Some el stops in Chicago make it easy to cross busy streets. I regularly use the underground blue line stop near our apartment this way — Whitney guides me down the steps on the south side, we walk underneath Congress to get to the exit that feeds out on the north side, and, bingo! We’ve safely crossed a four-lane highway!
When Seeing Eye trainer Chris Mattoon was here last month helping me with Whitney, I used the underground red line el stop to cross State Street. He found my subway street-crossing idea so slick that he asked if he could videotape us. “I’ve gotta show this to the apprentices!” he laughed, explaining that new trainers might regard my trick as cheating — they might insist the dogs keep their street crossings, ahem, above ground. “But really, an important part of the job is learning to trust the blind person you match with the dog. Each person is different, and you’ve gotta let them do what works best for them,” Chris told me, then started to chuckle again. “And this seems to work for you, Beth!”
The only thing that kinda doesn’t work about my underground crossings is this: the spot where we emerge from the blue line is also the spot where a gaggle of homeless men like to hang out. The men are no trouble, it’s just that Whitney needs to work us around them to get us to the next corner. We make this trip so often that one of the men recognizes us now and has decided to take us under his wing. “Three o’clock!” his baritone sandpaper voice rings out when he sees us come up the stairs. “Twelve o’clock!” he shouts as we head down the sidewalk.
I have never found the face-of-the-clock method very helpful, but I’ve come across a number of sighted people who think it’s pretty clever. Maybe they’ve all seen the movie See No Evil, Hear No Evil? That’s the one where Gene Wilder plays a deaf man who uses clock-face directions to tell his blind buddy (played by Richard Pryor) how to beat up some guy they meet in a bar.
“Nine o’clock! “Twelve o’clock!” The shouts from my Tom-Waits-sound-alike can be disconcerting. And distracting. I do my best to hide my annoyance and just smile his way as we pass. He’s only trying to help.
A few weeks ago Mike walked with Whitney and me to Union Station to catch a train to a suburban grade school. It’s been an unseasonably warm winter in Chicago — the sun was out, sidewalks were clear, and Mike escorted Whitney and me sighted-guide across the four-lane highway. I gotta admit, It was a relief to avoid the shouts from the Tom Waits soundalike at the el stop.
I kissed Mike goodbye at Union Station, assuring him he didn’t have to come and fetch us there later that afternoon — Whitney could guide me home on her own. Only problem: I hadn’t anticipated a blizzard.
The snow started falling when Whitney and I were talking to second-graders in the gymnasium at Kipling Elementary School, and it was still coming down when we got off the commuter train in Chicago. The American Federation of the Blind devotes a section on its web site to traveling in winter weather:
Winter-weather is often more time consuming, more physically and mentally tiring, and possibly more fraught with danger than traveling in good weather. The cold often brings personal discomfort, making it difficult to concentrate and learn during travel or mobility lessons. Your toes, fingers, and ears are particularly at risk. To protect your extremities, it is necessary to plan one’s clothing and equipment well beforehand.
When I was a kid, I thought it was magical, the way snowfall muffled the sound around you. I still do. But on my walk home with Whitney that afternoon, it just wasn’t the magic I was looking for. By the time we left the train station, enough snow had fallen to mask the audible cues I use to navigate the city. Commuters trudging towards the station kept their heads down to avoid the snow pelting their faces. This would have been fine if they all had dogs like mine to guide them, but they didn’t. Whitney was on her own, weaving me around the blinded commuters in our path.
Snow had accumulated between the raised, circular bumps I’ve come to rely on to tell me we’re at the edge of a curb ramp, so I wasn’t always exactly sure where we were. The further we got away from the train station, the fewer pedestrians crossed our path. And then suddenly I realized: we were alone. I stopped. Listened. No footsteps in the snow, no sounds of shovels, nobody there. Panic. Where were we? My iPhone was in my bag, and I knew I could call Mike. But what would I say? How would I tell him where to find us?
And that’s when I heard it. A voice like an angel. “Twelve o’clock!” my subway sentry shouted.
I picked up Whitney’s harness, squared my shoulders towards the foghorn, commanded, “Whitney, forward!” and Wonderdog Whitney pulled me towards the voice in the wilderness. “Twelve o’clock!” he called out. “Twelve o’clock! Twelve o’clock!” When we got close enough, Tom Waits reached out. He put his gloved hand in mine, and led Whitney and me to the subway stairs. Once there, he placed my palm ever so gently onto the banister and walked away. We got home fine from there.
And now, when my pal by the subway entrance croaks out a clock direction, I don’t just smile his way. I thank him.