A year on the streets of New York with “El Gallo,” an 84-year-old retired Carvel manager who spreads music and delight from the seat of his conspicuous colorful three-wheeler.
Cotton balls descend on New York City. It is the first snow of the year, and it is the storybook kind. There is enough for children to gather up mittened-hands full. 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, a rare time that the news crews come to East Harlem for a celebration, a small parade in the context of New York City. There is a nativity float, oversized puppets of the three kings bobbing on sticks and a couple hundred children beating homemade drums in crowns and winter coats. And, of course, camels, which high step it across 106th Street, at the parade’s climax.
It is primarily an event celebrated by and designed for young people and their parents, but Luis Cajigas takes no notice of this. Eighty-four years old and always one for a party, he has little in common with most people his age. He finds them too serious, too weighed down, too pensive. Luis lives for the here and now — music, dancing, coffee and beer, good company, chance encounters — and riding his bike. He is an entertainer, always ready to share pictures, a song, a story, a bowl of saltines and cheese slices to accompany your drink.
Despite the snow, Luis is determined to ride his bike in the parade. He spends the morning preparing, and recording a new cassette tape for his bike’s sound system. He loses the tape and finds it again. He waterproofs his bike — actually a motorized tricycle, although Luis refers to it as his “bike” — protecting the rooster images that decorate it with plastic shopping bags. He stands on a chair in order to reach the canopy he has built on top reading “Mayaguez,” the name of the town in Puerto Rico where he was born. 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. 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 pedaling 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.
Luis’s 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 tricycle 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. 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. Five years of visiting Luis every weekday morning have given her a clear understanding that when his mind is set, he cannot be stopped.
In Puerto Rico, Luis 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 in East Harlem. Luis was and is as much a part of that block as the sidewalk cement. He retired in his early 60s, and then, he says, did not know what to do with himself.
“I very depressed. What to do? Who am I?” Luis says 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 as well as his personal nickname “El Gallo.” He 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 passersby 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 — garlands for Christmas, hearts for Valentine’s 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 on Fifth Avenue in June, but there are dozens of other celebrations that he tries to attend throughout the year. Spectators expect him, and people come up to him, excited to meet him in person.
The 2015 Dia de Los Reyes Magos parade begins, but the snow has kept almost all spectators away.
There are the three kings. The float with Jesus, Joseph and Mary. There is no Luis.
The snow dampens the usual spectacle (the 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.
The parade lasts less than ten minutes this year. Shortly after it starts, the street is reopened to traffic. Spectators scatter. Cars stream forth. The parade is over.
And then, finally, there is Luis.
He walks down the yellow center line of the street slowly, steadily and seemingly unfazed in between dozens of moving cars. His 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 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 shoot — 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 get it fixed at a nearby bike shop where he knows the owner. He is determined to get it home and fix it himself. On his way home, the 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 and act honored to help the man they either know or see biking past so often. When Luis’s bike falls over again in the final blocks before his building, three men on their way to a food pantry help him turn it back 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. Another one 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 or giving food 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 takeout rice and beans for dinner.
* * *
Luis received a stack of paperwork that, because he cannot read English or much Spanish, took him weeks to understand. Finally, he learned that his food stamps were being cut from $189 per month to $43 — a crushing reduction.
Given that Luis’s income and assets have not changed, he appealed, with the help of his daughter and the social worker in his building.
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 a few minutes.
“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.”
In 2015, all people in the U.S. 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 and were notified by mail. 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.
The paperwork shows that Luis’s only income is $800 a month in Social Security, a small percentage of what he would be entitled to if he hadn’t worked so many years off the books. It is also a number that hasn’t changed significantly, which makes the food stamp cut particularly confounding.
Luis nods and says yes and is mostly quiet as the translator speaks to him. He and his daughter walk out, unsure of the outcome or the next steps. Luis shrugs his shoulders and acts like the fight isn’t worth it.
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 or need to take breaks.
* * *
Luis loves a party. It is his 85th birthday, and even once the room is packed with guests, he takes to his phone and phone book to find out why others he knows are not there.
Merengue, bachata, modern and old, pulse through the senior-housing building where he lives, playing 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. Longtime friends from the neighborhood come in dressed for a party.
Luis has three children, nine grandchildren and ten 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 ten p.m., stay out at a bar nearby until the next morning, and then go straight back 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 the weather and his health will cooperate to allow 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.
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 also has a pacemaker and a defibrillator. He 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 to see if there is anything more Luis can do for pain relief.
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, is a bit irritated that Luis has not followed his direction to see a list of specialists before returning to see him.
With the help of his daughter translating, the doctor asks Luis about his sleep. Luis reports that he gets up at one a.m. and five a.m. most nights.
What about eating?
Luis prefers rice, beans and chicken. No vegetables or fruit. This is how he has eaten his whole life.
“How far can you walk?” the doctor asks.
“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.”
“He loves riding his bike and with the hernia it’s hard,” his daughter Yvonne says. “That’s what keeps him going, so you understand why we want to think about it.”
“At 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.”
Luis has had enough of the serious questions. It is important for him to be liked, even in the doctor’s office. He makes a joke about replacing his pacemaker with a radio to play music.
