Many of us spend time thinking about what it means to live well. Let me tell you about someone who knew the answers.
Let Your Flag (or Rooster) Fly
You would have known Luis Cajigas if you lived anywhere near him, or even a mile away. He rode his bicycle, and later, his motorized tricycle, around the neighborhood with music blaring, artificial roosters on the canopy overhead and decorations for whatever holiday was coming up dangling behind. Thousands of New Yorkers have posed with Luis (known as “El Gallo,” or rooster, in Spanish) and his bike. Many more did double takes and smiled as the thin man on the decked out bike passed by. This gig was Luis’s self-created job after retirement, how he stayed relevant.
Give to Others (even when you have little yourself)
Fewer, but maybe as many as hundreds, were fortunate enough to know Luis well. The Luis who used his food stamps and own money to stock up on boxes of cereal and cans of vegetables to give to whichever neighbor or family member needed food. The Luis who always gave money to children at the start of school for school supplies and clothing. The Luis who invited strangers inside for coffee and said good morning to every neighbor. Luis believed it was our job as humans to be kind to other humans. Period.
Party and Play Music (Loudly)
When the residents in his senior-housing building were asleep, Luis went to parties and hosted them. He made sure that everyone had a beer in hand and that there was always, always music. He once arrived at a 5-year-old’s birthday party in a local community garden and blared salsa and bolero uninvited. His rendition of happy birthday into his traveling microphone or megaphone was legato and famous. Once a year, his large, multi-generational family packed into his one-bedroom apartment to celebrate their patriarch’s birthday. Birthday 87, this past February, was no exception.
Dwelling on the Ups and Accepting the Downs
It never occurred to Luis that he should become someone different just because he was 87-years-old and was in end-stage congestive heart failure. Over time, he went outside less. He slept more. Yet in between there were still epic days, where he would dry clean his favorite suit and ride his bike for 50 blocks or 100 blocks alone to get to a parade, his pacemaker and defibrillator in his chest. There were sunny afternoons when he would wander over to 106th St. to La Fonda Boricua, his favorite restaurant, where the owners gave him free food and friendship. Luis set milestones every year – parades and parties he wanted to attend and resolved to gather his strength for even if it meant staying inside for a week beforehand.
Never Forget Where You Come From
Luis was born in rural Puerto Rico in the province of Mayaguez. He spoke of spending days playing in the dirt, aiming rocks at nearby animals. Luis had no one to look after him once his mother died when he was a child. Luis never went to school for more than a few weeks and didn’t learn to read. He immigrated to New York in the 1950s and eventually became the superintendent of a building and the manager of a Carvel ice cream store, where he came to know everyone in the neighborhood. Luis’s wife left him and their children when he was young, leaving him a single father. He made mistakes. Others wronged him, but after initial anger, he had a well of forgiveness, which his daughter Yvonne says she always admired.
For Luis, as he aged, our country’s societal supports largely worked for him. Throughout his 70s and 80s, he lived at Linkage House, a new Section 202 affordable housing building built by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and supported by Alma Collazo, a social worker affiliated with Mt. Sinai Hospital. He literally struck the lottery when he was placed in an accessible, affordable apartment in the neighborhood that he had lived in for decades.
For several years, through Medicaid coverage, Luis also had a home attendant, who helped him with cooking, cleaning, remembering and, maybe, most importantly, gave him company four-hours a day. During his last two years, he found a wonderful, bilingual doctor, who wanted to hear about his life as much as examine his body, again covered by Medicare and Medicaid. Beside a few emergency room visits, regular appointments, a painful hernia and a pile of medication, he lived at home unencumbered. His daughter Jean stayed with him often. His daughter Yvonne visited often. His nine grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren (including one who produced his first great-great grandchild last year) checked in, as did his many friends, who had become family.
Two years into the Exceeding Expectations project, on my last visit with Luis, winter turned to spring and Luis sent his home attendant out to pick up warm rolls. He made fresh coffee. He called to his parakeets with his stick and whistled. He sang me a song.
Last week, after several days of sleeping more and no interest in his birds, he was short of breath. By the time he arrived at the hospital, his kidneys had failed and he was on life support. He was admitted to the hospital’s palliative care unit.
Luis’s family filled the waiting room for five days. They talked to him and kissed him. One great-granddaughter drew pictures of rainbows and twirled around his bed in ballet slippers. He did not appear to be in pain and died quickly.
“I am rich,” he said often. “I am not a millionaire, but I am happy.”
At his funeral, Luis’s bike sat rider-less behind his casket, as family, friends and even City Councilspeaker Melissa Mark-Viverito paid respects to the man who was as much a part of East Harlem as the sidewalk. Luis’s family is hopeful that his bike will become a permanent part of the collection at El Museo del Barrio on Fifth Avenue. After his death, it went on display at American Medium, a gallery in Bedford-Stuyvesant, as a part of an exhibit featuring his granddaughter, artist Cheyenne Julien. Luis's family also hopes to create a mural in his memory on the block where he lived and worked for decades.
Luis Cajigas is one of 20 New Yorkers in their 80s followed by the Exceeding Expectations project of the Columbia Aging Center. The project is led by Dorian Block and Ruth Finkelstein. It is funded by the New York Community Trust.
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