They were being murdered by the light. I watched and said nothing.
When we began our lunch, the sun was just burnishing the windowsill. It was a hot day and Linda had left the window open so that air could circulate. But because the sun moves, by the time we finished eating, a great deluge of sunlight was pouring into the room. Light crashed onto the dining table, where it reduced our luncheon things — the knives and forks and glasses and plates smeared with the remains of our meal — to a single intense glare. I shut my eyes, squinching them so tight that neon shapes pulsed against my lids.
Meanwhile, Linda and Kevin talked about their birthdays. Over the years they have marked those days by doing something special: a La Jolla bed and breakfast with fat, downy pillows and warm croissants and freshly squeezed orange juice in the morning; a room at the Catamaran hotel; dinner at the Afghani restaurant Khyber Pass, where they ate lamb with vegetable curries over saffron rice. For Kevin’s last birthday, the pair taxied to Loews Coronado Bay Resort, a swank hotel–restaurant–recreation center with a marina. After dinner in the elegant restaurant, they strolled the grounds before settling into a deluxe guest room for the night.
“We had a beautiful time.” Linda sighed. “Didn’t we?”
That was when I opened my eyes.
She was sitting a little forward in her seat, mindless of the sunlight or the luncheon’s bright wreckage. Both her hands were on the table. White light sliced across her fingers and cut off her nose. Next to her, Kevin had a bright blade buried in his forehead.
Linda Flores and Kevin Kelly were born prematurely almost 50 years ago, at a time when it was common medical procedure to bundle preemies into incubators where oxygen was piped in to keep them alive. It was discovered, eventually, that an excess of oxygen damages the infant’s retinas and optic nerves, but the fruits of this medical research came too late for an army of middle-aged men and women who make their ways through U.S. streets today, tapping along with red-tipped white canes or led by solemn guide dogs. That afternoon, Linda, 49, and Kevin, 47, had not a clue that across from me they looked like they were being bludgeoned by the light. Indeed, if I’d eaten my lunch with a spoon or picked my teeth with my fork, they would not have known. They have never seen me or anyone else.
Linda, who was married to a Mexican (hence the Spanish surname), has straight dark brown hair that falls to her shoulders and takes a golden-wheat sheen in the sun. Her dusty-rose-colored Guatemalan blouse had a crocheted collar. She told me she tried applying makeup one time and made such a mess of herself that she never tried again. That afternoon her pale skin was buttery-soft. Kevin has a bald pate surrounded by a wreath of soft gray hair; he clips his beard close and stays in shape with an exercise schedule so that he looks like a hip and healthy Santa Claus. The middle child (and only boy) in a family with four girls, he spent 13 years under the strict regime of a residential school for the blind. He is always neat and well put together. His shoes are kept polished.
Both their faces seem slightly naked. Their eyes are a little sunken and their lids fail to fully cover the eyes, like drapes that just miss reaching the floor. I’ve heard of cases in which blind people’s eyelids were sewn down to cover empty sockets, but not here; the bit of Linda’s right iris that I can see appears to be brown, the other blue, maybe. Kevin, with the fair complexion of the Irish, has gray eyes that change color. That afternoon he wore a polo shirt with wide blue bands running across his chest and his eyes shown light blue.
“What does beauty mean to you?”
Linda and Kevin stopped dead in their conversation.
“You just said you had a beautiful time at the resort,” I said, “and I wondered what you meant.”
Linda said that it was a really nice place to be and that they’d had a great time.
“Yes, but you said the word ‘beautiful,’ and it makes me wonder what beauty means to you. What is your experience of beauty?”
Some sunrises and most sunsets, or when I see leaves lifted, shimmering, by a breeze, sometimes when I stand before a painting with its wash of colors — all these can be like whiskey to my senses. The experience of beauty has left me buzzing as if I’d chugged down a Starbucks double mocha or gasping as if I’d been slapped in the face with cold water. Beauty can stun me into silence or leave me rapturous and jabbering. But Linda and Kevin have never seen a cloud or a bird. What is beauty for someone who has never seen anything, and how is it experienced? My question had sliced deep in the middle of their conversation, but that was okay.
The three of us talk easily together; we argue, we debate, we laugh a lot. With me they are easygoing about their blindness. They joke about the insensitivity the sighted sometimes show in their dealings with blind people, and they nail blind folks for their dependencies and plaintive cries of entitlement. (What are the first words, they once asked me, that blind people say when they die and go to heaven? “Help!”) But they are conscious of the social ills that affect the blind and the sighted alike. According to them, if people were to take greater delight in their surroundings, to explore what gives them pleasure, there would be little need for rehabilitation centers. So maybe my question had been rudely put, but I had no reason to believe that they were annoyed by the attempt of a sighted person to inquire into the world of the blind.
The question harked back to stories I’d heard about how, if you lost one sense it wasn’t such a tragedy because the other four kicked in. Weren’t blind people like lizards, which grow a new tail if the old one is lost? Aren’t the blind said to experience better hearing, a stronger sense of smell, a keener touch? In the end, maybe Linda and Kevin knew something about beauty that I didn’t. Maybe a glorious red sunset streaking the sky hangs about the shoulders like a cashmere collar and the blind person recognizes that imperceptible weight. Maybe a pink-and-buttercup-yellow Rothko painting tickles the air and makes it taste sweeter. Who knows.
“Would you be more specific?” Linda said.
“Okay, right now,” I said, prepared to start with basics, “at this very minute, what are you seeing?”
Kevin turned his head slightly, pinning me down by the direction of my voice.
“That’s interesting,” he mused, and paused a moment. “I don’t see anything.”
In the presence of blind people, I am more aware of voices, my own and theirs. Both Kevin and Linda have voices that are nicely modulated, sweet-sounding. Hers is like silver bells, a voice perfect for the crisis intervention she used to do, silvery tones that would calm a man and lure him down from a rooftop. Kevin’s is more mellow.
“Me either,” said Linda.
“How can you see nothing? That’s a contradiction in terms.”
“Okay,” said Kevin. “What I’m looking at is a blank, literally.”
That was, I snapped, just another contradiction in terms.
My frustration was immediate and intense. I felt like when I failed to understand a woman’s unhappiness or a teenager’s angst — the first because I was an insensitive man and the second because I was too old and out of it. A chasm of differing experiences had opened at our feet, leaving us feeling separate and isolated. Kevin may have never seen anything, but I had never been blind. I was basking in the privileged assumptions of the sighted, that to be without vision was to be diminished, to be less-than.
Of course I’d wondered what it was like to be blind. As a kid I’d played blind man’s bluff and pin the tail on the donkey. Secretly, I imagined being blind was like that — a child’s game that ended when the blindfold was removed and you opened your eyes. And if you couldn’t open your eyes, then being blind was like the dark moment just before falling asleep, when I closed my eyes and took the images that had accumulated during the day and drew them down into dreams. So Kevin said that he was seeing a blank, and, all right, I’d go with that, and I came up with two images of a blank — the wall in my living room and the blank TV screen set to channel 3 before I put in a video. They were the only blanks I could think of, but neither was really a blank. Both had color.
“When you say you’re looking at a blank,” I said, “I bet it’s probably more like a black wall. What do you think?”
“What’s black?” asked Linda.
The apartment Linda Flores lives in is half a block off El Cajon Boulevard, on a street with unremarkable front yards and no trees. Her two-story building sits sideways, a camel-brown affair eager to lose itself in a desert of anonymous apartment units and modest single-family stucco boxes planted on hard dirt. However undistinguished the neighborhood may be, it feels safe. When friends drop her off evenings and she makes her way alone from the curb to the stairs to her front door, Linda has no fear of what she may meet.
Mornings, she heads for the corner where she catches the #115 that runs along El Cajon Boulevard to go to the San Diego Center for the Blind and Vision Impaired on 59th Street, where she and Kevin work. Mornings are the domain of curious children.
“Can I pet your dog? Does he bite?”
The girl was the tallest of four children who ranged in age from three years to six. They were on their way to the grocery store and had run ahead of their mother, who was halfway down the block wheeling a baby carriage.
“What’s his name?”
Joe, Linda’s guide dog, is a Labrador retriever with a thick coat of chocolatebrown hair. At the moment he bore the patient expression of a farm animal, maybe a cow. The youngest child, with dusty skin and uncombed hair, eyed Joe, whose actual expression notwithstanding, undoubtedly looked mean, for the child kept his distance even as his older sisters and brother moved closer. The second girl stretched forward. “You sure he don’t bite?” she asked as the others — carefully, tenderly — laid on hands.
