Braille Monitor                                             November 2014

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Reflections of a White Cane Guy

by David Cohen

David CohenFrom the Editor: This article is reprinted from the Fall 2014 issue of the Buckeye Bulletin, the newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio. I enjoy and can relate to the humorous dialogue that plays in David’s head, while admiring and always trying to follow his prescription for reacting kindly to those whose only motive is to act kindly to me. The only growl in my own internal dialogue while reading what follows is the allusion to Braille on ATMs—something that seems every bit as logical to me as print on those same keys, and the only question in my mind is why we have had to fight so hard to make them speak what is so clearly placed on the screen. Here is how this humorous piece was introduced by the Buckeye’s editor, Barbara Pierce:

Editor's note: David Cohen is a longtime Federationist. When he was young, we helped him get to BLIND Incorporated in Minneapolis for blindness training, and he has been putting that training to good use ever since. He now lives in the greater Dayton area again. He recently sent a very funny post to the Ohio listserv. We asked him to expand a bit on that reflection for the newsletter. His thoughts are amusing, but they also provide an insight into the reflections and reactions of a competent blind person with an irreverent sense of humor. This is what he wrote:

Yesterday afternoon I walked to a shopping center/mall near my home in Kettering to buy some bed sheets. After making my purchase, I decided to check for a DVD title at another store inside the mall called Second & Charles, a used book, music, and movie place. I turned into the store and heard a woman’s voice saying hello to me.

“Hi, Second & Charles?” I asked, raising my eyebrows to her for confirmation.

“Yes,” she said; “You’ve got it.”

“Do you work here?” I asked.

She said, "No," so I continued in the direction of the main customer service counter, not breaking stride. From behind me the woman who’d greeted me was giving me the standard audible play-by-play, less the crowd noise, “Right, now left,” etc.

I turned to face her and smiled, mouthing the words “I’m okay, thanks.” You got to handle the public sometimes with kid gloves, as y’all probably know.

I continued on my way. From behind me this woman called to me, “I gotcha. My ex-husband is a white cane guy.”

I laughed aloud, and without turning held my left arm up with a thumb’s up sign for her to see. I can do without all the euphemisms spoken to avoid saying "blind." Still, if the word "blind" was good enough for the Bible, the Quran, the Hindu Vedas, etcetera, shouldn’t it be good enough for speakers today? But this white cane guy label—I can really get used to this. I like it. I can see it working for me.

“What’s your sign? You act like a Virgo.”

“Nope, nope. I’m a WCG [white cane guy].”

“Single WCG seeking SWF (single white female). Must like dogs, fish fries, college football, and Braille literacy."

“Oh there’s a white cane guy at our office. I know exactly what you’re talking about."

Text message: LOL! [laughing out loud] BTW [by the way] the WCG [white cane guy] called, LVM [leave a voicemail]. RE: Friday BYOB [bring your own bottle].

So White Cane Guy leaves the mall with a sack containing bed sheets and a DVD purchase of Sean Penn’s All the King's Men in hand. This mini-mall has a sidewalk extending the entire width of the front of the building, but the sidewalk is not even close to being a straight shot. The pathway is also cluttered with anything the designers salvaged after the project’s completion. This sidewalk also has more curves than a full Braille cell, so I walk in the frontage road along the curb, shorelining the outer edge of the sidewalk.

I am several shop door entrances along my shorelining route and have just passed another because I hear the squeaking hinges of one of these glass doors opening behind me, and a man’s voice calls to me, “You’re in the street, you know that, right?" he says, stating the obvious. I know that as a blind person I am a living message board for postings of the obvious and have learned to handle this maturely 90 percent of the time. “The sun is out; that’s my foot you’re standing on; the bus is here; I’m standing in front of you now; it’s raining; you’re breathing and standing upright. . . . that’s Braille; you have a pulse.”

Again I raise my left arm, plastic sack in hand. I turn my head slightly and, again smiling, tell the fella, who is watching me as if I’m the end of a parade route, “There are fewer obstacles out here.”

"No kidding," the fella cries out with surprise, and the sound of his voice is delighted with this insight on my behalf. “Oh yeah? You’re right ha ha ha ha,” and again White Cane Guy has brought a bit of pleasure into the life of Joe Citizen, and maybe, just maybe I’ll meet him again someday.

Personally I think it is very difficult to communicate with the many unknowns who enter my sphere of being. I alluded to this earlier when I said sometimes I’ve got to handle people with kid gloves. It is such a fine line to walk when so many situations like this one imply and assume minute examination, so routinely you know you’re being watched with intrigue. I don’t think folk realize that I know by their sound and movement that they are watching me and that such focused attention on me walking through a tile-floored mall or looking for a urinal in the men’s room is like the pressure of shooting free throws in March during the NCAA college basketball tournament with twenty thousand voices screaming at you when your team is down two points and only seconds remain on the game clock. Seriously, I think blind people and disabled people in general should be highlighted on ESPN for all that we do so silently as such pertains to what the professional sporting experts call “being in the zone,” not to mention handling your emotions in hostile environments as the sporting vernacular often states is necessary.

The depth of the mall parking lot extends northwards to my right side and beyond its sparse occupancy I can hear the street I will eventually need to cross. This is my landmark, and, no matter how out of the zone I get, I can always reorient myself by listening for the ever-present sound of this heavily-traveled road in Kettering.

