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DEXTER BENJAMIN - A ONE LEGED DELIVERY MAN


Dexter Benjamin is a bike messenger, and he is something of a celebrity to dispatchers in the city. Benjamin has only one leg.

The first time I saw him was on an escalator leaving the subway at Grand Central. I was standing next to a fat man, and the fat man was whining because Benjamin was on the escalator with his bicycle. "Have some consideration for other people."The fat man did not seem to notice that Benjamin’s bicycle only had one pedal. Nor that there were two hooks attached to it holding a pair of crutches. Nor that Benjamin’s right leg stopped 6 inches above where the knee should have been.

"If you have a bicycle you should take the stairs. You should be more considerate."

Dexter Benjamin is tall and muscular and he moves so gracefully that many people never see his stump. I caught up to him a week later and asked him what his frustrations were.

"Mangos are too expensive–$1.49 for one mango. In Trinidad you pick them off the ground for free."

After prodding, he said it upsets him that he’s not allowed on city buses with his bicycle. He also said that he is often asked to leave museums and restaurants because of his bike.

"When you are disabled, people want to put you in a box. If I used a wheelchair, everyone would understand. Because I ride a bicycle they get confused."

Born in Trinidad in 1962, Benjamin was a carpenter and amateur boxer before he lost his leg. He was bicycling to his cousin’s house when he saw a small boy run into the path of an oncoming truck. He dove off his bike to knock the boy away from the road and the truck hit his leg.

"There was no pain, and I didn’t lose consciousness, but even the truck was disabled. My leg went through the grill and snapped the engine belt." The leg was amputated and Benjamin sold peanuts for two years at the local bus station.

In 1985 Benjamin came to New York through the sponsorship of the Achilles Track Club. He ran the marathon on crutches and finished in seven and a half hours. The following year he returned to the city on a one-way ticket, intending to start an athletic career in the States. Benjamin was relying on the help of his mentor, another amputee runner from Trinidad named Anthony Phillip. Phillip lived in New York and promised to find Benjamin a job and a place to stay.

"I had no money," says Benjamin. "And I was naive."

The morning after the marathon, he met Phillip on the street and they walked over to Grand Central. Phillip handed him a shoebox and told him to stand in the corner.

"People started putting coins in the box. Then I realized that was my job." At the end of the day Phillip pocketed half the money and took Benjamin to a shelter on 125th St.

"The best day for panhandling is Friday, and after that, Wednesday. I made friends at the shelter, but you have to know that everyone is a thief. They even stole my shoe."

Eight months later Benjamin met a good samaritan who offered to let him live with her. "I think she was in love with me," he says. He painted her house and saved money to buy a bicycle. He wanted a bicycle because a friend had told him about a messenger service downtown that might hire him. "This friend of mine was called Rastafarian and he told me it was crazy with girls at the job. There was only two girls and 30 guys, but I really wanted to work."

Benjamin earned just $17 his first week as a messenger but still recalls payday as the happiest day of his life. He has been a messenger ever since. "Panhandling is very bad for you. I can’t say I’ll never do it again, but I hope I don’t have to. It hurts your spirit."

Ten years ago Benjamin married a girl he met on the subway. "I just looked at her and said, ‘I love you.’ It took more than that."

He and his wife have three children together, but they have since separated and Benjamin now lives with his girlfriend on Roosevelt Island.

By Lincoln MacVeagh