Disability: born blind
This interview was conducted in June of 2002 at Bob's apartment in Brooklyn. When I step off the elevator in Bob's Brooklyn apartment building, into his hallway... I am greeted by Harley - Bob's guide dog - who has a blue handkerchief in his mouth. Harley rubs the handkerchief against my leg and doesn't stop until I grab it. I grab the handkerchief and Harley leads me to Bob's door... where Bob is waiting for me. Bob is very, very friendly and cheerful... his apartment is well nice and well kept. We chat for a bit, then we sit at his kitchen table and start the interview.
Mark: I'm just going to start
the tape recorder right here...
Bob: Oh okay. Sorry the place is a little disorganized
Mark: Oh I see Harley's harness
hanging on the door over there...
Bob: Yes! There's two of them. The one I use most of the time is hanging on the closet door... and then the one next to it is an older harness.
Mark: Oh. Okay the tape recorder
is right here on the corner of the table... right here in front of you
and to the left. Or do you want me to move it?
Bob: Oh no that's okay. Okay... I wanted to show you this... [gets out a little hand-held black box] this is a computerized bill identifier. Do you have a bill? A dollar bill?
Mark: Yea wait... oh my wallet's
in my bag, let me go get it [gets
Bob: Okay... if Harley's in the way feel free to just give him a little... pat.
[reaches down to pet Harley] hello Harley!
Bob: Do you like dogs?
Mark: Oh definitely. [sits
back down at table] I'm a dog person... rather than a cat person. Although
I don't dislike cats...
Bob: I don't like cats [shakes head]
Mark: Oh really?
Bob: No... no... I don't.
Mark: That was actually one of
Bob: Well cats are
Bob: Okay... this is... [holds up bill identifier and five dollar bill] I know this is a five... because of the way I fold it.
Mark: Oh really? You fold your
money to identify it?
Bob: Yea... now let's see if this machine tells me it's a five [puts bill into machine's slot - machine's computer voice says 'Five!'].
Bob: Can you hear it?
Bob: And now you try one... here's a one dollar bill... put it in the slot
Mark: Just like... face up?
Bob: No it doesn't matter... just make sure the corners are straight.
[Computer voice says 'One!'] Neat... but what if you put a ten thousand
dollar bill in there? Is there such a thing? Could it read it?
Bob: I wish! the most I ever have is like a twenty
Bob: I've never tried a hundred dollar bill in this thing... it's supposed to work up to a hundred dollar bill.
Mark: Really? So it won't go
beyond a hundred?
Bob: Yea I guess they think blind people don't have a lot of money! Hahaha!
Mark: Do you work?
Bob: I did work. I worked until 1995... but, things didn't really work out where I had been hired... so I took an early retirement.
Mark: Oh really?
Bob: I worked there with kids that didn't speak English well...
Bob: But it was hard because I needed a lot of stuff read to me and they never had enough people... you know, staff to do reading for me. Also the kids there... you know, kids... in a small group they are okay but in a large group they can be... they would sometimes make fun because I couldn't see. They would turn the lights out...
Mark: Oh... I'm sorry.
Bob: So I just got tired of it and I left. You know... I did meet some nice kids, but as a general rule it was pretty hard.
Mark: How did you find a job
Bob: Well I took the test to be what they call a "Bilingual School Community Relation" - which is to work mostly with parents. And then I passed the test... but after I passed the test they wouldn't hire me. They kept passing over my name... so I had to go to the Human Right Commission.
Bob: And then I got the job... but, in the end it just never worked out at all.
Mark: Yea... it sounds like a
hard job... working with kids...
Bob: I like kids! Not to, you know... I like older kids... you know. That's why I think your web site is very important, because I think that if people could realize that disabled people were just people. You know there is such a mystique attached to us... either people don't want to get to know us or, ...I think sometimes we bring out the best in people and the worst in people.
Mark: You know I've noticed that
you are looking in the direction of my face as we talk. Is that something
you consciously try to do?
Bob: Yea... I mean, I can't see you of course. But when I was a little boy I used to just kind of look down like that [puts head down] and my mother used to tell me "Turn towards the person that is speaking to you!" and move my head. And she always used to tell me "Keep your head up! Keep your head up!"
Mark: So she kind of corrected
Mark: So... your blindness was
Bob: No. What happened is that I was born prematurely - hard to believe because I'm a big guy!
Bob: I weighed 1.14 ounces. And they put me in the incubator... and what happened is that they put too much oxygen in, and the oxygen caused the retina cells to develop too quickly... and the retinas, they became just scar tissue.
Bob: Many many babies were blinded that way, I wasn't the only one. They didn't know back then that too much oxygen was... you know, could cause blindness in infants.
Bob: So... I have no visual memories at all.
Mark: When you think of your
eyeballs, what thoughts come to mind?
Bob: Well... let me ask you, how do my eyes look?
Mark: Well, I was gonna say...
they looked completely normal. They look blue... I would never know you
were blind by looking at your eyes. Plus... they aren't crossed. Because,
I don't know if you know... sometimes blind people's eyes are crossed.
I don't know why...
Bob: Well, I'm gonna be honest with you... what you're seeing aren't my real eyes.
Mark: What? Oh!
Bob: The thing is... my real eyes look terrible. And when I started working, the kids there would go crazy! So I went to this doctor, and he made me a pair of contact lenses. And the contact lenses have an eye painted on them.
Mark: Interesting... I would
never have known that. Or that you had contacts on.
Bob: So what you are seeing is not eyes... but his artwork.
[note: the eyes painted on his contacts were more than just 'paintings', they looked 100% like real eyeballs - even close up]
Bob: In other words, if I took one off you could see what they really look like.
Mark: No that's okay.
Bob: Hahaha... okay.
Mark: What do your real eyes
look like? Are they clouded over?
Bob: They are clouded over... and they are very sunk in. And the thing is, these contact lenses are very big...
Mark: Oh... they cover the entire
front of your eyeball?
Bob: Right, right. It took me a long time to get used to them, but my mother always said "To be beautiful, one must suffer."
Mark: How true it is. Okay, now
that we have that cleared up... let me start reading from this list of
questions I wrote out to ask you.
Bob: Right. Okay!
Mark: Now... I told a lot of
people that I was going to be interviewing a blind guy, and I asked them
all what the first question they could think of to ask a blind person was...
relating to their blindness... and most people said the same thing; they
would ask if you ever were scared about bugs being on your food, or things
being on what you were eating that were bad... and that you couldn't see.
Do you worry about bugs on your food?
Bob: Hahahaha! No... I never think about that.
Mark: Really!? So you never do?
Bob: No... I mean, I figure it's just an extra bit of protein.
Mark: Hahaha! Okay.
Bob: Heh heh.
Mark: Okay let's see... how do
you understand colors?
Bob: I don't. Because I've never seen them I don't have an understanding of colors at all. I've heard colors put... you know, just as an association to things like "The sky is blue."
Mark: Okay, for example... that
blue. Over you lifetime experience, do you think you may have learned what
blue looks like?
Bob: No. Because I've never seen anything... and when you've never seen anything, it's like trying to ask... um, you know - like if you've never heard... you have no idea what a certain sound sounds like. It's just a word to me. It means absolutely nothing.
Bob: That's why, for instance, all my pants are gray. That's so they'll go with everything I own. You know... I don't even know what color the shirt I have on right now is. I hope it looks okay.
Mark: Yes... it's light blue
and it's a Polo Ralph Lauren shirt.
Bob: Oh good. I actually like this shirt. Can you check the tag for me before you go? I want to get another one like it and can't remember if this is a large or extra large.
Mark: Okay sure. Um... what I
wanted to do next is read from a list of common objects, and see if you
could tell me what color each one was.
Bob: Okay I'll try.
Mark: All right here goes...
the first one: a Panda bear?
Bob: Um... I don't know.
Mark: Chewing gum?
Bob: [pause] ...I'm kind of embarrassed, I don't know.
Mark: Well... I mean, I think
the point was that it might be interesting what you did and didn't know
the colors of... like what your answers would be.
Bob: Gum? Like chewing gum? Um... red?
Mark: Well I guess it's kind
of a trick question because it depends on what flavor or type the gum is.
Like red gum would be cherry or maybe bubble gum flavor... and plain gum
might be just gray.
Bob: Oh! I didn't know plain gum was gray, so... okay.
Mark: What about grapes?
Bob: [pause] ...I think I've heard that they're... [pause] ...are they red? Are they yellow?
Mark: Well, there's different
Bob: ...hmmm, I guess that's why.
Mark: Taxi cab?
Bob: That's yellow.
Mark: I mean... I don't know
if I should go on with the list, but I thought it would just be things
from culture... you know common things that you may learn over time what
color they are from hearing people talk about them
Bob: Exactly... see I know that one because of the song "Big Yellow Taxi" by Joni Mitchell.
Mark: Oh okay. Do you have any
favorite music artists?
