by Ken Stewart

In the February issue, Mitch Pomerantz persuasively identified the importance of the content of one-on-one contacts between a member of the blind community and a member of the general public. After listening to that President's Message a second time and repeatedly nodding my head in agreement, my thoughts focused on my experiences walking around midtown Manhattan. Seldom do I pass through a single intersection without at least one stranger offering assistance crossing. One guide-dog using colleague teases me about these experiences. He claims I get so many offers of help because I look so incompetent waving my long white cane in front of me as I proceed ever so cautiously along each block. I prefer to think it is a combination of my smiling and approachable countenance, and the wonderful civility of New Yorkers and our worldly and sophisticated tourists. In fact, the offers of help rarely come at mid-block. Usually they come when I pause at a corner curb collecting audible traffic movement information or hesitate inside a large and complex transit hub.

Be that as it may, my interactions with strangers are abundant. I have long been aware of the potential impact of these interactions on the other party's general notions about all of us visually impaired people. I hope that each of my interactions represents a positive experience, and will educate and thus influence that person's future behavior. As Mitch indicated, those interactions can represent very effective PR.

I also confess that these encounters present me with opportunities for rich social interludes. Most offers of help are declined, but with an enthusiastic acknowledgement of the thoughtfulness of the offerer. When I accept an offer, however little I need assistance, it is not uncommon for me to continue walking with the helper long after we have completed a street crossing. I have learned much about a stranger's career, their grandmother's difficulty reading the newspaper lately, or their imminent personal destination. More than once there has been a role reversal when I have shared my extensive knowledge of locations of tourist attractions or the public transit system.

On the lighter side, these sidewalk encounters are sometimes a stage for me to throw out a one-liner for my own amusement, and hopefully for the audience's amusement also. Recounted below are a few of my favorite performances, two of which I have previously shared in the newsletter of an ACB affiliate.

The most commonly heard parting advice from someone who just aided me navigating around a sidewalk obstacle is, "Now go straight." "That's what my parole officer keeps telling me," I retort.

If a stranger approaches me while I pause to get my bearings inside a transit complex, and inquires where I want to go, I might reply with a broad grin, "Well, my first choice would be the Bahamas, but I'll settle for Bermuda." Occasionally someone calls out stern but uninformative advice from near a sidewalk obstacle about to challenge me. If he shouts, "Be careful! Be careful!" I may shout back, "Great idea. Why didn't I think of that?"

If a stranger who happens to be walking alongside me tentatively inquires if I need any help, I may respond, "Sure. How about some advice? Is it still a good time to sell off my Toyota stock?" Very early one weekend morning I was negotiating my way down Eighth Avenue in the dark to catch a bus out of town at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. My cane was suddenly entangled in a temporary construction barrier in my way. A male voice apparently from a street person close by said, "I'll help you." He physically nudged me around the obstacle, and then said, "That will be fifty cents, please." My response was, "Fifty cents?! It's Saturday. Isn't there a weekend discount?" Both of us chuckled as we parted.

And, oh yes, I do occasionally have negative experiences too. The category I call The Grab-and-Drag Guys get one of three responses from me. Either I extract myself from his grasp and demonstrate how to present his arm for me to hold, or, I'll shake him off entirely but thank him vigorously. And, yes, sometimes I simply go along for the ride, keeping hold of my cane as he seizes the tip and begins towing me. When I arrived at an almost deserted subway platform one day, I was approached by a street person just hanging out there. He passionately but crudely expressed his sympathy for how hugely difficult it must be to get around without being able to see. I reassured him about the manageability of my limitation, and added cheerfully that it was particularly manageable in a place like New York because of the abundance of helpful strangers. As my train pulled into the station, he showed amazement that could be so. When the car doors opened, a fellow customer instantly jumped up and offered me his seat. As the doors closed, I faced the disbeliever and mouthed, "See what I mean!"

Another subway ride began with me squeezing into a very crowded car. As the train pulled out of the station, I realized that my cane handle strap had become entangled with the neck lanyard attached to my sunglasses. One of the several people crowded up against me noticed my predicament. He reached out to help. I surrendered the tangled mess to him. He separated the straps and handed the two items back. My thanks included and admiring, "Wow! Rocket scientist?" He brushed aside the brilliance of his work, but I followed up with one of my repertoire of corny jokes. "How many blind guys does it take to change a light bulb?" As the train pulled in to the next stop, my stop, I delivered the punch line. I sensed I had a larger audience of several more pairs of ears nearby. As I stepped off, my parting words were, "We'll let you know ... if we ever have to."

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