Market Day

I love the shape of the Starbucks in Riverside. The open doors reveal a wide, welcoming interior with counter and pastry case along the back wall. Seats at short round tables are the most common, but a few high-tops and one long wooden table break up the monotony.

The pathway to the counter is easy to travel. Katie, York, and I don’t have to fight our way through displays of teetering ceramic mugs or bags of whole-bean coffee.

As we wait in line, enjoying the rush of cold air from beneath the pastry case, I overhear a conversation near the central wooden table. A mother instructs her young child, “No, you can’t pet that doggie. He has very important work to do.” Without knowing exactly where she stands, I turn and smile at this benevolent educator; I’m touched to hear a stranger illuminating service dog etiquette without my help.

Behind me, another customer acknowledges York: “I’d love to pet him, but I know he’s working.”

“Thank you,” I offer her a smile.

After paying for my iced latte, I ask the cashier to transfer my remaining gift card balance onto the aged braille Starbucks card I’ve been carrying in my wallet. In October, Starbucks always releases gift cards for Disability Awareness Month—some autumnal design with the store name in braille. As this is the only braille card in my wallet, it’s always identifiable as my passport to strong coffee. So I transfer every new gift card onto the braille one and hand the blind-friendly card to each cashier: fulfilling my duty as a responsible consumer-activist.

At our own round table, Katie and I hash out plans for our morning. Because of the lovely breeze and sunshine, we’ve decided to visit the Riverside Arts Market. While we converse, a man approaches our table and greets us.

“Hi, can I pet the dog, or is he considered working?”

I explain that even though York looks to be taking a break—lying half-asleep at my feet—he is a working dog and shouldn’t be touched. Accepting my words without complaint, the man collects his coffee and moves away.

As we head to the car, Katie and I compare notes on York’s treatment: in 30 minutes at Starbucks, he has received three positive interactions and no negative interactions. We contrast this with the treatment he received last night when we attended the season finale at the Jacksonville Symphony.

Though all symphony personnel were courteous and respectful, several patrons were rude or intrusive. To justify his attempt at a pet, one elderly man insisted that York “doesn’t know he’s working”—a sentiment disproved by the very presence of York’s harness. If York couldn’t treat the harness as his work uniform, recognizing that his priorities and responsibilities change when he wears it, he would never have graduated as a guide dog. It’s the thoughtless dog-lovers, not my thoughtful companion, who disregard the difference between work and play.

Another woman attempted a stealth-pat as I conversed with an usher. Luckily, Katie was on the alert, and used her knee to push the woman’s hand away—a maneuver she explained to me after getting us out of the woman’s range. The stealth-pat is a particularly insulting gesture; it shows that the person knows the petting isn’t allowed, yet does it anyway.

If I have to find a silver lining in these moments, it’s the incontrovertible proof that York understands his role better than most humans. And when I feel embittered by these unpleasant interactions, I remind myself that I am surrounded by friends and family who respect my relationship with York.

Unlike the symphony, the Arts Market presents no particular doggie challenges. Katie and I enjoy our cool walk from the car to the market—though York is determined to inspect several smells in the bushes along the sidewalk. As we approach the Market, I experience a rush of music and traffic mingling with the smells of lavender soap and beef jerky. Now I know why my mobility instructor told me not to follow my nose; the savory smoke of the beef jerky coils around the corner, well before we actually reach the stall. The wind tosses and scrambles the scents, so that I can only navigate by smell if I’m standing immediately before the vendor.

The Arts Market is a dog-friendly place, and the presence of many dogs on leashes makes York less novel. Even so, several people stop to comment on his looks, asking about his breeding and training. I overhear the familiar parental advice to children: “The puppy is working, so we can’t pet him, okay? He’s helping that lady.”

Perhaps because dogs are a part of this market culture, patrons are more familiar with service dog protocol. Though more people stop to speak with me, no one pets York without asking—which means that no one pets York at all. Every person understands that he is working and is pleased when I thank them for asking my permission.

Apart from York, Katie and I have developed our own market protocol. As it’s hard for me to read prices at most of the stands, we use a code phrase to signify the two most awkward messages: “This item costs more than you’re willing to spend” and “This item is not very attractive.” Because we’ve just eaten breakfast, today’s phrase is, “No, I’m really hungry.” While strolling through the wide aisle and enjoying the unfamiliar melodies of a saxophone, we test the phrase to see if it works:

“How do you like that jewelry over there, made from old board game pieces?”

“I don’t know—I’m still really hungry. Starving actually.”

We exchange grins. Today’s code is a success.

Fortunately, we don’t find much need for the code as we visit some of our favorite stalls. The FreshJax display offers homemade cookies, trail mix, and spiced nuts—with the added charm of free samples. After a tour of the entire stall, I settle on the chili-lime cashews, and Katie snaps up some cookies, oatmeal-chocolate-chip with macadamia nuts.

After cookies and trail mix, we find another stall that offers samples: Little Black Box. A bakery that sells cookies as well as homemade jam, their display boasts several neat rows of jam jars—dark with the promise of their delicious contents. Here, we sample numerous jams, including Plum Gin and Blueberry Red Wine Lavender. Katie and I both prefer the Blackberry Bourbon Vanilla, dreaming up occasions to use the jam as we slide our money toward the friendly vendor.

Making our way toward the quilts, jewelry, and other crafts, we enter a pottery stall with beautiful mugs, plates, and pitchers. Here, Katie takes down pieces that she thinks I’ll enjoy, while I keep York’s curious nose from nestling among the fragile creations. As Katie hands me each piece, she directs my attention to certain colors or styles. My particular favorites are the small round-bellied pitchers that narrow to a graceful spout. Together we discuss the remarkable colors and textures and fantasize about  taking pottery classes someday soon.

Feeling the abrupt wagging of York’s tail against my left leg, I turn my head toward the stall’s entrance. A family stands some distance away with their dog, and judging by York’s posture, he would very much like to meet her. He pretends to sit, keeping his rump hovering an inch off the ground, his tail thrumming against my leg. The adults laugh and remind their child that York is a working dog. I ask him to sit again, and he resumes his good posture, aware that he’s on display.

As we leave the stall, I ask Katie, “Was there anyone running that display?” and I’m surprised to hear that the stall’s proprietor was present throughout our short visit. Completely silent, he (or she) was totally undetectable—his behavior an inhospitable contrast with the friendly vendors who welcomed us and spoke readily. Perhaps he guessed that we wouldn’t buy and didn’t want to waste energy in talking. But by not acknowledging us, he turns a hasty guess into a certainty.

Just as inconsiderate patrons won’t keep me away from beautiful classical music, rude vendors won’t deter me from visiting the Arts Market. I am fortified by the many courteous conversations—alive with genuine interest—and the dozens of people ready to honor the intelligence and heart of my nonhuman companion. I wonder how it must be to confine others’ potential by their shape: to see a dog as only a dog, to imagine that he cannot ever share our human capacities for reason and empathy.

