Waiting at the bus stop, I found myself next to a tall, nice-looking young man with a red-tipped, white, aluminum cane. Since it was none of my goddamn business, I asked him, “You get around the city completely blind, or do you have some vision?”
“Completely blind!” he said cheerfully. So cheerfully, I got the vibe he was glad that someone had finally asked. “It’s easier than it looks!” he said.
“Please,” I said. “I find it grueling sometimes, and I see fine.”
“Well, I mean New York is easier than most cities because it’s laid out in a grid.”
This, I understood. The bus came, we boarded; he didn’t need to take anybody’s arm. He didn’t even seem to use the stick. If he hadn’t been holding it, I wouldn’t have known he was blind, so fluidly did he negotiate the aisle, detect an empty seat, and take it. I sat beside him.
“Have you always been blind?”
“No. I went blind at fifteen.”
“Yes,” he said, “because what is funnier than going blind at fifteen? What happened was this: I had eye cancer when I was eleven months old. I don’t remember that, of course, but I was cured. Then, when I was fifteen, I went totally blind within about four months.”
“Thing is, I had help. Growing up, I knew kids who were blind. I’d seen how they managed, and when I started losing my sight, they talked to me about what was coming, what to do. So really, it wasn’t so bad.”
Going blind at fifteen wasn’t so bad? It was all I could do not to throw my arms around him.
“Have you ever heard the episode of This American Life called ‘Batman,’ about the blind nine-year-old who rides a bike and everything?” I asked. “He clicks, and echo-locates, like a bat.”
“I’ve heard of that. I don’t click, but I do echo-locate. I can tell when I’m getting close to, say, a light pole. I can hear it, hear the sound kind of wrapping around it. And I think I detect a change in air pressure. The city really is an easier place to get around than the country because of all the surfaces that reflect sound.”
He began pulling apart his stick — it had a bungee running through it like a tent pole. “Remember too,” he said, thrusting the collapsed stick into his backpack, “that I could see until I was fifteen. So I know what things look like. When I get close to that light pole and hear it, and hear air currents wrapping around it, I can kind of see it.”
One of our best friends at Human Rights Watch is a young man who can see a little but is legally blind; he works in Disability Rights. On his behalf, I asked Francesco, “Do you ever experience discrimination?”
“Never,” he said. “Never have.”
“Where do you work?”
“I’m a college student, but I have a job, in computers.”
“You’re a coder?”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “How can you work on a computer screen?”
“The computer reads it to me.”
“Lines and lines of code.”
“So you have to remember every character,” I said. “I could stare at a line of code all day with two good eyes and never figure it out. And you listen to it and remember?”
“Never done it any other way.”
I realized suddenly that I’d been so engrossed, I had no idea if the bus had breezed past my stop at Amsterdam Avenue.
“Relax,” he said. “That was only Central Park West.”
“I’m counting on a blind guy to tell me where I am?” I asked.
“I can count. You have two more stops.”
I’d felt pretty comfortable taking seats close to the door, given the “Please Yield Your Seat” sign above our heads. By the time we were done talking, though, I wasn’t sure that Francesco had a claim.