Love and Other Challenges

Getting Around

Michael: 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?

Joel: 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.
Michael: 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?
Joel: 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.

Michael: 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?

Joel: 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.
Michael: 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?
Joel: 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.
Michael: Have you ever gotten lost?

Joel: 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.



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