“Every neighborhood has its own unique character. Likewise, every neighborhood has its own unique characters,” begins proudly born and raised Bensonhurst native Barry Jacobs’ thorough description of the area’s famed Backwards Wheelchair Lady.
Barry goes on:
Everyone knows the people who stand out, whether for their odd personality or their flashy style. These are the people that everyone knows, the ones who give the neighborhood color. Like the Sasquatch of the Pacific Northwest, these characters have become almost mythic in nature, but unlike the Sasquatch, they are seen every day by people like you and I. You may have seen a few of them around Bensonhurst yourself.
She can be seen anywhere from 86th to 65th streets, often on 18th and 20th avenues, but she really gets around. I’ve seen her on 4th Avenue. There’s no best time of day to see her. I’ve seen her at both 3 p.m. and 3 am.
The Backwards Wheelchair Lady is, naturally, a woman in a wheelchair, possibly in her fifties, wearing a poncho and rain hat no matter what the weather. She has been seen in a variety of colors, but has most often worn a yellow or clear poncho. What makes her so distinctive is that though she’s in a wheelchair, she moves around faster than many people on two feet. How does she do it? She uses her feet to propel herself backwards, hence her nickname. She sits in her chair, turns her head to look behind her, and rolls herself backwards, Fred Flintstone-style.
This has been the basis of one of the most popular theories about her. Many people claim she’s not disabled. While I have no opinion either way, I have not heard from anyone who has seen her walking. I do know someone who claims to have seen her standing, but like many a UFO sighting, it has no proof behind it.
Another popular theory is that The Backwards Wheelchair Lady is homeless. She’s outside at all hours. She’s seen all over the neighborhood. She also very often has many shopping bags hanging from the handles of her chair. I disagree. While a homeless person may carry several bags with his or her belongings in them, the Lady’s bags change from day to day and sometimes there aren’t any at all. In fact, you can see her shopping in stores. I was once in a 99 cent store on 86th street when she was buying, among other things, plastic flowers. The man behind the counter hung a shopping bag on her chair and she used the flowers to decorate it. I don’t know where she lives (and for the sake of her privacy I have no intention of finding out) but she clearly has a place to keep her things.
Lately she’s been seen with someone pushing her (straight ahead, not backwards) down 18th avenue. I’ve seen her accompanied twice and with a different person each time. Are they caregivers? Good samaritans? I don’t know. Is she ill? She seemed well-enough to argue with one of her “aides” in Starbucks last week.
While I’ve heard stories that she’s mean, I see her a little differently. She’s independent. And being a woman in a wheelchair moving along deserted streets in the early morning hours for at least a decade, I’d say she’s fearless too. She’s an object of curiosity, a woman of mystery, and yes, maybe a little bit of a role model too.
And she’s pure Bensonhurst.