ALONE
IN THE CROWD

by
Robert Feinstein

The blind man sat in the hotel lobby on an uncomfortable bench. He tried to remember all the things his mother had drilled into him when he was a little boy, things that were important to sighted people, but had little meaning to him:
"I must sit up straight, keep my hands down, my head up, but not too high, and above all, not rock," he told himself.

Like many of the congenitally blind, he had a tendency to rock back and forth, especially when he was under stress, or deep in thought. His mother would often remind him, in the strange German dialect she spoke, "Zei ruig!" and he would immediately cease rocking.

He forced his mind to the present.
He was in a gigantic hotel lobby for a gathering that included a cross-section of the gay population from all over the country. Some participants were thin, some were fat. Some were old, some were young. Supposedly, some were disabled, but mostly by old age. Many were alone, but some had partners. He knew he was one of two blind men there.

The noise in the lobby grew deafening. People talking, music from a bar, footsteps all around him. What should he do? How could he even begin to make sense of this gay crowd? Why didn't anyone approach him? Was it because he was too heavy? No, that couldn't be it: he'd been told that many "Big Guys" would be there. His age was right. He was 50, about mid-range. He knew that his shirt was "spiffy" because his sighted female reader had told him so the previous day.

He felt so taut and nervous that he was afraid he'd do something wrong, so he just sat there. Finally, someone approached. "What a beautiful dog. I have a Labrador. What's his name?" "His name is Harley," the blind man said. "Hi, Harley. You're a beautiful dog." "Do you have a dog?" the blind man asked, trying to keep the conversation going. "Oh yes," answered the voice that belonged to someone he could not see or sense. "Have a good afternoon!"

He heard steps walking away.
What should he do? His mind began to wander. When someone who is congenitally blind cannot make sense of what's going on he cannot enjoy the "scenery," and that's what was happening to him now. As the noise grew more distracting his thoughts drifted to things that had given him pleasure in the past, to details that he suspected sighted people don't remember.

He heard the sound of Michelle Kwan's skates against the ice as she was warming up for her short program at the 1998 Olympics in Japan. The microphones had been well placed, so he could hear her execute the jump: the scraping of the blade against the ice as she took off, the thud of her landing. He liked those sounds so much! He could recall minute details of an even earlier Olympics, 1994. He was certain he was the only blind person who knew that during her long program Nancy Kerrigan had doubled her opening triple-flip jump. This trivia gave him a momentary sense of superiority and confidence. He remembered classical music he had heard and enjoyed. He thought of a time in France when his room was filled with friends: five or six had come to visit him.

He heard the voice of his aunt talking to him in the German dialect she had used. She was telling him, as she had done often when she was alive, that a hungry boy had to eat what was on his plate. How he missed her. How he wished they could talk together in that strange, dying language. He caught himself rocking. "Zei ruig!" he ordered.

Suddenly, there was "Wolfman,"
one of the gathering's organizers. "Come on," he urged "I want to take you around to meet some people. They've heard all about you." The blind man got to his feet, took Wolfman's arm and off they went. In a five-minute blur he was hugged and introduced to ten or more people. He knew he'd never recognize any of them, or have contact with these guys again in any meaningful way, but he went through the motions. He was overcome with a feeling of profound loneliness.

After the last hug, he excused himself and asked how to find the Camp Street exit. His dog needed to go out, he explained. Earlier, one of the men had helped him find a place for Harley. He couldn't help thinking, with some disgust, that that was about all the help he'd had the time to offer. "I'll go with you," offered Wolfman. "Thanks," he replied, "but I have to go alone, or Harley won't park, um, go to the bathroom." He'd slipped up and used the training-school term, one he knew sighted people wouldn't understand. Harley found the single skinny potted tree and parked.

The blind man walked back into the hotel,
but he knew that his dog wouldn't be able to find the elevators. "Can someone show me where the elevator is?" he called out. This was so hard. He had a Masters degree in French, but he couldn't find a hotel elevator. He waited until someone offered to help. "I'm on the 23 floor," he said, "please take me to that bank of elevators." There were four, two on each side, far apart. He listened intently, hoping the one nearest him would open, but heard one of the others instead. Somehow he managed to push himself in without getting hit by the closing doors. He found his room and lay down on the bed.

