One Man and His Bike
Story by: Dorian Block
Photography by: Myra Iqbal, Floor Flurij, Heather Clayton Colangelo and Dorian Block
Cotton balls descend on New York City.
It is the first snow of the year, and it is the perfect kind. There is enough that children gather up mittened-hands full. The slush and puddles from the Tuesday morning commute are fast absorbed into soft, white. People breathe warmth into their raised collars. It is so cold that toes sting, even in multiple layers of socks. And then, by the afternoon, the sun is out and the streets are clear.
It is Three Kings Day, the Epiphany. It is a rare time that the news crews come to East Harlem for a celebration. In Mexico and the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, there is gift giving and day-long parties as people and musicians process from home to home. The trees are green. The weather tropical. The stresses of daily life buffered by the way and pace of it.
In East Harlem, the annual parade that marks the holiday is an effort to unify and celebrate the neighborhood, to share stories of la patria, to teach children and to add some color to the gray that is post-Christmas and New Years New York. It is a small parade in the context of New York City. Its features a nativity float, oversized puppets of the wise men bobbing on sticks and a couple hundred children beating homemade drums and shaking maracas in crowns and winter coats. And, of course, camels. Two camels high step it across 106th St., at the climax.
It is primarily an event celebrated by and designed for young people and their parents, but Luis Cajigas takes no notice of this. He has always been one for a party. He finds he has little in common with most people his age because he finds them too serious, too weighed down,too pensive. Luis lives for the here and now – music, dancing, café and beer, good company, chance encounters and riding his bicycle. He is an entertainer, always ready to share pictures, a song, a story, a bowl of saltines and cheese slices to accompany your cafe.
As parade step off time approaches, Luis is determined to ride his bicycle to and in the parade, despite the snow. He spends the morning preparing. He records a new cassette tape for his bicycle’s sound system. He loses the tape and finds it again. He waterproofs his bike – actually a motorized tricycle - and the roosters that decorate it with plastic shopping bags. He stands on a chair in order to reach the canopy he has built on top advertising Mayaguez, the name of the town where he was born. He staples cardboard. He blasts music in the hallway of his senior housing building as he works, like it’s his personal garage.
Tinkering. Preparing. Taking his time. Checking again. Losing something and finding it after an hour of looking. Breaking something and fixing it. Nudging his two birds with a stick. Letting them return to their cage. Playing with a dial on one of a dozen record players, DVD players and radios he has in his apartment. It is a part of his daily rhythm. It is what he wanders off and descends into when visitors get too serious.
About an hour before the parade begins, he sets out peddling in the snowstorm. He adjusts his coverings, amplifies his music – Noche de paz, “Silent Night” in Spanish. The music stutters and stops and starts again. His tires cake with snow.
His home attendant Anna is not sure what to do with him on days like this. She has been hired to care for a man with a heart condition and a painful hernia who needs assistance with his “Activities of Daily Living” according to his State assessment. And here she is, chasing him on his bicycle in the snow, her purse swinging like a pendulum. When Anna catches up to Luis at a red light, she urges him not to go, not to be out in the frigid weather. Calmly first, and then louder. Luis shrugs her off and keeps going. Eventually, she shakes her head, gives up and waits at a bus stop, having determined that her job is done for the day and she is on to her afternoon client. Five years of visiting Luis every weekday morning have given her a clear understanding that when his mind is set, he can not be stopped.
Parades, like this one, mark days when the city manifests what Luis feels year round. They give him an identity and order his year since he retired. In Puerto Rico, he worked in tiling. In New York, he worked as the superintendent of a building and as the manager of a Carvel ice cream store, both on the same block of Third Avenue. Luis was and is as much a part of that block as the sidewalk cement.
Working at Carvel allowed Luis to be at the center of everyone’s personal celebrations. While there were delicate moments of icing flowers and scripting messages with sugar gel, the job was a lot of hard, physical labor. Days were long, and Luis spent too much time inside a freezer and most hours paid off the books. Before work every day he took out the garbage from the six floors of his building and swept the sidewalk. He had good reasons to retire in his early 60s, but once it happened he says did not know what to do with himself.