It is much more pleasant to let York show me his strengths and struggles—as any human friend would.

Two-Way Teaching

On the first day of every semester, I always carry extra baggage. In spring, summer, and fall, I must replenish my office and bring in all the graded final assignments. As I trace the familiar path past the library and through Starbucks, I sag under the weight of several canvas bags filled with tea, travel mugs, books, air fresheners, and other teaching essentials. Generally I bear the bulk of this gear on the left so that my right hand and arm can manipulate the white cane.

But this fall, my hands serve different purposes: the left wraps around a square harness handle and the right is poised to handle the leather leash. My teaching gear has been crammed into a purple floral backpack, and my fabric lunchbox dangles from my right wrist. Under my right arm, I carry a tightly rolled rectangular carpet – a new necessity. An outside pocket on my backpack holds other items not needed in previous semesters: a collapsable water bowl, a pet first aid kit, a well-loved plastic bone, and several crumpled grocery bags. An inner pocket protects a tupperware container filled with kibbles.

New habits accompany the items in my bag. Now, while I walk, I carry on a quiet conversation with the pup at my side – giving directions and praise as he learns my preferred routes on campus. I stop when he stops, move forward when he moves, and adjust the leash when he buries his nose in the hedges. I receive many more greetings and prepare answers for the three most common questions: “Can I pet him?” “How old is he?” “Is he a full Lab?”

At my office, I ask York to sit while I find the electronic key. I unlock the door, usher him inside, and take off his harness. I clip one end of his tie-down around the leg of my desk and attach the other clip to his training collar. Then I gently push him out of the way so I can set up his space.

I unroll the small rug and tuck it into the far right corner of my office. I lure York to his new spot with a toy, but he doesn’t stay there long. While I unpack my backpack, he crawls under my desk to rest his head on my feet. He watches as I stash his lunch in a lower desk drawer, out of his reach. He sticks his nose in the trash can, noisily searching for my apple core.

Throughout the morning, York and I complete several errands – picking up photocopies, placing my lunch in the breakroom fridge, meeting with colleagues. I consolidate these trips so I won’t have to take York’s harness on and off several thousand times. I want him to have harness-free time in my office, and I have to consider the errands that York needs: busy breaks, water breaks, and meal time. I arrange these activities around my teaching schedule, mentally planning which paths we’ll take to get to each class.

On the way to my first class, I decide to introduce York to the staircase outside my office building. He has already learned the inside hallways I travel most; he can predict when to turn left or right as we walk. Once outside, I tell York “Over right, find the steps,” and he takes me to the staircase, stopping just short of the first step. I place my right foot on the step’s edge, reach for the rail, praise him, and say, “Forward down.”

We slowly descend with York a few steps ahead of me. The harness handle sways as he walks down, and he pauses every few steps to let me catch up. On the landing, he guides me around to the next railing, but he doesn’t step down until I give the command.

At the bottom, we round a corner and find a small triangle of grass. I take York’s harness off and give him time to explore. While York takes his break, a harried student asks me for directions. I answer the student’s questions as York wanders back to me, tail wagging. I slip the harness on and we walk to our first class.

Inside the bright classroom, several students are already seated. York and I enter through the door at the front, striding across the classroom to the large teacher’s desk. I ask York to sit and clip his leash around the desk leg. I present him with another of his favorite toys; hopefully he’ll settle down and chew away while I talk to the class.

The atmosphere changes as I unpack my bag and York snuffles around under the desk. Some students lean forward, whispering excitedly. One student asks Question #2, and I respond, “He’s 18 months, which is young for a guide dog.” I feel myself smiling as I answer – I’ve got the New Parent Glow, the face that says, “Yes, I’m perfectly willing to talk about all my pup’s accomplishments for several hours.”

When the classroom is full, I welcome students to the course. I introduce myself, adding, “And you may have noticed my teaching assistant under the desk.” I explain that York is a working guide dog, that they shouldn’t talk to him or try to pet him while he’s wearing the harness. While I present this solemn speech, York rolls on the floor – snorting, jingling his harness, and kicking his legs. I sigh, “It’s his first semester teaching.” The students laugh, and I promise that York will be free to play if they come by my office.

Two days later, York and I are traveling the same hallway, ready for our second class meeting of the term. York walks calmly beside me, undisturbed by the people rushing on either side. His head doesn’t even turn when a female student coos, “Ooohh he’s so handsome!” He’s aloof, work-focused. I feel a soft breeze across the fingers of my left hand – produced by York’s wagging tail. His tail swings up and out, keeping time with our feet; it’s something I’ve just started to notice when we walk together.

Halfway down the hall, the harness handle jerks upward, and I can feel York leaping in the air. I pull down hard on the handle and grab the leash in my right hand: “Easy, easy!” York halts beside me, panting, while I search for the distraction that got him so riled up. I hear laughing and cooing to my left.

“It’s us,” calls a woman from behind a folding table. “We’re from the Counseling Center. We’re handing out stress balls.”

“Oh, that explains it; he loves balls.” Beside me, York’s tail agrees. Though he is standing still, his whole body leans towards the table. Another woman at the table offers me a ball, and I shake my head. “He would tear it up.”

The table voices chorus: “Awwwww.”

As the workday ends, York and I walk downstairs and take the outdoor route around Starbucks and past the library. Near the sign that proclaims, “Brown Rice Sushi” in huge bubbly letters, York stops for some intense sniffing – something he shouldn’t do while he’s guiding me. I correct him, but he won’t pick his head up. This likely means that he’s found something to eat.

Again, I correct him, and he lifts his head. I reach for his mouth and tell him to “leave it,” – though, at this point, I don’t know what “it” is. Without complaint, York lets me run my fingers over his mouth, and I find his jaws clenched around something round and squishy. As I pry the squishy thing out of his mouth, I repeat, “York, drop it,” just for good measure. He doesn’t fight me, and once I’ve got the thing in my hand, I recognize it: a stress ball. I relieve some stress by throwing it away.

Traffic in Trust: Guide Dog Training Part 3

In the second week of training, we are working routes in Bradenton. We board the bus at the main campus, watch our pups cuddle during the 20-minute bus ride, and disembark at the Downtown Training Center. Once inside, we find seats in the comfortable waiting area – a large square room with tables, chairs, and couches. Then our trainers tell us in what order we’ll go on routes.

My trainer informs me that I’ll be going first. I take York out for a busy break and some water before giving the command, “Harness on.” I exit the building and meet my trainer on the other side of the door, a few feet away from two stairs that lead to a sidewalk. Before we move forward, my trainer explains the first few features of the route: “You’ll go down the steps and take a left. Remember that he should stop at all curbs, including grass lines. This will be a pretty simple route.”

I nod and pick up York’s harness handle, resting in a now-familiar spot along his back. I give the command, “Forward!” and he takes a few steps before stopping. I search out with my right foot and find the top stair. I praise York and say, “Forward down.” He takes me down the two stairs and we make our left.

