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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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
not asking for any special treatment," I said. " I just
want to know where we are."
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.
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."
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.
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.
2001 Joel M. Deutsch.
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Republication or distribution in any medium prohibited without express,
written consent of the author