I felt crazy asking for directions to her house. Over the phone, Lee began, “Get on 8 west, at the Sports Arena exit you make a left, then when you get to West Point Loma Boulevard where a shopping center is, you make a right. Go about two blocks, and when you get to the Chinese restaurant...” Lee has been blind since birth.
Her home, a condo, is signaled by a misshapen palm curved by a disease of some sort Into a foot-thick shillelagh. The front walk narrows between ferns, cover vines, and a patch of lawn. There’s a mock lantern above Lee’s address and a mailbox below.
I rang the doorbell, and after what seemed so long a time I’d just concluded “no one at home,” I saw In the dim interior a woman moving toward me, trailed, though sometimes led, by an overweight and arthritic black Lab. Lee smiled as she opened the door. Her skin was a fine Irish white. Lee had blond hair, tightly curled. She laughed easily, laughing when I stumbled over my own name. Then she extended her hand.
Lee with her cane
I’d expected to find 43-year-old Lee Morton alone. But ensconced on the sofa In the living room, where Lee made her living — a phone-answering device for her answering service, what looked like a court reporter’s dictation-machine, a telephone in Braille — I met David Moore. Preoccupied, fingering a cigarette, his hand trembling with the cigarette. David was average height. Thin, too thin. Long-haired. About 45.
“I’m leaving San Diego. Tonight. I’m through with this town.” Lee explained that David had been mugged two weeks before, outside an elevator in a downtown building.
David elaborated, “They did CT scans and MRIs and, basically, came back with no obvious result. They said, ‘Well, you know your bell was rung, and you probably have a concussion.’ Unfortunately, my right eye has been removed, and my left eye has a cataract, so you can’t tell by looking at my pupils. They told me I was unconscious for 15 to 20 minutes.”
Lee sat in a contoured vinyl chair, beneath a lovely fall landscape that could have been a New England tarn and two strange florals, one yellow, one rose, painted, I later learned, by her grandmother.
Lee’s and David’s blindness was a result of their premature births. I asked Lee about her background.
“I was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. My dad was in the Navy. We left there when I was about one. We went back for vacation a couple of times. But I don’t remember living there, of course.
“I was born two months early and there was too much oxygen in the incubator; that’s what they thought they had to do then to preserve quality of life and all that good stuff. They since have found out that the oxygen is what causes the blindness. But, yeah, even though there are still cases where it happens, because sometimes they have to make a judgment call: to save the eyes or the brain. As more preemies are being born again, it’s starting to come back up. I guess they don’t call it retrolental fibroplasia anymore. It’s something, I don’t know — premature retinopathy, or retinopathy of prematurity, I don’t know, one of the two.
“Growing up I didn’t really feel that different. I knew I was, but I knew I had to adapt to things. Yeah, I got my books in Braille; other kids got them in print. Sometimes some of the other kids’ attitudes got to me, but then I always did have other friends who were my friends, blind and sighted, so I just kinda learned to hang around with the guys who were my friends and to heck with the ones who weren’t my friends. Especially when I saw the other guys who were my friends back me. So I really figured, ‘Okay, there are jerks and there are good people,’ and so I’d hang around with who I wanted to hang around with.
“As far as growing up, I did a lot of the normal things. I went to Brownies for a little bit, and then we moved from here to Washington, D.C., for a few years, and I just never got into it. But I did a lot of the other normal junk that kids did. My sister and I would go tandem bike riding together. When I was a kid I took piano lessons and all that, just like every other kid. They have a Camp Bloomfield in Malibu, which basically gave some of the blind kids the chance to go somewhere. So I got the chance to do that.
“So I think I probably had about the normal, as much as one could have, probably a pretty normal childhood. Growing up I knew I had a disability. I knew I didn’t do things the way sighted guys did them, but it never really dawned on me how really different all of us were until one day....”
Gerta, Lee’s retired guide dog, jumped into my lap. Lee said, ‘Gerta, down. You’re being a punk. I love you, but....” Then she went on.