As we approach our first curb,  I feel myself easing into the pace York and I prefer – a brisk stroll. The morning is quiet and humid with minimal distractions: no people, cats, or lawn equipment. Once York has found the first curb, I praise him and say, “Forward.” Keeping my right foot on the curb, I wait for him to move.

He remains poised in the same spot, his body in a determined halt. I reach down to give a forward correction with the leash – and feel a sudden breeze as a car slides out in front of us. I see a faint glint of sunlight on paint and hear the pavement crunching beneath the almost silent wheels.

“That’s called a traffic check,” my trainer says. “And he aced it. Praise him.”

I heartily form the words,”Good boy” before turning to my trainer. “I didn’t even hear that car!”

She explains that the car is a Prius, used in training because of its deadly silence. I take a few deep breaths – I seem to be doing a lot of that in this training process – and give York a quick pat on the head. My cane would not have stopped me for that car.

When the street is clear, my trainer tells me to cross. I command, “Forward straight, find the curb,” and York obliges, leading me safely to the other side. Once on the sidewalk, we continue in a straight line. My trainer reminds me that I have quite a way to go before I reach the second street crossing.

I encourage York forward and we set off, passing grassy yards on either side. Stretches of the sidewalk offer obstacles like signs, posts, or soft overhanging plants. York expertly guides me around these. About halfway between the two streets, I feel a change in the swaying harness handle: York has come to another abrupt stop, his body alert. I halt mid-step, listening hard.

The Prius pulls into the driveway inches ahead of us. I can see its pale outline against the overcast morning. The trainer remarks, “Another perfect traffic check.”

Throughout our route, York completes several traffic checks – coming to an abrupt no-nonsense stop seconds before I can see or hear the Prius. This exercise demonstrates Intelligent Disobedience, the skill that allows York to disobey one of my commands when our safety is in question. Each time he disobeys my “forward” command by performing this firm stop, I am amazed by his ability to detect the car and disobey me.

After two weeks, I am beginning to recognize the differences in the handle that indicate York’s actions. When he’s sniffing, the handle tips forward. When he’s looking left and right, the handle dips left or right. And when he performs this abrupt, focused stop, the handle becomes totally motionless. I feel the stock-still handle and know that an alert pup is waiting beneath it, his body posture telling me to watch, listen, or feel for the cause of his disobedience. Whether it’s a defined curb, an abrupt drop in the sidewalk, or a nearly silent car cruising across our path, he knows something I don’t, and his sudden stillness commands me to pay attention.

Four Paws for Keeps: Guide Dog Training Part 2

Exactly one week after our first route in harness, York and I are walking the aisles at Super Target. Practicing the “follow” command, York guides me a few paces behind my trainer as she turns down aisles, stops abruptly, and veers left or right. On our outside walks, York encounters many distractions: cats, people, and the ever-alluring grass. In Target, however, he proves to be a focused shopping companion – undeterred by the food smells or the small children crying “Doggie doggie!” from their carts. He earns praise for executing precise turns and avoiding the pile of crumbled Cheez-its in the grocery section. Even on the dog food aisle, York doesn’t stop to sniff a single bag!

This day of shopping marks the midpoint in our second week of training – and the firs time we’ve taken our guide dogs on an indoor errand in public. So far, York and I have learned several routes on Southeastern’s main campus in Palmetto, FL, and we’ve traveled intersections at the Downtown Training Center in Bradenton. York has demonstrated his ability to find curbs, posts, chairs, gates, and doors. In addition to the basics of obedience, like “sit,” “down,” “stay,” “heel,” and “no,” he knows the “right-about” command, a 180-degree turn used to rework areas where we made a mistake. At doorways that open on the right, he knows to “switch,” moving from my left to my right so I can open the door. On walks, I’ve learned that too much “Good boy, good York” works like a gas pedal, so I use the “easy” command to slow his pace. If York doesn’t listen when I command him the first time, I give a low-pitched bark-like “No,” use a leash correction, and repeat the command.

We return from shopping to a lavish Cuban lunch, a selection of foods our chef calls the “Taste of Tampa.” We are each served a pressed Cuban sandwich, a bowl of blackbeans and yellow rice, and a 1905 salad of mixed greens, olives, ham, swiss, and olive oil dressing. To our surprise and delight, we have the afternoon off, so we can rest up for a late-night obedience class and a night walk.

If it’s not too hot, the classes take place on an outdoor patio called Obedience Alley. If the pavement is already too hot for our pups, we practice obedience in the Day Room. In obedience class, we normally practice the basics while our trainers add levels of distraction. Some trainers walk by with yo-yos, tennis balls, or small toys, and others pretend to be nosy or intrusive strangers. One trainer demonstrates her acting skills by using an especially high-pitched voice, the “puppy talk” our dogs love: “Ooh what a beautiful puppy! Can I pet him? I have a dog just like him at home! Hi puppy puppy!”

Tonight we all meet in the Day Room at 8PM, and our three trainers reveal that we’ll be doing something called a “long recall.” One trainer explains: “We’ll take you and your dog to the hallway off the dining room, you’ll remove your dog’s leash and leave him in a sit-stay with another trainer, and the third trainer will lead you down another hallway. While the rest of us wait in the Day Room, you will call your dog.” She pauses, then adds, “If you’re seated, please have a firm grip of your dog’s leash. The loose dog is going to come tearing through here.”

My hands clench around York’s leather leash, and I ask, “What if the dog doesn’t come?”

One trainer answers with his usual ambiguous optimism: “Wait and see. I promise you’re gonna like this.”

An older student offers to go first. He leads his dog to the designated hallway around the corner and leaves him there. Then he walks off with a trainer. We can no longer hear his footsteps, and his dog cannot see the turns he has made. We grip our leashes and give our dogs a hushed “Stay!”

The trainer reiterates that we need to be quiet so the dog can hear its call. The student calls his dog, his voice lengthening and echoing along the tiled hallways. Instantly the dog bounds down the hall, a black blur tearing past without any consideration for the other dogs and people in the Day Room. We hear the sounds of a happy reunion, and the team returns to the room.

Next up is a female student who, like me, is working with her first guide dog. She leaves him with an emphatic “Stay!” and disappears from view. When she calls her pup, her girlish voice sounds even more childlike – the little girl who has lost her puppy in every heartwarming family movie. As she repeats the call using cutesy nicknames, her boy tears off down the hallway, first checking the place where she sat and then finding her at the end of the corridor.

When they join the group, my trainer looks at me: “Emily, you’re next.”

I stand up, and York stands with me, eager to get moving. We walk to the hallway, and I unclip his leash. I tell him to sit and stay and take the other trainer’s arm. He leads me down the hall, around a sharp left, and toward the end of another hallway. When everyone in the Day Room is quiet, he says, “Alright, call your dog.”

