Dexter Benjamin delivers packages for $12. He changes lives for free.
By Grant Davis
He stops his bike at the corner of Eighth and Fifty-Second. His dark eyes scan the intersection for a payphone to answer his beeper. Searching desperately, Benjamin wonders aloudwith traces of his native Trinidadian accent still audible, "How can Imake any money when my customers can't reach me immediately, man?"
A minute later, he finds a phone. The orderis from a loyal customer; it's the day's last delivery, a 10-block jauntto a midtown Manhattan graphica house. Benjamin's 6-foot-2, NFL linebackersize frame hops aboard his battered Dura-Cycle fixed gear track bike. Hecuts east one block, then sprints south down Seventh Avenue for more thantwo and a half miles, catching every traffic light as it turns green ateach block - a signal system designed to keep autos moving at 30 mph.
He rides with ease and aggression, sometimesseeming a natural part of a peleton of multi-ton cars and trucks. Othertimes he dodges and slices the New York traffic, breathing diesel exhaustfrom buses while dodging pedestrians ignoring "Don't Walk" signs. He sprintsthrough rapidly closing passageways between yellow taxis, barking warningsto drivers, fighting for his space.
When Benjamin arrives at the pick-up, heunties the two strips of inner tube securing wooden crutches to the rightside of the bike's top tube. Then, balancing on the handle of one crutchto free his hands, he bends to lock the bike to a signpost.
The ease with which Benjamin utilizes hiscrutch makes the wood seem like an organic extension of his Lycra-cladstump.
Pedestrians walking by break out of theirprotective New York City scowls to watch Benjamin’s fluid dance betweenbike and crutches. “People always smile when they see me, says Benjaminwith a gleaming smile of straight teeth that breaks up his long face, “SoI’m always smiling, too.”
Standing balanced on one crutch, he digsaround in the pocket of his neoprene cycling jacket for a tissue to blowhis nose. In another life his muscular, athletic build and model looksmay have landed him an ad campaign for Polo Sport or Tommy Hilfiger. Rightnow, he’s honking snot from his nose on lower Broadway. His mucus comesout littered with black particles. Benjamin looks at it, then clears histhroat and mouth of the same grit and spits it out on the sidewalk. “Thisisn’t Trinidad,” he says simply.
After readjusting his bag, he pulls theother crutch back under his armpit with his stump—not much weaker-lookingthan the thigh on his intact leg — and heads into the office building topick up the delivery taking long, loping steps with his crutches.
If Dexter Benjamin has his way, he’ll godown as the most famous bike messenger in New York, knocking off 1984 Olympictrack 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 heardhim talked about with the reverence usually reserved for Jerry Seinfeldsightings.
“Yeah, I’ve seen the guy, says Lauren Parker,a production manager who works in midtown Manhattan. “You see him and thena couple of seconds later, you stop yourself and say, Holy shit! Did Ijust see that?”’
At 37, Benjamin is retirement materialin a shrinking industry filled with twenty-somethings. He laughs dismissivelywhen asked about changing careers. “I’ll be a messenger until I die, hesays, “And when I’m gone, I’ll take messages for God in heaven.” When askedif he honestly pictures himself delivering packages at age 70, he scratcheshis 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 asGod lets me. I love to ride.”
Unspoken, perhaps, is the admission thatwithout 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 crankfaster than millions of people living in New York City. Without his bike,he’s anybody.
Benjamin’s muscular left leg, which lookspowerful enough to replace the landing gear on a Boeing 727, has been hisbread and butter since he lost the right leg in an accident in Trinidadon a Sunday after-noon in January, 1983.
Benjamin’s story: Cycling to his uncle’shouse to work as a carpenter, he was rolling down a steep hill. As an oncomingwater truck sped around the corner at the bottom, a boy darted into thevehicle’s path. Benjamin realized that the truck driver couldn’t see theboy and—in a split-second decision—darted toward the boy. He threw himselfoff 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 neverthought my life was over while I was lying on the ground looking at myleg... just different.” The next day, his right leg, with a crushed kneeand lower half, was amputated.
He’d entertained Olympic hopes in boxingor the shot put; those dreams died, but Benjamin’s athletic career tookoff after the accident. Roughly a year after he lost his leg, he entereda half-marathon in Trinidad. He ran the 13.1 miles on crutches and finishedsecond in the disabled category, behind fellow Trinidadian Anthony Phillip,a marathoner with a prosthetic leg who had secured sponsorship from theNew York Achilles Track Club to run the New York Marathon.
Recognizing another great athlete whenhe saw one Phillip recommended that the club sponsor Benjamin as well.In 1986, it did; Achilles invited Benjamin to run the New York Marathonand sent him a plane ticket along with a stipend for expenses. He flewto New York the first time he’d ever been in a plane or left the islandand finished the race in seven and a half hours.