“One day I was hanging around with some friends at school, it college this was, and someone says, ‘Oh, wow, the light’s way I down in here. I can’t see to dial the phone.’ And to me that whole I concept was weird, because I couldn’t help but think, ‘Why do you waste your time looking at the phone? It’s so easy to just stick — that was when they had the rotary phones — to stick your fingers in the right one you want and just dial it. Why do you even waste the energy looking? Use your eyesight for something valuable. Why use it when you really don’t need to?’ And then I decided, ‘You know something, I’m going to start surveying a bunch of sighted people and see what they say. I can’t believe they can be that stupid.
“ ‘Do you look at the phone when you dial?’ I’d ask.
“ ‘Of course. Doesn’t everybody?’
“And I was just — ‘Why?’
“ ‘Why shouldn’t I? I know you don’t. But why shouldn’t I? I’ve got the eyesight. Isn’t it a pain in the neck not to look at the phone?’ “And then it really dawned on me. We really are different. They’ve got sight. And I don’t. And they’re going to use every little inch of it. And I’m not. And so it dawned on me that it wasn’t so much ‘blind’ and ‘sighted,’ it was that our perceptions of the world were different. And this is one example. For me looking at the phone is a big bother, and for them not looking at it is a big bother. And for them being able to look at it means sight is really a big deal to them. I mean it’s everything. And to me it’s not. I mean, of course it’s not.”
David has lived in San Diego eight years. “Prior to that, nine years in Hawaii with the same company. I’m a civil servant. For the Navy. My work deals with sonar. I’m interested in human perception, how it distinguishes objects according to sound. I’ve tried to design a computer program. My thesis was that the human brain is the best pattern-recognizer we have. God created the best sonar we’ve got out there. So we may as well use it to find out how to program computers. To tell sonar sounds apart. So I used the human brain to obtain the model for my computer software. And I did psychological tests on people to say how do you tell sound A from sound B. What are the important cues.
“In high school I was on the wrestling team and the chess team. And I had a double major in physics and psychology from Muskingum College. Then I had a master’s from Penn State in acoustics.
“I had three children. They’re now 16,14, and 10. I’ve been divorced for eight and a half years. I left to go on a business trip and came home to an empty house. My ex-wife was a registered nurse. I met her at Penn State. She was sighted. I’ve dated both sighted women and blind women, and there’s advantages and disadvantages to both. I just don’t use that as a criteria when choosing a prospective date.
“I’m going back to Ohio because that’s where most of my family is, and I have more family support there. I have my father, two brothers, and a sister, and various brothers- and sisters-in-law. The rest of my family is all sighted. I’m a twin, but my brother is sighted.” “He didn’t go through that oxygen thing?”
“He went through it, but it was a statistical thing where all they knew was that a lot of incubator babies went blind, and it was a year or two later before some people at Hopkins discovered the cause.”
Lee interjected, “The British were figuring it out before, but no one bought it.”
“Right,” David said. “No one believed. Oxygen is a life-giver. It couldn’t be poisonous. And so no one listened to the Brits, and then they found it at Hopkins, and then you didn’t see a single case of RLF — you didn’t see a single case of it for about 30 years. And now you’re seeing it again, because there’s a lot of babies that are only carried to five months, that weigh less than a pound that they’re able to keep alive. And thank God our society has at least evolved to the point of saying, ‘Better blind than dead.’ A baby that is not carried beyond five months will require pure oxygen to avoid respiratory problems. I was born at eight months. I was four pounds, five ounces.”
“Were you a small baby, too?” I asked Lee.
“Yeah. I was like three pounds, and then I had jaundice, and I went down to two pounds. I was just this little thing.”
When David announced he was moving back to Ohio, his friends arranged a farewell party for him. I asked Lee about the evening.
“Some of us got together and we went to the Soup Plantation, which is right here in the shopping center. We picked it because it was easy to get to. Right on this bus line.”
“We all met at the closest bus stop to the Soup Plantation. Several people were coming from other areas,” David said.