Remembering how the hallway alters voices, I sing out “Yo-ork!” I wait, nervous that I’m not loud enough, that he won’t come to me. As I call again,I  hear a burst of sound – paws skidding and sliding on tile, quiet joyful noises from the Day Room, and the jingle of York’s training collar. I barely distinguish a black blur trailing down the hallway as York runs past our corridor to my bedroom. Realizing his mistake, he changes direction, and my trainer murmurs, “Here he comes.”

Barreling toward me, York transforms into a huge incongruous black shape. He is panting and running, and I can see a paw, an ear, a tail as he hurtles toward me. The trainer catches him before he leaps on top of me, and I tell him to sit so I can clip my leash to his collar. He dances in front of me, his tail wagging, his tongue licking my hands.

When we return to the Day Room, everyone informs me that York began to whine the moment I was out of sight. I reclaim my seat, and York flops on top of my feet. I reach down to stroke his soft black head and feathery ears.

At the end of our first week, my trainer asked me, “How do you feel about working with York? Do you want to keep him?” After that week of firsts – our first meeting, our first walk in harness, our first street crossing – I knew I wanted to keep working with this boy. Now, as I write and he lies beside me, singing his hungry song, I remember him turning the corner of the long hallway and galloping toward me. I can’t believe how this week has changed us.

Travel Talk

Thanks to the end of Daylight Savings Time, my campus is covered in uneven splotches of afternoon sunlight—encouraging shade in one moment, debilitating glare in the next. I emerge from the elevator and thread my way through the oncoming dark shapes of students ambling to class or chatting with friends. I switch the relaxed sweep of my cane to quick tapping, and the students part before me, stumbling out of my way. In two places, the sunlight poses particular issues. Between Starbucks and the large sign for brown rice sushi, the sidewalk widens and sun spills over and around the library. In midmorning and mid-afternoon, this small stretch is a blazing valley for me; I step slowly, enlarging the arc of my cane and avoiding the indiscernible concrete columns that flank the narrowed walkways.The second difficulty lies on the sidewalk past the library. Again, the area opens up, with a line of columns in front of the library’s entrance. My cane catches in the sidewalk’s decorative bricks. Afternoon sunlight floods the path, washing out all its distinctive features. The columns, the bus stop, the walking students, the benches and bushes, all fade into the unpleasant brightness.

Because it’s hard to judge distances in this open space, I listen for the metallic hiss of the library doors. The automatic glass doors are prefaced by a small metal platform that clangs as people exit and enter the building. When I hear the sound of feet on metal, I know I’m heading in the right direction. This is a good place for me to move from the right side of the path to the left, passing between the last two columns. In a few steps, I’ll approach a diagonal left turn, like a triangle stenciled in cement. Once I’m on the short leg of the triangle, I’m only a few quick turns away from my waiting vehicle.

But getting to the triangle is tough. If I veer too early on the large path, I’ll catch my cane in the slender columns near the edge of the library building. If I complete my hard left too soon, I’ll find my cane deep in the bushes beside the library. If I pass beyond my piece of the triangle, I’ll meet a stretch of grass.

Today I find my cane tangled in the bushes. I know I’m in the wrong place, so I extricate myself and move forward. After a few steps, I check my progress and find grass: I’ve overcompensated. I turn back, using my cane to survey the space. I blink—I think I can see the sidewalk I want, but I still have to get to it. I feel grass under my feet, and I hear a woman’s voice behind me.

“A little to your left.”

I call a thank-you and shift my feet, landing on the sidewalk I want. Sure of my place, I begin to  move more quickly.

“You’re welcome,” she continues, following me. “You’re very brave.”

“I don’t know about that.” I laugh. “My problem is the sun. On an overcast day, I wouldn’t have any trouble.”

She laughs with me, walks past me. “You’re braver than I am. And it’s supposed to be overcast tomorrow.”

“Perfect!”

I hear her chuckling as her footsteps fade. And I think to myself, here’s another social interaction on this sun-bleached spot. First it was the young student who stopped to ask me how I learned to travel, only to explain that his grandmother had lost her vision and was in deep denial. Then it was the man who told me, “You do that pretty well,” obviously convinced that walking and blindness are mutually exclusive. Once, it was the man handing out pocket Bibles: assuming his text was much too small for my use, he gave me a hearty, “Good afternoon” instead. Most of my interactions on the triangle have been pleasant—inquisitive strangers asking me how I do what I do.

For me, mobility seems to include an inescapable social component. Doors swing open, people approach, someone stops to give me a piece of advice—”Just so you know, there’s a golf cart parked ahead!”—and I feel compelled to make these small moments sociable and pleasant. I came to this realization after today’s mysterious helper was much farther down the sidewalk. I realize that I needed to make her laugh, wanted to say more than “Thank you.” I wanted to give her a piece of my story.

Contemporary culture and education put a premium on the ability to tell a story, to chat freely with strangers, to work cooperatively with others. In classrooms where participation is measured by how often a student speaks, extroverts have an undeniable advantage, backed by scientists who argue that humans are designed to be social. In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain collects the research that establishes the value of introversion. Cain argues against the stereotype of introverts as socially inept or defective, instead calling the reader’s attention to their thoughtfulness, desire for less stimulation, and creative problem-solving. As I read, I can’t help but notice the various ways in which my blindness has encouraged me to think like an introvert and talk like an extrovert.*

I’m the most extroverted in academic settings. As a student, I spoke readily in class. To help professors remember my accommodations, I learned to be vocal: my professors were liable to forget me if I was a quiet blind girl, sitting in the back of the room and rarely venturing comments.

But I find that my extroversion doesn’t stop at the classroom. In most scenarios where I need assistance, I use my voice—not with the soft inflections preferred by some introverts but with a tone that defies others to ignore me. I don’t know where I learned to be loud, but I don’t ever remember being quiet.

If I had to choose a situation for quiet thought, it would be my travel time. I often find it challenging to maintain deep personal conversations when I’m walking. The friends who call to me while I’m traveling can attest that I take a minute to realize who wants my attention: I’m concentrating on the world around me, attuned to the feel of my cane on the ground, the intensity of the air, the sounds of passersby, the smells of the weather and the surrounding buildings. It’s a lot to think about, and it’s time I’d rather spend as an introvert.

In his TED Talk, “Design with the Blind in Mind,” architect Chris Downey presents a different perspective of this social mobility. As a newly blind man, Downey acknowledges the increase in social attention he receives from strangers on his walks through different cities. But Downey doesn’t think of this attention as pitying or intrusive; he sees the well wishes, the blessings, and the sometimes-erroneous advice from strangers as proof of our common humanity. Downey admits that he never received such positive attention as a sighted person.

So while I want to be an introvert on the move, undisturbed by the questions and comments of strangers, I have to respect the force that motivates people to approach me. I acknowledge that the kindness of strangers has often helped me correct a misstep, and I admire the courage that helps strangers reach out to those living beyond their own experiences.

* According to Cain’s book, I’d technically be an “ambivert”—somewhere in the middle. For a brief and engaging summary of Cain’s work, watch her TED Talk, “The Power of Introverts.”