“I very depressed. What to do? Who am I?” Luis describes in English. “It is not good for a person to sit all day.”
After about a year, Luis started riding a bike with a rooster on it – a mascot of Puerto Rico and his personal nickname “El Gallo” - and found that it made people smile, laugh and point. They wanted to pose with him, take pictures, talk. This attention and the momentary joy it brought passerbys became addictive. Over the next two decades, Luis became the man on the Puerto Rican bike. He added more roosters and different features for different holidays – sparkly garlands for Christmas, hearts for Valentines Day and flowers for Mother’s Day. As his hernia got worse, he moved from a bicycle to a tricycle gifted to him by his daughter.
And about two years ago, a friend sent him money from her family as a thank you. He used the money to buy a motor for his bike. The motor has allowed him to continue biking even as his health has declined.
For Luis, the pinnacle of the year is the Puerto Rican Day parade down 5th Avenue in June, but there are dozens of other celebrations that he tries to attend through out the year. In months between parades, he sometimes watches recordings of past parades on old VHS tapes, including one which features an interview with Luis Cajigas himself. Luis has marched in so many parades that spectators expect him and people come up to him through out the year, excited to meet him in person.
At one parade, Luis accidentally rode his bicycle on to a highway entrance ramp in the Bronx. As he rode directly into oncoming traffic, a friend in an apartment building yelled at him from a window. Luis was startled back to reality and found his way back to the parade route. At another, he fell off of his bicycle. These incidents do not seem to have made for any fear on his part, just for good stories.
The 2015 Dia de Los Reyes Magos parade begins.
The snow has kept almost all spectators away. There are the children in their crowns. A group of young adults dancing.
There is no Luis.
There are the three kings. The float with Jesus, Joseph and Mary. The snow dampens the usual spectacle (the live camels can’t make it), but highlights the resilience of the marchers still smiling.
Alma Collazo, the social worker for Luis’s building, waits with two neighbors on a nearby street as the parade passes. They look for Luis but they do not spot him.
Jean, Luis’s daughter, waits nearby scanning the avenue. No Luis.
For stationery spectators, the parade lasts less than 10 minutes this year. Only shortly after it started, the police cars move and the street is reopened to traffic. Spectators scatter. Cars stream forth. The parade is over.
And then, finally, there is Luis.
He comes walking down the yellow center line of the street in between dozens of fast-moving cars. He walks slowly and steadily and seemingly unphased. Luis’s short and thin frame is dwarfed by his oversized winter coat and the expanse of snow swirling around him. He pushes his bike backward. Its tires have locked in place, wedged with salt and snow. The fender is bent. The motor is not working. Luis stopped and started dozens of times before making it to the parade, 20 blocks from his home.
The parade photographers are disappointed by how brief and anticlimactic this year’s celebration was. They clamor to take photos of Luis, the last interesting person left to photograph – his brown skin, freckled with sun spots, his glasses foggy and wet and his roosters covered in plastic bags. He will be all over the Internet by nightfall. Luis, his daughter, and a police officer work to lift his bike and get it to the sidewalk.
Jean urges Luis to bring his bike to a nearby bike shop where he knows the owner to get it fixed. He is determined to get it home and fix it himself, despite moving a foot a minute, at times. Thankfully, Luis is only a block away from La Fonda Boricua, a popular Puerto Rican restaurant, where he is known, loved and regularly treated to free meals.
On his way home, Luis’s bike breaks down many times. It falls into a tree pit. It nearly topples over. It actually topples over. Groups of men emerge from storefronts at each fall and act honored to help the man they either know or see biking past so often. When Luis’s bike topples over in the final blocks before his building, three men on their way to a food pantry help him turn it over. The men push it all the way home and offer to fix the bent fender with pliers.
Luis invites the three men who helped him inside. He gives them bread, ham and cheese for sandwiches. Coffee. Some wine in goblets. They are hungry and grateful. They toast him. They use pliers to help him when his coat zipper gets stuck. They advise him on how to repair his bicycle. They bless him.
