Author Archive | Richard Cohen

Sightless On the Subway, Smelling Trouble

February 16, 1998

Because I’m legally blind, my daily descent into the subway is a journey into ominous fog, a comedy-adventure where the audience gets a few cheap laughs and the actor doesn’t much like the script or the jokes. He does like the adventure, though. To the sighted, it probably sounds more terrifying than what it really is: just another day down below. There is an underground world beneath the streets that I can observe with total clarity, a shrieking circus, a sideshow of perpetual motion and vast proportions, and the ticket is only a token.

Besides, I have hidden guidance systems to get me by, in my other senses and my general talent for survival. My nose, for example, is terrific, maybe the organ most useful in steering me through stations and subway cars. I know which seats to avoid and which characters to keep at a distance, even when my back is turned. When you can’t see, the phrase “smelling trouble” takes on a very literal meaning.

My audio radar is always on, too. I hear a train approaching, and I also hear someone behind me who should be in front of me. I keep the types who sound threatening between my vulnerability and the tracks.

Fortunately, my awful eyesight is mostly my secret, usually undetectable. I don’t follow a dog, carry a cane or even wear a pair of Coke-bottle glasses to signal my disability. Others with poor vision can put on spectacles, of course, but there is no prescription to correct optic nerves ravaged by multiple sclerosis. No, I’m just some guy regularly bumping into pillars and falling on the stairs. My passage along the platform is not exactly subtle, and sometimes I think you’d have to be blind not to notice. But nobody seems to. I’ve never even had my pocket picked.

In fact, I like the subway; I enjoy the types I meet down there. I just have to be a little more cautious than other riders. One of my favorite tactics is simple avoidance of eye contact with anyone, but it’s difficult to maintain, because my stares are necessarily long and intense as I struggle to keep my bearings on a moving subway car. The result is that people who just need to talk to someone can spot me from the far end of the car. I’m an easy mark, though usually the most they demand is small change. The subterranean branch of the Jehovah’s Witnesses also has demonstrated a special concern for my salvation.

Yes, mine is truly a different kind of ride above and below Broadway, and it stays different when I struggle up into the altered state of negotiating the avenues and streets in a haze. With a navigational system that is all noise and an occasional whiff, I cruise a city I cannot clearly see. It is unnerving and a great challenge, an opportunity to experience New York on a level utterly apart from the average commuter. For someone who is visually challenged-or as some of us prefer, goddamned blind-a commute is frequently an exercise in beating the odds one more time.

My city is blurred into an Impressionist canvas, forever on the easel. It changes with the light, the humidity and my own mood. It fades from detail and clarity into undefined shapes and washed-out colors, often only the merest suggestion of what is actually out there. The picture begins at about 10 paces away, the critical distance in any respectable duel. That is as far as my visual reach extends in my daily sparring with New York. Beyond that distance, I operate on instinct, if not by wits.

The Fellini feeling of my travels is often defined by little mishaps: the ladies’ room I thought was the men’s room, the jar I assumed was Parmesan cheese. Have you ever liberally applied sugar to a slice of pizza? It’s no great shakes.

The other day, I was headed for an early appointment in midtown. I ducked into what I thought was a deli on Seventh Avenue to pick up a bagel. I followed my nose on that one, but I figured I had walked through the wrong door and was in the kitchen, where men were busy baking and paying no attention to me, the customer.

As I approached what I took to be the entry into the restaurant portion of this place, I saw a man heading into the same short passage, walking right toward me. I politely stepped to the left to let him pass. He did the same. I moved the other way. He mimicked me again. I looked up at him in my usual silent rage, then suddenly realized I was staring straight into a large mirror, taking umbrage at my own choreography.

The guys behind the counter didn’t applaud, nor even blink. They just stared, wide-eyed, as I blushed and hurried out. I’ve never learned to conceal or even deflect embarrassment, though occasionally I can’t help laughing. It is pretty funny, and sometimes I am great spectator sport.

I am a terrific jaywalker. Jaywalking is an art, and blind people play the piano, so crossing the street should be as easy as child’s scales. The key to successful survival as a blind jaywalker is all in the ears. It’s like audibles called at the line of scrimmage.

My ears tell me a car is starting and about to move. They measure the speed of a vehicle already in motion. I can even determine what gear the auto is running in. My ears, however, are not so good at determining whether that cab bearing down on me is going to stop or just run over me. By the time the brakes squeal, it could be too late.

O.K., jaywalking is risky, but so is life. I’m in it for the experience, you know, the thrill of victory. I’m certainly in no hurry, having learned to leave for any appointment on the early side. It takes time to zigzag across the street constantly, searching for some restaurant when I know only which block it’s on and can’t read the actual address. Sometimes I can correct my compass by smelling the food from down the street.

I’m not going to claim with phony cheerfulness that it’s just terrific sport to be legally blind in this or any other city. It was a lot more fun, when I still had my eyesight, to jump in my car and head for the nearest urban fire exit. And I used to sprint across streets without worrying about falling into a manhole. In the end, though, New York remains its own best show, even for someone who can’t quite see it.

Yet my emotional endurance is tested constantly by the effort not to humiliate myself too much, to maintain my optimism and self-confidence. Limitations may be camouflaged and kept almost private, but they cannot be denied to oneself. The loss of control is certainly humbling. Anyway, everyone I know thinks that he or she is suffering. If I were a psychoanalyst, I would soon be yelling at every patient to stop complaining, to just quit whining.

I don’t think I’m a whiner, and I’m not always careening out of control, anyway. Actually, I know the city better than you do. I connect with it every day on levels that you, the sighted, cannot see. I will surely survive New York because I know what I am up against, and my eyes are wide open.