People approach me on the street. They ask me if I need help. Sometimes they help without asking, and sometimes they just ask questions.
I am getting off the train. I pause on the platform to adjust my pack. It’s busy—people crowding to the train and piling around the doors to the station. A hand grabs my wrist, pulling me toward the doors. The hand directs the blind guy inside the station. I get to the escalator, where I can escape up the stairs. I say thank you, but the hand says nothing.
There’s a line here with which people constantly flirt. They want to help, but they also want to ask questions. I am vulnerable in a way that draws people like a crow to roadkill. Perhaps they see my vulnerability as permission—permission to ask those questions they wouldn’t normally ask a stranger. And perhaps the questions are payment for the help they think I need. Sometimes I do need the help. And in that assistive transaction, I am always grateful, but not always as gracious as I would want. What if I just lost my shit one of these times when somebody grabs my white cane and starts pulling?
How do you manage to get around?
Have you been blind all of your life?
Who helps you get dressed in the morning?
It must be hard being blind.
This last always seems a request for confirmation rather than a question. Such interactions, I remind myself, are born out of a genuine curiosity and desire to help. The people who approach me on the street invariably construct for themselves the story of my life—one that’s always incomplete. They don’t understand and can’t always conceive. They see the cane—the extension of my hand that reaches in front of me. They see me going not quite straight as I cross the street, looking for the door of a bus or aiming for a set of stairs.
They seize my arm, clutch my hand, and sometimes grab my cane. I like it the least when they grab my cane, and I always wrest it back, saying, thank you, but I’m all right; or sometimes, go ahead, I’ll follow you.
I have learned to be patient with the help and the questions. But for just a moment, change the context—change the person. A woman, twenty-something and pregnant, sits on a bus, and a stranger sits across the aisle.
How long have you been pregnant? asks the stranger.
Have you wanted kids for a while?
Are you married? Or did you just get pregnant because you weren’t careful enough when you had sex?
Do you think you’ll be a good mother? I hear breast-feeding can be painful.
What does it feel like—you know, being fat, having morning sickness, and knowing none of your old clothes will fit, even after you give birth? Which, hey, I’ve heard really hurts.
I am public property in a way most people aren’t. I am seized, grabbed, directed, turned, and sometimes stopped. People feel they have the right to inquire, to probe, to ask ridiculously personal questions. I’m not complaining, and mostly don’t mind. I answer truthfully, if carefully.
No, I lost my sight in a car accident when I was a kid.
No, I don’t use braille very often.
Yes, but you get used to using your other senses—your hearing doesn’t actually improve.
I used to be married, but now I live alone. My kids have moved out.
It’s not actually all dark. But, no, I can’t see at all.
Yes, I’m totally blind.
Yes, I dress myself in the mornings.
People are curious, but it’s more than that. In some way, I think, they are afraid—fearful in a visceral way that something like this might happen to them, an accident, a miss-step that will leave them maimed for life; afraid, possibly, yet glad, glad nothing like it has happened to them, and glad they can see and embrace the pictured world in all its color and vibrancy. Whatever their motivation, I try to leave them with scraps of a narrative that will help them to better understand my world. Of course, if I’m having a bad day, they might leave with more questions than they started with—until the next time.