“And you all came alone? Would you tell me how you got to the bus stop?” I asked.
“In my case,” David said, “I came home from work, went to the Y, dropped off a few things. Then I took a bus from downtown out to Point Loma, went to my P.O. box, took care of some things involved with closing out my P.O. box, went to a store over in the shopping center and bought some batteries for my radio, and then went to the same bus stop where they were going to meet at 5:45.” “What about you?” I asked Lee.
“I live around here so I just walked to the bus stop to meet everybody.”
“What was the restaurant like?”
“It’s a big, long buffet thing,” David said. “With soup and salad and muffins and pickles and pasta and ice cream. We got a couple of sighted people to help us go through the line. We were six blind people, and we got a couple of sighted people to help us go through it. One sighted person with two blind people. Basically, they filled up Gwen’s tray and my tray and somebody else filled up Lee’s tray and Tom’s."
“Did the room seem big or small?”
“It’s large," David said. “But I didn’t have any particular feeling about the geometry. I just didn’t think of it. It’s just like asking you the question, ‘What does the roof of the Empire State Building look like?’ Unless you’ve seen an aerial view, you have no concept. You have no clue.”
“When I wake up, as a sighted person, and I open my eyes, I see. And that has become for sighted people a metaphor, the ability to see means to understand, to be conscious. What’s the metaphor for a blind person?”
“We use the same terminology a lot of times,” David said, “without meaning anything connected with sight.”
“It’s such a colloquialism,” Lee agreed.
David continued, “It’s so weird to say, ‘Last night when I was listening to television.’ It sounds weird. So it’s, ‘Last night when I was watching television.’
“I use echo location as a great ‘primary-ability’ tool. I can tell how far away I am from walls and doors and things by listening for the echoes off of them. So I could walk through a maze without bumping into any of the walls just by listening to the echoes. The best trivial way to describe — this is my main mobility sense above and beyond the cane, which identifies objects sitting in front of me as I tap it from side to side — is that echo location is a very crude form of sonar. It’s not nearly as good as what bats have. But try to picture yourself with your eyes closed in one of two environments. One is a small enclosed elevator. The other is a huge, open gymnasium. And you’re standing in the center of one of the two rooms. You would have absolutely no trouble clapping your hands, stamping your feet, or yelling and identifying which is the elevator and which is the gymnasium. The gymnasium would sound a whole lot bigger. I use that cue to find pay phones on walls, to find handles on doors, things like that.”
“Do you do that too, Lee?”
“Yeah,” she says. “I think we just have a sense.... We also do use other tools. Other things, too. When you walk, if you’re not using a cane or a dog, you might put your hand in front of your face just to protect you.”
David said, “Things like scaffolding don’t echo so well. I’ve smashed my head into scaffolding plenty of times.”
I said, “But now you go by that table, Lee. You know from habit that table is there. Now if I were to stand over here and you came by me, would you sense that I was here?”
They both agree, they would. “You would just feel that I was here?”
“Yeah. We could walk up to within three-quarters of an inch and not touch,” David said.
“Do you think sighted people can feel that?” I asked.
“If they’re trained to. You can tell the elevator from the gymnasium, I guarantee it. It’s echo location,” David said.
He wanted to try an experiment. He said to me, “Close your eyes, walk forward, and see if you can hear the stairway.” In Lee’s living room, a stairway led to the bedroom on the second floor.
“I’ll walk straight ahead over there and see if I can hear the stairway," I said.
I heard David say, “Better make some noise. Clap.”
“Keep going,” Lee says.
I’d surprised myself by moving, closed-eyed, but with confidence. “I’ve gotten to the stairway. I can feel the stairway next to me. Maybe it’s the shadow.”
“There’s also a door there too but....” Lee said.
“You’ll perceive it as a shadow because that’s the terminology you’re used to. But it’s actually echoes.”
“But you know, I’ve got to walk through something that has no light. I was walking toward the door, and when I turned to the stairway, it got darker. So I knew that I had turned toward something.”