Bob: I like very traditional folk music like Jean Ritchie - who sings about the Appalachian region
Mark: Oh yea I've heard of her.
Bob: You have? Oh that's unusual... but she's basically music of the Appalachian country. I also like rock and roll music of the 1950's and 60's... I like some classical music. I don't like rap. I don't like jazz. I don't like... modern stuff very much.
Mark: But you like music with
Bob: Yes, I like people that have good singing voices.
Mark: You like Joni Mitchell?
Bob: I did, yes. I liked some of her songs. I loved Joan Biaz. I also like that new blind fellow, Andre Bocelli... I think he has a really nice voice.
Mark: Okay, since you have no
visual memory, I'm curious as to what your dreams are like?
Bob: Okay. That's interesting... my dreams are like a radio broadcast. When I dream... I hear voices only. But what's interesting is that I never feel anything in my dreams... like on my skin... like the touch of a friend... everything is voice. And if I have to get from point A to point B in a dream, I never dream about being blind, or having to be guided or walking with my dog... I just get there. For example, if I dream that I'm in France... I just dream that I'm there... but I never dream of how I got there. Um... but there's absolutely nothing visual about my dreams... it's usually just a voice. You know, I'll hear people talking to me or I'll talk to them. And in my dreams I'm not disabled... I'm not blind. It's never mentioned... you know, I can just do anything I want to do. If I get my mail in the dream, I just know what it says without anyone having to read it to me. So I never dream of the limitations of being blind.
Mark: But you don't "see" in
Bob: No I don't see in the dream. But, like everything I need in the dream is just given to me. Like if I'm hungry, I'll just be transported to a restaurant. If I need to know what's on the menu, I'll somehow just "know" - none of the usual barriers are there. And what's also strange is that, even though I love my dog Harley very much, I never dream of walking with him.
Bob: Yea... and also, for instance... I have a very good friend named David who lives in Montreal, he's a wonderful great guy... and sometimes he'll touch my arm or my hand when we walk... and I love when he does that, but I never dream of him doing that. My dreams are just voice.
Mark: Oh... wow. That's really
interesting. I imagined your dreams would be like moving... feeling things...
touching things in spaces.
Bob: No, surprisingly they're not. It's strange... it's like in my dreams everything i sound coming through a speaker. For instance, if I dreamed of you I would dream of your voice.
[lowers voice] suddenly my voice gets deeper.
Mark: Okay... um, since I'm assuming
everything is about "space" or "spaces" to you... the distances between
things and how they relate to one another spatially... do you know how
some people have a favorite photograph or painting? Do you have any favorite
"spaces" that you like to visit, in real life or in memory - where you
know everything will always be the same? Like that's a kind of "beauty"
to you? Do you know what I'm saying?
Bob: Well, actually... I do like places that I know... for instance I'm home right now and it's nice because I know my way around, and things like that. But, yesterday I visited a friend in New Jersey and he had to help me a lot... because he had a big house and I didn't know my way around ...but, it was nice to get away. I liked sitting in his big yard and listening to the animals and crickets. But... hmmm... space, um. I don't know. Smells stand out a lot... I sometimes will smell something and it will remind me of something I really enjoyed. You know it's strange, when you're blind it means your memories fade very quickly.
Mark: Really? You think they
Bob: Yes... they do. For example, I can remember certain people I met in college, by certain experiences I had with them, but I wouldn't recognize them if I heard their voices today.
Mark: Wow... I guess that makes
sense if I think about it.
Bob: Yes, and also for instance, I lived in France when I was younger... but the only things I remember are some of the people I met.
Mark: Do you speak French?
Bob: Yes! I'm pretty much bilingual because I lived there while going to school and I got my Masters in French. Then much later when I was going to Oberlin College in Ohio - they had a program... and through that I was there for a year in 1969. And then again from '72 to '74 with Middleburry College... through another program.
Mark: Do they have Braille in
Bob: Yes they do. And it's different, for example... "CD" in English Braille means the word "could" and in French Braille it means the word "considerable"... so it's a different code combined with the differences in the languages.
Mark: Could you brush your hand
over a page of Braille and get a general idea of what the text is about...
the way a sighted person might be able to glance over a page of text with
their eyes and quickly be able to tell what it's about - without reading
Bob: Yes. I'm a pretty fast Braille reader... for example, there's a letter here [pulls letter out of stack of mail, opens it and starts running fingers over the Braille page very rapidly] ...okay "Dear Bob and Harley, it was indeed a surprise to hear from you after a hiatus of about six years or more. Please let me know... etc..." [continues on and on]
Mark: Wow, that was fast!
Mark: But for instance, you know
how sighted people could glance at a newspaper article and rather quickly
be able to tell what it's about... even without the headline - could you
brush your hand over this letter like this [I brush my hand over the letter's
first page of Braille diagonally] and be able to tell what it's about?
Bob: No. No... I would have to read every word. Although I am very fast.
Mark: I guess when you are using
eight fingers rather than two eyes, it's a whole different concept of how
you "read" written "text".
Bob: Yes, also it's easier for me to read while doing other things because I use my hands, for instance... while I've just been talking to you I have been feeling this cassette tape [holds up tape] next to me... and it says "Partner's Forum, Volume 8.4 I.A.D.P" and there's a phone number on it and other words on it. [recites it all without looking it's direction]
Mark: So you could be reading
a book under the table with your fingers while having a conversation with
someone, if you found them boring... and they would never know! That's
actually very clever.
Mark: When you buy CDs or tapes,
how do you buy them in the store?
Bob: That's a problem. I usually have to find someone to go with or have someone get them for me.
Mark: What are some of your favorite
Bob: [face lights up] Oh... I like chocolate... I like ice cream... I like Chinese food... I like Italian food... and American food. I don't like vegetables all that much.
Mark: Really? That's interesting
because I guess if you remove the visual color and other visual things
associated with vegetables... if all you have is the taste and texture
alone... many vegetables could really be a drag.
Bob: Yea. I have to tell you that guide dogs are allowed by law in any public space... like restaurants. But the restaurants that give you the most hassle are Chinese restaurants
Mark: Really? Oh wow.
Mark: Maybe they're afraid because
sometimes the dog is actually the food in some Chinese restaurants.
Bob: Hahahaha! Right! I can just hear them saying [mock Asian accent] "Ohhh ahhh I see... a spare rib is walking in the front door!"
Mark: So you just base your favorite
foods strictly on taste and texture.
Bob: Oh yea I don't know what they look like at all.
Mark: Ummm... which makes me
think of another thing I wanted to ask you about; the seasons. Like Spring,
Summer, Fall and Winter. I think it's interesting that you probably only
associate each season with temperature.
Bob: Yes that's true. Except I will say in the case of Spring... in the country at least, you can smell the grass and flowers and stuff. And Summer... well, it gets pretty hot. I don't know... if I wasn't so heavy I would probably go to the beach more often... I'm a little embarrassed.
Mark: Do you enjoy the beach?
Bob: I kinda like it! If I have someone to go with it's good. I like the water, although I'm not a good swimmer. Although I haven't been to the beach in a while.
Mark: When you're swimming in
a pool or whatever, how can you tell what direction you're going in?
Bob: Well, that's a problem. Sometimes I swim near the edge. Or maybe I don't swim sometimes... I'll just kind of stand in the water near the edge... near the wall. Sometimes they have ropes dividing the lanes. I think one of the biggest problems for blind people in New York... at least I know for me... is that we don't always have as much sighted assistance as we sometimes need. New York City in particular is bad for that because people tend to be busy... and also I think it's a strange thing, for instance... I think I would probably have a lot more people to help me if I lived in Manhattan, for instance the Chelsea area has a big building where a lot of blind people are... on 23rd between 6th and 7th avenues. And they tend to be able to get lots of volunteers to help out. But in Brooklyn, you know... there tend to be a lot of people who are foreign, or maybe people that are just here temporarily... so it's not as stable of a community. But the problem is that Manhattan is too expensive.
Mark: That's an interesting analogy
- jumping from swimming in a pool to trying to get around in a busy urban
Mark: Um... I guess you've heard
of the phenomenon of when sighted people close their eyes... they see shapes
under their eyelids, like moving blobs of blue and purple against black...
like traces of light on the retina or dust particles or whatever.
Bob: Yes! Yes! Oh I've even heard people close their eyelids and see light!
Mark: Yea I guess muted light...
like they can see through their eyelids... which aren't entirely opaque.
Mark: So I guess you don't have
that? Or anything similar... even when your eyelids are open? Can you sense
changes in light and dark at all?
Bob: No. You know people always ask me this kind of thing... and the best way I can describe it, another blind guy told me this... when you hold up your hand [holds up his hand], do you see anything with your hand?
Bob: ...and the answer is 'no' and that's how it is to me.
Mark: Oh... I guess that's an
interesting way of putting it.
Bob: It's just nothing. It's just nothing... it's... it's kind of hard to put into words...
