I Don’t Ride with Animals

People who accompany a guide dog, or most any dog for that matter, learn that the dog gets the limelight.  I have learned this lesson in humility. I accept my role being Timmie to Lassie, Vanna White to Pat Sajak, Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes.

“What a beautiful dog,” is how Hector the paratransit driver greets Randy and me.  I introduce us and Hector and I shake hands.  “I think the middle seat will be best for you two,” he says.  “We have two pick-ups and a drop-off and then you and Randy will be home.”

As we bounce down the road, Hector and I talk sports while the GPS gives directions and Randy sniffs for crumbs.  When we hear we have reached our destination, Hector stops the van and consults his clipboard.

“Uh-oh,” he says.  “The note here is that this rider refuses to ride with animals.”

“I’ll move to the back seat,” I offer, on behalf of Randy.  “We’ll be out of the way back there.”

“No,” replies Hector.  “You stay where you are.  I will counsel her.”

Hector exits the van and says, “I made a mistake ma’am.”

“You bet you did,” comes the woman’s voice.  “You didn’t back into the driveway like you’re supposed to.”

I’ll help you, ma’am” says Hector.  “There now.  My mistake, ma’am, is that there is a service animal on board.”

“I don’t ride with animals!” she shrieks.  “I don’t ride with animals!”

“Now, ma’am, you sit up front with me,” says Hector.  “The dog will be behind you.  You’ll be up front.”  The two stand outside the van.  I hear it all.  The woman rips Hector up one side and down the other.  Hector mumbles apologies

The front passenger door opens and the woman plops into the seat.  “No, I don’t need help with my seat belt,” she says.  “And I’m going to lodge a complaint against you.  I’m going to sit right here in this seat next to you and I’m going to call paratransit and lodge a complaint while you have to sit and listen.”  Hector remains silent.

I am curious about the woman’s aversion to dogs.  Perhaps she’s allergic.  Perhaps she was attacked as a child.  There are many logical, rational reasons for fear of dogs.  But I say nothing.  I don’t want her to rip me up one side and down the other like she did Hector.  The woman pays no attention to Randy and me, at least she doesn’t say anything.  Still, she might be giving us the stink eye for all I can see. Or be reaching for the Mace in her purse.  I summon Randy to the footwell in front of me, instruct him to sit, insist he lie down and demand that he stay.

We ride in silence broken only by the melodious voice of the GPS.  I keep one foot on Randy’s leash and one hand on his back.  “You have arrived at your destination,” says the GPS voice called Stephanie or Allison or Jennifer.  Hector exits the van but is back in seconds, alone.

We drive a little farther.  “You have arrived at your destination.”  Hector exits the van but, again, returns, alone.  We drive a little farther, turn left, then right, then back up—beep! beep! beep!—until, once again, we have arrived at our destination.

“You don’t know what you’re doing,” shouts the woman.  “You’re driving around in circles and picking up nobody.  You don’t know what you’re doing, do you?”  Hector remains silent.  He exits the van and, this time, his door closes with a little more force.  The woman mutters an oath under her breath which I won’t repeat except to say it’s a body part that all of us have.  Then she tells her phone to call a “seafood restaurant on Lincoln.”  I wonder if she’s afraid she’ll be late for her Saturday luncheon with her girlfriends or whether she’ll be late for work shucking oysters and slicing pieces of three fingers while doing what amounts to the worst job in the world for minimum wage but which she needs to keep to pay the rent on her crappy apartment.

I hear Hector’s voice approaching.  He’s saying, “You’ll be fine, ma’am.  You’ll sit in the back and the dog is in the middle, out of your way and he’s well behaved and he won’t bother you.”  While I’m wondering what accounts for this animal phobic population, the door slides open and Hector guides this new woman to her seat and asks her if she’d like the footrest and she says yes and he asks her if she’d like him to put on her seat belt and she says yes.  Then he resumes his place behind the wheel and off we go.