“Okay,” Lee said. “Go a little bit, and then see if you can tell when to make your left to go into the kitchen.”
“All right. The left. Okay.” I’d nudged something with my foot. “The dogs’ howls. I’m going to step in them for sure. Okay. I’m walking toward the kitchen. And I can see the light from the doorway. I’m going to guess that the kitchen’s here.”
“Yup. You’re right,” Lee says.
“It sounds open, doesn’t it?” adds David.
“Yes. It sounds open. Absolutely. But I can feel the refrigerator. I feel like I’m walking into a cave.”
“Yes. That’s the same cue. But we’ve refined it.”
“And it’s just dark. I can’t...am I going to run into something?” David remarked slyly, “We’ll tell you after the fact.”
“Well, put your hands up in front of your face. Put one in your face and one out in front of your body,” Lee said.
I sensed the counter in front of me. And the cabinets. I felt like I was going downhill. I got the sense I was going into something.
Later, when David had left the room, I asked Lee for her perspective on David’s reaction to the attack on him. Did she think he would have left town over it if he were sighted?
“David is a very emotionally intense person, anyway. But I think it probably didn’t help, because every time he’s going to be approaching that elevator, you know.... You at least can see, possibly, ‘Oops, there’s a couple of guys that don’t look so friendly. I think I’m maybe going to go to the stairs, or I think I’ll go hang out in the lobby for 20 minutes and just not deal with these guys.’ He really doesn’t have that ability. He could be going there and have nobody there. Or he could be going along there and have three thugs waiting for him. So in his case, I think leaving is probably the right idea. You have a little more fear because you don’t necessarily know what’s out there at any given time.
“Now I do think there are some little tricks of the trade, like going out and walking home at night, at night from the bus, which I do all the time. And I know a lot of sighted women probably would not do that one. But I have a dog [the working guide dog, Kess]. Not that she would necessarily attack. But I think it’s a deterrent. Especially a black dog.
“There’s little things you learn. I mean, if you hear a sound, turn your head in that direction, because people don’t know if you’ve got some usable vision or not, so they’re going to think that you can see ’em. Also, walk quickly, like you know what you’re doing. Don’t give people the impression that you’re afraid. Because I’ve learned from some things I’ve heard on TV shows that sometimes your appearance is a dead giveaway and might lead to whether you get mugged or not. These are little tricks of the trade that we learn. But I think that once something does happen, I think the fear is amplified because you can’t see it. I mean for all David knows, when he goes back and gets on that elevator, there could be five or six thugs waiting.”
David appeared suddenly. “Every time the elevator goes up, I say, ‘Please Lord, don’t let it stop on four. No matter what, don’t let it stop on four.’ ”
I wanted to know, from Lee and David, just how they felt sighted people “saw” them.
Lee answered first. “We are just as capable of doing the good things and also we can be guilty of child abuse and running up credit cards and all those things, just like anyone else is. And you know we aren’t any different. We have a lot of the same emotions. We might experience things differently, okay. For example, um, we like to go to concerts; we like to go camping. And all those things that sighted people do. And they might need to be adapted somewhat for us, but we can still do them and enjoy them. We might have to take the bus. We’ll never get the pleasure of driving our own car. But it can still be done. We might need computer equipment to help us be able to do a lot of the same jobs that a sighted person can do without necessarily needing a scanner to do, but it still can be done. But I think we will never have equality until we are allowed to be human beings, which means as a human being I’m allowed to get pissed off at a store clerk if he really screwed me over, like anyone else.”
David added, “Half the public regards us as supermen, the other half regards us as completely helpless.”
“They angel-ize us,” Lee said. “I want to he de-angelized. That’s just as much a form of discrimination, really, as racial discrimination. It is. It certainly is. That’s really more the kind of discrimination we get rather than, ‘We hate you,’ and, ‘We don’t want you.’ Now you get some of that, but....”
“I can’t believe how many women in high school wouldn’t go out with me because their parents wouldn’t...”