Mark: You have no memory of visual
anything so you have nothing to even compare it to - as a point of reference...
like what light is.
Mark: Is your entire world moving
through air and space and texture and touch...
Bob: Taste and texture and smell and touch... and feeling. Yes... but no... sight is nothing to me. I don't know what it is to "see". I can't understand it, for instance, when people say they can look at a flat screen and see a "picture" - that just makes no sense to me.
Mark: Hmmm... okay, what do you
think of fashion? The fashion world? Like clothes designs?
Bob: Oh, to be honest with you? It seems very superficial to me. It just seems like people judge each other more on how they look than on the contents of their character.
Mark: In a way I guess that just
comes kind of naturally to you... sort of... you know - not judging someone
by sight at all when you first meet them.
Bob: Well, in a sense, yes. For instance, I was touching my friend's face the other day... and you know... it doesn't mean anything to me! You know, I can feel a nose, a mouth... but I can't tell if someone is handsome or ugly. I just have no way of knowing!
Mark: If there was a line of
people, and you couldn't hear their voices, and there was only one person
in the line you knew and the rest were strangers - would you be able to
go down the line and feel all their faces and figure out who the person
you knew was?
Bob: No... not at all. In fact I usually don't touch faces. Sometimes people have a distinctive handshake, or maybe a distinctive smell - I mean it sounds strange to say that... but it is something I notice.
Mark: Have you ever heard of
the Asian philosophy of Feng Shui?
Mark: It has to do with the way
spaces, like houses or living spaces or cities or yards are designed...
and the way things are laid out in relation to the people who inhabit them
- you know promoting good "mental balance" and "energy flow" within spaces.
Like having to do with furniture is arranged in a room.
Mark: I mean, I don't know...
I guess with you being blind... I just thought that the concepts of Feng
Shui might be even more important to you - or maybe even ridiculous...
Bob: Yes well, I see what you mean... I mean, the whole concept of "energy" - I'm not sure of that. I don't know. I mean on a practical level the way things are arranged in a room matter to me. I don't know about concepts like energy though... I don't know about things like that. I don't really even necessarily think acupuncture really works, at least physically. I mean I've never had it but, I don't know. I'm the type of person that, as far as concepts like that - in order for me to believe it, it has to be proven to me. For instance, I have this friend who's convinced his house is haunted... and I mean, if that's what he thinks that's fine... I don't have a problem with it. But in order for me to believe it the ghost would have to talk to me! Hahaha!
Mark: Yea... I guess it's not
like you can say "I'd have to see it with my own two eyes!"
Bob: Hahaha! Yes!
Bob: But, getting back to what people look like... as I'm talking to you, I have no idea what you look like... except that my friend David, who looked at your web site, told me what you looked like. He said that you were a very good looking guy.
Mark: Oh... well thanks.
Bob: But see, that's my point... I mean. What is good looking? Your voice is my first impression. So... sometimes if I get to know someone a little bit and they give me a hug or something... then maybe I can tell something about them. But, otherwise it's very strange. People are like disembodied voices to me. It's almost like listening to a radio broadcast, because you have no sense of... of... well, for instance - you could be just a very well designed, perfect stereo speaker sitting next to me with your voice being broadcast out of it, I wouldn't know the difference.
Mark: Can you tell what someone's
ethnicity when you speak with them?
Bob: Actually I can.
Mark: But I bet when you were
in France that was harder.
Bob: Right! In France I couldn't really tell... except Haitians of course, sometimes because they use different words and phrases in their French. But no... usually here in America I can hear just one or two words and I can tell what race someone is. Once in a while I'll hear someone who's black and I won't know it... but that's almost never. You know because of the way the accent is and the voice quality or whatever. And you know it's not like I'm making a racist statement or anything... it's just something that I can hear.
Mark: Do you know how a camera
works? Can you describe what it is to "take a photograph" of something?
Bob: Well, I know you look in a lens... and I guess you look at the thing you are photographing. Or in my case someone could aim it for me... and then I would push a button. It's funny that you should say that actually because when I was little I used to love cameras!
Mark: Really? Wow!
Bob: Yes. I used to have a Brownie camera, and I used to stick my head near the flash attachment, you know the old fashioned kind and make it go off... just so I could feel the heat on my face.
Bob: Yea but then I got burnt once so I kind of stopped...
Bob: Sometimes, when I was a little boy... I used to think that I could see light because I could stick my face right up to light bulbs and I could feel the heat. And I thought I was actually seeing light, but then found out that I wasn't because I was near a radiator and I thought that was light.
Mark: Hahaha... oh!
Bob: But I fooled an eye doctor once, when I was young, because I told him I could see light... and I was counting the clicks of the light switch as he turned it off, on, off, on, off... then I had counted quickly the number of times, and he thought I could really tell if it was on or not. And he was like to my mother "Oh Ma'am! I think your son can see light!" and my mother said "No he can't, he's counting the clicks."
Mark: So as a child you had a
deep desire to be able to see?
Bob: Yea I did. In fact as I was growing up, whenever other blind kids would ask me if I could see anything at all I would always say "Yea I can see a little bit" even though I couldn't... actually a lot of blind kids do that... like a phase. And I would try to make up things that I could see. I guess I tried to convince all the other blind kids that I could see a little bit, because the kids that were sighted... you know I couldn't fool. But the other blind kids I would sometimes fool them, like I would say "Oh I can see you a little bit, and your shirt is dirty!"
Mark: Let's see... okay, do you
understand how a mirror works?
Mark: I mean, not to sound like
a dumb question... I know you know what a mirror is...
Bob: Oh yes I know what you're asking... I know...
Mark: I mean... can you describe,
in your opinion, what exactly it is to say... approach a mirror, and then
get farther away from it and move around it. Do you know what sighted people
experience when they do that? Do you understand how the physical properties
of a reflection work? On a flat surface?
Bob: The only thing I know is that when you look at a mirror you actually see yourself. I don't know anything about... like... if you get closer does it get bigger?
Mark: Right. Well, I mean that's
what interests me because the way a mirror works is that it's just reflecting
images around it that are reflecting back to your eye and the shape of
those reflections is constantly changing depending on where you are moving
and where the objects are placed in relation to the surface... and you...
I mean, I don't know. Because you've never been able to see... you know
someone who is sighted would be able to process that information very logically
based solely on the fact that they can see it all in space and time and
it's part of their everyday reality. What... I mean I'm curious, what are
your ideas about reflective surfaces? How do you think they work?
Bob: Well, I have an idea about it... in other words, that you are seeing yourself.
Mark: But also... like what's
behind it... or you, that's being reflected and how the motion of perspective
works as you move.
Bob: No... no, I guess I actually don't understand that very well.
Mark: Really? So you... are you
aware that reflection reflect everything around them...
Bob: No, I guess in a way I didn't.
Mark: Wow. I mean... I guess
that's really interesting because... on the way over here I was looking
at the reflection on the glass of the subway doors...
Bob: I... let me just interrupt you. Let me just say that I just love when people describe to me everything that they see. Like to sit in a park and someone says "Oh I see an old woman" or "I see this person doing this" even little things, it amazes me how much detail you can see. I think the thing that shocked me the most is... I usually pick up when Harley goes to the bathroom by putting a baggie on my hand and feeling for it on the ground and picking it up. So once this woman, she must have been in a building on like the third or fourth floor... she shouted out her window - she was a Jewish woman I could tell from her voice - "Mista you missed a piece!" [does a funny old Jewish woman voice]. And I thought to myself; "That's amazing! She's like in her apartment, and she can see that I missed a piece and I can't even find it!"
Mark: Did you say to her that
you were blind?
Bob: I figured she probably knew! Because I had a dog and in a harness and all... I don't know. I didn't say anything! My friends said later that I should have said back to her "Well if you're that concerned then come down and get it!"
Bob: But that amazed me! It amazes me what sighted people can see. Like, I developed kind of an interest in ice skating. Even though I can't see it... I like to listen to the music, and I like to listen to the sound of the ice skates on the ice when the people jump ...like "B-d-t-d-t-d-t! F-t-t-t-t-t-d-d-d-t! Shhhhhwoosh" like things like that. But, sometimes I have a friend describe it to me over the phone... like he'll watch it on television and I watch it... and it just amazes me how he can look at a T.V. and he can say "Okay this person made this jump, but his foot touched the ice... he didn't land on one foot." It... it's the most incredible detail! I just... I can't imagine that!
Mark: Really? You can't imagine
seeing all that on television?
Bob: No. No.
Mark: Like, I guess it's interesting
to understand about how film and video is edited quickly... like images
change from one another quickly, like how they just cut, cut, cut and how
things are cropped all over the place in different ways... so rapid...
close and then far away... all over the place all at once...
Mark: ...and sometimes there
is like three images on a screen, you know... one in fast motion one in
Bob: ...yea, yea. Well that's another thing. Movies have gotten... I mean it used to be movies in the 1940's and 50's and maybe in the 60's... they were much more talkative. And even if you couldn't see them, you could pretty much get the gist of what was happening. Now they've become so visual... with special effects... it's very hard to follow.