One man is from a town in Puerto Rico near Mayaguez, and he pats Luis on the back like an old neighbor. He oohs and woahs upon hearing that Luis used to ride his bike on a notoriously steep hill in that area. Another one of the men went to school with Luis’s daughter decades ago.
The pace of the day – it took four hours and Luis mostly missed the parade he set out to join – doesn’t bother him. He is in no rush, and there will be another.
Luis has always been open to taking in strangers, to lending money to neighbors and he always seems to get back the support when he needs it.
“My father is blessed,” says his daughter Jean.
Luis puts on a recording of a Puerto Rican Day parade from years past. He stays inside for the rest of the day and orders rice and beans for takeout. He goes to sleep early and sleeps in the next day.
Luis speaks Spanish natively.
In East Harlem (or El Barrio, as people who live there call it) he has been able to get by on little English because Spanish is the language of the neighborhood. In some shops, it isn’t possible to get by without it. The bank tellers, his doctors, the restaurants – the nice ones and the fast food ones – and the people on the street, make it possible for all those who immigrated decades ago and those who come now, to communicate.
The complications come when Luis leaves his neighborhood (he doesn’t do it often) or when some official business needs to be done. An equally large obstacle is that Luis can barely read in both Spanish and English, having only attended school briefly as a child.
Nothing about our city is sensitive to this.
Luis learned to write on cakes when people came in to order at the Carvel store he managed by having them write their requested messages on paper for him to copy. He learned how to get around on the subway and back and forth to work by years of trial and error and by memorizing signs and storefronts.
The 2015 new year and the mailman brought news that Luis’s food stamps were cut from $189 per month to $43 per month in a stack of paperwork that took several weeks to understand.
Given that Luis’s income and assets had not changed, he appealed, with the help of his daughter and the social worker in his building. Luis receives social security, but because he worked so many years off the books, only $800 a month, a small percentage of what he would otherwise be entitled to.
After several weeks, his day in administrative court comes. Luis has to travel all the way from East Harlem to Brooklyn.
He and his daughter leave two hours early. Luis climbs down and up the subway stairs, taking breaks on every platform to catch his breath. He uses a cane, which he has transformed into a candy cane by wrapping it in red and white ribbon. He is exhausted by the time they get to the waiting room of the administrative court and drifts off in his chair.
Luis is called and is given a translator who speaks Spanish. The judge puts concerted effort into speaking simply, but her docket allows them no more than the few minutes and she is bound to legal procedure.
“This is a hearing where each side tells their story through evidence and documents,” the judge says. “The subject of the hearing is the mass notice. Everyone receiving Social Security who received an increase, received that notice.”
In 2015, all people who received a social security cost of living increase (a 1.7% increase in benefits) automatically had their food stamps decreased by the same amount. Luis’s food stamps have been cut by many times that amount. The judge asks questions to see if she can understand why they have been cut further, but says that is not the topic of the appeal so it is irrelevant.
Luis’s daughter shows the judge the stack of bills and proofs of income she has brought, but she can’t read them fast enough to know which to hand over.
Luis nods and says yes and is mostly quiet as the translator speaks to him.
“They confuse you with all this paperwork, and it means nothing?” says his daughter.
Luis shrugs his shoulders and acts like the fight isn’t worth it. They walk out, unsure of the outcome or the next steps. .
They take the long subway ride home up and down stairs through rush hour crowds in a system not built for those who have slowed down and need to take breaks.
They decide not to pursue it further unsure of how to appeal what they are supposed to appeal and tired from the process.
Luis loves a party.
It is his 85th birthday, and even once the room is packed with guests, he takes to his phone book and the phone to find out why anyone else he knows is not there.
Merengue, bachata, modern and old, pulse through the senior-housing building where he lives past midnight. There are four generations of Luis’s family in all corners of his living room. His former boss – the owner of the Carvel store - comes from New Jersey. Long-time friends from the neighborhood come in dressed for a party.