Guiding with Grace

On an overcast afternoon, the car pulls to a stop in front of the bright diagonal lines and the short sidewalk. I open my door, unfold my cane, and trail the car—keeping my hand against it until I reach the right passenger door. There, I hear the familiar clicks of another cane unfolding as Henry, waiting next to his open door, prepares to move forward. I stand before him, and he places his left hand on my right shoulder.

I walk across the diagonal lines and onto the sidewalk, feeling the curb bumps beneath my feet and Henry’s warm hand lightly gripping my shoulder. With each step, I swing my cane to cover the space before the opposite foot. I hear Henry’s cane moving in tandem with mine; our combined arcs clear the ground as we progress smoothly.

We traverse a short sidewalk, avoiding students and signs, and pass the library. As we walk by the library entrance, the automatic doors slide open with a cool metallic hiss. I angle left, choosing a wider path free from bike racks and bistro tables. Henry follows behind me, a seamless extension of my space.

Henry and I amble through Starbucks, where the crowd of coffee-drinkers and narrow path force us to turn sideways. We walk up the sloping sidewalk to the elevator and negotiate the range of doors and quick turns that lead to my office. There, a cacophony of clicking signals two cane-users putting away the implements of their independence.

Later, we reverse the journey and encounter the daunting onslaught of students rushing to their late afternoon classes. I lead Henry down the sloping sidewalk, onto the elevator, along the crowded path that opens into a sea of columns, and through the chaos of Starbucks. We pass the library’s large brick columns and angle left, coming around the corner of the library. As we round the corner and students step out of our way, I realize I am enacting a popular phrase.

I’m a blind woman guiding a blind man. It’s the blind leading the blind.

Coming around that corner by the library, I am surprised by a wave of pride. I can’t say I’m a “sighted guide” because that isn’t true, but this is the first time I’ve ever guided someone. So I’m a blind guide—is such a thing possible? I reflect on the smoothness of our mobility and reason that it is. Well, what do you know?! We’re overturning clichés!

And quite successfully, I think to myself. We reach the waiting car and find our seats.

However, my pride does not arise solely from our success. Rather, I’m proud—and delighted—to be guiding Henry. Because this is my campus, the area in which I’m the most confident traveler, I realize that I’m the conduit between Henry and the physical environment. I get to be the one to show him where things are. I get to lead him around! I feel privileged, important—not because I’m showing off but because of who I’m showing off.

Thanks to my mom, I know that people observe me as I travel. After a day of running errands, Mom often tells me about the people who watch us moving together. Because Mom is my most frequent guide, her assistance feels natural and intuitive. She says that, when we’re walking, people often stare at us, openly curious, trying to understand how we move together. “It’s usually when we’re cracking up,” she says happily. “I smile at them. We look like we’re having a blast.”

I wonder what people think when they see Henry and me, moving purposefully and effortlessly across campus. What is the sighted impression of two blind individuals traveling as one cohesive unit—each cane widening the other’s scope?

When I think of myself as Henry’s guide, as an ambassador in this unfamiliar environment, I marvel at my own good fortune. I have spent my life being guided, but now I am guiding—introducing a remarkable person to the space before me. If onlookers perceive a fraction of my feelings, then our travels will be an enjoyable vision. They will see my delight and confidence, my sense of personal worth, my eagerness to show Henry to the world and the world to Henry.

Cool Traveler

Crisp mornings change the shape of my traveling thoughts. As I head to my early class, I leave my office and take a left, then another, before pushing through the reluctant glass door of my building. I transfer my cane to my left hand and open the door with my right, holding the door ajar long enough to step through and take the cane with my right hand again. Outside, I take a left, walk a few steps, and take a sharp right. I begin to travel along a wide elevated sidewalk, splashed with predictable trapezoidal panels of 9:00 a.m. sunlight. This midmorning sun sleets through the space between the concrete wall bordering the sidewalk and the overhang—unlike its 10:00 a.m. incarnation, which hurtles down from above in unkempt patches to complicate my morning trek for coffee.

Traveling to class, I run through my plan for the day’s lesson. Have students discuss Stephen King’s “What Writing Is” and give them 3 free-writing prompts. Encourage them to share their creative writing.…Damn it’s cold out here. I realize, belatedly, that I’ve left my purple wool coat in my office. I suppose that I am just noticing the coat’s absence, because the first leg of my journey keeps me indoors.

On the way back from class, I do not miss the coat. I step through the door, which some obliging (quiet) stranger holds for me, and prepare to face the sunlit sidewalk from the opposite side. As someone whose visual understanding of landmarks depends heavily on light, my well-traveled route looks totally unfamiliar when the light falls differently.

When I walked this way earlier, the sunlight fell along the right side of the walkway, enabling me to close my right eye and rely on my weaker left one. I used to joke that my left eye was only good for keeping me in 3D, but now I understand its value. The left eye lacks the strength and poise of the right, the eye I use for reading—and almost everything else. But, since it’s weaker, it does not seem to be as sensitive to light, which means that I can rely on it in places where the right eye doesn’t function.

Now, because I’m headed in the opposite direction, the sunlight is falling across the space my left eye would normally cover. It’s too bright for me to make much use of the right eye. I decide that this overbright environment is the perfect place to test the mettle of my new sunglasses.

I slip off my large, familiar shades—the ones I’ve worn for the past four years—and pull the new ones out of my bag. They are slimmer, with the same dark lenses, and they fit securely over my regular purple-framed glasses. I put them on and begin slowly tracing the length of the sidewalk. I stop in the sunniest place, and I take an optical inventory of the surrounding, deliberately staring at the brightest patches of light. I remove the new shades and put the old ones back on; the view is the same. First round of testing, new and old shades tied. I put the old shades in my bag and wear the new shades.

As I walk toward my building, I slip away from a visual awareness of my surroundings—I stop trying to “see” with my eyes and focus on the feel of the ground beneath my feet and the air around me. The morning is cool and comfortable, and the air travels with me, helping me relax and breathe deeply as I walk. I enjoy the feel of this elevated, quiet area. It’s not that I’ve turned off my eyes—it’s more that my eyes aren’t really talking to my brain, or my brain isn’t really listening to my eyes. I’m not ignoring the visual information in front of me, but I’m choosing to attend to other senses: the quiet, the cool air, the distant birds, and the crisp, clean smell of midmorning. Dreamy and contemplative, I could walk along this path forever.

I can feel the air change as my building approaches, but this new information does not interfere with the state of my contemplation. In some shady corner of my mind, I remember that I should be turning left soon. Convinced that I will feel the turn when it’s time, I continue.

The crunch of my cane against concrete forces me out of my meditation. My cane tip connects with the brick exterior of the building. I have walked about 4 steps beyond the place where I usually turn. But this isn’t a problem—this is exactly why I use the cane. I can easily turn and continue my route.