Mark: So I guess you're not a
fan of movies with a lot of special effects in them... or maybe movies
that are just all special effects.
Bob: No, no, no... definitely not. I mean, unless there is someone there that can spend a lot of time explaining it all to me.
Mark: Do you understand how editing
works? How it switches from scene to scene?
Bob: I have an idea... because I can kind of imagine, you know you can hear different conversations going back and forth very fast - but it's visual... But, sadly, editing in film and television in general - it's just a dimension that I think I won't ever really know. And... with movies and television, the most I can do is if I have a friend that can describe it to me, I enjoy that. But then again I have to see it through their eyes. Like if they say "Oh this shirt is ugly" or "That's person's shirt is ugly!" ...I have no way of knowing. You know...
Mark: What about radio? Are you
into it a lot? Like talk radio?
Bob: I don't like talk radio because I find it boring. What I do like is NPR a lot... National Public Radio... I like them a lot because they have some travel things where they go to different countries and they'll have sound effects and stuff and talk to local people there. That I really enjoy.
Mark: Do you... so I guess you
don't have any favorite movies?
Bob: Um... no. There are blind people who do go to movies much more than I do. But, I find it frustrating. Unless I have someone to go with I don't like it because I feel like I'm missing too much. You know what movie did like though? "The Sound of Music" ...I kind of liked the music for that. May also "Carousel" or "Oklahoma" and stuff like that. I like musicals a lot.
Mark: Do you ever go to Broadway
Bob: I do go to some. Um, I have a bit of a problem with Harley. He gets very upset when people clap, when there's applause. And because I really don't like to leave him at home for long periods of time I tend to not do it as much as I used to. Because I guess my love for him really overshadows my need to really go. I went to one play... and I left him at home, I took a cab both ways. But... I felt kind of bad that I couldn't have him with me, I'm so used to having him with me. But... he gets very upset around applause, and I haven't been able to break him of that.
Mark: How long have you had Harley?
Bob: Oh we've been together for eight years! He's nine years old. He's a wonderful dog, and he's a great guide.
Mark: Okay... now I want to ask
you about your sexuality. You said you identify as gay.
Mark: So how do you know you
like guys when you've never seen totally what either looks like? I mean
in a kind of grand-scheme-of-things sense. What attracts you to guys?
Bob: Well I'll tell you it has nothing to do with being able to see because, before I knew the difference between a man and a woman... when I was about eight or nine, when I hugged a guy I would get an erection. And I never did for a woman. Even just touching a guy, not even in a sexual way... um even just their arms or hands and stuff like that. And women just, I mean I love women... but the thought of having sex with one makes me feel a bit sick! This other blind girl once wanted to have sex with me, you know give me a blow job... just to prove that I could get an erection with a girl. And the only reason I could was because I kept imagining it was a guy!
Bob: I mean I love women, and I think in a lot of ways women can be more kind and nurturing than men. But as far as sexually, no.
Mark: So it's just based on someone's
Bob: Yea... I think it is... you know energy, because... you know it's very strange, I've never really seen either sex. But I've just never had an attraction to women. And what's interesting is that I met a man once who claimed she used to be a woman... a female to male transsexual. But, when we hugged, according to my radar she was still a woman!
Bob: Whether it's energy or pheromones... you know, I didn't say anything to her. But I was thinking "Oh no, it didn't work!"
Mark: So do you even know what
a woman's vagina looks like?
Bob: Yea I do but it's awful. I felt one once.
Mark: What do you think of men
in drag? Like drag queens doing drag shows and stuff?
Bob: Oh that... that's fun! I like that! I would like to feel a drag queen... I've never done that.
Mark: That's an interesting visual
Bob: I think it would be fun!
Mark: But getting back to being
attracted to people..
Bob: Yea, the sad thing about being blind is. I mean... it's hard to put it into words but... I can't just become attracted to someone by the sound of their voice alone. I have to be close to them.
Mark: So... you have to touch
them to find out if you're attracted?
Bob: Yes... for example, if I never had contact with anyone... I could never get aroused. I can't be aroused simply by someone's voice.
Mark: Okay then... has this scenario
ever happened to you? Have you ever listened to someone's voice and thought
you might be attracted to them and told them you needed to feel their face
for some reason or another but actually you just wanted to see if they
were good looking or not, or to see how they looked? Or maybe just to feel
them up a little?
Bob: Yes! Yes to all three! Hahaha! Or sometimes if there's someone I like, I'll ask them for help getting around even if I don't need it. Hahaha!
Mark: I see!
Bob: For instance, there's this gay fellow I know and kind of like that used to be sighted... he's blind now. And I'm always telling him "Oh I'm so helpless now!" Hahaha! And then he's always asking the dykes to help me and then I'm like "Oh I can manage!" But, one interesting thing about my situation is that... most of the blind gay people I know, they had sight before. And it's not like me... you know they've had some gay experiences as a sighted person, I never have.
Mark: Hmmm. That's just so fascinating
to me that you are attracted to a certain person... yet you have no real
visual memory of what people exactly look like.
Mark: So sex must be very interesting.
I mean... it must just be mostly feeling...
Bob: Yes... but I mean... I actually think I'm probably kind of boring to have sex with! Because, I mean... I'm into just a lot of touching and stuff, I'm not really into a lot of the things gay people do in bed. I mean... not that I have a problem with it, I'm just not into it.
Mark: Yea... I guess there are
many layers of perception and stuff there for you... like that are hard
for other people to relate to.
Mark: Okay... uh looking at my
list here. I'm gonna change the subject. Do you have any favorite painters?
Bob: Oh... no.
Mark: But I see a print of Picasso's
"Three Musicians" up on your wall.
Bob: Yea my mother bought that for me. But I mean, she just bought it... you know as a gift.
Mark: Do you ever have conversations
with people about different concepts of art throughout history? Like cultural
history? Like in painting... you know different ways that movements of
artists have interpreted reality through painting... you know that had
cultural impact - like cubism, or abstract impressionism? What are your
thoughts when you hear people talking about that kind of thing? do you
get curious about those kinds of things? What they look like?
Bob: No, not really. I know nothing about that.
Mark: Right... okay then... well
let me, okay... take Jackson Pollack for example, you know he was this
abstract painter in the 1960's who just splattered paint all over in all
these little drips and loops and lines on these massive canvases, and it
made all these really complex but erratic textures... and he was kind of,
sort of the first to do that, in a way... and it was controversial, but
ended up having a big impact on the culture.
Bob: Okay I guess I didn't know that... see..
Mark: Oh okay, I mean... you
know, it was that old argument of "Is it art?" or you know "Oh my five-year-old
could do that" but they were selling for thousands of dollars and were
in museums... I mean the paintings didn't represent anything at all...
they were just abstract paintings of blobs and shapes, but kind of influenced
the way people saw things.
Bob: Sounds like something I could have painted! Hahaha!!!
Mark: Well right, I meant...
that's what a lot of people say... you know... "My five year old could
have done that."
Bob: Hmmm... that's interesting... then he became famous...
Mark: I mean... taking art history
back to the beginning, sort of - people tried to paint things to represent
something... like a camera... or portray things like religious imagery
as realistically as possible.. then near the 20th century people started
to consciously try to distort and represent reality in ways that were different...
and more abstractly and more abstractly... it's mostly a 20th century invention...
I mean in the general sense... people, many artists... wanting to represent
"sight" in ways that were not typical, and celebrate them...
Bob: I probably wouldn't like work like that because you know I really don't like very modern music, I know... not at all. I don't like stuff that's very noisy and dissonant and loud... I don't know, it unsettles me. I mean... I like stuff that's very melodic... or stuff linked to 1,5,4 chords and stuff like that.
Mark: Oh you wouldn't like my
record collection then!
Bob: Oh really?
Mark: Yea I mean... I started
with punk stuff as a kid... then I kind of moved on to weird... I guess
avant garde composers and free jazz and stuff, noise artists from Japan...
and weird rock... really pretentious crap... I love it.
Bob: Oh really? Now... how... how come that kind of music is so linked to drugs and stuff? That's another thing...
Mark: Well I don't take drugs...
but I don't know, I always had an art background so I was always kind of
exposed to stuff like that... all my life - I mean I would kind of seek
it out... I don't know, over time I developed a sense for appreciating
Bob: Oh well that's good.
Mark: Do you like John Denver,
The Carpenters or Anne Murray?
Bob: Oh I love John Denver! I like all three!
Mark: Do you have any favorite
Bob: I think Anne Murray has a really great voice. I used to like Judy Collins, as I said Joan Biaz, Buffy St. Marie... but they are very old... um, of modern stuff, I think some songs of Whitney Houston are nice. I mean... in the beginning I liked some of her stuff but I think she's gotten too commercial. Um... I think Johnny Mathis has a really nice voice... um...