“What’s his name?” they whispered.
Linda said his name was Joe. Her head slightly cocked, she held firmly onto the leather harness and leash so that Joe stood in place. The children marveled at his size, his thick brown coat, his large head.
“Hi, Joe,” they murmured, bending close, talking directly to him.
After a moment the oldest girl looked up at Linda, studying her. “What’s wrong with your eyes?”
“I’m blind,” said Linda. “My eyes are broken.”
“Can you see me?”
“I see you with my mind.”
“Does he bite?” piped the youngest boy, who had at last sidled closer, one small hand gingerly extended.
Joe’s portrait hangs in Linda’s living room. The day of our luncheon, his harness was looped around the doorknob; Linda’s backpack and belt pack were dropped on the couch along with a light jacket and some papers. Linda spends her days at the center and many of her evenings attending community-action meetings and sitting on committees. Both she and Kevin call themselves “people persons,” and she (more than he) is happy on committees, a social-rights activist with little time for housekeeping. Joe’s photograph and a mud-brown cuckoo clock are all that relieve the bareness of her living room walls. Linda can hear the clock and feel its hands, the tiny door, the little birdie. But there are few ways she can enjoy the photograph, which seems, finally, to have been put up as an accommodation to sighted visitors. I gazed at the photograph from my place at the table.
“I see you’ve got Joe’s picture on the wall,” I said, getting up to take a better look.
Joe heard his name and stirred under the table where he’d been dozing. “Stay!” ordered Linda, her voice no longer silver bells but heavy metal. This is the voice she was told in obedience training to use with her guide dog. From under the table there came an expulsion of breath, like an old man huffing, and then quiet.
In the portrait, Joe is posed before a fake forest scene, a backdrop of deep, almost violent, bluish green hues. His gaze fixed, he appears at once solemn and yielding, like a bean-bag chair.
“Isn’t he beautiful?” said Linda, her head turned not to me but to the chair where I’d been sitting.
“Are you goofing on me about my beauty question?”
“Not at all. Joe is beautiful.”
Kevin is a counselor at the Center for the Blind and is by profession and personal habit quick to pick up hints of disquiet. Maybe he heard the querulous note in my voice because he chose to interject just then something about how special Joe was, what a good dog he was for Linda. (Kevin does not have a guide dog but prefers to use a collapsible cane. He likes the independence.)
Yes, I said. Joe was beautiful. (The picture reminded me of those mall-shots of kids dressed up and grinning at the camera, embossed with holiday greetings, with “From Our House to Yours.”)
“I knew you’d agree. Now what about some dessert?” Linda slid back her chair and stood. I asked if I could help. “No, you just sit,” she said, removing plates from the table. Linda had cooked lemon chicken breasts and, for me, because I don’t eat meat, a casserole with corn, zucchini, and cheese that was called a “calavazas.” Kevin, the gourmet among us, brought a quinoa-pistachio pilaf with dried apricots. We were playing luncheon musical chairs. Lunch was at Kevin’s next; then it was my turn.
“Can I drop the blinds? There’s a glare,” I said.
Reaching over Kevin’s shoulder, I yanked at the cord. The blinds sang down in a rush. I louvered them, rotating the aluminum slats so that two dozen thin lines of white light poured in a pretty cascade onto the floor. Once down, the blinds cut off much of the fresh air that had come through the open window and it was instantly warmer.
“Better?” asked Kevin, looking nowhere.
“What kind of ice cream do you want?” Linda was at the counter, which was cluttered with dishes and pots, some clean, some used to prepare our meal. Kevin likes strong, freshly brewed coffee and had gotten Linda’s coffeemaker perking. With the aroma of coffee, the shade and the sudden heat, we might have been sitting on the veranda of a Kenya plantation. Suddenly the meal and the heat promised to make me drowsy. I was glad for the caffeine that was coming.
I said any kind of ice cream for me. Kevin said same here. He stood and made his way around the table. It was his job to serve the coffee.
“And it’s a good thing too,” joked Linda. She extracted a pint of ice cream from the freezer and slammed the door. “Because all I’ve got is strawberry, and that’s what you’re getting.”
Kevin smacked his lips together. “O-o-o-o, strawberry’s the best,” he said.
“You bet. Strawberry’s the best,” echoed Linda. She scooped out the ice cream while holding the fingers of her left hand lightly against the rim of the dessert dish so she could feel when the ice cream had reached her point of measure. Kevin was doing the same thing, the tip of his forefinger held inside the cup to catch the heat of the rising coffee.
“You bet,” he repeated, and they laughed.
Over time, the pair has devised a kind of private language, word-games and cue points; sometimes they like to repeat phrases just for the sound and rhythm.
“You know, I never knew how you two met,” I said.
We were at the table again, each with a dish of pink ice cream littered with chunks of strawberry. I dropped a spoonful into my coffee.
“The same way we met you,” said Linda. “Some things are just supposed to happen.”
“No, seriously,” I said.
Linda said she was serious. Then she turned to Kevin. “How did we meet, Kevin?”
Like Linda, Kevin held his spoon in his right hand while his left hand held the dish in place; the fingers of that hand were used to occasionally graze the surface of his dish. This way he could monitor where the ice cream was and how much he had left.
“Remember,” he said, “you asked me to that John Denver concert.”
For her 44th birthday, friends had presented Linda with money to take Joe to a dog psychic. Linda thought it would be interesting for her as well as for Joe, but somehow she never found the time. “And the money lay in a drawer,” she said. “Then I heard John Denver was in town and I like him, so I decided to invite some friends and I also thought it would be nice to invite Kevin. I’d seen him around work, but I didn’t really know him well. The evening was pretty casual.”
“Yeah, but then it turned rocky,” Kevin reminded her, pushing aside his empty dish.
That night the two couples had dinner in a Mexican restaurant and then planned to walk to the concert at Embarcadero Marina Park South, behind the Convention Center. However, over dinner Linda and Kevin discovered they didn’t have much to say to the other couple. After the meal, they lost them in the crowd heading for the concert.
“And we didn’t see them for the rest of the evening,” said Linda.
“And,” added Kevin, “you and I have been friends ever since.”
The pint of ice cream had been left on the counter and was melting. “I’ll put it away,” I said, standing. I tore off a sheet of paper towel, wiped the bottom of the container, then opened the freezer door and stood there, dumbstruck.
The refrigerator was old, and frost had accumulated so there was a hodgepodge of frosty-white packages and containers, mostly indistinguishable from each other. When you think about it, packages of frozen vegetables feel different from packaged meats, which get wrapped in plastic at the grocery store; and leftovers in Tupperware or aluminum foil feel different from frozen vegetables from Birds Eye; and, sure, the pint container in my hand was of a shape and pliability that indicated it held ice cream. So everything I saw that looked as if it had been set in the freezer higgledy-piggledy could be identified by touch, but it still was a wonder to me how Linda did so — not just how she selected what she wanted, but how she even knew what she had.
Without a word, I jammed the ice cream into the compartment, closed the door tight, and sat down. I was surprised to find myself as embarrassed as if I’d walked in on Linda while she was dressing. What I saw in her refrigerator was no different from what is found in lots of freezers, under people’s beds or inside their closets, in medicine cabinets or underwear drawers. Linda had been married, not just once but twice; she had raised a family. Wasn’t she now, like all those who live alone, free to spread out, to enjoy chaos, to make up her own language of order?
“Leave the dishes,” she said. “I’ll take care of them later.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. I eyed the sink and counter. There were a lot of things to wash up.
“Oh, sure,” she said, waving a hand in the air. “Just leave them.”
Joe pulled himself out from under the table as Kevin and I stood and gathered our things. Joe’s portrait hanging over the couch was of a studied sentimentality. He had been about two then; now he was nine, and the canine edginess, his puppy urge to frolic, the bouts of doggy recalcitrance — all that was a natural part of his canine heritage — had been pretty much erased. Today Joe, his muzzle gone gray, was a guide dog, educated to serve as the eyes for one blind person: Linda. Joe was stolid and dependable; he would not attempt to flee if a runaway school bus were hurtling toward Linda. He did not sniff other dogs or get into fights. He did not growl, and I’d never heard him bark. He’d been neutered and would never be a dad. But he obeyed orders and could handle himself in a maze of traffic like nobody’s business. As dogs go, he probably wasn’t a hot date, but he was noble. The picture failed to do him justice.