“Oh, yeah. Guys, too. I mean even in college there was a couple of times guys would sort of start, ‘Oh hi, how are you?’ Sit down and have a soda. You know, get something going. And as soon as spring break happened, and they went home and probably told Mommy that, yes, I’m considering getting to know this blind girl a little better, and Mommy said, ‘Oh yeah?’ And boy, you came back from spring break and you were shunned.”
“Why do you suppose that was?”
David responded, “Oh, you wouldn’t want to bring that kind of shame on the family.”
“Why would that he shameful?”
“Because it would mean more work for that poor sighted person and that — ”
“But why would it be shameful?”
“It would be a burden. We would be a burden to them.” “Yes,” Lee said. “And unless you want to be Saint Helen of whatever, ‘You don’t want to do that to the family now, really? Do you? Get yourself a nice sighted girl. She should marry another blind guy that’s her equal anyway.’ ”
“What’s the difference between what blacks claim and the discrimination that you’re talking about now?”
“Well,” David said, “I’ll tell you what the difference is. We are inferior to the sighted white world. But you’re not allowed to call blacks inferior for being black. Or Asians inferior for being Asians. But we really are inferior because part of our bodies, physically, doesn’t work. So it’s okay to treat us disabled people as inferior.”
“Do you feel that way?” I asked Lee.
“I feel that a lot of it is that blindness is a disability that people, as they get older, are probably going to experience in some degree. As seniors get older, they’re probably going to lose their sight. And I think it’s also one that people fear more than anything else. Find a hundred sighted people and ask them what if God came down and said you are going to be disabled, and we’ll let you choose your disability. You’re either going to be blind or deaf. And I would be willing to bet, you that the grand majority of them will choose deafness over blindness.”
“People say, ‘If I lost my sight, I’d commit suicide,’” David agreed.
“Yeah,” Lee said. “Oh, yeah. Because I think it’s the disability they fear more than any other.” “Why do you think that is?” “Because there are so many freedoms that are associated with sight.”
David offered, “In addition to that, we cannot appear in a court of law, as witnesses, because we are not eyewitnesses.”
“It was only recently that we were even allowed to serve on juries,” said Lee. “Some people say, ‘You’re lucky. I want to get out of that. You’re lucky you got that.’ But I think we should have the right.”
“Why were you not allowed to serve on juries?”
David and Lee answered together, “Because we couldn’t see exhibits. So how could we judge it?”
“Victoria Principal was in a movie a while ago,” David said, “where she was a blind woman who was raped. They said, ‘Well, we can’t make an arrest. You didn’t see the man.’ She said, ‘My God, he was on top of me for five minutes. Let me touch the ten guys in the lineup, and I’ll tell you which guy was on top of me.’”
Lee added, “But I’m afraid this stuff is really more on the level of...I mean, because people are afraid of us. More than anything, their fear comes out.
I think it’s a combination of, one, they want to put us up on a pedestal, and, two, they fear us. And you put the two of them together.”
I asked Lee and David about their social life.
“It’s kind of funny. We’re all kind of a community. We all hang out together. We all know each other real well,” said Lee.
“I still go to parties with sighted people,” said David, “but I’m the only blind one there. Or if I happen to take a date who’s blind. There’ll he a total of two blind people at the same person’s party. You definitely cannot have a party at your house with 25 blind people and 25 sighted.”
“Oh, no,” Lee said. “You’ll have two groups and they won’t gel. You never do that.”
“Why won’t they gel?” I asked.
Lee and David talked over one another, “They just won’t talk to each other. They’ll stick to their own kind.”
“If I’m the only blind person at a party, I’m not much of a problem,” David said. “Because they’ll notice me.”
“Because they’ll have to,” Lee said. “They’ll at least come by and say, ‘Hi. Can I get you another glass of wine?’ I mean, they’ll at least do that. But if it’s 50-50, oh, no.