“How old is your dog?” the new woman asks.  I tell her that Randy is eight and that we’ve been together for six and a half years.  She says that’s nice and that she’s only going three blocks to her book group at the public library and the book they’re discussing is called The Woman in Gold and she listens to talking books because she’s legally blind but she never got white cane training though she’d like to and then she could walk the three blocks but now she uses a support cane and she’s afraid she’d trip over a crack in the sidewalk if she tried to walk to her book group with it and we learn all this in three blocks and then we reach our destination and Hector exits the van and the door slides open and he undoes her seat belt and the footrest pops up and she’s gone.

We continue in silence.  I hear paper rustling in the front passenger seat and the smell of French fries wafts into the middle seat.  Randy’s head pops up and I push it down.  I sense, I can’t really say how, that we’re getting close to home and then Hector says there’s a moving van blocking the street and he’ll park and walk me the half block to my house.  So I wait for him to exit the van and slide the door open before I release Randy and we bolt out the door and I take Hector’s arm and he walks me home.  I thank him and tell him I think he handled a difficult situation professionally.  “It’s all in a day’s work,” he says.  “Some folks complain, others take it in stride.”  We shake hands and he walks back to the van, to continue his long and silent ride with the woman who doesn’t ride with animals—until today.

Inside the house, I take off my jacket and Randy’s harness, toss him a biscuit and fish my phone from my pocket.  I call the paratransit customer relations department and listen as the voice—sounding more like Gravel Gertie than GPS Stephanie—recites the automated mailbox selections.  When she says, “To File a Commendation, press 2,” that’s the number I press.

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Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Empowered by White Cane Day, I’m giving the dog the afternoon off and taking my cane for a walk to the grocery store.  The weather is clear, the track is fast and, in seven minutes flat, I’m bearing down on the corner of Clark and Summerdale.

From Starbucks bounces a fellow who, while shouting into his phone, hurdles my cane.  I kid you not—he doesn’t even break stride.  When I reach the grocery store, a man kicks my cane out of the way so he can get to the automatic door before I do.  I mean, he kicks my cane out of his way.

What’s going on?  Is my white cane invisible?  I’ll say it straight—my cane keeps you safe from me and keeps me safe from you.  This partnership fails when the cane means everything to me and nothing to you.  While anger is not the currency to negotiate this social contract, I nevertheless demand an accounting.  Is it ignorance? Indifference?  Sometimes I think you just don’t care and I despair that conclusion.  It robs me of hope—and that hurts.

Inside the store, an octogenarian screeches “What ya carryin’ that stick for?” and scurries off before I can reply.  In the candy aisle, a kid says, “Mommy, why’s that man swinging that stick?”  Mommy hushes the kid and they hurry on.

OK, chalk it up to the innocence of youth, politically correct parenting or memory loss among seniors.  But the message is that I am an object of curiosity rather than a subject of interest.  I’m willing, eager even, to explain the white cane to the kid, the mom and the old lady, to humanize the experience, but no one seems inclined to listen.  The corollary is the server who asks my wife, “And what will he have?” What’s striking is the irony of the blind being overlooked by the sighted.  The implication is that blind people don’t measure up compared to the “able bodied”—and that hurts.

Nearing home, I ponder my part in today’s drama.  Are my antennae tuned only to slights?  Do I tally wrongs to prove I’m a victim?  I feel the wake of a bicycle whizzing past.  Mine is a quiet street; bikes needn’t be on the sidewalk. I could get hit and that would hurt.  My cane tip could get caught in the spokes.  The cyclist could go flying over the handlebars and smash onto the pavement.  What would my part be in that pain? I tap home, pondering the meaning of White Cane Day and whether it has meaning at all— and that hurts.

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White Cane Day

Did you get my White Cane Day card?  Among Hallmark’s top sellers, White Cane Day ranks alongside United Nations Day.  But we who use white canes celebrate our very own holiday.  Today, I honor the skinny stick that keeps me from falling, splat! flat on my face.