“See?” said Linda, sensing correctly that I was patting Joe. “Isn’t he beautiful?”
Kevin reminded Linda of an upcoming meeting at work; then he and I left. In the car I brought up Linda’s freezer.
“I mean, I wonder if she even knows what she’s got?”
“Really?” he said, and I heard the disapproval in his voice. After all, nobody likes to hear his best friend criticized. But Kevin was wrong. I was not criticizing her. Rather, it came to me then that what I was doing was much worse.
The truth was that if Linda had been sighted, I would not have thought twice about either the state of her refrigerator or the bareness of her apartment. She was like lots of women I knew who were devoted to their careers, their volunteer work, or their political-action groups; some were housewives and mothers and they overlooked a messy house because their priorities lay elsewhere. Linda was active on committees dealing with multicultural concerns, minority aging, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. But she was blind. And didn’t blind people operate under the dictum that there is a place for everything and everything has its place? (What about Audrey Hepburn as a sexy blind woman in a desperate battle of wits with an evil Alan Arkin in Wait Until Dark? Didn’t she go crazy and bang into things when he switched the furniture around on her?) Whatever. For I realized that I was holding Linda to a higher standard than I myself would have signed on to. In a word, I was discriminating against her, dictating how she should live. Because she was blind.
“Well, maybe it wasn’t so bad.” I scrambled for something else to talk about. “Tell me again. That first night you and Linda went out, how could you just lose the couple you were with? Were they sighted?”
“One of them was.”
“Well, how could it happen?”
Kevin has a pinkish complexion that shows its blush, and his cheeks now went red. He lives only a few blocks from Linda, and as I made the turn onto Collwood, I got the story out of him, how he and Linda had sat down to eat dinner at a Mexican restaurant and almost at once found themselves in trouble.
“They were needy,” he said. “We spend a lot of time at work with needy people, people who have to learn to take responsibility for their lives. We did not want to turn the evening into a counseling session.”
At the Center for the Blind, Kevin, a counselor, and Linda, an instructor, help sight-disabled clients address their fears of a world designed for the sighted. They encourage folks to move beyond their anxieties and step out onto the street, onto a bus, to enter a restaurant and order a meal, to go to concerts, to organize their homes and their relationships with their families and friends. Their jobs are to counsel, instruct, and support the blind and the partially blind in their attempts to take control of their lives. They know intimately the difficulties the blind face; indeed, the evening of the John Denver concert, as they made their way toward the Convention Center, they found the maze of steel tracks underfoot, the people jostling them, the noise and lack of familiar cues highly distracting. But Kevin and Linda handled matters as blind people must if they hope to go out into the world. According to Kevin, their dinner partners (no matter that one was sighted) presumed a degree of helplessness that he and Linda sensed would draw them into a relationship of dependency with the other couple. And Kevin and Linda didn’t want it, especially as they felt their dining partners were quite capable of taking care of themselves.
“After dinner, outside the restaurant, they said they wanted to walk slower, and so we said that we wanted to get good seats and that we’d see them there. And we took off.”
As they sought out the Convention Center, Kevin said they asked for directions and people pointed and said, “Over there!” or “Keep going, you can’t miss it!” These directions meant little to them. Over and over again, he told me, in a situation like this, a blind person must keep his composure and not shut down or get frantic. “We had to hold the people accountable, to explain that such directions did not help, to ask if they could be more explicit.” It was like running a gauntlet, a distance of over a mile, but they found their way to the concert and, as well, learned much about each other.
“We were both strong and we knew it. And that’s the story.”
We were in the parking lot at Kevin’s apartment. The sun was blazing overhead.
“Next time lunch is on you, remember?”
Kevin said he was looking forward to it.
On the way out of the lot, in my rearview mirror, I watched him turn and walk up an incline to the three-story, 40-unit building. There was a thick steel post set in concrete between the parking area and the entrance. Moving toward the door, he made a small side-step to the left to avoid the post, then as neatly as a rabbit ducking into his hole, he disappeared inside.
Cecil Snyder and June Quick were both from small towns in central Nebraska. He was a quiet, introverted man, a printer who put words, letter by letter, onto presses. She was dark-haired and pretty, a great reader and crossword-puzzle solver who set words, letter by letter, into boxed rows and columns. They married in 1948. Linda was their only child.
“Which I don’t think I much minded except that it would have been nice to have somebody help with the chores.”
Linda’s parents and grandparents wanted her to have as normal a childhood as possible, and to that end they planned outings and lessons to teach her about the world. In connection with these lessons, Linda recalls that her maternal grandmother, Grandma Quick, always made sure that their time together — whether it was camping or making mud pies — was fun.
Cecil and June Snyder moved from Nebraska to San Diego in 1956. He got a job at Rovers Printers on Columbia Street. June looked after their three-bedroom house on Whelan Drive in San Carlos. Linda had gone to a residential school for the blind in Nebraska City, but she enrolled at schools with sighted children in San Diego that were designated to teach children with specific disabilities. Linda attended Garfield Elementary School in Normal Heights, then Roosevelt Junior High School in Balboa Park, and finally Crawford High School. She was well liked and describes her childhood, overall, as happy. With one exception.
“When I was eight, I went to get a hug from my mother and she pushed me away and told me I was too old to be hugged.” Before then, they had laughed and played together, but June Snyder was in and out of the hospital (a diabetic, she suffered a number of debilitating strokes). Linda conceded that she may have been in a lot of pain. “Still, I know people who are sick and in pain, some who are dying, and they are still loving and kind. The fact is that my mother was not a happy person. I’d say she was not only bitter but mean. And I had to learn to live with the way things turned out.”
There were no mother-daughter chats. Linda learned to keep things on a superficial level. June smoked cigarettes and planted flowers, she worked out her crossword puzzles and lost herself in copies of Reader’s Digest. The marriage was not a happy one.
Every Sunday afternoon, Linda went on a long walk with her father. He would always buy her an ice cream at the Navajo Shopping Center. Cecil Snyder got his daughter involved in Junior Achievement, where, in projects meant to instill business know-how, her team made and sold coasters and trivets. (“We met every week and the only thing I looked forward to was the grape soda.”) Linda spent two weeks each summer at a camp for the blind, Camp Bloomfield, in Malibu.
At 12, she earned her ham-radio license and turned the extra bedroom of their home into a communication center. Tapping out Morse code on her Swan-350 radio set, she connected with radio operators as far away as Samoa, Australia, and Japan. Two years later, when she was 14, she started communicating with someone much closer to home.
John Witt lived in San Ysidro. A friend introduced him to Linda saying he wanted to become a ham-radio operator. She agreed to coach him in Morse code for his fcc (Federal Communications Commission) license. Soon they were communicating regularly — not just by radio but also by phone. By the time she was a junior in high school, Linda was sneaking down to his place.
“I’d have my parents drop me off at a girlfriend’s house; then I’d take the Greyhound.”
Witt suffered from muscular dystrophy and was confined to a wheelchair. He had a thin upper body and edema, or swelling, in his stomach and legs. When Linda first met him, he was 28 years old, exactly twice her age.
“He was five when he was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. He was supposed to die by the time he was eight or nine.”
She remembers that he was not only very smart but also extremely caring. Like Linda, who would graduate from Crawford in 1967 as a member of the Spanish Honor Society, Witt spoke Spanish. Concerned with the plight of Mexicans who crossed the border searching for work, he tried to arrange domestic jobs for those he knew.
Linda, with a secret world separate from her life at home or school, graduated from Crawford in May. Her mother then sat her down for what she deemed was a long-overdue discussion of Linda’s college plans. June Snyder had meant for her daughter to move comfortably in a sighted world; now she wanted her to attend a four-year college — something June had not done — get a degree, and become a professional. But Linda felt herself at a disadvantage. She did not know how to cook or manage a house, how to write checks or live on her own. She thought she needed to go to a school for the blind where she could learn life skills that would allow her to be independent. Linda says today that some of the counselors working at the California Department of Rehabilitation urged her to accede to her mother’s wishes, others were sure the time spent at the Orientation Center for the Blind in Albany would do her good. While the Albany program ran for six months, in the end a compromise was struck: Linda got three months.
