zack Williams, a track coach for the ‘96 U.S. Para-Olympic cycling squad: “By opting not to ride with a prosthetic leg, he is sacrificing a significant amount of wattage that would cost little extra in cardiovascular work.” The current amputee record holder, Dory Selinger, rides with a prosthetic leg that clicks into his Look-compatible pedals. With this setup, he’s managed to motor up to 37 mph in the 200-meter sprint and average 30 mph over 1 kilometer. Benjamin claims he can hold 33 mph for a mile, but “track racing’s a whole different ballgame from the street,” says Williams. “I’ve seen guys who had no problem reaching 32 mph on the road be unable to go faster than 27 on the track.”
“I’m sure he can compete,” says Beverly Harris, Benjamin’s girlfriend, who is using her expertise as a former publicist for Run-DMC to find sponsors for Benjamin. “But he’s not getting any younger.”
Benjamin's body is starting to break down. He’s gotten slower and weaker; he can no longer routinely hit 40 mph in a sprint and leg-press 500 pounds with his one leg. Now his top speed is 33 and his leg-press maximum is 400 pounds. His ham-string muscle starts to spasm if he sits for too long, and he’s lost almost all the cartilage in his left knee over the last 10 years from overuse.
“Cartilage acts as a shock absorber for the knee,” says Rob Hunter, a clinical professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Colorado. “Benjamin ‘s knee will always work, but without cartilage, it’ll be a much rougher ride."
In many ways, Benjamin’s Para-Olympic ambition might start with Harris. She sees the big picture of Benjamin’s life and is pushing him to take his talent to an international level while he still can—and attract the ex-posure that will get him off the Street. Benjamin’s becoming a motivational speaker is a no-brainer in her mind. “It’s what he does every day."
But Harris sees the window of opportunity for change closing. Fast. “I worry about what will happen to him if he loses his other leg, she says. “What’s he going to do for work? What’s it going to do to his pride?”
When he hears this, Benjamin smiles. “I’ll pedal with my hands ,he says. “I’ll never stop riding. When I die,” he reminds Harris, you'll bury me with my bicycle.
Then Benjamin steps out into the now-freezing night. A howling, sky-scraper-induced wind beats at him. None of his movements are wasted. He doesn t hobble over to unlock his bike he springs. He ties his crutches onto his top tube, swings his stump over the scat and pushes away, down the sidewalk ramp and into traffic.