“I remember one time at a party at my house. I’d just graduated from high school. It was 50-50 — four or five blind people and four or five sighted people. But even after trying to get out the guitar and trying to get everybody to sing, it only worked for five minutes. And I said, ‘Gee,’ and I tapped my other blind friend, Michelle, and I said, ‘You know, Michelle, this party is bombing. And I really don’t know why. We’ve got good food. I tried to get good music going. What’s wrong with it?’ And she said, ‘Well, you ought to know why this bombed. You committed the unpardonable sin. You had a 50-50 party.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ I didn’t think about that. I thought...the thing that was stupid about this group was that we had all known each other as friends. So I thought with this group I could pull it off. Because we all were in a group that hung around together. But if you make it 50-50, it bombs every time.”
“Guaranteed,” David said.
Lee went on, “David and I dated for a while. In fact we were engaged. What’s weird about the blind community, why it’s such a strange community in a lot of ways, is because of the people that do hang out together. We know each other, and it’s not that uncommon that we go to a party and have you, your ex, his exgirlfriend before you, and his girlfriend after you at the same party. And you have to learn to handle that socially.”
“How can you handle it?” I asked. “Is there jealousy, backbiting?” “There is a lot of backbiting in the community,” Lee said. “It’s weird. But then there’s also a lot of support another minute. It’s a funny community.”
“What is that like?”
“When I need you, I’ll talk to you. When I don’t need you. I’ll talk about you,” David said.
“And also,” Lee said, “the fights are so much more intense, because we do see each other so much. If I’m fighting with somebody, I still might see them at the California Council of the Blind meeting. I might see them at the rec center for square dancing. I might see them at the rec center for bingo. You know, I might see them three or four times a week. And so the fight doesn’t have a chance to heal.” “What do I do when Lee and I are passionately angry at each other,” David said, “and we end up as partners holding hands in a square dance? And putting our arms around each other because we have to? We needed time to cool off. And we didn’t have it. I wasn’t going to stay away from square dancing. Neither was she.” “So it just is a really weird situation,” Lee said.
“I hope you don’t mind my asking this,” I said. “But what about a blind person visualizing the opposite sex, physically?”
Lee responded, “I mean, if we give them a hug and we like their body, you get turned on that way. I like tall, muscular, good build. I mean, who wouldn’t? I think the same thing that would thrill a sighted woman. I think a voice is also a turn-on — somebody’s got a sexy voice.”
“And certain perfumes are a definite turn-on,” added David. “And no two hands feel the same. I’ve gone out with 50 or 60 women in the course of my life. Some of them, it was just one date. But I’ve never found any two hands that felt the same. Never found any two that I would confuse.
“When Lee and I go out. I’ll put my arm around her and I’ll say, ‘Wow, I really like that dress. I’ve never touched that before. I’ve never seen that before.’ I may use the word ‘seen.’ ‘I’ve never seen that on you before.’ I touch her hair. And I like the way her hair is. It’s bouncy. Because it’s curly. I like the way it bounces.” “Do most of the blind people in San Diego know each other, hang around with each other?”
“There are some blind people who don’t associate with any other blind people,” David said.
“Yeah. Well, yeah. They would only consider marrying a sighted person, thank you. Snobbery. ‘Oh, God, don’t let me associate with these blind people. After all, they’re on SSI, you know, collecting government assistance. I’m not. I’m making $50,000 a year, and I don’t want to have anything to do with these low-lifes.’ ”
“When I told people I was applying for a disability retirement,” David said, “when they said, ‘Of course you’re disabled,’ I said, ‘What do you mean? You can’t tell about my disability. All you can tell is about my blindness. It hasn’t made me miss a day of working 17 years. I’ve missed work because I’ve had the flu or something. I’m saying my blindness hasn’t caused me to miss any work. If I can’t catch the stupid bus because I missed it, I pay ten bucks for a cab.”
