Sometimes when I've been driving with you, you'll tell me to make
a right turn at the next corner, or to park in the lot just beyond
the restaurant. And you seem to do fine walking around your neighborhood,
or even other neighborhoods, without a cane--negotiating curbs and
tricycle-littered sidewalks pretty well. What sort of visual information
are you getting as you move through the world?
It's like looking out through a translucent plastic shower curtain
that is becoming very steamed up. Just as, from the shower, you can
still see enough to know that the sink and the toilet, even if blurry
and half obscured, are still there, so I can more or less see my way
around. One helpful thing is that, because my extreme peripheral vision
so far remains fairly clear in all directions, I can at least catch
a glimpse of what I don't look at directly, like those curbs and trikes.
When I start tripping over them, that's when the tip of my white cane
will finally touch down and start scanning the pavement.
As you walk, is your attention pretty narrowly focused, like on the
one or two feet of sidewalk in front of your shoes? Or are you "scanning"
a lot of the world around and in front of you?
I walk erect and look straight ahead, scanning from side to side every
few seconds to let the remaining vision in each eye¹s far peripheral
field catch a glimpse of anything I know I may be missing in the blotchy
view right in front of me. Out of the corner of my eye, as we say.
I would think that, in walking through familiar territory, you would
be working from a mental map drawn up in earlier, more visually
lucid, times--constantly connecting new visual information with
what you remember of past views of the same place. How important
is your memory in getting around?
Very. The visual cortex persistently cobbles together a normal-looking
view, filling in the gaps in a blotchy, and sometimes perilous, way.
In a familiar environment, I do rely on memory to infer the presence
of things I may not see at a glance but that I know by experience
must be there. It's a process of mental mapping, with more details
shifting into memory as my view becomes increasingly patchy. But scanning,
to confirm my assumptions or catch sight of anomalies, is crucial.
Like the time I write about when a kid on a bicycle burst out of nowhere
and collided with me as I strolled down a sidewalk looking only straight
ahead. In an unfamiliar place, of course, scanning, ideally augmented
by the descriptions of a sighted companion, is all I have to build
a picture from.
How comfortable are you going out alone these days? Don't you feel
a lot more vulnerable to accidental collisions, not to mention encounters
with mean people?
As long as I'm cautious, I don't trip or bump into anything very often,
and my white cane makes others allow me a comfortable berth. As for
vulnerability, it was ironically when I took up the cane for safety
that I began to worry about this, because the cane announces me as
unaware and most likely defenseless. But I usually keep to my own
quiet part of town, and when I venture into a neighborhood where there's
even a remote possibility that I'll be received in an unfriendly way,
I go with sighted companions who help me vibe out the situation. As
for bus travel, so far, I've never been attacked or even had my pocket
picked. All that said, not being able to see the faces around me in
public is an alienating, stressful deprivation.
Have you ever gotten lost?
When I was 21 and attending classes at The New School, I took the
wrong New York subway train a couple of times. Scary. Years later,
delivering Valentine's Day candygrams, I couldn't find a Daly City
address, and was promptly fired. And after a movie date in Century
City here, I lost my car in the mall's vast underground parking
lot, and lost the girlfriend, too, not long after, though not because
of that. But since being unable to see clearly, I've only had a
few mishaps. Having to ask where a store is now and then and missing
my own street on a walk home in the dark, occasionally. And that's
it. So far.