Amid the hustle and bustle of 14th Street, Bobby Byrd can be heard asking, “Can I take your blood pressure?” He’s no doctor but he has been asking that same question to passersby between First Avenue and Avenue A for 16 years. “I bring two chairs, a table and my voice,” said the 62-year-old.
Mr. Byrd was raised by his aunt in Brooklyn. “She wanted me to be the best,” he said. “Instead of watching TV, she would say, ‘Get a book.’” He said he had worked for the IRS, for the city and state. But it was as an asbestos abatement supervisor that he learned to perform CPR and take blood pressure readings.
After he was laid off from that job, a friend suggested he start taking strangers’ blood pressure. Soon he was doing so in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. “It gives me freedom to go where I want to go, gets me income to do what I want to do, and I get to go around and see the city,” he said.
Mr. Byrd focuses on communities like the East Village, Harlem, and Bedford-Stuyvesant where he said high blood pressure is a problem. Dressed in a white lab coat, he offers health tips and even refers at-risk people to doctors.
Most mornings, he’ll start his day in the East Village, by 10 a.m. He brings two folding chairs, a folding table, his stethoscope and Sphygmomanometer (a manual blood pressure reader).
It sometimes takes him a couple tries before passersby will sit down. “The minute you say, ‘Can I take your blood pressure?’ you have them walk down the block, turn around, and come back, and say, ‘I want to do this,’” he said. He often gets repeat customers, who have nicknamed him Doc and Blood Pressure. “People realize that when you are there to help them, they will come back,” he said. By lunchtime he packs up, hops on the subway, and is off to do the same in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.
Mr. Byrd legally can’t ask for money without a license, but said he doesn’t need one for his work. So he asks for donations, and receives anywhere from nothing to $50 per reading. One time, he said, he took a man’s blood pressure and it was 200 over 150. “I will never forget that,” he recalled. He soon realized the man was having a heart attack. He called an ambulance; three days later, the man came by and sat in his chair again. “Sir, you saved my life,” he said.
Mr. Byrd currently lives at the Bellevue men’s shelter on East 30th Street. This job, he said, is his livelihood, but it’s the thrill of his work that keeps him going. “You never know what’s going to happen next,” he said. “It’s got a little mystery to it, but it’s also got fun to it.”