The white cane has not always been my friend.  In the beginning, my denial told me I didn’t need it and my ego told me I looked silly using it.  But a false step into a pothole put me on crutches for a month and put the white cane in my hand, like it or not.

I hold the cane on my starboard side rather than dead center because the tip once stuck in a crack and I was impaled on the shaft.  Man, that hurt!  The cane curved into an archery bow, my voice rose to soprano and I sounded like the Bee Gees for a week.

Cracks and humps and bumps in the pavement disrupt my navigation system and I constantly recalibrate my coordinates.  When I first trained with the cane, I thought sidewalks were smoother and straighter and all I had to do was point and go.

I try to walk laser-straight, ten inches from the sidewalk’s right edge.  I tap the grassy border to keep due east but intersecting paths to the street or to someone’s front door throw me off course.  I zig; I zag.  The sidewalk is four feet wide and, by God, some days I use all four feet.

If I stray across the center line and become a danger to myself or others, those others will conclude that I should stay home where I’m safe and out of the way.  But if I keep straight effortlessly, those same others will assume cane mobility is a piece of cake and I must do everything and do everything well.

Today, I sweep autumn leaves sprinkled on my path. Soon I’ll etch, in a dusting of snow, a sketch that suggests I took my pet snake for a walk.  Midwinter, I’ll scratch the surface of black ice.  Come spring, I’ll ripple puddles after a rainstorm.  And in midsummer, I’ll tap softened surfaces too hot to touch.

To we who use them and you who observe them, Happy White Cane Day!  I celebrate, belatedly, with gratitude.  If you missed the holiday this year, mark your calendar for October 15, 2017 and we’ll meet on the street, upright and straight.

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The Beautiful Lie

I tell myself that serenity is not determined by how much I see.  I tell myself to forge ahead, keep the faith, shine a light.  I tell myself that, even if my eyesight doesn’t improve, my patience and tolerance will, my acceptance will. I tell myself this beautiful lie, this lie that things get easier.  Right here, right now, my bitter truth about blindness is that things are getting harder.

I write what I see and I write what I feel.  I’ve written funny stories about planting pansies upside down and serious stories about finding acceptance.  I’ve written honest stories born from despair and rejected by publishers because they failed to reflect the triumph of the spirit in the face of a disability.  Yet I honor these last for being authentic and for their power to connect with people who struggle.  Not every song in the concert can be “The Wheels on the Bus.”  For every “Hallelujah Chorus” there is a “Requiem,” just as, in life, birth and death are necessary and inevitable.

Back in my formative years, I assumed my training as a social worker would steer me toward the fast lane through my personal stages of grief.  I would race to the finish line of acceptance, with denial and anger only a blemish in my rear view mirror.  Silly me.  At this stage, I accept only that recovery from loss is a process. Anger is a natural and necessary phase of that process of victims becoming survivors. To deny or suppress that anger is to reject reality and derail what must and will occur.

This is the dark side of blindness.  It will pass.  I’ll again see the humor, even when the joke’s on me.  I’ll value the irony of unintended outcomes.  I’ll accept that grief is not a linear process but one that doubles back on me.  I’ll get out of myself and gain perspective. But, for now, it’s all I see.  And I’m tired of its tyranny.


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Invisible Ink

Every other Monday for five years, rain or shine, I posted a Jalapenos story.  I wrote comedies about dogs and tragedies about people.  High or low, I wrote—136 stories in all.  Then, at holiday season last year, life overwhelmed our home.  My wife’s cancer returned after a decade’s remission and we spent Christmas frightened and vulnerable.  This summer, my wife’s mother died and she found that becoming an orphan, at any stage in life, brings desolation. My cataract surgery, from which any improvement would have been celebrated, failed to reveal any new and wondrous sights.  Indeed, with the insidious advance of RP, I see less now than then.

My writing has been one victim of the emotional onslaught.   It wasn’t the writer’s block where I took up the pen but nothing came of it.  Rather, I had no desire to pick up the pen at all.  I especially didn’t want to write about blindness or the triumph of the human spirit, for I felt not in the least triumphant.