He hadn't planned to sleep so long, but it was after eight when he woke up. "Where will I have dinner," he asked his dog? Harley wagged, and he held him tight, petting him, and feeling his body from head to tail. Together, man and dog left their room. After finding the infamous Camp Street Exit (amazing how many sighted people told him there was no such thing) and letting Harley park, he asked for the hotel dining room. Alone with his dog, he had his supper, then returned to the benches in the lobby. More questions about Harley, but mostly sitting and waiting. What was he waiting for? He didn't know. He knew he wanted to go home. But only one day had passed. Maybe things would get better tomorrow. They couldn't be any worse. At least Harley had parked.

When he was growing up, his mother had insisted that he was just like everyone else. They see with their eyes, she'd say, you see with your fingers, that's the only difference. He wondered what she would think if she could see him now.

The next morning he didn't feel like getting up,
and stayed in bed until lunchtime. He had no one to have lunch with and he couldn't afford hotel prices, so he set out with Harley to find a restaurant. After asking some people, he was directed to a pleasant cafe. To get there, he and Harley had to cross a three-lane street. Luckily, someone helped them. But how would he get back across that street? Oh, well. No need worrying until he'd had his lunch.

After lunch he wanted to buy deodorant and some lifesavers, so he asked the cashier where to find a drugstore. An employee standing nearby offered to walk with him. He could tell from her voice that she was a black woman. It was seven blocks or so, but she walked next to him all the way, chatting amiably about the different stores they were passing, never once expressing impatience. He tried to make mental notes about where they were going, feeling more desperate by the minute. It was no use; he was lost. He didn't even know the address of the hotel, but he knew the name. It was the Sheridan, and yes, it was on Atlantic Avenue. Or was it Atlantic Street? Anyway, he'd worry about that later.

They finally reached the drugstore. Nobody in New York would have been so helpful, he mused. Maybe I should move to New Orleans. People seem nicer, even if nobody wants to talk to me at the hotel. Maybe it's because I'm no good at doing gay things: maybe I'm not even a true gay person. After all, I don't like sucking cock. Maybe I'm asexual. Maybe it's all a big joke played on me by the universe. The woman's voice jolted him back to the present. "Are you all right? You aren't answering me." "Oh, I'm sorry. I guess I'm just tired." "Here's the drugstore," she said, and he thanked her for her help.

Inside, people were kind, and he got what he needed. Someone helped him cross that intimidating street and after first going into the wrong hotel, he managed to find the right one "Wow!" he said to Harley when they'd reached their room, "We did it. Good boy! We found a restaurant and we found a drugstore and we found the hotel and we're back in our room. You're a good dog, Harley."

After a nap, he called the other blind man he'd met and asked if they could have dinner together. "How are things going?" he asked. "Oh," Frank answered, "I had breakfast alone this morning, and I spent too much on lunch yesterday. I'm going to run out of money, but sure, let's have dinner. Wanna come to my room?"

He and Frank got naked and played around a bit. Then they remembered that there were welcoming speeches. They found the big ballroom, and sat next to each other. They listened to the speeches, and tried talking to the other men at their table. The meal was buffet style, but people were kind and got them food. In his welcoming speech, Wolfman said, "If you don't get laid here, you might as well be straight." "At least Frank and I gave it a try," he thought.

The next day things seemed to be a bit better.
More people asked about Harley, and an Englishman gave him his room number. A seventy-five-year-old man wanted to get together. He almost said no, but decided to make the best of it. It wasn't pleasant. Neither of them came.

At the banquet that night, he was seated at a table of deaf men. Maybe the organizers figured all disabled people were identical. But one of the deaf guys had a hearing lover who helped out. Gee, he thought, here's somebody who learned Sign Language so he could be with his lover, yet nobody even talks to me. I don't understand. Maybe Sign Language is very beautiful. And maybe this guy is a great cocksucker. Maybe I should take lessons. He decided not to go to the dance after dinner. The music would be too loud, he couldn't dance, and besides, he was waiting for the Englishman.