But again allow me to digress for a personal reason and say that I do not—do not—like it when someone tells me or asks me if I am disoriented or lost. I’m not, although I may acquiesce and say "Yes ma’am," or "Yes, sir, I am," in order to keep the world moving, but what I am telling myself is that I am only temporarily misplaced like car keys or a smartphone. Blindness is, like our organization has said for many decades, a nuisance, and well you know this. Here’s the deal: I’m shorelining the curb of the sidewalk at the front of the shopping mall. The incoming traffic from the main road and the exiting shoppers with their groceries from Trader Joe’s and tennis shoes from New Balance are driving in both directions slowly to my immediate right side, and I need to get across this access frontage road and through the parking lot to the sidewalk along the main road. Unfortunately there is no pedestrian sidewalk extending through the parking lot, and my hot air balloon is at home in the garage—the cloth ripped by the clawed feet of a crow who perched atop me when I floated over the local amphitheater to listen to Jackson Browne perform several years ago. But this is no problem because at the end of this sidewalk curb there is a stop sign for the access frontage road. In fact there is a four-way stop here, so I can put it on cruise control and listen ahead for engines rolling to a stop and then moderately accelerating after the pause to know where I need to be. Voila! White Cane Guy is planning his work and working his plan.

“Oh I am so fortunate to have received good training and to have experienced the know-how of others before me who were doing then what I wanted to do and am doing now,” I think to myself. I’m not kidding. On my worst days I can, if I am able to muster the attitudinal strength, accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and latch onto the affirmative as Johnny Mercer sang. I cannot always find and do this, but at least I know it’s possible, and I have my memories to serve in this capacity if I feed them properly.

So I’m marveling in my aptitude for cane travel, and my cane tip is metronomically playing the soundtrack to my travels. I’ve found the four-way stop thanks to one automobile’s exit route, and I’ve followed this vehicle’s trajectory of departing sound all the way to the sidewalk along the busy road. I’m asking myself if I should wash these new sheets first or do the man thing and simply spread ‘em and do laundry when absolutely necessary. The answer comes to me in 1.5 seconds.

I arrive at my corner mentally ready to listen for and align myself to the passing traffic at this intersection of four lanes north and south and four lanes east and west each direction also engineered with a filter lane, so the width is actually five lanes. I stand and listen… listen… I am listening, yes listening, and a crow flies overhead and announces itself as Jimmy Cagney.

“Huh,” I thinks to myself, “This light sure is taking a long time today.” I listen to one, two, three, six cars roll up, stop California style, and accelerate around the corner in front of me. “The traffic light must be out of order,” I tell myself because White Cane Guy is not only omnipotent, he’s a traffic engineer on his day off. A seventh car rolls up next to me and stops, then accelerates, and the cross traffic in front of me continues passing at forty miles per hour.

“The sun! Where is my sun?” My internal problem-solving voice asks, and I turn around only to realize it's clouded over since I last knew where the heck I was and began daydreaming about my White-Cane-Guy aptitude.

Another car rolls up next to me, and now White Cane Guy is going to interact with citizenry. I turn to my left to face the paused vehicle and make the universal hand-and-arm motion for someone to roll his or her window down, but I remember that I have been here forty-four winters and that this one-time universally recognized signal may be lost on someone of the everything-electronic world, or worse, the hand gesture may suggest something offensive to someone visiting the Kettering Towne & Country Mall from one of the other six continents. For all I know, I might be signaling like a prostitute does in Paraguay and end up with two halves of a broken cane and a blackened eye and still waiting to cross this street.

Instead I lean into the space between myself and the idling car and mouth words silently in just the same way I did inside Second & Charles when the unknown woman declared me White Cane Guy. “Is the traffic light out of order?” I mouth, pointing my outstretched arm up into the air where my mind has told me most certainly the traffic light should be hanging. The car’s tires squeal twice front to back and spit gravel, and I’m wondering how ridiculous I look to the passersby still moving at forty miles per hour on the other side of the street.

“Something’s wrong here,” I finally admit. “Anything’s possible. White Cane Guy has walked into the women’s restroom before, and he’s also walked past his own driveway,” I remind myself.

I gather my secret strength—my brain—and I really tune in to my surroundings. Wait a bloody second here. I’ve awakened. There’s no persistent ringing of the superfluous street-crossing signal that White Cane Guy knows to be an invention of the same conspiracy that put Braille on drive-thru ATM machines, limited Braille on McDonald’s drink lids, and probably funded the training of the rehab counselor who asked me, “What is that thing?,” when I pulled my slate and stylus from my pocket to write down his office information twenty-five years ago.

“I’m south of where I need to be,” my brain and true Orient Express tells me. Oh joy, joy, joy, joy, and joy. I win again!—temporarily misplaced just like any sighted person who exits the mall and cannot remember where the car is parked. I must have been curving westward. “That crow was telling me this, and I did not listen. That crow has been watching me silently from above for years, observing me and learning how a blind person does what a blind person does and therefore has never needed to ask me questions for which answering the obvious makes no sense other than to communicate the simple truth that what White Cane Guy does is the only answer to all mysteries herein.”

I’m two blocks south of where I need to be, and I get on with it. I reach the corner where I believed I was, and on my approach I’m hearing the familiar traffic signal noise and send out apologies and gratitude to the conspirators who inadvertently gave a practical use for my ears after all.

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