I coped by regressing.  I stopped reading good books and started binging on the empty calories of sports and Netflix, which entertained but did not nourish.  Stress breeds odd behaviors—I quit winding the clocks and gluing that little thing that’s always falling off that bigger thing.  I quit untying the knots in my shoelaces.  “Does it matter?” became my burning existential question.

I needed a solution but faced the dilemma: Do I think my way into better acts or act my way into better thoughts? With minimal exertion, I picked up a good book and found food for thought. I turned that fuel into my own words and, in doing so, found a therapy that works: write through it.  Writing turns out to be my relief, my release from what’s pent up.  Maybe it’s my best, maybe it’s my only way to get “through” this—one word at a time.

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The Scientific Method Applied to a Dog

I set out to test my theory that wherever in the backyard Randy peed, the grass died.  For my laboratory, I measured a five-foot square, enclosed it with treated four by fours and filled it with bark.  I based my model on the former dog relief area at work, a concrete and gravel box which, abruptly one weekend, was replaced by a decorative fountain.  “I wish I’d gotten my hands on that gravel,” I told my wife.  “Randy really took to it.  It had the scent.  But I bet bark will work for us.”

“I’ll call Animal Planet,” my wife replied.

Throughout the dog days of summer, I steered Randy to his pee pad and urged him to embrace toilet training. He climbed onto the bark and sniffed every square inch. I told him to pee, believing he understood English and was eager to please.  He sat and stared at me.  I felt our connection.  But Randy did not perform.  As I led him from the pee pad, he squatted and peed on the lawn.  I swear I heard the grass scream.

I examined my experimental variables.  “He’s not making the connection between the gravel and the bark,” I told my wife.  “Can you spare an old pie tin so I can collect some pee and sprinkle it on the bark?  That way, he’ll catch on.”  But this additional ingredient, too, failed to produce results.  I increased the probability factor by lobbing morsels from his copious backyard #2 deposits onto the pee pad.  Following protocol, Randy climbed onto the bark, sat in its only unblemished corner and stared at me.

Summer school has ended and, with it, my experiment.  These days, I water our new sod backyard and walk Randy around the block to pee.  The bark is spread among vegetable plants that produce manly zucchini and voluptuous tomatoes.  “I wish you could see the bountiful fruits of your experiment, Honey,” says my wife.  “Every zucchini and every tomato has Randy’s smiling face on it.  Animal Planet will be filming here next week.”

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I Don’t Think of You as Blind

When I define who I am, blindness is pretty far down the list.  First come husband, son, brother, writer, reader, music lover and social worker. In these roles, I try to be loving and kind, thoughtful and thorough, patient and tolerant.

But among significant life events, losing my eyesight has had the most profound impact. I lost, then, after retraining, regained my career.   I haven’t driven a car in twenty-five years. I live in a large city and depend on public transit.  I am less adventuresome, preferring familiar environs.  I feel the loss of visual things which used to give me pleasure, like taking photos and watching ball games.

At times, blindness becomes my most obvious and dramatic characteristic.  If I try without success to find someone to read me a handwritten letter or I begin to cross Ashland Avenue against the light, blindness becomes vexing or downright dangerous.  I can proceed no further nor reach safety until I find a workaround.  But even as blindness inserts obstacles, I identify and internalize how blindness has enhanced my patience, ingenuity and problem-solving.

My wife has had two episodes with cancer.  Yet I do not think of her primarily as a cancer victim or a cancer survivor as defined by a pink T-shirt manifesto.  Cancer is part of her just as curly hair and a soothing voice.  Blindness is part of me just as male-pattern baldness and a singing voice tending toward flats.  Cancer and blindness are but two brush strokes in our portrait; they are not our portrait.  They are one frame of reference through which we think, feel and make decisions.  Where a stranger says, “Funny, you don’t look blind,” a friend says, “I don’t think of you as blind.”  The closer we come, the more we see, in ourselves and in one another.

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