It was late when the Englishman showed up. They hugged for a while and then he got the Englishman off. "That was fantastic, mate," the guy said. "I've got to go now. Maybe I'll see you later." "But what about me?" he asked. "Not now, I have to see a friend."

"I gotta get out of here, Harley!" he yelled. "I don't care what it costs me. I'm having a horrible time. I was stupid to come. Why did I think I'd be included? Haven't fifty years of being blind taught me anything?

He managed to get an airplane reservation for Sunday, so there was only Saturday to kill. In desperation, he called a blind friend in California, a woman named Toni. She had told him that she knew a gay guy in New Orleans. Toni called Ron, and Ron promised to meet him for lunch on Saturday. They went for a delicious lunch and enjoyed an afternoon in the French Quarter. For a while he forgot his misery and loneliness. Ron's offer to drive him to the airport the next day gave him a feeling of buoyancy.

After packing, he set out to find someone to help him check the room; he wanted to make sure he hadn't forgotten something. He had had the foresight to copy down a few people's room numbers in Braille. One man did stop and found that he had overlooked some underwear.

The next morning, before leaving for the airport,
he had, like a grateful blind person, called to thank the organizers and tell them he was leaving early. Wolfman seemed annoyed. "There's a walking tour of New Orleans; I made arrangements for you to attend." "Thank you, but I need to get home." He knew no arrangements had been made. He knew that he'd probably have had to ask for help, and he was sick of that role. At home he could manage alone.

Back in his apartment, he flopped down on his bed, and tried to make sense of the past few days. His brain was spinning, refusing to focus. He felt like he'd been having a nightmare. "A whole gathering of gay people, and I was alone," he thought. He understood better than ever the old adage about being alone in a crowd.

A week has passed and I am still trying
to understand what went wrong at the convention. I know that everything the blind man recounted is true because I am that man. I chose to write in the third person in order to relate my feelings and thoughts in a more detached way. I felt as though I were two people: one trying to participate, another observing what was happening. What could I have done differently? Should I have been more insistent on being told exactly who would help me? Should I have explained my needs in a more detailed way? Maybe. But you can't force people to interact with you. In that department I really couldn't have done anything to change how I was perceived.

I've been thinking of the few people I've become acquainted with since getting my computer. Most wrote to me because of an article I published on the web, and I answered a few ads on very specific e-mail lists, such as The Chubs Digest.

I plan to place more ads, but I need to ask myself if my expectations are unreasonable: I want to make gay friends; I want a special buddy to take walks with, a friend who won't mind describing quiet passages in a movie. I think of my new friend, Donald, someone I met through the web, and the wonderful walks we've taken together. Aren't there other Donald's in this sea of gay people? Maybe I need to remind myself to be as specific as possible about my desires and needs. That way, anyone who contacts me will already have a good idea about what I am looking for. I will no longer try to participate in large group events like the one in New Orleans. I have finally accepted the hard reality that they don't work for me. They leave me feeling more alone, more isolated, and more unsure of myself than is good for me.

I'll admit that I have made plans to attend Convergence, a meeting for chubs and their admirers. Although this is the kind of meeting I just swore off, I think it's a reasonable exception: it will take place in Montreal, a city I like, and I'll make plans to get together with the few friends I know will be attending. This time, if I get bored or lonely, I can always go to my room and listen to French-language radio programs.

I will have absolutely no expectations. No, that's not true.
I am looking forward to being presented to the biggest guy there, and a friend has promised to help me find him. If we don't hit it off, I'll have a pizza-with-everything delivered to my room, and revel in my debauchery. Who knows? Maybe, one day, I'll be the biggest guy at a Convergence meeting. Will that improve my popularity?

© 2000 Robert Feinstein

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BOB FEINSTEIN (harlynn@panix.com) lives with his companion, Harley, in Brooklyn, NY. Bob speaks Spanish, French, "and an obscure Yugoslavian dialect of Yiddish." Harley understands all three. Bob is the moderator for DisGayTalk, an online discussion group for disabled gay men operated in cooperation with BENT. He notes that he has a great long distance program that makes phone friendships practical.

Read Bob's previous article for BENT, "Being Blind and Gay."