“It gave me certain skills and even if I wasn’t able to stay the entire time, I learned about what I didn’t know, and that was helpful too.”
Upon her return to San Diego, she enrolled at Grossmont College. But she was only biding her time. In November, shortly after her 18th birthday, she dropped out of school and announced that she was leaving home to marry John Witt. Her parents hit the roof.
“I’d made my announcement and was in my room packing and my mother was yelling at me, saying I wasn’t going anywhere. I pushed her out of the way.”
June Snyder thought her daughter was throwing her life away for a man who was not only far older than she but sick and sure to die soon. She went after the friend Witt had sent to help Linda with her things. Wearing her house slippers, she kicked the man in the shins and screamed, “Damn your soul! Damn your soul!”
Linda, her bags packed, was at the door when her mother delivered her ultimatum: “If you walk out that door,” she warned, “don’t ever think you can walk back in.”
The wedding was at a small Baptist church in San Ysidro. Cecil Snyder was there to give his daughter away. He was not happy with the situation, he admitted, but he was willing to do anything to keep from losing his child. Today, he maintains an affectionate relationship with her.
John and Linda had been married six months when John convinced her to try to reconcile with her mother.
“I can never accept you,” June told her on the phone. “You are not my daughter anymore.” Then June hung up.
“For three years, we were always together,” Linda says in describing her marriage. That time together taught her, she says, what it is to love someone and to be loved.
With muscular dystrophy, the muscles atrophy and the person cannot cough enough to clear his lungs. As her husband’s health deteriorated, Linda learned to give enemas and empty bedpans; she bathed him and wrapped his legs in bandages. One morning in the shower she was suddenly hit with a presentiment of her husband’s death. “I just had a feeling,” she told me. She grabbed a towel and covered herself, then rushed out to him. Witt was sitting in his motorized wheelchair. What’s the matter, he asked. She hugged him close and said nothing. Not long afterward, she was at his bedside in Bay General Hospital in Chula Vista; Witt lay unmoving, unable to speak (they had by then, she said, told each other what needed saying). Linda listened to the low hum of the machines he was hooked up to, to the sounds of the busy hospital. She did not, herself, recognize a change in his condition, but suddenly an announcement of “Code Blue!” or “Code Nine!” (she can no longer recall which) sounded out over the public address system. What she remembers next is that a medical team rushed in to the room and someone asked her to leave. John Witt’s death in January 1971 was listed as the result of pneumonia and congestive heart failure.
“Afterward, I went home and lay on the bed. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to recover.”
She was 21 and a widow.
Witt’s twin sister, Joan, invited Linda to visit her in Alaska. It was here, three months after her husband’s death, that she got the news that her mother had died.
Upon her return to San Diego, Linda supplemented her ssi checks by working as a health-care aide for a person who had suffered from polio. With time on her hands, she decided to volunteer a few hours a week at the Tijuana School for the Blind. Her future second husband was already a student volunteer at the school.
“I figured we could have a good life together,” she said, reflecting on the extended courtship that followed their meeting and her decision to marry again. “He had vision and I thought, well, if someone who is sighted really likes me then I must be okay.”
After they were married in 1975, her husband was able to legally immigrate. The couple moved into Linda’s apartment in Chula Vista, where right away the marriage went bad. Her husband was a drinker, possessive and controlling; he verbally abused her. At the time, Linda (who today acknowledges her past history of codependency) blamed herself for his behavior. Their arguments always ended with her trying to placate him. Their first child, a boy, was born in 1977. The family moved to Sonoma, where her husband got a job as a mental-health worker, but he soon lost that and they returned to San Diego. They moved into a trailer park near Imperial Beach. Their daughter was born in 1981.
Her husband stopped drinking after that. Still, the verbal abuse continued. Terms like ¡Pendeja! ¡Estúpida! ¡Cabrona! rang out from their mobile home. Linda’s self-esteem hit rock bottom, and her children, as they grew up, responded to the dysfunctional environment by getting into trouble. (Linda does not like to speak of her kids and the harsh toll her marriage took on them.)
Linda had worked as an instructor at the Center for the Blind in the mid-’70s, and in 1983 she returned. Her family needed the money and she was happy to get out of the house. One of her clients was Kevin Coburn, a gay doctor who had retired from the Navy. Diagnosed with aids, he soon lost his sight.
“I didn’t tell my husband about working with him because he’d have ordered me to sit down and then stood over me for hours, going over how the disease was infectious and how I’d bring it home with me, that such people were scum, and what made a stupid person like me think I could help anybody anyway.”
Working for months with her client, Linda taught Coburn how to read Braille and how to cook. She acknowledged the difficulties blind people have and helped him face the many challenges. Coburn eventually died of complications from aids; his mother called to say he had especially wanted to thank Linda, to say that she had made a difference in his life.
“You have to understand,” said Linda, “I felt like I was going to die. It was so horrible at home, and then to have this man, who must have known so many people, make a point of having his mother speak to me…”
Her voice trailed off. That event and the ongoing support of a girlfriend helped her turn the corner. She decided to get a guide dog.
For five years, Linda had had to take two buses and a trolley to go to work. It was a commute of an hour and a half each way, and it began and ended under dangerous conditions. Her trailer park at Saturn and Palm sat across the street from a Home Depot. Each day, she’d travel up an unpaved road with cars roaring by and big rigs parked along the way. Time and again, she said, she’d walked into one of the parked trucks whose bodies were so high off the ground that her cane did not alert her to their presence. Many times she’d banged her head or blackened an eye.
“And when it rained, the road was muddy and everything was that much worse. I went through five winters there.”
Linda made her appointment to get a guide dog at the Guide Dogs of the Desert in Palm Springs. Here she met Joe. “I didn’t know how to hug until then,” she said. “I didn’t feel free.”
Guide dogs are trained to handle most situations, but Linda’s commute path was deemed so extreme that it was decided a trainer should work with her on-site.
“He came and looked around and said it was pretty impossible. He suggested that I move. It was only then that I said to myself, ‘God, this is where you live? This is how you live?’ ”
For 16 years, Linda had asked herself what she could do, where she would go, if she ever left her husband. Now, suddenly, she no longer let the uncertain consequences of her decision keep her from making it. She told her husband she was through. He, she said, tried to “guilt-trip” her about the kids. But that did not work.
“I told him the kids were messed up because of the life they’d been forced to share and that my decision could not make things any worse for them. The damage,” she said, “had been done.”
They separated in 1991 and later, after saving the money to hire a lawyer, she got her divorce. In 1995 she moved to her apartment off El Cajon Boulevard. Over the couch she hung Joe’s portrait. The first Christmas after she and Kevin met, he presented her with the cuckoo clock. Now every time the bird cuckoos she is likely to remind herself that her time belongs to no one but herself.
“Wines to be decided…”
I banged on Kevin’s door and looked down the long corridor with its gray-blue industrial runner and gray-blue doors. The hallway was deserted with no sound coming from any apartment except Kevin’s. I banged again.
“Dairy two quarts 1 percent milk…”
“Kevin —! Kevin —!”
Whenever I’d visited him at his apartment, Kevin had been alone. Because I’d expected he’d want to go shopping for our lunch tomorrow, I’d offered to take him to the grocery store and pick him up. I’d assumed he’d be alone and waiting for me. But now on the other side of the door, in the silence of the hallway, I could hear someone talking about wine and milk.
I was just about to bang again when the door opened.
“Come in,” said Kevin. “I’ll be ready in just a minute.”
He stepped back and I entered. To my right was the kitchen alcove and beyond that the living room. The bedroom and bath were to my left. I knew all this from memory because the place was darkened, the curtains drawn. But now Kevin reached out and hit the light switch. This was for me.
“I thought I heard someone talking,” I said.
“I was going over my shopping list.”
“But it wasn’t your voice, Kevin.”
“Oh that,” he said, and laughed, “that was my scanner. Here, I’ll show you.”
With his hands held lightly in front of him, a little above waist-height, Kevin moved past the kitchen to the living room, where an object sat on the desk. It looked like an old Hoover vacuum cleaner laid on its side. This, he said, was his scanner. Having spent much of yesterday figuring out what he needed at the grocery store, he’d written his list using his red laptop. He’d then printed his grocery list on his laser printer (perched on a small table behind him) and, finally, was having the list read back to him by his scanner so he’d know both if he’d forgotten anything and if the list was sufficiently clear for the people at the store to read. (Except for the printer, this was specialized equipment designed for the blind. The estimated price tag was close to $35,000.) A single piece of paper lay atop the glass face of his scanner.
