Many people think New York must be a tough place for the blind but in truth once you’ve had training with a white cane or a dog its a great place. The lay out of its avenues and streets forms a grid which makes knowing your location rather simple. Though the sidewalks are crowded and the traffic is intense, New Yorkers are helpful—perhaps because so many come from someplace else—but when you ask questions on a street corner strangers are helpful. Walking from the train with Corky and entering the main concourse of Grand Central was like a dream—we moved among throngs of commuters, zipping around clusters of people reading signs. In the majesty of the railway palace we stopped too. I wanted to take it all in. Trainer L was behind us, watching. A stray passenger asked if I needed directions. “No,” I said, “I’m just absorbing the glory of this place!” As I stood there two other people approached wanting to help. “This is a New York I didn’t know existed,” I thought. Its a New York the guide dog attracts. “Nice dog,” said the second man wanted to point me in the right direction. We headed toward the 42nd Street exit. Corky was delighted. Her tail thumped against my leg. She was in her element. Dogs have instinctive joy; follow their senses; but they have working joy too—they love having a task. Task-love emanated from her. I felt it in our speed. This was no unpleasant test. We were nimble and commanding. We exited the station and entered a sunny, spring day. We were in. Were in New York. I wanted to cry again but we were walking too fast.
We passed some men playing a curb side card game; we skirted left and passed a girl with a rolling suitcase. We stepped around a subway grate, pushed to the curb at 42nd and Vanderbilt. Corky looked left and right. Two people jaywalked but she didn’t budge. A taxi accelerated in front of us. I smelled a cigar. I wondered if it was from the taxi or the far side of the street. L said we were looking good.
Corky was calm but even so, the bustle of Fifth Avenue overloaded my circuits. It felt as though I’d had a dozen cups of coffee. Then I had a bizarre experience, a neurological hijacking—a fight or flee reflex—and ordered Corky to cross 49th street though we didn’t “have the light”. She looked left and right, saw a gap in the traffic, and took off. We were jay walking like ten million other New Yorkers and though we reached the far side safely L caught up with us and said, “You almost gave me a heart attack!” “I had a brain fart!” I said. “Well don’t fart too much,” L said. “Listen for the traffic flow,” she said.
Walking the next few blocks I felt better. My mistake crossing against the light came from energy rather than fear. This was an achievement, failing to be afraid.
“Who would I be if I was no longer afraid?” I thought.
“Welcome to the Waldorf, Sir,” said the doorman, adding, “what a sharp dog!”
“Thank you,” I said.
I remembered to say good dog.
We swayed together side by side on the red carpet.
“Corky,” I said. “Oh Corky!”
We stood in the foyer.
There was a general fragrance of lilies.
“We can come to places like this; we can find our way; we’re New Yorkers!” i said, though not loudly.
The rug was soft as a cloud.
There was something august and funereal about the odors of furniture wax and flowers and the odd hush of the place. And as I would do so many times over the coming years I got down on one knee and hugged my dog.
Men and women passed us, headed for the Park Avenue exit.
“Wow,” said a woman, seeing us.
I heard the smile in her voice.
I heard an elevator open.
I remembered that during World War II a train platform was constructed under the Waldorf for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He could exit the train in privacy—the Secret Service would raise him from his wheel chair and help him into an open sedan. The car would be lifted via the elevator to street level.
I thought of FDR and all the stage work necessary to conceal his disability from voters. I’d already come far with Corky. I was fully visible with my disability and more pleased about the matter than I’d have thought possible.
Each of my guide dog friends recalls feeling pleased for the first time with a dog. My friend J.K. walked five blocks to a motorcycle shop and talked bikes. Then he walked some more and had lunch in a diner. Nothing had ever been that good, no conversation or food had ever matched it. In the condensed version of guide dog life, suddenly everything becomes reachable. Reachable is a word sighted people never have to think about--but it’s the main ingredient of being and there’s nothing like feeling it for the first time or feeling it all over again.
J.K. said when he first took to the street with his dog, “It was as if people were seeing me for the first time--like before I got the dog they’d see my white cane and look away, but with the dog they had a point of contact and they could say something affirming, even if it was as simple as great dog, the ice was broken. I’d been blind all my life but it felt like with the dog I was having my first ever conversations with strangers. It was like breaking through to the other side of something.”
Standing in the Waldorf Astoria I too felt I’d crossed to the other side. I was in a place I didn’t know and damned if I didn’t feel composure. I’d never felt blind composure before. And then parts of my mind were free—and maybe it was nothing sublime—it was mostly casual trivia. Was this what sighted people experienced? The Waldorf: where Herbert Hoover and Douglas MacArthur occupied suites on separate floors; where Marilyn Monroe lived the year of my birth; where gangsters “Bugsy” Siegal and “Lucky” Luciano conducted business; where Nikola Tesla dreamed of electricity; where Cole Porter wrote songs.
This was my “diner experience”—the freedom to come and go as I pleased and dream a bit while standing still on a very rich carpet.