Mark: When you hear of singers
who rely a lot on image, like really controversial stuff to retain their
fame - but seem to have weak singing voices... like maybe later day Michael
Jackson or something... what do you think? Like what do you think of Madonna?
Bob: Well... to be honest... I don't understand how she made it so big. I think she's very untalented!
Mark: Well that's interesting
because so much of her career has been about image and stuff... things
you can't participate in... it's like you only hear them...
Bob: Michael Jackson... some of his early stuff I think is very good. A few songs. I liked "She's Out Of My Life".
Mark: Okay... let me change the
subject... picture this scenario: You are in a very big crowd and are in
the middle and you are getting jostled around and Harley is not with you
and you drop your cane and are very disoriented. What is the first thing
Bob: Ask someone to give me my cane! Then ask someone if they can help me. Ask them "Where am I?" But see... that can be a problem because often you ask people where you are and they don't answer... especially in New York. I say "Excuse me do I have the light?" or "Excuse me" and they just walk by.
Mark: Do you say "I'm blind."
Bob: No, because I have Harley with me. So I figure they'll know. For instance, yesterday I took the train from New Jersey... and I needed help where the train lets me off to get on the subway. And I asked the guy next to me "Are you going to the subway? Can you help me get to the subway?" And he really didn't want to... and he said "Ohhhh... I'm sorry, ask someone else." And, so finally I asked the conductor and he got someone. But... you almost feel a little bit like "Man, don't people realize that it's not my fault that I'm like this and need some help." Like, a lot of time people will ask me "How come you don't have someone with you to give you some help?" and it's like... well if I had someone I wouldn't be asking you. So people can be very unkind... and I've noticed it, I mean - I hate to put down New York - more in New York than other places.
Mark: Well New York has a reputation
of people being, you know... not helpful or whatever.
Bob: I mean... you can be blind and standing on a street corner with a cane... and unless you open your mouth and say "Excuse me... can someone help me cross?" People will just walk by, people will just ignore you! Where as if you're in other places, like I remember I was in Portland, Oregon... people were much nicer. Or in Montreal... a city I like very much, people were much nicer. So, and yet... you can meet some wonderful New Yorkers... but, I guess it's just the pace of the city. But I really think that if people see a blind person who needs some help... just take a few minutes and help, you know... it would really go a long way. Also too... I think a problem is that, you know... blindness is a very hands-on thing to assist with. You know if someone is going to help me they have to grab my arm and stuff... or I take their hand... and a lot of people really don't like that. They don't like being touched by strangers. That's a big, big problem. And they might talk at me and say "Come this way!" or "Follow me... my voice!" and that's just not possible.
Mark: Have you ever had any close
calls or dangerous situations in places as a result of your blindness?
Bob: I've had two. Um... when I used to work, I was standing on the subway platform... and a black fellow asked me what time it was... I had a watch on, a braille watch... and I opened it and told him. And then he just said "You blind motherfucker!" and he hit me over the head and he knocked me over and I hit the wall on the other end of the platform and fell. And... then he was gone.
Mark: Oh my God! Did... did he
Mark: ...ohhhh... that's very
strange and creepy.
Bob: It was. But if there hadn't been a wall there, if there had been tracks on both sides... I would have been killed.
Bob: Um... another time, a bus driver didn't want to let me on the bus with my dog. And, he has to... it's the law! And I insisted... and as I tried to get on he slammed the door on my hand and took off!
Bob: And... my hand was wenched in the door and I just pulled it out as he took off. And, then I asked someone... it became a racial thing because I asked some people what the bus number was... and they wouldn't do it. Because it was all black people and they just wouldn't do it.
Mark: Really? You think so?
Mark: Okay... um, has Harley
ever attacked someone or growled or bit someone?
Bob: No. He's a very laid back dog.
Mark: Okay... what do you think
Bob: Well, I don't know much about it I guess. I mean... I guess it's a shame to mess up the public space with people's names or scribbling... but you know, it's a funny thing... the amount of things going on around me that I'm just not really aware of. Like, if I walk into a really big store... I just have no idea what's going on around me... and people will walk up to me and be like "Can I help you?" and I'll say "Well, what's here?" and they'll say "Well what do you want?" and they don't understand that if they don't tell me what's around then I can't know.
Mark: But... have you ever just
walked into a random store without knowing at all what is there?
Bob: Yea! Yea I have! But, you know it's interesting because most stores, like K-Mart for example... these stores now are becoming so big... it's very hard to shop at K-Mart, if you're alone and you're blind. Unless you can get someone to help you.
Mark: So you would prefer smaller
stores that specialize in one type of thing?
Bob: I would. Or, you know maybe if stores like K-Mart had a special person designated to help people like me. That's the big difference between blindness and deafness... like that other guy you interviewed... the deaf guy. He could walk into K-Mart and see everything that's around him.
Mark: Well so how do you feel
when you hear that 80% or whatever of the information people get, they
get from sight?
Bob: To tell you the truth, I mean I don't mean to sound conceited... but I'm surprised I do as well as I do! I'm surprised blind people I know do as well as they do. I think it's a real tribute to us that we do so well... because society certain doesn't - in many ways - cater to us. But, a lot of blind people don't have it as well as I do... you know, they dress poorly, they have no one to help them at all. I at least have some people... you know to help me or read for me. I have enough money that I can manage. You know I get my clothes from a big man's shop in Boston... I call them up and they pick stuff out for me and send it to me. I mean, in a lot of ways I'm luckier. Even though I get just as lonely at many times. But... you know I have a woman who cleans for me... she's coming on Saturday. And I have a fellow that comes and reads for me... he comes on Wednesday. But, compared to how much I've tried to get people to help... it's a small... you know, not that many people were interested. But I do have some, and that's worked out pretty well.
Mark: Changing the subject...
I was thinking about comedy, and live theater in particular. So much of
humor can be visual. Is there any type of live theater for blind people?
Like... I imagine a whole blind audience crowded around the stage touching
everything the whole time and laughing as soon as they "feel" the punch
line. Like people feeling one by one a guy's face after he got hit by a
cream pie... and laughing one by one as they felt it.
Bob: Well there is this one thing they have... it's a play that is described to you. You go and you wear an earphone and a guy describes what's happening to you. But I've never been to one of those. But I'm sure they're good.
Mark: Okay... um, do you have
textures of certain things that you enjoy very much? Like "I love the way
frozen ice feels" or "I love mink fur on my fingertips" or favorite stuff
like that? Like to parallel the way sighted people like certain types of
pictures or patterns?
Bob: Oh... um, I like the way snow feels when it is first falling, the way it falls all around you... or how it feels when you run your fingers through it. Um... sometimes I like to stand outside when there is a torrential rainstorm, and just kind of feel the rain come down... I like that, I like the smell of it. And, also in touching a person... one of my favorite things to touch is a guy's arm... and it's not even a sexual thing, it's more that it's that's how I tend to walk with people, so the arm has become very important to me. I like to touch a person's hand or hold a person's hand. Um... I like to touch hair... to some degree. But actually, touching inanimate objects? No, not really.
Mark: Oh really?
Bob: No. But Harley too, I love to pet Harley all the time... because he responds. Actually now that I think about it... stuffed animals I like... I like the way they feel. Especially the ones that are so soft.
Mark: Do you consider yourself
a neat person?
Bob: No. I wish I were.
Mark: I mean... I imagine being
Bob: Well some people are just very ordered... I just throw things, I get kind of lazy about it... I could probably do more than I do. I mean, I don't cook at all, I tend to eat all my meals out... like for instance the guy that comes to read for me was here, and I knew you were coming... so I paid him a little to vacuum for me since my cleaning lady doesn't come until Saturday... because I didn't want you to be surrounded by dog hair. But, that kind of thing doesn't tend to bother me very much... you know I don't have a lot of visitors.
Mark: Well your place looks neat
Bob: Oh good.
Mark: Okay, what is something
that is all alike... like what could get lost for you in a pile of similar
things that you find really frustrating to try and identify by touch only?
Bob: Well, papers are a real problem... I have a lot of problems with papers...
Mark: I guess even with braille
ones... because you have to touch each one.
Bob: Right. For instance I have some mail [pulls out mail]... and I have no idea what, say... this letter says. So sometimes I'll get mail and won't know what it is until I can have someone read it for me. I have my readers read me my mail or bills, then write the checks for me... you know. Without people I know to do that for me I would be in a real mess.
Mark: Can you tell the difference
between real and junk mail? Like feel the paper or feel those little cellophane
Bob: Sometimes. Nothing really comes in Braille... even stuff from my medical people! Everything has to be read.
Mark: Do you ever go on amusement
park rides? Is it different for you?
Bob: Not since I was a little kid. But I did like them as a kid... but again, I would probably still go to them if I had more people to do things with. So since I don't I kind of just make the best with the people I do have.
Mark: So is loneliness a big
problem for you?