However, the harshness of this auditory cue changes my attitude. An emissary of the “real” world around me, the sound reminds me of what is really there, rather than the seductive landscape of soft breezes and early-morning birds. The crunch of cane against brick contains the piles of papers waiting for grades, the blank days on the course schedule that need filling, and the series of calls and emails that need my attention. It’s a distinctly non-contemplative sound.

Normally, I am so aware of my surroundings as I travel; I don’t want to miss a landmark or a signal from the cane. I am surprised that I slipped so far away from the act of walking itself—away from my attention to the process of travel.

Then I begin to think that I didn’t step away from my senses. I slipped into them. Somehow, in the space of the quiet, cold morning, I fell so fully into the rushing stream of sensory input and forgot that I was a moving being. I understood myself as movement.

Enlightened Interactions

On this especially foggy morning, Dad drops me off at the sidewalk by the library. I walk forward, finding that I move more easily through fog than glare, and I trace the path that slides past the library. Narrow strips of brick interrupt the smooth surface of the sidewalk, and my cane catches awkwardly in each groove. Quickly I switch from dragging to tapping. so the cane’s tip won’t get caught up in the sidewalk and slow me down.

My route leads me past the scattered bistro tables and through the back entrance of Starbucks. As I file into line, I notice how the building echoes with emptiness. The music, a blend of obscure indie tunes and blues lyrics, overfills the large, cavernous space. I stand by the pastry case, waiting for my turn and listening to the comforting hum of the cooler. I glance to the right, where the overhead lights cast a distorting glare on all the enticing pastries.

Hearing the woman two places ahead of me order her drink, I move my attention to the woman in front of me. She wears a dark striped shirt, easy for me to track. I listen attentively, waiting for her to place her order. This is the easiest way for me to know when it’s my turn to order.

Stepping forward, she orders a tall iced coffee with one packet of Splenda. Then, she walks around another customer, to the second register.  Now, I must shift my attention to the other customer, who stands at the register I will use. As I watch her gather her things and move toward the counter to wait for her drink, I start to move forward. Before I can approach the register, the barrista’s voice sails over the pastry case, shrill and cheerful in the big, empty space. “Hi, Emily! Tall Pumpkin Spice Latte?”

Turning my head to throw my voice at her, I reply, “Yes ma’am!”

Presumably she disappears behind the counter, because I do not hear her reply. I pay for my drink and move to the counter at the other end of the line and wait for my drink. I rummage in my overstuffed bag for my crocheted coffee sleeve.

A few minutes later, another barrista—whose voice is low, masculine, and familiar—sets my drink on the counter and says, “Tall Pumpkin Spice Latte for Emily.”

I see that he has already placed a sleeve around the cup; it contrasts easily with the whiteness of the plastic. “Thanks!” I ask the same question I’ve been asking for the past week, “Do you have a stopper?”

“Already in,” he says cheerfully. “Have a great day!”

“Thank you!” I retrieve the cup and, indeed, a small green stopper plugs the hole at the top. I can’t believe he remembered! Now, I won’t spill hot coffee on myself as I walk to my office!

I emerge from the front entrance of Starbucks and follow the sidewalk past more bistro tables, a few bushes with contrasting flowers, and a series of precarious mini-columns. I take a left, then an abrupt right. I begin to follow the line of a building that will lead me to the elevator. (Even with a stopper in my latte, I do not brave stairs with hot coffee and a heavy bag on my arm.)

When I’m about a foot away from my elevator, someone calls, “There’s the elevator, just in front of you!”

I turn to my left to find a maintenance worker, whose voice sounds familiar, standing there, holding some boxes. Immediately, I feel the need to compensate for the impairment he sees in me. I smile brightly. “Thanks, I know my circumstances pretty well.”

“Yeah,” he chuckles. “So…are you totally blind or do you see shadows?”

I am impressed that he knows about the degrees of blindness, that the white cane can indicate different kinds of  vision loss. “I have low vision—limited fields and sketchy depth perception.” I press the (unlabeled) button that calls for the elevator. I am surprised by the ease of my spontaneous disclosure—how natural it feels for me to amend the anomaly that people see in me.

“Oh okay.” He pauses. “The other night on TV, there was this program where they gave a guy his vision back. So there’s a cure out there somewhere!”

I shift my bag on my shoulder and turn to face him, my smile still in place. “You know, it’s funny—I guess for people who have lost their vision later in life, a cure would be a good thing. But for those of us who have grown up with our vision, it’s just another part of us. It’s not something I need cured.”

“Right!” he says excitedly. “Yes, I know what you mean.”

“It’s not scary or weird,” I continue. “It’s just about getting to know the body you were born with, the gifts you were given.”

“Yes,” he says thoughtfully. “Well, you have a nice day, ma’am. Oh, and your elevator didn’t wait for you!”

“Yes, I heard it leave me.” We both laugh as I press the button again.

Meditations on a gray day

“It’s the blind leading the sighted,” Karen cheerily remarks, as we push our way through the door whose automatic OPEN button rarely performs its duty.  She doesn’t need me to lead her to Starbucks – she knows where it is – but I want to lead her there. I want to choose the path we will take and the pace of our journey. We exit the building and round the corner, descending a small ramp. We head for the elevator.

The sky is working up a good gloom today, laying soft gray blankets over every surface. Dark, ominous, overcast: these are the words of people who prefer the crisp brightness of sunlit mornings and the full, yellow ebullience of summer days. When a gray filter is laid across the earth’s large lens, I see a world in crisp and unwavering clarity.

Benches, walls, stair railings, students, and doors emerge from the gray morning, asserting themselves more boldly than they would on a fine, bright day. In this softer, darker palette, I move confidently, observing the contours of things I cannot touch. I see paths sweeping away before me, turning at unexpected points. Trees thrust their dark branches upward, and the grass ripples and undulates in greenness. This is a different world, a mystical space where sight feels prophetic and strange. It’s as though I’ve dipped beneath the surface—or been pulled away from the surface—and shapes beyond my reach solidify and fit together. There’s so much here; I could never take it all in.

Conversation comes with surprising ease as Karen and I walk together. Talking on the journey is a true luxury for me, especially when I travel in unfamiliar areas. I need my senses for observation and calculation – I can’t afford to lose any cognitive energy in socializing. When people greet me as they pass, I must stop my mobility-centered thoughts, decide who they are (if they don’t announce it), and prepare a response. But with Karen, identities are established and the route is a familiar one. I can relax into a verbal interaction that keeps pace with the sweep of my cane and the  forward motion of our feet.

We weave between clusters of short columns, dipping under the covered walkway that alerts me to the nearness of Starbucks. “I’ll get the door,” Karen announces. She opens the door, and we walk inside. Immediately, I am aware of the increase in noise. The background music, students’ voices, and hiss of the milk-steamer collaborate with the uncarpeted floors and high ceilings, breeding a formidable cacophony.

