By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
It was Nili Bloom who first dragged her son to the North Miami store where shoes with a unique spring-heel design are sold. They're called Z-Coil. A reluctant Ben tried on a pair and says he's felt better since then. He was so enthusiastic he wrote a testimonial for the company's Website -- and eventually they offered him a job.
"Ben is ideally suited to tell, well, anyone really, but especially disabled people, about the benefits of our product," says David Dodge, the Z-Coil North Miami store manager. "So we hired him.... Ben is a natural ham, so he's able to get a lot of people to try on these crazy shoes with the springs in them."
It's another chance to perform -- and hustle -- for Ben. Just the other day, he was watching Court TV on the flat-screen in the Z-Coil store on Northeast 125th Street, when Dodge wandered into the back room.
"Hey, Ben!" the manager called. "Can you come back here a minute and help me with this?"
"But I'm only a poor crippled boy!" Ben yelled as he lurched out of his seat.
At 7:00 p.m., a battered compact car with a handicapped parking sticker hanging from the rear-view mirror pulls up in front of the Washington Avenue pool hall, Felt. Ben Bloom and I emerge and then enter a room that couldn't be more different from the one we used to frequent seven years ago in college. Mirrors line the walls, as opposed to cracked and broken drywall. And all of the cues have tips.
We get a pitcher of Budweiser and a table. We tell each other we don't play much anymore. "Don't expect much," I say.
"Happy New Year's," Ben says. "Cheers." We toast each other with plastic cups of brew and begin the game.
I rack the balls and Ben lets me break. The break is weak, nothing goes down, and the table is open.
"Oh, man, that was a really nice break," he says, a stiff left hand forming a peculiar bridge. He bends low over the table, one leg bent, the other straight, his right hand awkwardly grasping his cue. His stroke is slow and smooth, and the cue ball glides across the green felt and knocks the yellow nine ball into the pocket with a decisive thwock. The cue travels to the far corner, the perfect leave for a shot on the five ball.
"Oh, look at the lucky cripple!" he exults. I'm feeling some bad déjà vu.
Turns out pool is still Ben's game. He's also developing a passion for poker, which he indulges at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino. When he goes there, he says, he plays out a scene he's perfected, in different forms, over the course of his life.
"When I come up to a poker table, people see me and think, Oh great, easy money," Ben says. "Every time I have good cards, I wait until the end of the game and then hold them out for everyone to look at. Then I ask, 'Is this good?' People get really mad when they realize that not only am I not stupid, but I might be smarter than them. Or they just grumble, 'Lucky cripple. I've been beaten by a retard.'"
That night at Felt I end up like many of Ben's other victims. The only ball I can sink is the cue ball. Ben sinks pretty much everything else. "Not bad for a poor cripple," he says.
"To hell with that; you're a rich cripple," I mutter. "And you know what else? You're not angry anymore."
Ben is puzzled, and I struggle to explain. "You used to be so pissed off all the time. I remember that night when you put a fist through the pool room window. You really used to take it to people all the time."
Ben doesn't respond. He calls his next shot instead: "Combo, three to the six. And I'm going to sink both of them." And he does.
I wonder aloud whether his continued exploration of religion has led to some sort of enlightenment.
"No, I'm just resigned to not having any answers," he says. Then he softly clicks the cue ball against the eight ball, which crawls across the felt expanse and disappears into the corner pocket.