Every morning my Seeing Eye dog and I pass the same homeless man in front of the 7-Eleven store. “StreetWise today!” he calls out. “Can you give a little hepp today?” StreetWise is a newspaper sold by homeless people in Chicago. The concept is that by selling StreetWise, people down on their luck might get back on their feet.
For years I’d always nodded and smiled the vendor’s way as we passed. Since I can’t see to read, though, I never bought one of his papers. Until one cold day three years ago, that is. I left Hanni at home that day to go Christmas shopping with a friend — crowds can be so fixated on shopping that they step on the unexpected dog at their feet. I cabbed home on my own afterwards, and when I fumbled with my white cane at the curb I heard a familiar voice call out to me. “Want some hepp?”
The pronunciation of the word “help” was my clue. It was the Streetwise vendor. I grabbed his arm, and from the way my hand pumped up and down as we plodded together to my doorway I could tell he had a very bad limp. When we finally arrived, I held out a bill that had one corner folded and asked for a copy of StreetWise. “They only cost two dollars,” my helper said. “You’re giving me a five.”
“I meant to give you a five,” I said, showing him how I fold money to keep track of the denominations. “Thanks for the help,” I told him. “Merry Christmas!” He gave me a heartfelt thanks, then limped back to his crate.
A story in Disability Scoop says more than 40 percent of the homeless population in the U.S. are people with disabilities. The story quotes a report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development that points out that people with disabilities face additional difficulties — more than those who are poor — when it comes to accessing permanent housing. The HUD report suggests that people with disabilities “may have difficulties searching for a unit or finding a landlord willing to rent to them.”
The StreetWise vendor and I never exchanged names, but we have been friends ever since he helped me to the door that night. . He refers to me as “Mizz Lady. I call him My Friend.” On days he’s late to his crate he’ll call out, “Hello Mizz Lady – I’s likely to miss you this mornin’!” I always respond with a laugh, and a, “Hello, My Friend!” On days my dog and I go a different way and don’t pass My Friend, he notices. “I didn’t see you earlier,” he’ll say. “I was worried.”
Over the past year My Friend especially worried about Harper. “He’s havin’ a hard time, isn’t he?” he’d say. “Is he okay?” When I finally had to tell My Friend that Harper would be retiring, My Friend told me he was sorry.
It’s been three weeks since Harper retired, and people in our neighborhood have been generously taking time away from their schedules to walk me places I need to go. I am grateful for the assistance, but I’m afraid my face betrays a sense that I’ve gone backward. I need too much help. My Friend lifts my spirits with his comments. Whenever my escort happens to be a man, for example, he assures me he won’t tell Mike. “I’m not tellin’ anyone, Mizz Lady,” he says. “It’ll be our secret.” I respond with a laugh. “Thank you, My Friend!”
Thanksgiving yesterday gave me an opportunity to reflect once again on just how fortunate I am. Friends, family members, teachers, employers, donors, volunteers, book publishers, and, especially my husband Mike Knezovich, all put their faith in me after I lost my sight. They kept me on my feet, and quite literally kept me off the street.
I also feel fortunate for the Federal disability benefits I received when I first lost my sight, and over the years countless non-profit agencies have helped me find my way. Tomorrow I leave for one of those priceless non-profit agencies. The Seeing Eye breeds and trains guide dogs. And one of those dogs will be my fourth Seeing Eye dog. I am looking forward to the independence that will come with this new match.
On Wednesday, Mike escorted me downtown to teach my final “Me, Myself and I” memoir-writing class for this year, and we stopped for a minute in front of the 7-Eleven. “I’m leaving for a few weeks,” I told My Friend, explaining that it takes a while to train with a new dog. As we walked away, he called out to Mike. “I’m glad she’ll be coming back home with a dog again,” he said. “She’ll be happier.”
I will be, but no more thankful than I am now.