Red Sea

Are We There Yet?

"Wake up, honey," would come my mother's half-whisper from the front seat of the family car when I was a little kid asleep in the back and my father pulled into our driveway late at night, or when something special presented itself on a summer road trip. The dark plunge into a Pennsylvania Turnpike tunnel, the mountain vista from a high, lonesome hairpin curve in Virginia, the tacky grandeur of some Miami Beach hotel aglow in the post-war Florida twilight. Now, I can sometimes get an ironic reminder of those memories just by taking a bus, because I am gradually going blind, and have surrendered myself back into the care of others, some of whom seem to imagine sightlessness as a sort of virtual slumber.

By day, the streetscape continues dissolving behind a thickening scrim of retinal degeneration, and after dark I can only see headlights, street lamps and the blurry glow of neon signs. To know where I am, I need a little help. If a couple of local stops go by unannounced, I control my apprehension. Soon enough, though, we come to a major cross street, which I know by fragmentary visual clues and traffic noise. I listen like the RCA dog waiting with cocked head by the gramophone for the sound of His Master's Voice, ready to forgive all upon hearing the very first syllable.

But if we cross the intersection and pull up at the next stop without comment from behind the wheel, I speak up. "Driver, will you please call the stops?" This is the moment of truth. My pulse quickens, my adrenaline rushes. I have emerged from the comfort of public transit anonymity, revealed my need and left myself vulnerable to rebuff and insult.

A few drivers will abruptly start performing the function, like automated systems that have been accidentally unplugged and then reactivated. But these almost never use the P.A. system or even raise their voices. They tend to mutter like wired police snitches talking into body mikes. as if approaching Sunset or Santa Monica Boulevard is something private, just between the two of us. Forced to acknowledge their dereliction, they're not going to shame themselves any more publicly than necessary.

Then there are the drivers who will call only the very next stop and immediately fall silent again, so that I have to keep repeating the question. Some simply don't answer me. And unbelievably often, I get the most humiliating, infuriating response of all, even worse than being ignored: "Just tell me where you're going, and I'll let you know when we get there."

Great. Because my sight is cloudy, I'm more baggage than person. "Listen," I say, "I want to know where I am as we go along, same as everyone else. Sometimes they start announcing, then, but usually they don't. No one wants to be told what to do.

On top of everything, there are some drivers who just can't grasp the concept of partial blindness; upon realizing that I have some residual sight, they seem to feel defrauded. One afternoon, nylon sports bag slung over my shoulder, I caught the local line home from the gym. After a few informationless blocks, I made the usual request, raising my voice to be heard across the aisle. A not unkindly female voice made the counteroffer to deposit me at my destination.

When I asked again to hear the stops, she clammed up completely. She was eating some kind of crunchy snack food; I could hear her chewing as she spoke. I peered at her, trying to make out what she looked like.

"I'm not asking for any special treatment," I said. " I just want to know where we are."

At first, she said nothing. I caught a bit of movement, her hand with the food, and there was the sound of a cellophane bag being crumpled. Finally she spoke.

"I saw you looking at me!" she exclaimed, with a mixture of triumph and relief. "You don't need me to call the stops for you at all! You can see." For too long after I began needing the announcements, I put off filing reports with the transit company's Customer Relations department. I didn't want to endanger anyone's employment or provoke more hard feelings in general. But when the stress of helplessness got too much for me, I finally e-mailed the company with a civil but assertive letter, with copies to my City Councilman and District supervisor, describing my predicament. And I began to report every lapse, even though I had to ask strangers for the bus's coach number and dictate it into a tape recorder, along with the time.

To my amazement, things started improving, week by week, driver by driver. Sometimes, yes, I still have to make the request, and sometimes I am still ignored or denied, as before. But now when I go out to catch a bus, I have reason to try not to ungenerously expect nothing better than the worst, and I like to believe that maybe some other passenger with a white cane or a guide dog is feeling better, too, somewhere in my city.

Copyright 2001 Joel M. Deutsch.
All rights reserved.
Republication or distribution in any medium prohibited without express, written consent of the author.

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