Despite her B.A. from San Diego State, Lee has had a hard time making ends meet. “I find that people...like I mentioned, some of the unemployment problems that we have...I mean, I’m basically just self-employed. But if it weren’t for the fact that my parents left me their house, and I could get my dad’s Social Security and kind of get some of their savings to live on, I wouldn’t make enough to support myself. Just on my own. And I gave up trying to deal with even finding a job. Life is too short, and I don’t want to deal with that garbage. So I’m just kind of self-employed, just doing anything I can to make a buck. Like the phone-answering service. Which is getting to be more of a pain in the butt than it’s worth. And I’m sort of doing other things on the side. Anything I can do.”
I asked Lee about how it was searching for a job, as a blind person. We talked about job applications. “If you put ‘No disabilities,’ and you walk in, and they see that you’re blind, you can anticipate how they will act?”
“Oh, very definitely. But if they just ask if you have any disabilities, I will say, ‘Yes, I’m blind.’ But if they ask do I have any disabilities to preclude me from doing the job, then I...I do think it’s fair of them to ask, ‘Okay, how would you do this job?’ I think that’s a fair question. I think you’d ask that of a sighted employee as well.”
David added, “I did a job interview when I was getting my master’s at Penn State. I did a job interview in Madison, Wisconsin. And I hopped on an Allegheny commuter, flew to Pittsburgh. Hopped on another plane and flew to Chicago. Got help at the airport getting from gate 3 to gate 17. Hopped on a North Central flight. Flew to Madison. Caught a cab to the Quality Court Inn, where the company that I was interviewing recommended that I stay. I called them and said, ‘I’m at the Quality Court Inn, but I don’t drive, so can someone come get me in the morning?’ They said, ‘Why don’t you drive?’ And I said, ‘Because I’m totally blind.’ They said, ‘How come you didn’t tell us?’ I said, ‘Because you didn’t ask. And there was no convenient way to bring it up. It was just one of those things that didn’t come up in conversation because it wasn’t germane to the questions that you were asking me. I’m not ashamed or proud of it.’ ”
Lee added, “Do I tell you that I’m a woman? Do I tell you that I’m white? Do I tell you that I’m Protestant? Do I tell you the other little things about me?
“And I get really pissed off at the women’s libbers who come out and say things like, ‘When I show up for a job interview they ask, “Can you type?”’ I say, ‘Sorry, honey. They ask me the same thing.’ Because if I can’t type, I can’t communicate with the sighted world. Because I can’t write. The only thing I know how to write is my signature. I know what the letters look like. I can read raised printing. But I can’t read raised cursive writing because I just never learned.”
As we talked, Lee had started folding David’s laundry, which had sat in the dryer, apparently, since our interview began.
“Are you going down to the airport?” I asked David.
“I’m going to the YMCA. And then I’m going to the bus station.”
“You’re going to ride a bus back to Ohio?”
“I’ll tell you why. One of my hobbies is logging AM radio stations. I keep records of every AM radio station I have ever listened to. I have never been in western South Dakota. I bought a Seven-Day America Pass. Instead of buying a ticket to Cleveland, which was $159, which would have gotten me there in three-and-a-half days, I bought a seven-day, go-anywhere for $172. Paid 15 extra dollars, and I’m stopping in Rapid City, I’m stopping in Gillette, Wyoming, and I’m stopping in Little Rock, Arkansas. Three places I’ve never been. Just to get all the radio stations. I’ll get 50 or 60 new stations. I’ve listened to 3148 new stations. It’s just fun. I’ve never been in Rapid City, so when I’m there I’ll turn on the radio and hear them say, ‘This is KBHB, radio 810, Sturgis, South Dakota.’ I’ll write it down in Braille.”
“Plus, who knows when the next chance to go across country will be?” Lee said.
“It may not be for a while. I will be living with my dad. I’ve been away from home for 24 years. All of a sudden, who knows how controlling he will be. He’s 70. He may decide to tell me how to spend my money.”
“Do you have a guide dog?” I asked David.
