I was dropped off at the Mineola train station last night after another lovely day in the country – seeing my family, eating more than drinking, enjoying the slant of the winter sun not hovering behind buildings for a change.
Mine was the 9:03 to Penn Station – the 9:00 would go only as far as Jamaica. That one was a double-decker LIRR train, the kind they have in Europe, the kind I’d often get to ride while commuting to the city now almost ten full years ago. I stood back from the edge of the platform while I reminisced, this earlier train not being mine, as into the window stepped a figure, a older man in a suit and a hat, waiting to leave, cane in hand. The door wooshed open and down came the cane, red and white with a small ball at the end, its tapping confirming the man’s blindness.
He minded the gap and had disembarked, moving along the platform. Along the way he located a set of chairs of metal mesh, hearing them first and confirming their chairness with his hand, but didn’t sit down. Fellow travelers saw him walking towards them and they froze, then darted out of the way, it becoming clear to them that sidewalk navigation is often mutual. It’s not so easy to avoid a single blind person’s oncoming path because of the breadth of their possible routes.
More complicating, for me and for others, was the odd boundary of pity and politeness. Each of us would surely have stopped the fellow if he were navigating himself towards the edge of the platform, or a dangerous patch of ice. But as he found his way, I for one thought it’d be quite rude of me to help him. Because I’m an asshole? Sure. It was also because I didn’t want him to think he needed my help. Maybe that makes me an asshole twice over. I thought the man may well have a clearer perception of himself and his life than I do. Maybe he’s hugely successful. Maybe his disability created that determination. Maybe he was determined enough to begin with and the disability is only what other people see. Maybe I hated him for being stronger than I was. Maybe I hated myself for hating him for that.
While I was spiraling downward, writing this man’s life story, he tapped his way towards the staircase that would bring him up and over to the other side of the tracks. A sighted guy near the stairs, all politeness and no pity, did the one thing no one else had the courage or focus to do: he just asked if he could help the blind man get somewhere. Sure enough, the blind man would have loved a quick point in the direction of those stairs. The guy confirmed they were a few feet away and escorted the man over to them. Not over them: He needed no further help to the top, or over, or anywhere else. He graciously declined these further offers.
After the second, “No, thank you, I’m fine,” he called down to the guy who’d helped him, “I’ll see you, then.”
Figure of speech, that.