“You only get one channel so you better pick your favorite station,” says the doctor.
Luis gives the doctor a dramatic hand slapping that ends in a handshake and laugh.
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 gist of everything is sufficient.
* * *
After the appointment, Luis does not say it, but it is clear: he is determined to prove he is not the debilitated man who can only walk a block, as was 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. Without taking a break, he walks seven blocks to his favorite restaurant, La Fonda Boricua, for sopa de gandules and Kola Champagne soda with his daughters.
After lunch, they walk another six blocks past the block where Luis once lived and worked, and where everyone still knows his name. There is the shopkeeper from Senegal who supplies Luis with new CDs, the Mexican man who sells ices on the corner and several others who chat on milk crates and folding chairs.
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, he would walk down the street calling: “Yo soy El Gallo!” And it seemed wherever he was, someone would call back.
* * *
Luis could not walk for a week because of fluid that has built up in his leg (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 his legacy is passing along love, pride and knowledge of Puerto Rico to his family and community.
“Nobody should forget where we come from. It is a beautiful place,” he says.
* * *
This 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. He cannot get to the parade starting line unless he can find a truck to transport him and his bike, which, because of its overhead canopy, cannot 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 to the parade. 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 dry cleaners to get the desired crispness and cleanliness.
* * *
Luis always wakes up by five a.m. on parade day, when it is still 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 in the 90s. Luis’ 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 calls 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 cleaning rooms 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. The crowds are bursting with pride for Puerto Rico, screaming, singing and waving flags. Even police officers ask to take photos with Luis.
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. Luis rides slowly and waves, with grandchildren flanking him on either side, like his bike is a chariot.
The former superintendent makes figure eights and circles on his bike along the parade route yelling “Booyah, booyah.” He waves both arms in the air to get larger reactions from the crowd. It is like seeing a vision of Luis from 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 louder and take photos of the scene.
Sometimes only one or two of his family members come to the parade. 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 for his first appointment at Mt. Sinai’s geriatric clinic (the Martha Stewart Center for Living) half an hour late on a Tuesday. He has 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. 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 nuances in a way that he hasn’t with his English-speaking doctors.
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 about riding his bike, about posing for pictures.
“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 three children, nine grandchildren and ten 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 wonderfully 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 will remain a dream. 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 ears 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.
* * *
JULY and AUGUST
Six months after losing most of his food stamp allotment, Luis receives a letter in the mail notifying him that it has been reinstated. He receives no apology for the error, no back payments for the months lost or reason given for the reinstatement.
Luis says he has made do without the food stamps for himself and is most looking forward to replenishing the supply of cereal and canned food he keeps in his apartment to give to neighbors who need it.
This summer and fall, Luis attends as many social events as he can, which is quite a few. 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 five-year-old’s birthday party in a nearby community garden, run by his friends, even though he doesn’t know the birthday girl.
After a stop at his friend’s shop on 106th Street to pick up a new CD, and a stop for coffee at the Blimpie sandwich shop, where he has been going for decades, he pedals up Third Avenue.
A man outside one store calls out “Mayaguez!”
A shopkeeper calls out “El gallo, el gallo.”
* * *
El Cataño Community Garden on East 110th St. began in 1994, in the tradition of the small community gardens and casitas (little houses and meeting clubs) speckled throughout 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 given a new space.
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 six a.m. every day to get to the garden in the summer.
“They know I be here all the time. I have to be here,” Jose says.
Today for the birthday party, Jessica is turning five 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. Sparkly spirals hang from tents providing shade. Children run and dance with Jessica, who is wearing a pink formal dress with a full skirt.
Jose, Luis and Oscar, a man who uses a wheelchair and ventilator but gets around the neighborhood independently, are the elders of the garden, stationed at a table.
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,” Jose says. “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 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.
As the party continues, Luis and the men reminisce about the old garden. They have known each other so long no one remembers how they met.
* * *
The parties continue into the fall. Luis decided to march in the National Hispanic Heritage Parade over one weekend, but he is regretting it. He rode his bike all the way from East 118th Street to West 40th Street, but because of street closures, he had to go many blocks out of the way.
He had to take many long breaks, and several days later he is still recovering. He feels too weak to go outside or get out of his pajamas.
“I cannot do this again,” he says shaking his head.
Alma Collazo, social worker at Linkage House, the building where Luis lives, stops by to say hello and drink a quick cup of coffee.
Luis says he “won the lottery” when a friend helped him find a spot at Linkage House. A Section 202 building run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, it provides supportive services and subsidized housing for people 62 and older who apply through a lottery. Many residents of Linkage House moved 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 a bit dull.
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 or schooling. He sat on dirt roads, making up games with bottles and rocks and whatever animal roamed by. He is baffled by how different his life is now.
“Living in New York has been a good life,” he says.
* * *
The 2016 Three Kings Day parade is an entirely different scene from a year earlier. 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 him like an aggressive paparazzi. They bypass the marching band with its pompoms 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.
* * *
Dorian Block directs Exceeding Expectations, a project at the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center, which has been following twenty New Yorkers in their eighties (including Luis) for the past year. Exceeding Expectations is co-led by Ruth Finkelstein and funded by The New York Community Trust.