IN THE CROWD
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.
forced his mind to
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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."