“I’ll start it over,” said Kevin, tapping out a code on the scanner keyboard.
Suddenly a voice: “Page is right-side up.”
Here was the voice I’d heard, except now that it was no longer muffled by the wooden door, I could hear clearly the robot-mechanical sound characteristic of voice-informed machines.
“It’s saying the page is properly set to be read. Sometimes I put it on upside-down.” He tapped again:
“Grocery list….” (pause) “Wines to be decided….” (pause) “Dairy two quarts 1 percent milk.…”
“Yes,” I said, “that’s what I heard.”
“I was just reviewing the list. I’ve already heard it once and I think I’ve got everything.” He tapped out a code that sent the voice to the bottom of the list. “One and one-half pounds flan.…” (pause) “One-half pound rice pudding.…”
“So that’s what we’re getting for dessert?”
“No, that’s for me, for later,” he said. His list had all that he needed for the next three weeks. “When I write my list, I’m planning on what I’m going to eat, not just every meal, but how much I’ll have as leftovers. I figure it out so I don’t have to eat the same leftovers the next day. At the same time I’m creating an inventory.” He crossed the living room and opened the drapes. On his balcony he’d planted herbs in a couple of long redwood boxes. “For example,” he said (and I knew we had stumbled into what Kevin likes to call a “teachable moment”), “I needed to make sure there was enough dill for the potato salad.” Besides dill, there was lemon thyme and chives, mint and sage, parsley and tarragon.
“Okay,” I said. “So anything else?”
“Do you really want to know?”
I said sure, and he headed for the kitchen. Both he and Linda, I’d noticed, walk with a subtle side-to-side shifting of weight that allows them to sweep the space a little, checking for obstacles. He opened a drawer next to the sink. “I do things like make sure I have enough aluminum foil and freezer bags to wrap the fish and chicken.”
“But how do you know if you’re running out of anything? Like your spices?”
“Like what?” He opened the cupboard next to the stove. Neatly arranged there, like eggs in a carton, were 30 or so spice bottles, most of them with the familiar tomato-red Schilling cap. Kevin, I knew, was enjoying this. I decided to make it hard on him. “What about sesame seeds? Do you have enough sesame seeds?”
“Let’s see.” Smiling, he passed his fingers among the little bottles. They were alphabetized, he explained, and he’d taped Braille labels on each. He pulled out one of the bottles and shook it. I could hear the clicks of tiny seeds moving about. The sesame seeds had been between the savory and the tarragon, exactly where they were supposed to be.
“Kevin, can I look inside your freezer?”
He hooted once and said sure. The kitchen was small. He stepped back so that when I opened the freezer door he wouldn’t get beamed.
“You’re unbelievable,” I said, gazing in wonder.
On the left were breakfast sausages and frozen bananas for smoothies. They were in Ziploc bags. On the right was the ice cream. In the center were fish and poultry in freezer bags. He explained that he knew what he had by the size and thickness of the package, by the weight of the bag, and the feel of the pieces under the foil wrap.
“How do you know what fish you’ve got?”
“I’ve got catfish, salmon, and shark,” he said.
Even his fish had been labeled in Braille and alphabetized. I said I’d seen enough.
When he has somewhere to go, such as the grocery store, Kevin usually calls Godwin, a Nigerian friend who owns a cab. They arrange a time for pickup, then Godwin drops him off, goes about his business, and returns when Kevin calls. But today I was taking him, and as he disconnected his cell phone from the charger and dropped it into his canvas bag, I gave him the number of where I’d be. He repeated it to make sure he had it right, then collapsed his cane and put it in his bag along with his grocery list.
“We’re off,” he said.
Kevin, as usual, had called ahead and explained to the manager at Ralphs that he was a blind customer, that he wanted to come in within the next hour or so and wondered if that would be convenient. (“It pays to be organized. This way, if they are low on staff they can let me know and I don’t waste my time.”) The manager assured him that it was fine and that he’d have someone on hand to help with shopping. In the car, Kevin said that for many of the people who bag groceries, this is their first paid employment (and here he bent in close and spoke low, as if worried about being overheard) “and a lot of them,” he said, “don’t know much about food. Once I wanted some blackberries and something told me that the young man who was helping me didn’t know what blackberries were. So I asked. Do you know what he said? He said, sure, he knew what blackberries were because there was a tree in his back yard and he used to climb it to pick them.” Kevin rocked back in his seat, laughing. “I said that blackberries grew on prickly bushes, not in trees.” It had been another of his teachable moments.
“Start off in produce,” he confided to me. “That way you know who you’re dealing with.”
I scooted into a parking space and followed Kevin, who straightened out his cane and forged ahead. Inside the store, the manager pulled one of his bag boys to the side. He and Kevin introduced themselves and Kevin handed over his grocery list. He laid his hand lightly on the young man’s shoulder and said he’d let himself be guided.
“You want wine?” asked the bag boy, reading the list. He looked nervous, fearful of what might lie ahead.
“No, let’s hold off on the wine. In fact, let’s forget about the list for a moment. How about starting over in the produce section. How is that? Now, I’m going to need scallions. Do you know what scallions are?” The youngster looked bereft. Kevin surely felt the sudden stiffening of the boy’s body because, from where I stood, I could see him tighten up with tension. “Don’t worry about it,” said Kevin, his tone soothing. “We’ll find them.”
Two hours later (and almost $300 poorer), Kevin called and I went to pick him up. There were two carts full of bags. The scared youngster I’d seen leading Kevin to the produce section was now a smiling warrior aglow with victory. We stuffed my car. On the way home, I asked how the shopping had gone.
There were 12 bags. Kevin and I transferred them from the car to the elevator, then out of the elevator and to his front door, and finally into his apartment. Bags covered the floor, flowing from the kitchen into the living room.
“I can take care of this,” he said. I told him I’d be glad to help, but he assured me it would take him only a couple of hours and that way he’d know where everything was.
It was all pretty labor intensive, I said. When you count up the time spent making the list, getting to the store, shopping, coming home, and putting the food away, it was at least a full day’s work.
“But it’ll be worth it tomorrow,” he said. If he could have, he would’ve winked.
Lunch included potato salad with plenty of dill, steamed cauliflower, and a vegetarian dish called Calypso Rice and Beans that had cilantro and pineapple, jalapeños, basmati rice with cumin, and red and yellow bell peppers. For Linda and himself, Kevin had grilled some sesame-crusted catfish.
“I found I had plenty of sesame seeds,” he said. Kevin had already admitted that after opening a can of pineapple for the rice-and-beans dish, he had found himself holding a can of chicken broth instead. “Nobody’s perfect,” he quipped.
They were drinking a pinot noir. I’d always heard that white wine went with fish, I said. Kevin answered that a white wine meant chardonnay and he was tired of chardonnay.
“Besides,” said Linda, lifting her glass, “who makes up these visual rules anyway?”
“Yeah,” said Kevin, “who makes up these rules?”
I helped myself to a second serving of the Calypso Rice and Beans. Kevin’s talent for cooking was inherited. His mother was a good cook who made wonderful spaghetti, great potato salad, a dish she called deviled chicken, and chocolate chip cookies whose taste he could still remember. These were dishes served in the summer, because for most of Kevin’s childhood, summers were the only unbroken periods of time he spent at home.
Rita Haynoski married Tom Kelly when she was 25 and he was 38. He was an estate-planning lawyer. The couple was Catholic and had six children — five in seven years — with the second child, a boy, dying at birth. The Kellys lived in Salamanca, a small town in southwestern New York, close to the Pennsylvania border. Kevin was born in September 1952. Two months premature and weighing just two pounds, he was sent by ambulance to the Children’s Hospital in Buffalo, where he remained for three months. Oxygen kept him alive.
“Later, when I came home, they had a sense that something was wrong when I didn’t respond to things like balloons, to the decorations in the room or things hanging over my crib.”
He spent much of his early years with his maternal grandmother, Hattie Haynoski. It was Nanny who taught him to walk by stringing guide rope from a table leg to a chair and having him hold on as he made his way. This exercise, Kevin says, was his first hint that he was different from other children.