Luis has three children, nine grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. His wife left when they were young, leaving him as a single father.
At the party, Luis’s family, friends and neighbors intermingle, dancing, laughing and showing each other photos on their phones. Luis’s old colleagues reminisce about how they would close shop around 10 pm, go to a bar next door and drink until the next morning, and then go straight to work.
There is a spread by the wall with platters of rice, chicken, pork and potato salad. People drink mini bottles of corona. They toast Luis and his health.
Luis sways to the music. He sits and closes his eyes when he’s tired, surrounded by a loud swirl of activity. He delights most in greeting people, minding their comings and goings and making sure others eat and drink.
This year, spring is like the stubborn fighting cocks Luis loves from his childhood.
It has clawed, been beaten, emerged, fell back and again pushed its way into being. Grass and daffodils have finally broken through snow and cold that persisted into April. Luis dreams of the day that will present the right combination of weather and level of energy and health for a bike ride to Central Park.
During the winter, there were weeks where Luis didn’t get outside, because of the weather and his ever present hernia. For a man who measures happiness in number of bike rides, only three in three months, makes him impatient to see if something can be done.
When he is in pain, he has learned to lie down for as long as it takes to get better. It almost always begins when he is mid-activity, walking or reaching or bending or dancing - he feels the sharp, motion-stopping pinch that he has learned can only be cured through rest.
Luis has a pacemaker, a defibrilator and was diagnosed with heart disease in 2008.
During one of the first warm weeks of spring, Luis and his two daughters go to visit his doctor at Mt Sinai Hospital, in hopes of seeing if there is anything more Luis can do for pain relief.
Luis used to be a patient at Metropolitan Hospital, but he was referred to Mt Sinai and is pleased with his care. Luis arrives thinking that this is an appointment with his primary care doctor. Between the different specialists, some changes in staff and different people accompanying Luis to the doctor (his two daughters and his home attendant), it is challenging to track which doctor is which. It turns out that this is his cardiologist.
The nurse who weighs Luis, takes his blood pressure and administers an EKG speaks Spanish. The nurse practitioner and doctor do not. Luis demonstrates enough English for them that they seem to think he understands them, even when he doesn’t.
The cardiologist, who does remember Luis, begins a bit irritated that Luis has come in without following his direction to see the doctor that oversees his pacemaker, the doctor that evaluates his hernia and his primary care doctor.
“I’m trying to direct you to the right people. That’s where those answers are,” he says. “No one’s followed up with the doctors you need to. Remember, we’ve talked about this, you have a weak heart and I have made a recommendation that it’s not a sure thing to go through surgery at your age.”
“Where can we make those appointments?” asks Yvonne, Luis’s daughter.
The doctor isn’t sure and doesn’t give a clear answer.
He asks Luis about his sleep. Through Yvonne translating, Luis reports that he gets up at 1 am and 5 am most nights.
He asks Luis about how he eats. Rice, beans and chicken, Yvonne responds. He doesn’t like vegetables or fruit. This is how he has eaten his whole life.
How much can you walk? Yvonne asks her dad.
“Not much, it’s winter, too cold,” says Luis.
“This week has been beautiful,” says the doctor raising his eyebrows, indirectly scolding him.
“Can we probably get him through hernia surgery? Maybe,” says the doctor. “With any 85-year-old surgery is a risk. We have to make a decision about whether that risk is worthwhile. The question is do we take that risk on, but it never goes away.”
“He loves riding his bike and with the hernia it’s hard,” Yvonne said. “That’s what keeps him going, so you understand why we want to think about it.”
“As some point if his quality of life is so terrible, we have to see if there’s a risk worth taking. You have to demonstrate that the benefit is really there. You are doing pretty well, pretty okay for someone who is 85. As soon as people arrive in the hospital for the hernia, you aren’t doing okay. I put up a pretty high wall to get over. It is different than if you are 35.”
They discuss doing an upgrade to Luis’s pacemaker, which another doctor mentioned.