“No, I never have. Because when I was growing up, I didn’t like animals all that well. But lately, I’ve come to be endeared to them through my blind friends. I’ve become really endeared to a lot of their guide dogs, and I’ve found out how much easier some of my blind friends get through tight situations, like around cars and around scaffolding and things like that, that cause me to mutter and swear. The guide dog leads them around, and Gerta and Kess are both good friends of mine. And I enjoy playing with them. But 10,12 years ago, I just didn’t like animals that much. They were just too much trouble. The increase in mobility wasn’t worth cleaning up the poop.”
Lee added, “Plus, when we were going out and getting our mobility training, um...my mobility instructor I had was not anti-guide dog. He was very pro-guide dogs. But a lot of the other ones were against them, and you got a feeling of, ‘Hey, if you use a cane it’s you doing it. If you use the dog, it’s the dog doing it. And so people aren’t going to respect a blind person using a guide-dog.’
“So for a long time I didn’t get one because I figured I don’t want that stigma. And then when I saw that I was not doing things because traffic was getting worse and I was getting increasingly more afraid to do them, and my guide-dog-user friends were doing them I said, ‘Hey, wait. There’s something wrong in this equation, honey. I’m changing this.’ So, um, I think also the attitude toward guide dogs has changed. I think that people realize the dog is not doing the whole thing. It’s a team.”
“And a guide dog is a whole lot more likely to stop you from getting hit by a car running a red light than a cane is,” David said. “I can follow the light cycle, no problem. ’Cause I can tell the parallel traffic versus the perpendicular traffic versus the turning traffic. And if I can’t, I’ll wait for three or four lights until I have the cycle memorized.”
Added Lee, “And you do have to do that with a guide dog too sometimes. If somebody’s making that illegal right turn, the dog will see it and stop and pull you out of the way if it has to. Where a cane might not find it. A dog is not for everybody, and I’m not saying every blind person should have a guide dog, because it always should be a personal choice. But the world is getting where it’s...I think everything in the world is getting to be less and less of a choice anymore. But hey, I’m really happy I got my dogs. I intend to continue using dogs. As long as I can.”
It was time for David to leave, and I offered to give him a lift, which he accepted. I said my good-byes to Lee and to Kess and Gerta.
Once again I was guided by a blind person from Point Loma to Columbia Street and the Y. There was an urgency in David’s voice. And I found myself gripping the wheel, eager not to err.
“You’re coming onto Rosecrans in a minute,” David said. “The next light is Rosecrans.” Then, as he sensed I had not decreased my speed, “The next light is Rosecrans!
“If you turn right, we’ll be going toward Point Loma. I’m not exactly sure where the freeway entrance is.”
“All right,” I said. “We’ll get that.”
“You want 5 south. This one we’re coming up to, Midway and Rosecrans, is probably the busiest intersection in San Diego, but it’s not difficult to cross because it’s square. But the other one back there, Midway, Sports Arena, West Point Loma, West Mission Bay Drive, and there’s an off-ramp to the freeway that comes in about a half a block down. It’s almost star-shaped.”
“This is Rosecrans. And we take a right here.”
“And we look for 5 south.”
“Yes. Just go straight through this intersection, if you’re not sure,” David said. “Just go straight through it, and when you get to Barnett, which is the end of Midway, by the post office, you make a left, then a right on Pacific Highway. And turn your signal light off.”
“I just did.”
David guided me to Barnett, onto 5 south, off at the Front Street exit, down through the “tree” streets to the lettered streets. “Your next right is Broadway. Turn right. And then you’ll go past a couple of lights. Let’s see. After Front I’m trying to remember how many lights. Union. State. I think it’s the third light. After you pass Columbia Street, the YMCA is on your right side. And there’s, like, three-minute parking or ten-minute parking directly in front.”
I made only one wrong turn, but David guided me safely to the front of the Y. I got David’s clothes out of the trunk, and together we mounted the steps, David hesitant, and I, holding his laundry in front of me, a bit hesitant, too. At the elevator in that beautiful, brass-trimmed building, looking more like an expensive hotel than a last resort for the unblessed, I said good-bye to David. He took his laundry and wished me well.