An adventurous child, young Kevin fell off his parents’ porch and broke his nose. Especially fond of stairs, he liked to clamber up Nanny’s to the second floor. His grandmother’s sister, Aunt Tecky, was a worrier who’d watch him climb one stair and then another. By the fourth step she was having a fit. “Hattie!” she’d call out in alarm, “he’s going to fall! He’s going to fall!” To this, Nanny would snap, “Tecky! It’s time for you to go home!”
Kevin is grateful today. “She let me be a child.”
He and his sisters had a favorite game they played with Nanny called Opposite Day. Every question asked had to be responded to with its opposite. “The last question of the game was always the same. We’d cuddle close and ask, ‘Nanny, do you love me?’ and she would look down at whoever was in her arms, make a chirping sound like a bird, and say, ‘Nooooo, I don’t love you.’ That would always have us in stitches.”
There were no local schools for special-needs children, so at five Kevin was sent to the New York State School for the Blind in Batavia, 90 miles away. He was lucky, he said, because his parents drove every weekend to pick him up, while some children, whose homes were as far as 250 miles away, saw their parents only at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.
“But I cried and, of course, my parents weren’t happy.”
The two-hour journey each way proved overwhelming, especially in the winter, and within a year, by the first grade, visits home were reduced to every other week. They remained that way until Kevin was in junior high school, when he preferred to stay on campus with his friends.
There were 300 blind kids in the state school, kindergarten through 12th grade. Kevin lived in a dorm with children his own age. House parents were sometimes abusive, he recalled, and sometimes nurturing. Trained in the social sciences, he describes himself in a way that leaves out the anger, the fear that must have gripped the five-year-old when his parents left him in that strange place so far away from home. A veneer, thin and transparent as a sheet of Saran Wrap pulled tight, seems to separate him from his feelings of that time.
“Yes, I cried when I couldn’t stay at home with my parents. And there are issues of abandonment that I’ve faced. But there are also some good things that came out of leaving home. I learned early how to deal with separation. Also, I came from a family of sisters and so I think it was good for me to live in a dorm with boys. It offered a balance. I learned to take risks, to be on my own and try new things.”
At six, he roller-skated in his parents’ driveway and rode his bike in a large nearby parking lot after work hours when there were no cars; he swung in trees and climbed them; summers he learned to swim, dive, and do back flips.
When Kevin was ten, his youngest sister, Eileen, was born. By then his mother was screaming and throwing tantrums.
“She resented being cooped up in the house, but the fact was that she lacked confidence and felt powerless in the world. She had no place else to go, but she hated being there.”
When he was in first grade, Rita Kelly learned Braille so she could write Kevin letters that he could read. “I loved that, and I do have some fond memories. But I guess she just got burned out being a mother. That sometimes happens to parents, except in her case she reacted by turning on her kids. She’d tell us, ‘The next 50 years are going to be Rita’s years!’ ”
As she became psychologically abusive, the children defended themselves by banding together. And then there was the sexual abuse that touched their lives. Kevin’s sisters all claim that their grandfather, Nanny’s alcoholic husband, sexually abused them, but Kevin is pretty sure his grandfather’s abuse began earlier, with their mother. “But she had no way of articulating this — you just didn’t talk about those things at the time — and then when she got married, because she was a Catholic, she was told she had to stick the marriage out, no matter how bad it got.” When Kevin was 14, his mother started drinking. Today, he says, she is a longtime alcoholic.
Tom Kelly, Kevin’s father, was an eccentric who retreated from life. Kevin faults him for not protecting his children from their mother’s wrath. He also failed to fill the emotional void left in the wake of her angry rejection. Soon enough, Kevin and his sisters stopped trying to get through to him, to make sense of his remarks.
“He could not say that he loved you or that he was proud of you. Instead, he’d say something obtuse that left you feeling weird and empty.”
Tom Kelly was the first member of his family to go to college. According to Kevin, he bought into the class assumptions of the time. He not only never questioned the privileges he enjoyed as a white man, but the only people he thought counted were white males. (Kevin remembers once talking about a school friend of his named Ike Chestnut. When his father heard the name, he said, “Of what ethnic extraction is he?” Kevin answered that he was black. After that, he said, his father didn’t want to hear anything more about him.)
As for Rita, his unhappy wife (whom he sometimes referred to as “Mother”), Kelly informed his son, man-to-man, that women were simply “creatures of emotion.” The couple seldom spoke and, after the early years of their marriage, did not share a bedroom. With no hobbies to occupy himself, Kelly came home from his office, ate dinner and stared at the TV, then fell asleep in his bed with an all-news radio program playing. As dissatisfied as they were with each other, being Catholics, there was never any question of dissolving the marriage.
“My parents were victims of their time.”
Kevin says his home life added to another problem that blind children often face. They grow up, he says, overhearing adults “grieving” with each other, saying how sorry they are about the child’s condition, asking the parent of the blind child if there is anything that can be done. “People who don’t live in a blind world don’t understand the feeling a blind person has of being isolated, of wondering if they’re okay. I struggled with an inferiority complex for a long time.”
Linda married her second husband because he was sighted and, she said, in choosing her he made her feel less disabled. Kevin also grew up questioning his worth. By the time he graduated from the School for the Blind, he typed 80 words per minute, played the piano, was fluent in Braille, and was good with cane travel. He had skills far beyond those of most young men his age. Yet still feeling the need to prove his worth in the sighted world, he enrolled for another year of high school at Archbishop Walsh High School in Olean, New York, a community next to his hometown. He was the school’s first blind student, and arrangements had to be made to translate school material into Braille; he had to be read to, and he took many of his tests orally.
“It was a lot of trouble, but it was the best thing I ever did.”
An average student at the School for the Blind, he now shot to the top of his class. But the best part, he remembers, was his relationship with the other students — skiing on weekends with the ski club, speaking Spanish with members of the Spanish club, sitting in the bleachers and cheering at the football and basketball games. He was popular.
At home he followed the Civil Rights movement and listened, alone in front of the TV, when Martin Luther King addressed the nation during the March on Washington. By the time he left for Marquette University, he knew he wanted to work for a world without privilege. His parents had not been warm and communicative, and he knew that problems with personal awareness and meaningful communication were where his life’s work lay. There were 4 blind students among a student body of 12,000 at the university. Marquette’s campus in downtown Milwaukee offered Kevin the challenges, the hustle and bustle, of an urban campus. He liked that. After graduation, he spent the summer visiting friends. Then, in 1975 he headed west to California.
In San Diego, he worked as a counselor and in job development with community-based programs, Social Advocates for Youth and the maac Project. In 1981, he enrolled in a graduate counseling program at sdsu that emphasized community effort. In 1987, Tom Kelly suddenly died. By then Kevin’s relationship with his parents had become so estranged that nothing was said when he decided not to go home for the funeral.
“I had things to resolve with my father, and I thought that rather than attempt to do this in public, at his funeral, I could speak with him best alone, here in my apartment.”
The last time Kevin spoke to his mother was in 1991. “She called on New Year’s, and right away I knew then that I had to cut off all communication. It hurt too much.” (Three of his four sisters have done the same.) Unwilling to acknowledge the suffering she inflicted, or to address the unspoken trauma of her childhood and her unhappy marriage or the unabated anger of her grown children, instead, he says, she drinks vodka. “I guess she’s doing the best she can, but she has given herself so few options. She is there and I’m here,” he concluded, “and I’m grateful for the geography.”
“That was delicious!”
Linda and I were sitting on Kevin’s couch and letting the food settle. I looked around. Where Linda offers bare walls, a cuckoo clock, and a dog’s picture, Kevin’s apartment is a glut of interesting finds. His walls are theme-loaded: one is devoted to personal liberation, with posters entitled “My Declaration of Self-Esteem” and “The Five Freedoms.” Another has large posters of musical artists (Stevie Wonder, Joan Baez, and Anita Baker). A third wall celebrates multiculturalism with posters depicting Native American mandalas and the principles of Kwanzaa, the African-American alternative to Christmas. Kevin’s coffee table, a gift from a friend, is a kitsch spectacle, with photos of famous athletes set under polyurethane. On the wall behind the couch, Kevin has hung his Shrine of the Global Village. The size and shape of a breadbox turned on its side, it is carved from red, brown, and black woods from Brazil, Indonesia, and Africa. Kevin, who refers to himself as a Third World Anglo, has placed inside the shrine stones, prayer beads, and a tiny scroll. (This self-identification comes, he maintains, from having been discriminated against. “I kept being denied jobs, and one time when I was told that I was well qualified but that they couldn’t hire me because I was blind, I broke down right there in the office and cried.”) In his bedroom, his full-size bed is crowded by a six-foot-tall bookcase filled with Braille editions of National Geographic and Cooking Light, a food guide. “I’m being invaded by Braille,” he likes to say. He was looking for a larger place to live.