Luis has had enough of the serious questions. It is important for Luis to be liked, to connect with everyone, even in the doctor’s office.
“When they change it (his pacemaker), it better to play a radio for music,” he says with his hand over his heart.
“You only get one channel so you better pick your favorite station,” jokes the doctor playing along.
Luis gives the doctor a dramatic hand slapping that ends in a handshake, smiles and laughs.
The mix of barriers – the language differences, general and medical vocabulary differences, understanding the hospital system and structure, navigating the specialists, leave Luis accepting that there will be much that he won’t understand, that there is no use minding the details and that the jist of everything is sufficient.
At the end of the appointment, Luis’s daughters ask to give the doctor a form to designate Luis’s Health Care Proxy that was sent to them by their insurance company.
Luis told his daughters he did not want to talk about it much, but said he does not want to give a “do not resuscitate” order because “some people do come back.” If the time comes, he entrusts his family to make a decision.
After the appointment, Luis does not say it, but it is clear, that he is determined to prove that he is not the debilitated man who can only walk a block and a half described in the doctor’s appointment.
He is simply a rusty bike who spent the winter locked up too long and whose chains need some oil. He walks seven blocks to La Fonda Boricua for sopa de gandules and Kola Champagne with his daughters without taking a break.
As they walk, his daughters link arms with him. After lunch, they walk another six blocks past the block where he once lived and worked, past all of his friends. There are the men who run the stores and street carts that were neighbors of the Carvel when Luis worked there and the people who chat with them on milk crates and folding chairs. They come from the mix of countries whose immigrants have landed in East Harlem over several decades – fellow Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, Mexicans, Senegalis. Luis knows them all.
They shake hands and hug Luis. All want to share how Luis is “a good man,” “the papi of the neighborhood.” “You should run for Mayor,” says one.
When Luis was younger and his bravado stronger, Luis would walk down the street saying: “Yo soy El Gallo!” People still say “Mira! El Gallo!” on almost every block as he passes.
Luis says he will get out more often now that the weather is nicer. His daughters say that they will likely put off other doctors’ appointments to discuss hernia surgery because they are just going to be told the same thing, that he’s doing well for someone who is 85 and it isn’t worth the risk. They will continue to wait and see.
Luis could not walk for a week because of fluid that built up in his leg (also leading to a trip to the emergency room).
He is still determined to go to a pre-party for the Puerto Rican Day parade at JoJo’s Palace in the Bronx and has convinced all three younger generations of his family to come along.
On a Saturday night, the dark, second floor ballroom is filled with families and booming music. There is a dance contest and pageant for the children. Luis appears to be the oldest person in the room by many years. He makes sure everyone eats enough food. He sings and hums along from his seat, occasionally twirling his cane over his head.
When the Puerto Rican national anthem “La Boriquena” plays, Luis and his family loudly sing and sway along.
Luis says that passing along love, pride and knowledge of Puerto Rico to his family and community are his legacy.
“Nobody should forget where we come from. It is a beautiful place,” he says.
June is Luis’s favorite time of year.
A week before the Puerto Rican Day parade, Luis sits at his table in his pajamas, making dozens of phone calls. Luis can not get to the parade starting line unless he can find a truck to transport him and his bike, which because of its overhead canopy can not fit in any car. One year, he nearly missed the parade when his bike was stuck inside the school bus Luis had arranged to bring him. He has been making calls for days to find a ride.
Luis also calls his children, grandchildren and friends – usually multiple times - to confirm that everyone will be at the parade.
Anna, Luis’s home attendant, arrives with Luis’s parade day dress. Luis has brought his outfit – a red, blue and white suit - to two drycleaners to get the desired crispness and cleanliness.
Luis wakes up by 5 a.m. on parade day in the dark, excited and itching to leave.
He has found a neighbor with a truck to pick him up and bring him to the parade starting line.
It is a hot day – with temperatures into the 90s. His family waits for his arrival on a block in midtown, gathered with a group organized by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s office. As soon as Luis arrives, fellow marchers and spectators clamor to take “selfies” with him.