Bob: I'll be honest with you and say that it can be. At times... it's more about companionship. I wish I had more friends that I could say to "Let's take a walk... let's go get a bite to eat, let's go to a movie... let's just go somewhere and see what's happening... let's go watch a movie on a VCR at your house." I don't have that.
Mark: Do you think it's because
Bob: I know it is.
Mark: Do you hang out with a
lot of other blind people?
Bob: Most of my friends are blind, yes. And one problem is... we can't really help one another, because we have the same limitation.
Bob: I think blindness is a very isolating handicap. I think it's one of the loneliest handicaps because you're a part of the world and yet you're not a part of the world. You can take a walk with your guide dog... but you don't know what you're passing. So you can mechanically walk, but there's no feedback - it's a lack of feedback. I can go into a park but I can't find a bench unless there's someone helps me. And then once I'm seated I can't find my way out.
Mark: I guess Harley in a lot
of ways is a real life saver.
Bob: Oh yes... yes... he helps me a lot. But... you know, there's only so much he can do.
Mark: I guess the perfect thing
for you would be to have a seeing eye person.
Bob: Yes! Yes! Hahahaha! Well I think if I was very wealthy then that is something I would do... hire someone. Although it's sad to have to pay for it.
Mark: Would you ever go to a
big tourist destination where there is something to "see" that is great...
like Mount Rushmore? Or the Grand Canyon?
Bob: Well yes! But again... I have no one to go with. One place I would love to go is the Pennsylvania Dutch country. But... you know I would need someone to go with me to tell me about everything. To just go alone on a tour would be pointless for me.
Mark: I always thought that if
you were blind then a good sightseeing place to go to would be Niagara
Falls... because you can feel the roar all around you... you can feel the
moisture. You sense it's great power just by being in it's vicinity. It's
very sensual in every kind of way.
Bob: Well that's absolutely right! But again... I need someone to go with.
Bob: You know... blind people, we've been all trained to tell sighted people "Oh blindness is no big deal, you get used to it..." but, the truth as far as I'm concerned is - is that it's a major handicap!
Mark: Well, you sound kind of
like me... I mean, you know... I had testicular cancer six years ago...
Bob: Oh! Oh...
Mark: ...and I'm okay now, but...
I was so tired of, you know, after I went through the whole thing, I was
so tired of people telling me all the time "Oh you're going to be so much
stronger now... you know what doesn't kill you makes you stronger!" even
though I felt, even though I was fine, I felt irreversibly damaged in some
ways from the whole experience... especially psychologically... and when
I would talk to people that had been in my situation, you know that had
had cancer... they would be like "Oh that's not true... what doesn't kill
you screws you up really badly and you're lucky if you ever really get
it back together again emotionally and physically" and it was so empowering
to hear that because that's how I really felt!
Bob: Yes! Yes...
Mark: Yes... and people were
like "Oh that's not true, what doesn't kill you DOES make you stronger!
It does! It will - you'll see!" you know... they just didn't want to hear
that from people that had lived through things like cancer... they seemed
deeply disturbed by it and seemed to want to correct us constantly and
say things like "You just don't understand!"... and it was ironic because
I was like "Wait... who lived through this... me or you?"
Bob: It's true!
Mark: And I found I wasn't really
empowered until I embraced that truth that seemed so blasphemous to the
general population, and just lived it truthfully in my own way... you know,
and had contact with a lot of people who had been through cancer and were
grappling with the same things, and I finally decided... that people have
to tell themselves that because they're scared that if something like that
ever happens to them, they have to feel like after the perceived nightmare
there is going to be this kind of reward... you know they tell themselves
that so they aren't frightened. So they don't have to live with fear. And
people that contradict that, even if they have lived lived through the
experience and are wiser to it - they have to constantly convince themselves
that those people are wrong - you know, anything... say or do anything,
to devalue their opinion. Even though, ironically - those people have lived
through it and are like "Well, it's kind of more complex than that - it's
not unknown to me anymore and I no longer fear it because I lived through
it - however the truth contradicts what you think - here's how it really
kind of is..." ...and they are just like "No! No! No! No!" ...you know.
It's like they were trying to help me but they were really only interested
in helping, or comforting, themselves... a strange kind of unconscious
selfish-ness. It wasn't until I was honest with myself that I was set free
and could move forward constructively... and be happy, even if it meant
alienating a few people. I found a lot of people who had been through cancer
felt exactly the same way about the subject. I know I went off on kind
of a rant there... hahaha! Sorry...
Bob: Yes! Yes! Well you're very right. You see... I think religion has caused a big problem, I mean... I don't know if you're religious...
Mark: I was raised in a Southern
Baptist household but am not now...
Bob: Oh okay... well, basically what religion tells you is that, you know... "God does everything for a purpose..." and, you know - you're taught that if you're blind in this life, or world - then you're going to see in the next. Or it's, you know... "God had special plans for you." But... I don't believe that... I believe that's just people trying to justify or minimize what is a very devastating handicap. Now... I'm not saying I go through my life crying on my bed or something you know... "I'm blind oh boo hoo!" hahaha... you know. I really do try to do the best I can... but as you get older it does become harder. Like, I recently was visiting a friend in New Jersey... and I was with him for two days. And when I came home finally I had a real feeling of sadness, because I was thinking to myself "This fellow was so nice to me, we had such a nice time but, in a certain sense you know... what's in it for him?" because in a way he had to keep helping me, and if he had to do that 24 hours a day he would get tired of it and wouldn't make plans to see me anymore. And I guess a part of me feels badly because there's nothing I can do about it... and a part of me wishes I could meet a person who has kind of a nurturing side... and some blind people do have that, but it's rare. A lot of blind men have married sighted women... but, in the gay community... it's very bad.
Mark: Wow... yea that's interesting.
I mean, being gay - that makes you even more of a minority.
Bob: Exactly. Because, actually that's why I was interested in the fact that you wanted to do this. I mean... the fact that you are gay, and you are interested in what a blind person has to say... I mean most gay people they... aren't. I've met people who are gay who've become blind. And they told me "When I was sighted... I wouldn't give a blind person the time of day!" You know! Hahaha!
Mark: Well... I'm naturally curious...
I mean, when I look at people with disabilities, I ...I you know, have
so many questions! You know... I'm like "My God your life must be so interesting!"
you know "How do you do all these things? How?" But yet... I guess there's
the whole thing about... you know, not asking...
Bob: Yea... not to ask...
Mark: ...and not to treat it
like, you know... everyone says "They're special" ...but it's like "Don't
stare!" ...but it's like, they are special! I have a million questions
I want to ask them. But then again I guess that could get old too...
Bob: ...but I think that's good! As I said, I think if this article... you know if people see it, you know people should feel free to ask questions but... also maybe take it a step further. You know, maybe they will think "I would like to get to know Bob even though he's blind" or maybe even because of it. You know take it to the next level. Otherwise then all we become is a ...you know, we satisfy people's curiosity and then they're satisfied and leave us alone... and then we're as lonely as we were when we started.
Mark: At the same time though,
I mean... I think there is some benefit in that... you know, at least someone
is enlightened a bit - through the experience of hearing your words...
your experience... you know your real story that isn't "edited" for prime
time television, you know, that's just your honest story... at least there's
that one positive thing. Someone walks away... or a hundred people do...
with your experience having influenced them. That can only be positive.
Bob: Yea that's true. But, I think if you've never really had contact with a blind person ...like, you'd be amazed how many people read for blind people, what's called "Recording For the Blind" - and they do wonderful work, but they've never had a blind friend... because it's easier to do it that way... they don't have to have contact with a blind person. I think it's like giving money in a really abstract way. And I think it's much more when you say "Hey I'll take this guy out once in a while!" or we'll meet maybe once a month or once every two months. Because then it's more of a hands-on type of thing. You know... but I'm not in any way putting down what you're doing, I think it's a very good start, because I'm sure a lot of people will see it.
Mark: Yea... yea... [Harley the
dog comes up and puts his nose in my crotch and paws my leg] ...okay, um...
let me just keep reading from the set of questions I wrote down here. Okay...
you told me the story about the guy hitting you on the subway, but have
you ever been mugged?
Bob: Well he didn't mug me... he just kind of hit me and ran away... um...
Mark: Yea New York always has
weird, creepy, random things happening like that.
Bob: Yea... well [chuckles] the only other thing I can think of is one time I was walking in Montreal, and someone smashed into me and I dropped my radio... and I didn't know where it went and nobody gave it to me! Hahaha!
Mark: So you lost it and it might
have been right in front of you?
Mark: Do you have a cell phone?
Bob: No, actually I should get one.
Mark: Oh... I wanted to ask you,
do you have a fear of heights? You know... how people will be way up in
a high building and look out a window or a ledge or on the roof and will
freak out and get vertigo... do you get that?
Bob: Actually no... I think I would like it. I'd like to go on a roof on a really tall building and maybe feeling the different air pressure.
