This is Ben
I was sitting in Starbucks on Amsterdam Avenue looking out of the window when I saw Ben struggling to walk. He was carrying a light folding stool on his arm as he shuffled along. His steps were small, and he appeared to be in pain. He stopped, opened his little stool and sat down. He was clearly out of breath. He sat there, in the middle of the sidewalk, as pedestrians moved around him. He sat for a good five minutes or more. He then folded up his stool and continued on in what looked like a very painful gate. In less than twenty yards he again stopped, out of breath and sat down again. What struck me is how the dozens and dozens of people who passed by really didn't seem to even notice that he was there. They walked around him as if he were just another obstacle on the sidewalk. Most didn't even look at him.
He lives alone on savings and Social Security. He has three sons and a daughter who all live in New York. They visit often and sometimes help with his bills. Ben's only sibling is his brother who never left Puerto Rico. He sent letters recently to see how he is doing but has not heard back. The letters were returned as undeliverable. Ben does not know how his brother managed through the storm. As he was telling me about his brother, he threw up his hands in frustration and said what can you do, I don't think I will hear from him again.
I asked Ben what makes it important for him to get out each day? He said getting out reminds him of his younger days and seeing all the people makes him feel alive. He considers himself fortunate. Even though he is in pain and walking is very difficult, he is alive at 91 years old, has children that still visit and care about him and he has always loved living in New York City. He said when he was young he loved the city for all the excitement it has but now loves it because everything he needs is so easily accessible. He said cars were always his life, he loved fixing them, he loved driving them and he loved their looks and beauty. But now he is grateful to live in a city where he can get out and around without a car.
I got up and tossed the rest of my coffee in the trash and went up to Ben. He was still sitting, trying to catch his breath. I asked why walking was so difficult for him. He put his hand on his right knee and said that he had a bum knee. He said he wasn't sure what the medical term for it was, but he sure knew it hurt. He told me he is 91 years old and his knee is just giving out on him. He was on his way to the local pharmacy to get some pain medication.
Ben was born in Puerto Rico and came to New York when he was 19 years old. He met his wife in New York City. After moving to New York, he fell in love with this city, he never wanted to live anywhere else and he never has. He spent his adult life working as an automobile mechanic, always working for private garages all over the Bronx and Manhattan. He had been married for 49 years when his wife passed away ten years ago.