Marching with Luis’s children and grandchildren, is Vanessa, one of several people not related to Luis, who call him “grandpa.” When Vanessa, now a college student, was young, her mother used to drop her off in East Harlem on her way from their home in the Bronx to work in a downtown hotel. Luis would take care of Vanessa in the morning and bring her to school, sometimes having her ride on his bicycle.
Luis and his family march at the front of the parade just a couple of blocks back from the start. It is easy to understand why this is the highlight of Luis’s year. The crowds are bursting with pride for Puerto Rico, screaming, singing and waving flags. Even police officers ask to take photos with Luis.
It is one day when Puerto Rican pride takes center stage on one of the most well known stretches of the most famous city in the world.
The superintendent of Luis’s building says he wants to “be Luis” when he is older. He rides in the parade with Luis’s family, the only person besides Luis on a bicycle. Luis rides slowly and waves, with grandchildren flanking him on either side, like his bike is a chariot.
The superintendent makes figure 8s and circles on his bike along each block of the parade route yelling “Booyah, booyah.” He rides “no hands”, waving both arms in the air to get larger reactions from the crowd. It is like seeing a vision of Luis decades earlier.
The climax of the parade for Luis is riding across the bandstand, in front of the live television cameras on Fifth Avenue. He and his family scream more loudly and take photos of the scene.
For years different combinations of Luis’s family members have come to the parade, sometimes just one or two people. This year they all came, saying that they know with Luis slowing down, there may be only so many parade opportunities left.
After the parade they all head to La Fonda Boricua for a late lunch and then Luis, exhausted but pushing on, brings everyone to a community garden for another party.
Everyone is more tired than Luis.
Luis arrives at his first appointment at Mt. Sinai’s geriatric clinic (the Martha Stewart Center for Living) half an hour late on a Tuesday.
He spent the weekend at a block party, posing for photos and mingling with people. Yesterday he stayed inside to recover.
Dr. Helen Fernandez introduces herself and explains the role of each of her staff – the social worker, the nurse. She speaks in English, then in Spanish.
She talks about what they do there – explaining that they handle people with serious chronic conditions and those who need palliative care.
For the first time, Luis can communicate nuance in a way that he hasn’t with his English- speaking doctors, even those working through translators.
After listening to the doctor’s description of what type of patients the center treats, Luis wants to emphasize his health.
“I don’t have chronic conditions. I am feeling well. I have a pacemaker. My knees hurt, but I am good.”
“Your heart?” the doctor asks.
“Well yes,” he says.
Dr. Fernandez asks Luis about his story, both his history and his current life. Luis
tells her how he immigrated from Puerto Rico and how he worked at the Carvel store. He tells her he didn’t know what to do with himself when he retired and it was very depressing (“It’s not good for people!”), so he started to ride a bike and found that people liked taking pictures of him.
“I love people. I love the world,” he tells her. “If I feel good, I ride the bicycle. I talk to the people. Music is important. Music is medicine. It changes the way you feel.”
He tells her about his 3 children, 9 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren.
“A big family.”
“I am rich,” he says. “I am not a millionaire, but I am happy. I love people. At any moment if I can help someone, I do.”
Dr. Fernandez says that Luis is doing wonderful given the seriousness of his heart condition.
“He has end stage heart disease. We have maxed out therapy at this point,” she says.
“Dr. Miller said he couldn’t upgrade the pacemaker. It’s wonderful he doesn’t have symptoms but he’s at end stage heart failure. He has a defibrillator. It’s very painful if it goes off.”
She says Luis’s dream of having surgery to correct his hernia, is just that. He is fortunate that his heart withstands daily living.
She focuses on issues of comfort, typical to older patients. She helps connect him to a doctor to have his ear cleared of wax and recommends a podiatrist to help him cut his toenails. She watches him stand from a chair without holding on to anything, watches him walk, has him use his leg strength to push back at her.
She says she hopes to have a conversation with Luis’s family about end-of-life decision-making – not that it is imminent, just inevitable.