It was pleasing to sit there in the middle of the computer gear, the books and the music, the herbs on the balcony, and the inspirational posters on the walls.
“This is so good —!”
As full as we had been, Linda and I now proceeded to gobble up our dessert of vanilla yogurt with sliced fresh mango. The yogurt was cool and soothing, the fruity fragrance that lifted off the sweet mango filled the mouth with its foreign perfume.
“What would you like to hear?” Kevin was at his entertainment console that held his stereo system. It stood next to his upright piano.
“You pick,” said Linda.
I’d been at his place before when he’d searched among his collection of 96 CDs — arranged by music type and then alphabetized according to artist.
Rotating the holder, he selected one. Soon the fusion-jazz chords from the group Pieces of a Dream filled the apartment. We sat quietly, eating our dessert and listening. Afternoon sunlight bathed a portion of Kevin’s balcony in light, but the apartment was nicely shaded, nearly dark.
The music and the sense of reverie it called up, the totems on the walls, the pleasures of feeling well fed and well cared for led, somehow, to the subject of friendship. I asked Linda why Kevin was her friend.
She laughed her silvery laugh. “Kevin knows what I think about him. I’ve told him a hundred times…”
“And I’ve told her too, so there’s no secrets here.”
“Yes, no secrets here,” echoed Linda. She turned to me, her chin tilted.
“Well, then tell me,” I coaxed.
“I like Kevin,” and she paused for just a moment. “Well, the first thing is that I don’t just like Kevin, I love him. And I love him because he’s fun to be with and he makes me laugh. He gives me support, and, let me see, he likes to eat. We like the same things. We can tell each other everything. I can go on and on, but I guess one of the things I like best about him is that I can trust him with myself.”
“That’s quite a list,” I said.
“He feeds my soul,” she added. “I love Kevin more than anyone on this earth.”
I asked Kevin the same thing.
“Linda is intelligent and a real advocate for people, and I like her for those reasons. She is really dedicated to making this world a better place. She is thoughtful and confident, and generous,” he said. “She is consistent, and that is really important to me; I don’t have to guess where she’s coming from. She is loyal and dependable.” Using a term I’d never heard before, he said that he respected Linda because she was very “self-relevant.”
“She is the crystal that keeps me safe.”
Missing from their equations was the visual — he’s cute or she’s pretty. Linda said she relied on a sixth sense to tell her about people. Kevin said he assessed people according to subtle boundary cues — how the person smelled, if the voice was loud or the person talked too much, held to monologues, or was always interrupting and not leaving room for others to interact. Of necessity, he said, blind people did not get caught up in the visuals. “If voices and odors tell more about the real person, then blind people quickly come to know what is essential to that person’s character.”
Linda laid her hand on my arm. “And do you know why we like you?” And she went on to offer a generous list that included that fact that I asked wonderful questions that made her think.
“Really interesting ones,” said Kevin.
“And I haven’t given up on that question about beauty, in case you’ve forgotten,” I said.
“We haven’t forgotten.”
They were a rare pair, a toss-up between Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire — she who was said to give him sex appeal, just as he gave her class — and the Odd Couple team of Walter Matthau’s Oscar — the sloppy sensualist who had better things to do than wash the dishes — and Jack Lemmon’s Felix — tidy, an excellent cook, variously accomplished, and a little in need of loosening up.
Sticky with mango juice, I put the dish down on the coffee table and went to wash my hands. The basin was outside the bathroom, built like a vanity with a wide counter and large mirror. Set on the counter were bottles of cologne — Jaipur, Xeryus, Paco Rabanne, Escada. (Linda’s favorite perfume was made by Avon. It was called Here’s My Heart and it had a light floral spiciness. I knew this because at the California Conference for the Blind that was held in Fresno last year, and where I was a guest speaker, one of the women lost her luggage. She was able to buy soap and toothpaste from the hotel gift shop, but she sorely missed her perfume. Friends offered to share their perfumes with her, and that was when I overheard Linda offer her Here’s My Heart. The woman, who said her mother had liked that perfume, was surprised that it was still made. She did not, it turned out, accept the offers to use others’ perfumes. “I’m an Estée Lauder girl,” she said. Perfume, especially among the blind, is a signature statement.)
“We thought of something,” said Kevin, when I returned. “We think you have to understand that your definitions about beauty are the ones set up by the visual world.”
“What you need to do,” said Linda, “is come over to our side for a while.”
“You should see how blind people live.”
And so it was decided that I would spend time at the Center for the Blind. I might not learn anything about blind people’s experience of beauty, but it would be a fun thing to do. Then Kevin sat down at the piano and opened the book that held his compositions, which had been transcribed in Braille. He ran his fingers over the page once and then played a jazz piece.
Lunch was at my place next. In the interim, I went to school.
The San Diego Center for the Blind is a white single-story structure on El Cajon Boulevard. Were it not for the immense Braille lettering raised on the façade of the building, spelling out the words “Hope” and “Prosperity,” it would be an anonymous affair. Inside, behind the volunteer receptionist, the walls and floors are color-coded with blue and gray and spots of red to indicate doorways, turns, and activity zones. (The color coding is, of course, for those with only partial blindness.) There are modest glassed-in offices and a bell that rings every hour and sounds like the alarm that went off in elementary school during fire-drill practice.
The center offers a host of courses. I sat in on one entitled Money, Machines and Manpower. In this class, devoted to the first M, money, 18 students grouped around a table and waited to be handed a bunch of coins. When their turns came, they each counted the coins, silently totaled the amount, and handed them to the next person. The correct sum was $3.81. I was nearly a dollar short.
In the Machines part of the course, students would learn to operate Braille writers, talking calculators, and computers. They’d learn to work a cassette book machine that gives them access to the many books on tape offered through the Library of Congress. In the Manpower portion, they’d learn to work in kitchens, offices, and factories. (A volunteer mentioned that he once saw blind people working in a mattress factory, where they expertly handled and threaded gigantic commercial sewing machines with six-inch-long needles.)
In the course Activities of Daily Living, students work in a model apartment where they learn to make a bed and set up a closet so clothes color-match. They are taught many things, from how to clean the house and how zippers work, to how to put on makeup and how to feed themselves. They even learn to thread a needle, one staff member said. I was told it required the use of a wine cork.
With my eyes closed, I sat in on Kevin’s general discussion group in which students were invited to air their concerns. After some initial hesitation, members of the class began to speak up. Many complained that their adult children opened their mail, signed their checks, moved their things.
“My son treats me like I’m a baby,” one woman said. “He takes my mail home with him, reads it, then brings it back and tells me what I should do, what I should sign. I am trying to hold off and be nice, but he needs to know that I am no baby. I have a right to my own mail.”
Another woman said her daughter was using her failing sight, the consequence of diabetes, to express some long-held resentment. “But I’m the one that’s sick, so what’s she squabbling at me for?”
There was a class entitled Orientation and Mobility that had one segment devoted to cooking. Linda assisted the sighted teacher. Together they taught the students, who sat on stools around the oven and cutting boards, how to prepare a spaghetti pie, salad, and spicy oatmeal cookies. I kept peeking as I sliced a loaf of French bread to make sure my thumb was out of the way.
Another part of Orientation and Mobility dealt with use of the cane. Sue Swank, with her warm smile and easygoing manner, was my instructor. Sitting in her glassed-in cubicle, she had me first try on a series of eye patches that duplicated the conditions of sight loss caused by cataracts, macular degeneration, glaucoma, or diabetic retinopathy. How blind did I want to be? After trying each of the patches on, I found that partial vision loss was more distracting than a blindfold that left the world entirely black. Since I had a choice, I’d rather be all blind, I said. Which reminded me.
“A couple of weeks ago I asked Kevin and Linda if they could see anything, and they said they were ‘looking’ at a blank.” I told Sue Swank that I thought what they were seeing was probably blackness.
Swank has worked with the blind for a decade. She agreed that it might very well be black they were seeing, but who could say? They had no idea what blackness was.