Since I am leading the way, I call, “Excuse me,” as I attempt to thread through the students waiting in line. Because of the noise or their own distraction, most students fail to step out of my way. I find that I must be centimeters away from them before they even notice my presence. I pitch my voice above the din – I want to sound insistent but not frantic. “Excuse me! Thank you!”

Karen and I file into line and wait. It’s around 10:46am, a popular time for coffee. The 9:25am classes have just finished and the 10:50am ones will start in seconds. The long line gives us the chance to continue our conversation. I notice that the student in front of us is staring at her phone. She does not appear to notice that the line has shifted, that she should move forward. I wonder how many minutes will pass before she notices.

I order my drink and pay for it, eagerly handing the cashier my braille Starbucks card. I’m determined to use it until there isn’t a trace of magnetic strip left. I collect my Pumpkin Spice Latte at the end of the counter and slip my crocheted coffee sleeve around the piping hot cup.

As we head toward the exit, Karen repeats, “I’ll get the door.” Bless her, she knows how to make things easy for me! Since she tells me her intention, I don’t have to think about opening the door or aim for the large OPEN button. I don’t have to switch my cane to my left hand and tuck my latte in the crook of my arm. I don’t have to guess who will open the door because she tells me the plan.

But as we walk toward the door, someone opens it from outside. Our plan changes and I must call a hasty, sincere, “Thank you!” to the anonymous student who opens it for us. I walk forward, passing the bistro tables and emerging from beneath the awning.

Sadly, the look of my world has changed. Previously cast in the grays that best suit my vision, the path before us overflows with sunlight. Sidewalk and grass become indistinct — all I see is an expanse of brightness. I must travel the rest of this sidewalk by feel. I walk forward, explaining to Karen, “We’re looking for a left turn up here.”

She moves into the lead position, and I follow her voice. We negotiate the turn in a few steps, and, with the sun behind me, I can make better visual sense of our path. I see the brick building and round its sharp corner. I recognize the glass front of the building that leads us back to the elevator. I distinguish the elevator’s dull metal doors and strange (braille-free) control panel. I take the lead and Karen follows, a half-step behind me.

A Cane-User’s Education: First Lessons

Today I began my first experience of teaching independently at the college level. I’ve spent several semesters as a TA and delivered seminars and presentations to younger students, yet I was untried as the authoritative educator in a college classroom. I considered myself prepared for the opportunity: I had a plan for the day’s lesson (simple alliterative introduce-yourself ice breaker and going over the syllabus), I had set up my office (lavender-vanilla plug-in and cute silver-gray lamp), and I had practiced the route to my classroom and tried my key in the lock. I had planned my outfit—an a-line vibrant floral skirt, tailored black blazer, and sensible black shoes—twirled my hair into a bun at the base of my neck, and donned my pearl earrings for good luck. Normally I don’t believe in luck—I think you make your own by surrounding yourself with good people and being open to new ideas—but, when I touch the smooth round pearls, I am reminded of the people that support me through love and incandescent  belief.

I packed my navy school bag, cramming a 3-pocket folder with copies of the syllabus, slipping my laptop into its red sleeve, and finding a place for my portable video magnifier and aluminum water bottle. I had lunch in a separate bag, made of bright paisley material so it would be easy to spot in the crowded fridge when I was ready for it. I set up camp in the office and checked a few emails. I wrote responses. I flipped the crystal of my braille watch open. 10:04am. I snapped it shut. I waited, inhaling deeply. I checked the watch again. And again.

When the long hand finally rounded the 6, I stood, packed my bag, switched off the lamp, and locked the office. I walked down a hallway, took a left, and walked down another hallway, taking another left. I emerged into the humid, bright morning, surprised by the proliferation of sunlight that muddied the path I was supposed to take. I remembered the mantra my mobility teacher used to recite insistently: “Think up and out.” She meant, of course, that I should focus on my destination and let my intuition guide me—that I should not get distracted by the increase in light or space, that I should be mindful of the route I knew rather than baffled by the current situation.

So I lifted my head and I aimed myself at where I imagined the double doors of Building 2 should be. I walked, wishing I could trail the low concrete wall with my hand, but refusing to do so. What if the wall ended abruptly? What if the wall sloped downward? It would distract me, and, anyway, I knew this route!

As you walk away from Building 8 and toward Building 2, you can feel the ground sloping beneath your feet. It’s a very slight incline, but it lets you know whether you’re heading in the right direction. When you cross the threshold of the entrance into Building 2, you feel a strange, ridged material on the floor. It makes an odd, metallic scraping as you walk on it. After the strange, striped material, you find tile an elevator and the left turn that will lead you to my classroom.

When I reached the set of double doors, I stepped inside—and immediately felt carpet beneath my feet. Wrong turn, I told myself, confused. I thought I had correctly followed the straight path across the way! Where am I?

Deciding that I did not have the energy to panic, I turned around and traced the sun-drenched walkway back to Building 8. I explored, finding the door I had used to exit (the building has several entrances), and I began to retrace my steps. As I did so, I became aware of another walkway, and, as I looked, I saw familiarities. The way the light played across the pavement’s surface, the looming darkness where the building stood, the curve of the walkway as it filled up the space in front of me, a trash can placed near the stairs…I noted these things and walked forward. My cane thudded sonorously against a glass-fronted door and I reached for a handle. I had to grope for a few seconds before finding a smooth, rounded entity I could pull.

I opened the door. I stepped inside, My sensible shoes crunched metallically across the ridged floor surface. I saw tile and an elevator! Again, I took note of where I was. I had learned!

Several times over the course of the day, I walked this route between the two buildings—from 8 to 2 for class, from 2 to 8 after class, from 8 to 2 for tutoring, from 2 to 8 leaving tutoring. Over and over I made the same wrong turn and experienced an instant of pure bafflement. Each time, I reversed my erroneous path and found where I should have ended up. Each time I noted something about the wrong turns I took. In lighting, space, and contours of motion, these paths felt very different from the route I was supposed to take. I know now that there is a fabric mat in front of the entrance to some unknown building that is not Building 2. If I take the wrong walkway when exiting Building 2, I know that there is a brick building that lacks the wacky trapezoidal edges of Building 8. I don’t know the names of these new locations, and I’m not sure I need to. I think it suffices that I understand where I am and where I want to be. When these two locations—my actuality and my aspiration—differ, I continue to learn about myself by happening upon the wrong place.

Working Lunch

Standing in the glary cafeteria with my shades on and my heavy bag over my left shoulder, I decide to venture independently in search of some hot food. I walk past the rows of tables and chairs and use my cane to feel for a change in the texture of the floor. The floor changes from smooth to rough and the material grows lighter; I catch sight of the rows of vending machines and the trash can. I’m on the right track.

