How a Volunteer Became a Lifelong Friend

My friend Benita Daniels Black grew up in the Bronx, taught at public schools in Queens, and raised her son in their apartment in the Village. She loves New York City, and she planned on living there the rest of her life. But then she went to her grade school reunion.

That's Benita with her beloved grandson Sam (photo courtesy of Josh Daniels).

That’s Benita with her beloved grandson Sam (photo courtesy of Josh Daniels).

Dr. Henry Black attended P.S. 114 in the Bronx (sixth-grade class of 1954) with Benita and took time off from his job as Chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center here in Chicago to attend that grade school reunion, too. The New York Times published a very sweet story about the epistolary romance that ensued after that. “Within a few weeks, they’d amassed 1,200 e-mail messages,” the story said, quoting Benita saying how exciting it was to be with someone you shared a childhood with. “So much could be shorthanded.”

Benita and Henry were married at the New York City Municipal Building on April 19, 2002. Shortly after joining Henry here in Chicago, Benita started volunteering at Blind Service Association (BSA) to read aloud to people like me.

Week after week she’d help me weed through the pile of books and magazine articles I’d lug into the BSA office on Wabash. We learned a lot about each other in a very short time — she by the things I brought to read, and I by the inflection in her voice as she read them out loud.

When we discovered we were baseball fans, and we both followed the American League, we started going to games together. Henry and my husband Mike joined in the fray, and the four of us started going out for meals, too, mixing politics with baseball talk.

Ten years ago Benita let me know that she and Henry were moving to Manhattan. I wasn’t surprised. New York City was their home, after all, and I was just grateful for the serendipity that connected the two of us during her time in Chicago.

We’ve visited each other a few times since, and we keep up with each other via phone and email. When Benita emailed me recommending the audio version of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir My Beloved World, I took note. Benita and Justice Sotomayor both grew up in the Bronx, and I am guessing some of the talented students Benita taught at public schools in Queens reminded her of young Sonia. In her email, Benita pointed out that the Supreme Court Justice and I both grew up with hardworking single moms (Sonia’s father died when she was young, just like me) and that I’d be able to relate to Sonia’s stories about learning to give herself insulin injections when she was in second grade (Sonia and I were both diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as children).

But could Sonia Sotomayor write well? If Benita was recommending the book, I figured the answer had to be yes. I just finished reading the memoir, and I figured right. It’s a great read, and it’s well read, too: Rita Moreno is the narrator. Yes, that Rita Moreno. Anita from “West Side Story.” She’s friends with Sonia Sotomayor, and hey, I suppose when a Supreme Court Justice asks you to read, you do it!

You can tell that these two women know each other well by the way Moreno intuits which word to punch, where to pause and which phrases her friend would have said with a laugh. As a reader, the Academy award-winner is second only to Benita Daniels Black. And in a wonderful, wacky 21st century way, Benita still acts as my reader, sending links to New York Times stories she knows I’ll be interested in, and recommending books and authors she’s sure I’ll like.

If only the robotic drone of my talking computer would read with a New YorkYawk accent.


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