She asked what kind of cane I wanted. The choices were a support cane, a prescription cane, one that was rigid, or one that was folding. I chose a rigid cane. It was fitted according to the distance from my wrist to my foot. The cane was held at an angle, which kept me from tripping over it. We worked in a deserted hallway. I walked its length, practicing the technique that Sue suggested: I kept my head straight and swung the cane out lightly in front of me in a half-moon sweeping motion, timing my sweep to the position of my moving feet. The technique was called “constant contact.” Other techniques include two-point touch, touch/slide, three-point touch, and touch/drag. In addition, there were procedures used for both indoor and outdoor mobility, for residential and commercial spaces (that include how to get on and off elevators and escalators). Altogether, there were 52 techniques to be mastered.
“You did pretty well. Blind people, as they walk, must learn to pick up cues. There are cues for reaching doorways,” Swank said, and she showed me the wood frame around the door. “And in a room you pick up the size and dimensions by its echo.” Outside, the blind person orients herself according to the flow of traffic and the direction of sunshine.
“Blind people are aware of sunlight?”
“They have to be,” said Swank.
At lunch at Linda’s, when I had imagined she and Kevin were unaware of the rays of sunlight lacerating their faces, I’d been wrong. Linda could feel her fingertips being kissed by the sunlight, the tip of her nose being tweaked. The hot light on Kevin’s forehead must have felt wonderful. What did I know?
Students travel downtown on a bus to gain experience moving in public. There was no time for me to do this, but Kevin and Linda promised they’d see I got some street experience. I had a better idea.
“Why don’t we go somewhere that serves good food and maybe, as a bonus, has music?”
Not only would that be my lunch offering (except that it would be dinner), but that way, if I traveled as a blind person, I’d get some practice, learn street smarts. They said sure and set a date for Friday evening.
Before the appointed hour, my eyes closed, I dressed by touch, and when I was finished I put on sunglasses. But then, as I was about ready to leave, just to make sure, I peeked in the mirror to see if everything was properly zipped up, tucked in, and folded back. I had not coordinated with Godwin, the cab driver Linda and Kevin like to use, so we took a Yellow Cab downtown.
I had learned in the money class to fold my ten-dollar bill and my fives and put them in different pockets so as to keep my money straight. But when it came time to pay the fare, I peeked again to be sure I was getting the right change back.
“Well, we’re off,” I said, and closed my eyes. I walked between Kevin with his cane and Linda with Joe. The sounds of Fourth Avenue were suddenly amplified — the hiss of hydraulic brakes somewhere, the rumbling motors of cars, the murmuring sounds of voices, and all of it coming from all sides. Under my feet, the very street seemed alive and agitated. I stumbled as we stepped up onto the curb, and then we were inside the Juke Joint Cafe.
Because we had reservations, we were at once escorted down a long hall to a table that seemed fine, though it was very close to the stage where the musicians were playing. The waitress listed what was on the menu and that evening’s specialties. I could barely hear her over the music, though Kevin and Linda seemed to have no trouble. Kevin ordered quickly. Linda asked to have the specialties repeated, then decided on ribs. I didn’t catch enough to make a thoughtful choice.
“Please, just give me something with pasta. No meat. No fish. No chicken.” Pasta, I figured, would be easy to handle. Besides, I didn’t have much of an appetite.
Water was brought. The waitress deposited something at our table that she said was bread with butter. I didn’t even try. I gripped my glass, sipped water, and tried to think of something to say other than how loud I was finding the music.
The food arrived, and while my pasta smelled good, I ate two or three mouthfuls and then set down my fork. It was too hard to do. I could not concentrate. Water was just fine. I could not see them, but Linda and Kevin sounded as if they were having a good time. They both said how good the food was.
“Shall I take that away?” The waitress had come out of nowhere and was speaking over my right shoulder. “Yes,” I said. “Thank you. It was delicious.”
“And your glass?” she said.
I meant to hand it to her, but somehow, between us, it tipped over and broke. While she rushed to clear away the glass, I used my napkin to sop up the water before it could travel far. I felt a pinch on the outside of my right pinkie and knew what it was. Unwilling to look, instead, I sucked on my hand and tasted blood. There wasn’t a lot, but the taste — perhaps more so in the absence of seeing — bloomed in my mouth. Blood has a taste that is as distinctive as it is impossible to accurately describe. I sucked on my finger until I was sure it had stopped bleeding.
I looked again when I paid the bill, and then, back on the street, I decided the experiment was over. I hailed a taxi and we piled in. Having done as Kevin and Linda had suggested, having seen how blind folks lived, I found myself no longer taking my vision for granted. I feasted on the sights of the city as we headed east.
“Kevin and I have made plans for us to celebrate,” said Linda.
“Your time as a blind person,” said Kevin.
“I’ll tell you, I make a better sighted person than I do a blind one,” I said.
“It takes some getting used to. You just need a little more experience. But if everyone were blind for a little while, they’d learn to appreciate the world in a different way. Sighted people,” said Kevin, “think the greatest tragedy would be to lose their vision.”
“Yes,” said Linda.
I couldn’t disagree with that. “So when are we going to celebrate?” I asked.
“What are you doing tomorrow for lunch?”
We found a table on the balcony of the Market Cafe at Loews Coronado Bay Resort. Linda had a Reuben tortilla, Kevin an ancho barbecue chicken sandwich on a sesame bun, and I had fettuccine with basil and garlic. The day was sunny. I crumbled my bread and fed the birds that hopped among the tables. Joe snoozed. Boats bobbed in the water nearby.
“It’s really lovely,” I said.
“You haven’t seen the best part,” said Linda.
“You wait,” said Kevin.
“We have old-fashioned chocolate fudge cake,” said the waitress, listing the dessert menu after our dishes had been taken away. “We also have carrot cake served with cinnamon sauce, warm apple crumb pie topped with a scoop of Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream…”
Kevin chose crème brûlée, one of the most delicious desserts I’d ever tasted. Linda ordered the chocolate fudge cake. It came with raspberry coulis and fresh raspberries, and I can vouch for it also being out of this world.
“Now we want to show you something,” said Kevin after we’d paid the bill. “Look for a sign for the herb garden.”
I saw the sign and directed us down the hall, out a door, and down a ramp. The herb garden was not large. Little cards stuck in the soil named each plant.
“They use the herbs in the restaurant,” Kevin said.
A big bush of dark leaves caught my eye. The card read Rosemary. I squatted down, reading others: Jalapeño Chiles, Green Santolina, Garlic Chives, Thyme, Sweet Marjoram, Yarrow, Tarragon, Ginger. I read and they followed, Linda and Kevin bending close to smell each plant. I noticed a table and chairs and led them there.
“Why don’t you sit down and I’ll bring you some to smell.”
“All right,” said Kevin. The idea of my tearing up the garden appealed to his taste for anarchy, but I was careful to place only a leaf or two in their open palms. Lemon Verbena. Basil. Savory. They rubbed their hands together, taking in the rush of odors that lifted up. Afterward, their expressions were blissful, their faces sunlit.
Between that moment and the writing of this account, a friend shared with me a story about someone she knew, an art-therapy instructor who had a young blind person as a pupil. My friend said the instructor asked the girl to draw her something.
“She decided to draw a cup, but it took the instructor a while to figure out what it was,” recounted my friend, “because the girl had drawn the cup showing both its inside and its outside. This was her experience of a cup.”
Looking at Kevin and Linda, weeks before I heard this story, I knew instinctively that they were enjoying the herb garden in a way similar to the girl’s drawing; certainly in a way that was denied me.
Weeks earlier, I had asked them about their experience of beauty. What had been confirmed was that those who have never seen anything have hearing and smell and taste and touch to inform them of beauty and that those senses gratify them as surely, and perhaps with greater amplitude, than my vision, upon which I so heavily rely.
Far behind Linda and Kevin, the Coronado Bridge framed the early-afternoon skyline of the city, gleaming small and white beyond it. I studied the bridge and the skyline. Forty-five years ago there was no bridge, no great swoop of concrete and steel. Instead, mulish ferries loaded with cars and people chugged back and forth. Vision recalled for me that memory and, in an instant, sent me not just across the cobalt-blue waters of the bay but back in time as well.
I looked at Kevin and Linda smelling the herbs in their hands. My friends have told me more than once that blindness is a gift as much as vision is, that blindness is not the absence of vision but another way of seeing.
I knew that at that moment they too were off traveling somewhere.
“Isn’t this beautiful,” said Linda.