I follow the rough walkway that leads me around the tables and into the area where food is served. I walk past the sub station and search for the line where you can order hamburgers, hot dogs, and assorted chicken meals. I find a place in line behind two female students. Now that I’m stationary, I tune in to the conversations around me. The students in line before me are speaking in a langauge I can’t quite place; it sounds kind of like Spanish, but some of the sounds are unfamiliar. The solitary cook, moving around behind the octagonal counter, is asking people for their orders. Behind me, someone inquires where the fountain drinks are. I am surprised because I can hear the low drone of the soda machine. Shouldn’t it be obvious that the sodas are diagonally behind me, to rhe right?

I stare intently at the backs of the two heads in front of me. I know it will be my turn when these two students step aside. I am paranoid about looking like I don’t know what I’m doing. So what if this is only the second time I’ve bought lunch in this cafeteria – I want to seem like I’m a pro!

Eventually, they step aside and I move forward, right up to the counter’s edge. The cook calls to me, and I ask for a grilled chicken wrap. He asks if I’d like any sauce and I tell him I’d like ranch. He says, “Okay, sure thing!” and begins to clatter around the small cooking area.

I can’t see what he’s doing. He turns his back to me and I gues that he’s standing before the grill. He is moving things around but I can’t see what they are. I have to assume that he’s preparing my food. He repeats the inquiry about sauce and I don’t answer. The girl to my right pipes up – I quickly learn that he’s finishing up her wrap before starting mine. She’s been standing there the whole time. He asks, “Do you want that wrapped?” and I think he means the chicken. She is quiet. Does she nod? I slyly eye her from behind my shades. If she did nod, I must have missed it.

I’ll go for complete disclosure, I decide. I turn to her and say, “Sorry, I can’t tell if he’s talking to you or me.”

She nods visibly. “It’s cool. I competely understand.” She chuckles. I notice her long dark ponytail bobbing.

“Yes, it’s all part of the fun of standing at a cafeteria counter when you’re visually-impaired.”

She laughs again. The cook finishes her order and hands it across. I understand that I should probably step to the right so that he can hand me my food through the opening between the glass fronts of the counter. I step to the right and take the space that she vacates.

Now I am the only one standing at the counter, so I’m sure that the cook is addressing me when he asks if I’d like cheese, what kind of sauce I wanted, and if I’d like lettuce or tomato. Again, he asks, “Do you want me to wrap it?”

“Yes, please!” I respond, feeling confident. This is getting easier by the minute. I am glad that he is so vocal since I can’t tell what he’s doing back there.

Finally, he approaches the counter and says, “Here you go!” He hands me the plate, a bright white circle against the dark surface of the counter. I reach for it…and I understand what he meant by “wrap it.” The plate is sealed in plastic wrap. I am excited about this discovery! This means that I’m less likely to lose my food to gravity if I happen to bump into someone on my way to the register.

Before I pay, I decide to see if they have any peanut butter M&Ms on the snack cart, a four-sided metal rack that holds chips, cookies, and candy. I walk the few steps to the card and position myself before the candy side. I begin to gently pat each rack, searching for the smooth packaging that indicates M&Ms. I find rows and rows of candy bars, my hand gently gliding across them. I land on something pouch-shaped that holds small, circular candies. I pick it up and read the label – “Skittles.” Damn.

I put the Skittles back on their rack and walk around the cart. The next side is all chips. On the third side, more candy bars shine their bright wrappers up at me. Again, my hand begins the gliding survey, disregarding the long, thin bars and the short, thick bars – searching for that very distinct pouch. I catch sight of the high contrast M&M logo and reach down. I pluck a package from the shelf and bring it close to my face. I discern “Milk Chocolate” on the outside. I check a few more packages, but they are all plain M&Ms. I decide to buy a pack anyway; I think all my effort deserves some kind of reward.

Rather than doing an about face, I round the cart and file into line at the cash register behind a person who is almost through with his transaction. As he lifts his items off the counter, I place my plate and package of M&Ms down. Again, they contrast effectively with the dark counter. The cashier rings me up and tells me my total. I pull out my wallet, a thin creation of burgundy fabric with several pockets that help me stay organized, and I unzip the pocket where I keep cash. I feel for the twice-folded $10 bill. I hand it to the cashier, saying, “Here’s ten.”

As she makes change, the student standing behind me mutters a quiet, “Wow!” The cashier hands me my change, and I put it away. She asks me if I’d like a bag or some assistance getting to the elevator. I tell her that I would like a bag, but I’m heading to a table, that I can make it on my own.

As the cashier is putting my plate into a bag, the student behind me asks, “Can I ask you a question?” Something in his tone tells me he’s not talking to the cashier, so I say, “Sure.”

“How did you know that was a ten?”

I explain to him that I fold each bill differently so that I can identify them by touch. Normally, when I am asked this question, I pull out a bill (if I have one) and demonstrate my system – but because we’re in a crowded cafeteria at lunchtime, I try to keep my answer simple. After I finish explaining, he exclaims, “That’s so cool! That’s so cool!”

The cashier laughs knowingly. I can tell that she’s worked with many visually impaired patrons before. She knows the drill. I make a joke about being able to identify the bills by touch because I’m psychic. The student is still amazed. I take my bag from the cashier and thank her. I walk around the checkout counter and find the rough texture of the walkway.

I follow the walkway past the trash can and rows of vending machines. I take a left once I reach the lunch tables. I pass the first table, which is full, and find a seat at the second. I sit with my back to the window and begin to peel the fortuitous plastic wrap off my plate.

It’s a small thing, getting your lunch independently. Most middle schoolers could do it with ease. Nevertheless, I feel accomplished. I feel resourceful. It is exciting and satisfying to know that, for these daily ventures, these mundane excursions, I can rely on myself.

Three Turns

I stand up, swinging the heavy bag over one shoulder, unfolding the six sections of the cane with their hearty, reassuring clicks. Mobility is a mess of sensations. “Can you make it?” — it’s the question on others’ lips, but they’re whispering compared to the voice in my head. “Can you make it?” Don’t be a hero. Reach for that elbow you love. It’s comfortable.

If I can get outside my head and into the world, I realize—it’s only three turns. The cane slips forward, gliding scratchily along that nasty carpet, and I round the first corner. A moment of confusion as the bright lights of reception blur out the notable, the necessary features of the doorway. Take a minute to adjust.
I  s l o w  m y  p a c e  And…they’re clear.

Abrupt right turn. The first of three long lengths seems easy. I round a corner by a water fountain, a left turn — the sunlight shining through a glass door nearby is a beacon. Don’t turn there! The next length is darker, more sedate, but free of distractions, easy to travel, good for concentration. Right turn. And I get a rush! from seeing such familiarities. I start to recognize with my eyes that I’m where I should be. Intuitions aside, I can now track visually the path to my office. Veer right, follow the wall, pass the screaming panel of glass that throws sunlight at me. And another short, dark hallway until one door, two! That’s me. I can stop, reach for the keys, and unlock it.

It’s not enough to be mobile. I must be a mobile mind.

* This entry was featured in the Summer 2012 edition of the ILAB GAB, the quarterly newsletter released by Independent Living for Adult Blind in Jacksonville, FL.