He returned to Trinidad with the memoryof hundreds of thousands of cheering people lining the race route. Whenhe returned to run the marathon the next year, he stayed:
But the sponsorship money from Achillesevaporated once the marathon was over, and Benjamin found himself lookingfor work as an illegal immigrant with no place to live. He ended up panhandlingin Grand Central Station and spending his nights at homeless shelters throughoutthe city.
“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever hadto 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 alwayspay. 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 moneythan I do now on my bike. On Wednesdays I could expect to clear $75, andon Fridays over $100... and some change,” he says with a bittersweet laugh.)
A solution to his beggar status came froman unlikely source, considering his handicap. In the late 80s a scarcityof fax machines and e-mail combined with a booming economy to make therefrain “$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 decentliving by delivering letters and packages. A Trinidadian friend who owneda courier service told Benjamin about the opportunity, and he quickly cobbledtogether $400 to buy a bike.
But before he could even begin his newcareer, he had to learn to ride a bike again. Cycling with one leg introduceda new set of physics. Benjamin s first attempt to make a right turn landedhim on his butt: “I made the turn as if my leg was still there, and lostmy balance.” To learn how to turn he practiced riding in ever-tighter clockwisecircles. He used rocks to set up improvised slalom courses in Central Parkto practice weaving in and out of tight situations like those he’d expecton the streets. He also developed his own emergency stop system he takeshis foot out of his toeclip and presses it against his front tire.
After a week of practice, he was on thejob. Unlike his current customized bike, which features a left-side drivetrainwith a 49-tooth chainring connected to a 15-tooth fixed gear (“That waythe pedal comes up to meet me”), no right-side crankarm and a rear handbrake, his first bike had a traditional setup with the chain on the rightside. 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 thebike. Now it’s not so easy.”
His Dura-Cycle cost him about $700, andhe put another $700 into retrofitting the drivetrain and swapping out thestock sew-up wheels for clincher rims. His simple U-lock appears laughablein a town where Kryptonite’s $90 City-Chain is the norm. “This bike wasstolen once,” he says. “But I found it, and the man who took it tried tosell it back to me. I said to him, ‘Who else rides a bike with only onepedal and the chain on the left? Me that s who.”’
When Benjamin is on his bike, his faceis nearly always in perma-grin mode. The smile masks the difficulties ofmaking a living as a messenger. More couriers are competing for the shrinkingparcel business. Overnight delivery services cost less than many couriers,and advances in digital film promise to further reduce the need for couriersin 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 providingtheir own gear from bikes to cell phones, and if the gear stolen, the jobis gone, too. Messenger companies in New York typically charge $12—$20to deliver urgent local packages that can’t be sent electronically. Themessenger 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 15years ago, in a city where it costs anywhere between $400 and $800 to simplyshare an apartment. And benefits like health insurance? Forget it.
And the situation won’t improve. Competitionamong New York’s 400—700 courier services (a constant flux of independentslike Benjamin make it impossible to post a definite number) keep deliverycharges low and force messengers to take what jobs they can get.
Big Apple messengers also face a jump incompetition every summer when a new crop of rookies—college kids hangingout for the summer battle for work during the slowest part of the yearwhen 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’regetting screwed out of work by their bosses, but there s just not enoughwork.”
Hard knocks aside, Benjamin quickly earneda reputation as a reliable and rocket-fast courier. His first week on thejob netted him $17 nothing compared with his $300 panhandling weeks inGrand Central, but Benjamin didn’t care; he had restored his pride: “Theday I got my first paycheck was the happiest day of my life in America.
Clients began to request him for more lucrativerush deliveries. He fell in love, got married and started a family. Inthe mid-’90s, using his loyal customers as a base, he started his own courierservice with five messengers.
To the outside world, Dexter Benjamin wasliving the self-made American Dream. But he was losing control. His employeesignored delivery calls, stole packages, and took Benjamin’s beepers tostart their own messenger businesses.
Within months his professional reputationwas ruined. But that wasn’t the hardest part: “I was going crazy sittinginside answering phones. I had to walk up and down the stairs just to getrid of some energy.” Problem was, when he was walking the stairs, he wasn’tanswering the phones. His company went out of business, and Benjamin hadto start riding again to pay his bills. His marriage collapsed, and histwo children moved to Florida with their mother.
Benjamin became the sole employee of B&LCourier. He has no plans for expansion for the rest of his career. Workingalone allows him to pocket all his earnings, so he can make fewer deliveriesand still earn a living wage. His cell phone runs him $125 a month hisbeeper another $25. His average of 60 weekly deliveries nets $500 afterexpenses. It’s enough money to buy cereal and bananas to fuel his 50-mileworkdays pay the gym membership for his nightly workouts and help supporthis children.