“It’s beautiful to meet you. You care for your health. You are happy. You help other people.”
Luis leaves pleased that this doctor took the time to learn about him and listen to his life story.
“She’s a good doctor. A nice doctor,” he says.
The summer and fall, Luis attends as many social events as he can, which is many.
His family has a large picnic in Van Cortlandt Park.
He goes to the annual Old Timer’s Stickball Game and Salsa Street Party in East Harlem. He attends weekend concerts and parties at the community garden across from his building. He goes to a birthday party for an 88-year-old neighbor, another for a friend in the Bronx and one for the young son of the owner of La Fonda Boricua.
Luis almost always brings his tape player and microphone with him to a party. He sees himself as a DJ on wheels.
On one August day, Luis is headed to a 5-year-old’s birthday party in a nearby community garden, run by his friends, even though he doesn’t know the birthday girl.
He first stops by his friend’s shop on 106th Street. More like a walk-in closet that spills out on to the street, the store has DVDs, socks, sunglasses, belts, newspapers. Luis’s friends are always outside.
One friend gives Luis a new CD of African music, mostly flute and drums, to play from his bike.
Luis leaves his bike parked in a parking space around the corner, the music on, the pinwheel spinning and the little flags waving in the wind.
He goes to get a coffee at the Blimpie, a sandwich shop that has been a home to Luis for decades.
“You have to eat, Luis. You are skin and bones,” says Mora, the store’s manager, when he walks in.
Mora and Luis look up at the signs above the Blimpie, advertising the ice cream store that Luis once managed, gone for years.
“Everybody knows him and he knows everyone from when they were born,” she says of Luis. “We are a Spanish Blimpie. We are a meeting place for a lot of people.”
“This place is different. It is a whole different culture. Being here is like being in another country,” Mora says of East Harlem. “People are born here, raised here, die here. Their children follow.”
Luis dismisses Mora’s offers for food today (“Luis, you are very skinny, very old, you need to eat to live!”) and says he is headed to a party.
As he pedals up Third Avenue, a man outside one store calls out “Mayaguez!” Luis’s hometown.
A shop keeper calls out “El gallo, el gallo.”
Luis waves to his regular greeters.
El Catano Community Garden on E. 110th St. began in 1994, in the tradition of the small community gardens and casitas (little houses and meeting clubs) speckled through out East Harlem.
The garden was displaced when a new rental apartment building was being developed nine years ago, and through a deal worked out with the developer, the garden was gifted a new space.
The garden has paved ground, a wall of Ivy and flowers along the other side.
They garden is run by the New York Restoration project, which picks up garbage, delivers supplies (soil, bags) and checks in twice a week, but it is really run by Jose Reyes, a friend of Luis’s for many years.
Jose wakes up at 6 a.m. everyday to get to the garden in the summer. They have about 20 parties from April to the end of September, that he manages.
“They know I be here all the time. I have to be here,” Jose says.
This year Jose has reaped about 20 eggplants from the garden, along with red peppers and oregano. Large American and Puerto Rican flags blow side by side above the garden.
While Jose calls Luis “el jefe de nosotros,” Jose is the boss of the garden. He is retired from the 1199SEIU healthcare workers union, where he worked for 35 years. The garden is what he does in his retirement.
Today for the birthday party, Jessica is turning 5 years old. The theme of the party is the popular television cartoon Doc McStuffins. There are 50 people seated at long tables that span the garden. Sparkley spirals hanging from small white tents shading the tables. A few children run and dance with Jessica, who has had her hair done for the party and is wearing a pink formal dress with a full skirt.
A group of Luis’s friends from the neighborhood are the overseers, the elders of the garden, stationed at a table, during the party.
Luis remembers that one of the men at the table is looking for a job.
“Are you working?” Luis asks him.
“Tomorrow, I have an interview in Queens.”
“Work is important. Good luck. You will be good,” Luis says, shaking his hand.
Jessica’s mother provides food for the men running the garden. Luis eats a plate of rice and chicken.