Mark: Because I was thinking...
like fear of heights is 100% visual... you know but I was wondering if
there was something else you could sense.
Bob: You know what does frighten me? Remember those old L trains in New York that when you stood on the platform it kind of shook? That scares me a little bit... you know I would just kind of grab a pole. But I think it just scared me because I couldn't see the edge. And I was scared of falling off.
Mark: So I guess things with
edges that might surprise you or you aren't exactly sure where they are
can upset you.
Bob: Yes. But as far as being on top of a really high building, or on a roof and being afraid of falling off... no. But... I've often thought of the World Trade Center disaster...
Mark: Yea I was actually going
to ask you, being a New Yorker, about September 11th...
Bob: Yea I've often thought that if I was there I would've been killed and that's that!
Bob: Especially if I was up on a high floor.
Mark: Well actually I was just
reading in the Times about people who did make it out after the planes
struck... you know before the towers fell. And for those who weren't blocked
it was just a very long but orderly procession down the stairs... for the
most part. Like people were helping others and just walk, walk, walking
down... you know you may have been okay.
Bob: Maybe... yea maybe I would have made it out. You know though what's funny... right after September 11th, people in New York were very nice... you know people would walk up to me and be like "Ohhh... do you need any help?"
Bob: Yea for the first two or three weeks afterwards... I was like "This is really nice!" ...but then after that it went back to normal! Hahaha!
Mark: Hahaha! It didn't take
Bob: No! Hahaha!
Mark: Um, let's see... have you
ever had a scary situation... like maybe at night, where you were in a
room where you thought maybe there was someone intentionally hiding from
you? Like right in the same room like right in front of you? I'm thinking
horror movie scenario here. Did you ever creep yourself out like that?
Bob: I used to have that when I used to work for the school system, which was one of the reasons that let to me deciding to stop. I was starting to get very paranoid because a lot of times I would kind of imagine there were people in my room even if they're wasn't. And sometimes in the class I would say "How many people are here?" and they would say "There's three of us!" and I would start to suspect there was someone there that wasn't talking. It was starting to get me very paranoid. I started to, you know... not trust sighted people at all. Because... you know, that's one of the reasons I eventually left. You know, the playing field wasn't level... you know. I couldn't really compete. The kids knew they could see and I couldn't.
Mark: Well, I mean... kids can
naturally be cruel...
Bob: Yes... they can be... they really can... it's true.
Mark: ...because they haven't
lived a long time and don't know the consequences of their actions or whatever...
Bob: Yea... and I think it has to be taught, by the parents or whatever.
Mark: But I mean like at night...
have you ever been freaked out... like, I mean I love horror movies and
I was thinking of that one "Wait Until Dark" ...you know where there's
that blind woman in her small apartment, and there is that killer right
in her apartment and she doesn't know it... and slowly she figures it out,
and she's just reaching out into the air trying to fight him and... is
like "Who's there?" and he's right in front of her with a knife... you
know it's really creepy...
Bob: That would scare me! Ohhhh... oh no, no I don't like that! Oh I think I would die! If I walked into a house and I heard breathing or whatever! Oh I would die! Yikes!
Mark: But you've never had a
creepy moment where you let your fears get the best of you maybe... when
no one was there?
Bob: ...oh no, no I haven't I guess. But now I might! Hahaha! Thanks! Hahaha! But... actually, sometimes people give off vibes that scare me. One time I was waiting for a bus, and this guy just told me out of the blue "The bus isn't coming yet" and something about his smell and the way he talked... I just had this feeling that he was a real evil, horrible guy.
Bob: ...and it scared me. And I just walked away from the bus stop, and... you know, it could have just been a ridiculous reaction... but...
Mark: Maybe you're more tuned
into that kind of thing.
Bob: It really, really scared me.
Mark: Have you ever had something
go missing from your apartment and you suspected someone you knew had stolen
Bob: Yes. One time I had someone come that was only here once, and he stole my tape recorder. Also... one time I had a new reader come, and when he left I couldn't find something... I think it was some money. And I was like "Oh he must have stolen it!" and then later I ended up finding it. But... you know I have to say that most people have been pretty kind to me in that way. Even in stores... I remember one time I gave someone a twenty and I thought it was a one... and they told me.
Mark: Can you feel the difference
on paper... the difference between different denominations in money? The
texture of the paper?
Bob: No! No you can't... a lot of people think so but that's not true... and it's bad.
Mark: I was always told you could!
Bob: Can you?
Mark: I guess I've never tried
to. Or had to.
Bob: Yea... see that's a myth. It's all printed on the same paper.
Mark: What about in France?
Bob: Actually... to be honest I can't remember. I think it might have been different sizes. They might have been different sizes.
Mark: When people say "mood lighting"
what do you think of?
Bob: Well I know the term... it's like soft lighting. I guess it would be not too light and not too dark, something like that.
Mark: Could you describe the
difference to me between gold and silver?
Bob: Is silver... yellow?
Mark: Gold is yellow.
Bob: Gold is yellow... and silver is... white?
Mark: Well also it's actually
reflective like a mirror, sort of - if it's polished.
Mark: But you know... back to
curved reflective surfaces... you know a mirror reflects everything in
front of it perfectly... but that's a flat surface, and if that surface
is curved like a pole or cylinder...
Bob: Uh-huh okay...
Mark: ...and is still reflective...
then it kind of bends or distorts the reflection of everything it's reflecting
evenly around it's surface... according to how it's curved...
Bob: Uh-huh! Okay...
Mark: Like if the pole is reflective
metal then it's like a mirror stretched around the pole... reflecting everything
and distorting it according to that pole's shape.
Bob: ...and that's gold?
Mark: Oh... wait, oops. I jumped
track a little there. I think I was asking about gold and silver because
they can be reflective surfaces... and I just started talking to you about
how reflective surfaces work.
Bob: Oh... oh I see. I mean... I was thinking of this folk song that goes "She took the yellow and left the white" ...and I think the gold was yellow so I just assumed that silver was white.
Mark: Do you know what the visual
look of water is?
Mark: Really? So like when someone
says they can see their reflection in a pond and it's all rippled do you
know what they are talking about?
Bob: No I don't... I mean I love listening when people talk like that... but as far as knowing what they are saying, then no. To experience it... no.
Mark: What color do you picture
water as it's coming out of the faucet?
Bob: I don't. I mean... I just feel it on my hand... or sometimes I can smell it. You can smell the rust sometimes when the water first comes out... and then it gets clear.
Mark: But do you understand what
Bob: Um... I know what clear is in that it's not dirty... it's, um... it's clean. You know...
Mark: Right. It's kind of almost
like glass. But it's moving.
Bob: Right. But as far as visually... no.
Mark: Do you like to read? Do
you have a lot of books?
Bob: Oh yea I love to read... I read a lot. In fact have a friend of mine in California who reads me stuff by telephone - which sounds extravagant - but it's worth it to me.
Mark: I guess you don't care
really about phone bills as long as you get to read a book.
Bob: Yea, oh I definitely like to read. I read a lot of books on tape too. Not so much books in braille anymore, but on tape. I like reading a lot. Books for the blind come on tape also.
Mark: I also wanted to ask you
about touching people's faces. Do you ever make judgment calls on people's
looks just by touching their faces? Like do you ever touch someone's face
and thing "Oh their nose is too big?"
Bob: Not really. Like... do you mind? [reaches out and touches my face] ...I mean,,, the only thing I can tell is that you're clean shave... and you have a little bit of a ...mustache?
Mark: No it's a goatee... on
Bob: ...oh a goatee ...okay. But... I... you know I can't really tell. I mean, I have the feeling that you're probably nice looking because you have a small face. But ...I don't know.
Mark: But see... that's interesting
to me that you would say "I think you might be nice looking since you have
a small face" So you do kind of form ideas about "good looking" as you
Bob: Yea because see, that's what I've heard.
Mark: I mean... I guess I thought
it was interesting ...you know, how you "judge" things based on touch -
as far as things that people like to categorize as "beauty" or "ugly" -
you know... that's why I asked you about fashion and art...
Bob: Right, right...
Mark: It's interesting to me
that ...you know the difference between what you learn based on what sighted
people tell you, and what you kind of just feel yourself with your hands.
What opinions you form over time... from the combination of the two...
or if at all...
Bob: Well, sometimes a person will have a very beautiful smell... like for example they will wear a really nice cologne I like that. Or um, there's a gentleness about people that I often like... you know, that is beautiful to me. But it's beautiful in a different way.
Mark: Do you ever think of people's
Bob: No I don't actually. It's interesting that you should say that because hair is one thing that I'm not good at... I tend to not even comb mine, because I never know quite what to do with it.
Mark: Well it looks totally fine.
Bob: Well that's because it was just cut. You know otherwise it can get very unruly.
Mark: Do you ever worry about
your appearance, like how you're dressed?
