Few things in this world can be as sturdy as habit. It is habit more so than mortar that has founded civilizations through history. It has cemented empires and crumbled nations, and Benchman Johnson knew this better than anyone. Of course Benchman Johnson was not his real name. His real name was Johnson Sylvanus Floyd, but they all called him Benchman Jonson. Partly because he had a long and unmemorable name but mostly because he was the benchman. Whatever that even meant anymore. Whenever any of the kids at the baseball court would ask about him, that’s what they would say. “he is the benchman” they would answer at any question on the topic, but in silence, as if there was something particularly serious about this fact.
Though none of the kids ever understood why that was so serious, they all understood that the grownups had quite the amount of respect for the benchman. And as such the benchman had garnered some sort of a cult following in the local community. Some of the kids harbored the rumors that he was some kind of war hero. Others insisted he used to be a dangerous soviet spy turned to the American values. One of the smaller kids thought this to be particularly ridiculous because he insisted there were no black Soviets. I personally didn’t know about that.
But there where those among the kids who knew. And those who knew, also knew not to talk about why the benchman sits on his bench all the time. All the time, the benchman sits on his bench watching the children playing basketball. A creature of habit. He sits there in his tuxedo and his hat. Behind his old glasses, next to his phone and smoking that damned cigar. Sitting by the baseball courts. Every day. All day. Except one day. When we were at the ball park extra early due to school having a shortage of teachers that week. And we came to the park, but there was no bench man. Our first thought was that maybe he died. He was an old man after all and few things seemed less believable then the bench man leaving his bench.
But not but 20 minutes later a hospital ambulance pulled up and believe it or not the Benchman came out the back and sat back down before the ambulance drove back off. And just like before, Benchman Johnson sat on his bench with a cigar and a tuxedo and a hat and his phone. Never did he ever smile, and never did he ever leave. But all habits come to an end. And the last time a saw the benchman, was also the first time I understood why the benchman was the benchman. It was on my seventeenth birthday I remember. And we were out in the night playing basketball per usual. And there he was. Laying down on his bench under a newspaper. We had never seen him lay down before. He was always sitting up. Always nodding at the children, many of whom would salute him on their way.
Some of the kids thought there to be some entertainment in going to draw on his face. Per coincidence I had with me a sharpie. And we all walked hesitantly up to him. One of the kids lifted the paper. And the benchman made no reaction. Fueled by some confidence we slowly took the newspaper away. But the second it came off the kids all jumped. His eyes where wide open and the kids scattered like rats. In the chaos they showed me down. I would run, but I would not run without my sharpie. My father had given me a set for my art and I would not let the set become incomplete on the first day. Instead I sat on the ground for quite a breath of time. Working up the courage to go take the sharpie off his chest.
Still now he had not reacted. And I understood something was wrong. “Mr. Benchman?” I whispered. And he responded not. As I crawled over and raised my head up to look at his face I realized that he was in fact dead. I had thought that thought already. But I had never seen a dead man before and so the sinking feeling came as a surprise to me even so. I went to take my sharpie but instead ended up reading the front page of the newspaper still sitting on his chest. “Drug Gangs Fold to Mourning Father” it said. And the picture was of the bench man. Sitting on his bench. Except many years younger. And so it is that I read his story for the first time. Over his dead body.
The bench man used to have a son the paper explained. The son of Johnson Sylvanus Floyd was an aspiring basketball player. And a drug addict. In those times the drugs would be sold over the court. Drug dealers would go to the court and attempt to get buyers by letting the kids at the court have free samples. Mr. Johnsons kid had been one such child. And had died as a result of gang violence not but a year later. But Benchman Johnson insisted it all started out on that court. When his son started doing drugs.
The paper explained that Johnson now was sitting at the court every day. Observing everyone that came or went. If anyone approached the kids with any kind of shady substance, he would be standing there right over their shoulder ready to drag them off. And so he sat there waiting for the drug dealers to come. And when they did he already had the police on the line before they even turned the corner. None of the drug dealers wanted to deal with the man. He was bad for business sure enough but he was even then a respected community man. And even the drug dealers felt this. More importantly then this however was the fact that the drug dealers found it easier to just go to some other park. Mr. Johnson however kept on coming. Every day. And so every day his son’s baseball court was free of drugs. And the drug dealers sort of calmly agreed among themselves to leave the man and his court be.
This was the first time I understood what the benchman had done for me. And as I stood standing over his dead body. I hugged the man. Knowing how he had kept me safe for most of my youth. We even went to his funeral. My entire family did. Everyone’s family did, in fact the entire community came. And even after his death it sparked a resurgence of anti-drug protesters from the fearful message of what might happen to the court now that the Benchman was no longer there to protect the kids. I think even some of the drug dealers where there. They even renamed that very court in his honor just a few years later. And that newspaper still hangs on the wall of my bedroom. With his picture big as a page, and one day my kids will ask me who that man is. And I will wink at them and tell them; that’s the Benchman.