Another longtime neighbor, Oscar, pulls up in his wheelchair. He relies on a ventilator, but gets around the neighborhood independently.
Jose sees his job as peacemaker. He gives Luis and Oscar a lecture about accepting people of other cultures, prompted by Jessica’s family being Mexican.
“Mexicans. They are working. They work hard. They come here to work. Puerto Ricans – there are good and bad. The same for everyone. We have Dominicans, Blacks, everyone, here. We work for the community. Even a couple of white people like dominoes!”
His main job is to keep the space clean and make sure people follow the rules – no fighting.
During the meal, Luis takes it upon himself to play DJ. His microphone squeaks and squeals with feedback.
“What do you have to say to everyone,” Luis puts the microphone up to Jessica.
Her mother whispers in her ear.
“Thank you to everyone for coming,” she says.
“Happy birthday and many, many more years,” Luis says.
Jose then takes the microphone and tells the audience how this is a garden of all cultures and that even though it began as a Puerto Rican haven, they are there for people of all Latino cultures.
As the party continues, Luis talks about giving money to his grandchildren to support them as they return to school. The men reminisce about the old garden. They have known each other so long no one knows how they met each other.
The parades and parties continue into the fall.
Luis decided to march in the National Hispanic Heritage Parade over one weekend, but he is regretting it several days later. He rode his bike all the way from East 118th St. to West 40th St. When there were street closures he had to go many blocks out of the way.
He had to take many long breaks, and he is still recovering.
“I can not do this again,” he says shaking his head.
Alma Collazo, social worker at Linkage House, Luis’s building stops by to say hello to Luis and drink a quick cup of coffee.
Luis says he “won the lottery” when a friend helped him apply and found him a spot at Linkage House when it opened. The building, a Section 202 building run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, provides supportive services and subsidized housing for people 62 years old and older who apply through a lottery from though out the city. Many residents of Linkage House were placed there from neighborhoods far away. Luis feels fortunate that the building allowed him to stay in the neighborhood that is the center of all he knows, even though he finds the neighbors in the building more boring and inactive than he’d like.
This afternoon, Luis is reflective. He says he feels proud of where he has come from. He begins to cry when he talks about his mother, who died when he was a young child. He was not allowed to see her in the hospital when she was dying and no one told him what was going on. The loss, and that lack of closure, are a pain he has never let go of and talks about often.
He lived a childhood largely lost, with no structure. He used to sit on dirt roads making up games with bottles and slingshots and rocks and whatever else he could find. He played with animals that roamed the area. He is baffled by how different his life is now.
“Living in New York has been a good life,” he says.
Luis has been enjoying the unseasonably warm weather and the winter which has yet to come.
He decorated his bike for Christmas with colorful lights, garlands and a singing Santa Claus.
He has Alma, his building’s social worker, help him create a sign in English and Spanish for his bike, advertising that he plays his music to promote Puerto Rican culture. He has recently added a tip cup behind his seat.
Luis attends the annual Christmas tree lighting on 106th St. and Third Ave. He decides to stay home for Christmas, avoiding the traffic to get to his family and enjoying the quiet of home.
The 2016 Three Kings Day parade is an entirely different scene from a year earlier.
This year, the parade falls on a sunny day, with not a flake of snow. The parade route is packed with spectators.
This year, Luis makes it to the starting line with plenty of time to spare. He lines up toward the front and greets friends and strangers. As he waits, people with cameras swarm around Luis, like an aggressive paparazzi. They by pass the marching band with its pom poms and flags, and even the three camels, who are chewing unidentifiable food on the sidewalk. Many know Luis from past years. Univision interviews him.
“There’s a story behind my dad and his bike. That bike has been everywhere,” says Luis’s daughter Jean marveling at the scene.
A man on a motorized bike decorated with skulls, dressed in a motorcycle jacket, greets Luis with a hug. They ride off into the crowds of East Harlem on a sunny, winter day. Luis shakes his maracas when the parade pauses and poses for pictures.
“Beautiful,” he says. And the rhythm of another year begins.