READ THE VERSIONS by RAY AGUILERA and MICHAEL PERREAULT.


In 1995, when I got my first computer, I was feeling isolated, just going to work and coming home, without any social life. I hoped the computer would help me broaden my horizons and meet new people.

Because I've been totally blind since infancy, I worked hard at Braille, learning how to travel with a cane, and eventually getting a guide dog, but none of these efforts to be self-sufficient helped me meet other gay men. Stimulated by the computer's potential, I joined many lists. Still I found that I was not meeting people; certainly I was not making contact with gay disabled guys.

You can imagine how excited I was when I heard about BENT and Disgaytalk, its e-mail list for gay disabled men. I joined the list and even moderated it for a time. Finally I found I was making contacts, both through e-mail and telephone chats. Because the sound of a person's voice is important to us, blind people rely on the telephone more than sighted people do. I never would attempt to meet someone I hadn't spoken to by phone; e-mails cannot tell me as much as phone conversations can.

While moderating Disgaytalk, I asked for volunteers to read to me over the phone. Bob Guter and Michael Perreault responded. In addition, I met Ray Aguilera, whose buoyant personality always left me smiling, and we had long talks about many different subjects. So, Bob, Michael, and Ray became my close Internet friends. As I got to know them I learned more about their different disabilities and how they handled them. For the first time I began to feel a part of the gay disabled world.

Although all three are mobility impaired, the fact that they had grown up sighted made them more a part of the gay world than I ever expect to be. For the first time I found that I could ask the kind of questions about gay life I'd never dare ask nondisabled guys, questions I feared were impossibly nave, like: "Do gay guys always suck each other off?" "Can you have sex if you only use your hands to stimulate your partner?" "How do guys look at each other to convey their interest?"

I began to think how wonderful it would be to meet these new friends. But would they want to meet me? Would the help I need as a blind person prove too difficult for them? How would we fill time, something that can be such a problem for a blind person? And how would I react to meeting them? Would I feel awkward, asking for help they couldn't give me?

Despite my concerns, I was confident that all would go well. My guide dog Harley was an excellent follower, so I envisioned being able to negotiate a strange environment without much hands-on help. Things changed drastically in January, when Harley suddenly grew ill and had to be put down, and I became dependent on using a cane and being guided. Distraught over losing Harley, I decided that a trip to San Francisco would be a way to make new contacts in person, and to see if I could manage without another dog. I asked my friends if they could help me get around and they all said Yes.

After a lot of planning and worry, I decided to spend a week in San Francisco in July. Before leaving, I sat for hours trying to imagine what it would be like walking with Bob, Michael and Ray. I was especially uneasy about meeting Bob, only because I knew that his right hand was not "standard issue." Often, when a blind person touches something unusual, he will pull back, or look startled. I was petrified that I would act inappropriately, not out of malice, but out of surprise.

I tried in vain to imagine what Bob's hand would be like. How would he guide me? Would I have to take his left hand? I hate being guided on the right side. In preparation, I had my friend John walk on my right while I held my cane in my left hand. I got used to this way of walking, and it seemed much less of a problem. I decided that when I met Bob, I would always deal with his left hand and that would solve my problem. What I don't touch does not exist for me.

When I arrived at the airport in San Francisco things went smoothly. Michael had made some calls for me, and the woman who met me at the gate guided me out to the curb and stayed with me until Michael arrived. It seemed to take ages, so by the time Michael pulled up I was rattled. As soon as we shook hands I noticed that his hand did not feel right. The thumb seemed a bit out of place, and there was evident muscle loss. Being totally unprepared for this, and having the matchless facility for putting my foot in my mouth, I blurted, "Your hand is messed up!" Once these words were out of my mouth, I knew I had unintentionally hurt Michael's feelings, and in an attempt to make things better I said, "Well, it's really not that bad." Michael took the whole thing in stride, while I wondered if I should just take the return flight back to New York.

But we hit it off immediately, with Michael teasing me about my gauche comment. He described the scenery, and soon we were talking about everything. When we got to my motel we had no trouble walking together and he was able to help me get to my room—which turned out to be on the third floor, even though I had reserved a first floor room. (Two friends from Reno who arrived later helped me change rooms the next day and were helpful with everything throughout my stay.)