Bob: I try to do the best I can. First of all I know that I'm very heavy... so people say that it's harder to... you know, look good. Also, maybe sometimes I'll have a stain on my shirt or something and someone will tell me, and I'll try to get it off as best I can. But... you know...
Mark: Right. Okay... I'm nearing
the end of my questions here... oh, what do you think of when you hear
that someone has a "good sense of design?"
Bob: I think it means that they have a good understanding of what colors go well together, and they have an understanding of what looks good. I would actually like to meet a person like that if I moved for example, to help me decorate my next apartment. You know it would have to be their own taste... because otherwise I wouldn't be able to help them.
Mark: Have you ever had a conversation
with a deaf person?
Mark: And how did it go?
Bob: Um... one of my beast friends... he passed away... he was deaf/blind. He could speak though... and I used to spell things into his hand... like a, b, c, g ...stuff like that, and he could understand. And also he could read lips some.
Mark: By touching them?
Bob: Yes. But... sighted deaf people are hard for me to talk to. What I would do is I would type on a computer maybe. But um, unless I could read lips by touching, then it would be hard for me. And... if they couldn't speak... then there is no way they could answer me. I tried to learn sign language... I took a course from a private teacher. But I didn't do well because I've never seen gestures. You know... I don't know how to wave... and facial expressions, a lot of it is facial expressions. But I have a feeling that watching sign language must be beautiful to watch. Have you seen it?
Mark: Yea... oh a lot. I see
it a lot in New York. I don't know if I would describe it as... beautiful.
You know... it's not really, I mean... I think it depends on the person
who's doing it... you know. Their own style. Do they want to act graceful?
Like does the person want to act all slow and graceful... or is it maybe
a touch young kid who wants to act all rough?
Bob: Yea I guess it would depend on the person who's signing.
Mark: Um... well I guess that's
about it. Um...
[after this... Bob showed me his various braille typing machines he's collected over the years- some of which were very old]
Mark: I mean... looking at these
machines... it strikes me that some are very old. I mean... besides just
knowing... can you feel objects and tell if they are an older design or
not? Like an antique or new?
Bob: No... I would never be able to tell if this was old or new.
Mark: Like for instance the design
style of it looks old to me. Plus it's worn around the edges and is kind
of dirty in the corners of it.
Bob: No... no, I can't sense things like that. Generally. I... changing the subject kind of, I have to apologize for my shoes [we are standing up at this point] I know they look awful, but they are very comfortable.
Mark: They look almost new to
Bob: Well, I apologize... getting new shoes is a real problem for me.
Mark: Um... can I look at your
computer? How it works, I'm curious how you look at stuff online. [we
walk over to his computer]
Bob: Oh sure... well my old speakers broke... here's the new one that reads text...
Mark: ...oh wait, there's no
Bob: I don't have a monitor.
Mark: Ohhhhhhhhh... oh wait...
it just struck me! You don't need one! Oh wow I just realized that...
Bob: Yea I don't need it. [he sits down at his computer - which is just a keyboard and a hard drive under the table - and a small speaker to the right of the keyboard] See I turn it on down here... and I'll just wait for it to boot up. Okay... now I'll write "Hello Mark Allen" and you can hear how it sounds. Okay... it takes a while to boot.
Mark: I just... I don't know,
looking at you right now. I mean it's so alien to me. I mean... most people
have a monitor to be able to tell when it is booted. I just, it's so surreal
to see you just sitting there in front of a keyboard and only and a blank
wall... like you're facing the wall like most people would face the screen.
Bob: Right. Okay I can hear a sound I think it's booting... [he types "Hello Mark how are you?" and the speaker says it in a robot voice]
Mark: Do you have braille on
Bob: I have some braille... there is braille on some keys. I have braille on some keys so then I can find other keys in relation to the ones that have it.
Mark: Oh what's this? [I
see something that looks like a fax machine without a phone]
Bob: Oh that's a reading machine.
Mark: Oh you put paper in it
and it reads the text?
Bob: Yes... yes... but it's not a perfect science. It makes a lot of mistakes.
Mark: And you have a printer
[we walk around his apartment... I notice he has a lot of binders with paper in them - these are books printed on braille. At one point he's looking for the cover to the printer and I point to it across the room and say 'it's right there on the couch' - forgetting he can't see. I also notice he has a lot of record albums. He also shows me his talking watch - a big rectangular thing on his wrist that 'speaks' the time in a variety of voices. We leave together because he has to take Harley for a walk. We are walking down his hallway]
Mark: So how does Harley know
when to cross? Can he see the colors on traffic lights?
Bob: No, I listen for the traffic to tell when lights have changed, or asks someone.
Mark: But he looks for cars in
Bob: Right, if I start to go and a car turns into the street, he'll stop me.
[we stand in the hall waiting for the elevator]
Mark: Have you ever wondered
what the colors of the walls and carpet are here in your building? Do you
wonder about things like that?
Bob: Not really...
[we get into the elevator next to an Asian couple, who have a dog with them]
Mark: Does Harley like to play
with other dogs?
Bob: Oh he loves it. He loves to play with other dogs.
[we walk out through the lobby and onto the wide sidewalk outside, the Asian couple with the dog stay in the lobby]
Mark: Did you sense that there
was another dog in the elevator?
Bob: No. Nope. I didn't...
Mark: Oh... interesting. Because
when Harley saw the dog his tail started wagging more and more and more.
Bob: Oh... you know, I wish they had said something... you know I wish the person would have said something.
Mark: Do you think they don't
say anything because you are blind?
Bob: Yes. Yes...
Bob: Definitely. They don't want to say anything...
Mark: That's interesting I guess
so... I guess most of the time though people see that it is a seeing
eye dog and don't want to disturb it. You know? They don't want to stop
it from doing it's job so they just... you know don't want to interfere.
It silences people.
Bob: Yes. And, I used to speak first but I got tired of it.
[We walk along the sidewalk]
Bob: So he's actually guiding me right now. It looks like we're just walking but he's guiding me.
Bob: He's keeping me straight... he's keeping me...
Mark: Do you always follow the
same route when you walk Harley?
Bob: Well, when we go this way we do. I guess we're going to go to his favorite place. In fact... when we do, stay just a few steps behind me or otherwise he won't go.
Mark: Oh... okay.
Bob: He's actually a little shy. Then when he goes we'll walk back and say good-bye.
Mark: Oh okay.
Bob: Okay here we are... Harley... over here Harley...
[Bob leads him over to a spot next to a tree. Harley goes right over to the tree and sniffs it. Then Bob leads Harley around in three perfect circles around the tree. Harley seems to turn in three circles as if it's what he's been trained to do, not because he's sniffing around. Harley has an obedient look in his eyes as Bob slowly spins his leash.]
Mark: Why do you do that?
Bob: He likes to sniff around first before he goes.
Bob: Good boy Harley!
[After spinning around... then Harley sniffs the tree and pees. Bob reaches forward with his hand to feel the top of Harley's back.]
Bob: Do you know why I touch his back like that?
Bob: To see if he's going number one or number two. See he did a one... otherwise I would have to pick it up with this bag.
Bob: Do you mind if I take your arm as we walk back?
[We walk back to Bob's building and I guide him with my arm.]
Mark: After we get to the building
I'll walk to the F train...
Bob: You take the F? It's a long walk from here.
Mark: Oh I don't mind the walk...
I have my headphones and listen to music as I'm walking through all the
Brooklyn neighborhoods. I like it.
Bob: Oh you do?
Mark: Do you... oh, I guess you
never walk with a Walkman or anything. No?
Bob: Oh no... I have to pay more attention.
Mark: How long have you lived
in this neighborhood?
Bob: 25 years!
Mark: Wow... when I was walking
here I was thinking about how the neighborhood looked really grounded.
Like it looked like a lot of the people who lived around here had lived
in the neighborhood for a long time. The yards were so manicured and lush.
Did you... do you think so? Are you aware of the yards in this neighborhood?
Bob: No... no not really. I guess not.
Mark: I guess maybe that's not
the type of thing people would necessarily tell you.
Bob: I wish... I just wish people would talk more. Especially for someone like me who's blind. Just for people on the sidewalk to say "Hello Bob, good afternoon!" makes such a difference!
Mark: I think you're right though.
You being blind silences people. They don't know how to react... generally.
On the average.
Bob: Especially because I think there are a lot more residents in this building from other countries... a lot more foreigners... I think they may be a lot less likely to strike up a conversation.
Bob: Are we coming to my building?
Mark: Oh yea... about 20 feet.
So... doesn't Harley know when we reach your building?
Bob: No... because you're guiding see. I have let go of his harness. When I take his harness he knows to guide me. When I don't hold his harness he just turns into a regular dog.
Mark: Oh okay... well here we
Mark: Well bye Harley [I
bend down and say good-bye to Harley, who jumps up and licks me]
Bob: All right then... well thank you!
Mark: No thank you!
Bob: Okay then bye bye! Are you sure you're going the right way to the F train?
Mark: Yes I'm sure! Bye!
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