He makes a living. He gets the adrenalinerush 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 peoplewho just thank him for his inspiration. He remembers specific people—theRastafarian in the Bronx who took one look at Benjamin and broke into tearsthen thanked him for making him realize how small his own problems were,or the drug addict outside Port Authority Bus Terminal who told Benjaminthat seeing him helped turn his life around. Amputees or their relativesapproach him and thank him and ask for his phone number. Benjamin alwaysobliges.
Being in Benjamin’s presence, whether he’swhizzing by you or chatting with you, puts you under his inspirationalspell. You begin to think there’s nothing the guy can do. He truly believeshe’s a champion. And like any athlete who draws from his successes, Benjamin’spride 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’sfast. I do it for the look on his face when I pass him and he realizesthat some guy with one leg beat him.”
But are games of chase-the-rabbitwith other bike messengers enough to sustain a life? Maybe not.
Benjamin has set his sights on the trackcycling events of the 2000 Para-Olympics in Sydney this October. “I’vealways 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 onmy bike, how to race. I think I could win it.” Win what? When asked whatevent he thinks he’s best qualified for, Benjamin purses his lips and shrugshis broad shoulders.
“I don’t know.
Later, you realize that Benjamin has noidea what events make up track cycling. The same optimism that carrieshim through his sprints around Manhattan has convinced or deluded him intothinking a gold medal is lust past the next stoplight.
With the Para-Olympics less than eightmonths 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 hisfixed-gear track bike; he’s never raced in one. He was a no-show at lastJune’s nationals in Colorado Springs, citing the cost of travel expensesand lack of help from Disabled Sports USA (DS/USA) in navigating the qualificationprocess.
“I spent a year training,” says Benjamin.“But DS/USA doesn’t understand that I can t miss a week of work and notget paid. They gave me nothing.” Perhaps the most telling cause for Benjamin’sabsence from the US. trials, however, is that he doesn’t want to becomean American citizen. Yet he knows that Trinidad has no funds to competein the Para-Olympics and no disabled cycling program to represent.
Kathy Celo, program services director forDS/USA, says, “Until Benjamin commits to becoming a U.S. citizen, our executiveby-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 theOlympic athletes". Celo notes that many amputee athletes receive trainingfunds from prosthetic companies trying out new technology.
Benjamin’s determination to not use a prostheticcosts him more than money, according to Zack Williams, a track coach forthe ‘96 U.S. Para-Olympic cycling squad: “By opting not to ride with aprosthetic leg, he is sacrificing a significant amount of wattage thatwould cost little extra in cardiovascular work.” The current amputee recordholder, Dory Selinger, rides with a prosthetic leg that clicks into hisLook-compatible pedals. With this setup, he’s managed to motor up to 37mph in the 200-meter sprint and average 30 mph over 1 kilometer. Benjaminclaims he can hold 33 mph for a mile, but “track racing’s a whole differentballgame from the street,” says Williams. “I’ve seen guys who had no problemreaching 32 mph on the road be unable to go faster than 27 on the track.”
“I’m sure he can compete,” says BeverlyHarris, Benjamin’s girlfriend, who is using her expertise as a former publicistfor 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 ina sprint and leg-press 500 pounds with his one leg. Now his top speed is33 and his leg-press maximum is 400 pounds. His ham-string muscle startsto spasm if he sits for too long, and he’s lost almost all the cartilagein his left knee over the last 10 years from overuse.
“Cartilage acts as a shock absorber forthe knee,” says Rob Hunter, a clinical professor of orthopedic surgeryat the University of Colorado. “Benjamin ‘s knee will always work, butwithout cartilage, it’ll be a much rougher ride."
In many ways, Benjamin’s Para-Olympic ambitionmight start with Harris. She sees the big picture of Benjamin’s life andis pushing him to take his talent to an international level while he stillcan—and attract the ex-posure that will get him off the Street. Benjamin’sbecoming a motivational speaker is a no-brainer in her mind. “It’s whathe does every day."
But Harris sees the window of opportunityfor change closing. Fast. “I worry about what will happen to him if heloses his other leg, she says. “What’s he going to do for work? What’sit going to do to his pride?”
When he hears this, Benjamin smiles. “I’llpedal with my hands ,he says. “I’ll never stop riding. When I die,” hereminds Harris, you'll bury me with my bicycle.
Then Benjamin steps out into the now-freezingnight. A howling, sky-scraper-induced wind beats at him. None of his movementsare wasted. He doesn t hobble over to unlock his bike he springs. He tieshis crutches onto his top tube, swings his stump over the scat and pushesaway, down the sidewalk ramp and into traffic.