While unpacking, I began to learn my way around the room and started to put necessary information into Braille. Then Bob Guter arrived. We met, hugged, and he casually offered me his right hand. I touched it, and the ice was broken. It made less of an impression on me than I had expected.

I want to stop here to emphasize something important. Often, when two people meet, whether one or both are disabled, fear can get in the way. We focus so much on disability we forget that the person is "not" his disability. I knew Bob from our lengthy telephone reading sessions and discussions. Why his hand assumed such a disproportionately significant role in my mind is hard for me to even guess. Once we met, he was Bob and that was that. I had already become comfortable with Michael, so things were off to a wonderful start.

A non-disabled telephone friend named Eddie also became an integral part of my trip. Although he had never met a blind person before, he seemed to understand what life was like for me. After we met I wondered if his initial reaction to seeing me was anything like my reaction to Bob's hand. Did he worry about spending time with me? Was he uneasy, but hiding it well? Would he make time to be with me? Could he integrate our phone chats into meeting a real live blind person? In fact, he seemed unfazed by everything.

One day he took me walking through the Castro, where he described the different stores and people we passed. At one point I heard a guy who sounded a bit queeny yell at a taxi driver for not stopping. I liked the feeling that everyone was gay, or at least, open to those who were, something I could not have experienced without Eddie.

Without going into endless detail, it's difficult to convey how magical my trip was. Michael, Bob, Eddie, and Ray all went out of their way to spend time with me. Ray and his friend, another Michael, took me on a tour of Alcatraz. The sea lions near the pier sounded like Harley, my guide dog, and my eyes filled with tears. Luckily, I wear contacts that make my eyes look more natural, so no one noticed.

At first, I had difficulty because Ray walked more quickly than I was comfortable with, and his gait threw me off. He was a sweetheart about slowing down, and I soon got accustomed to walking with him. And, boy did we walk! I have never walked so much in my entire life. By the time evening was nigh, I thought I was going to have to ask Ray and Michael to find a way to get me home that did not involve walking. But the time we spent together was so interesting that I nearly forgot how tired I was. Ray described a great deal to me, and I especially enjoyed my time . . . in prison.

Near the end of my stay Michael Perreault took a day off from work and drove us to the Headlands beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, where some of the hills made the car feel almost like a roller coaster. We found some of the WW II bunkers that are scattered along the coast, and I was touched by Michael's desire to let me feel things, even when he had to climb steps and do some intricate guiding. We sat on a wall near the water as I listened to the waves roar while Michael described the surfers below, something I had no idea about.

I would like to mention two other events that I will never forget. First is a potluck party that Michael organized at his apartment. I don't hang around with sighted people enough, and the few sighted friends that I do have usually interact with me on a one-to-one basis, so the party was difficult at times, but I heard most of what was going on, and everyone did his best to make me feel part of things. The food was delicious, too. I think Michael was staggered by my appetite.

The second event was having the chance to breakfast with Bob, and then spend time at his house, outside on a balmy day, being read to—even better than phone reading.

After my last supper in San Francisco, with Michael and Ray, something happened that makes me smile even now. Michael started executing all kinds of fancy turns around us in his electric wheelchair. It's such a quiet chair that I might not have known, except for the occasional breeze and Ray's commentary. Michael was "herding" us like a sheepdog. It was funny and sweet, and it showed me the freedom the chair gives Michael.

The week seemed over in no time. Bob drove me to the airport and Eddie came along so that he could walk me to the gate. Flying home I had time to think about all the things that made the trip possible: without the computer, I would not have met any of my San Francisco friends. If Michael and Bob hadn't started reading to me, the trip would never have taken place. Had I let my fear of meeting new people with different disabilities stand in my way, I would have lost out on my best vacation ever.

How odd to realize that I do not know as many people in New York willing to put themselves out for me the way everyone I met in San Francisco did. For me, the promise of friendship was a big reason for getting a computer. This trip fulfilled the promise.

Text 2003 Robert Feinsein
Photo montage/title design © 2003 Idea | Monger

 

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Bob Feinstein lives in Brooklyn, NY. Search "Bent Voices" and "Archive" for other articles by Bob, who is always interested in hearing from readers and loves to keep up with friends by phone.Bob is a contributor to the anthology "Queer Crips," edited by Bob Guter and John R. Killacky, Haworth Press, November 2003.

 

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/November 2002