by Robert Feinstein

"Subway Car, Empty," 2002 by Dave Beckerman

One of the most difficult problems my parents had to face was what to do with me during the summer, when school was out and I had few friends to play with. My mother heard of a place called Camp Solitude, in Lake Placid, New York, for musically talented kids and she enrolled me. Although I was the only blind camper, I loved it there and returned for five consecutive summers. I felt a part of things and made some good friends.

When I was sixteen, some friends I had made at camp decided to come into Manhattan from New Jersey, where they lived, and invited me to join them. I was just learning how to travel with a white cane, and knew only a few routes, but I took the subway to 57th Street and met my friends in front of Carnegie Hall with no trouble.

Our little group included me, Rebecca and Frances, who were sisters, and Douglas. We were all about the same age, and it was wonderful for me to be a part of this group. I was supposedly "going steady" with Rebecca, and Douglas was with Frances, although he liked another girl named Marcia, who would not give him the time of day. In truth, I liked Rebecca as a friend, but felt a deep attraction to Douglas. He was a huggy guy, and whenever we hugged I got an instant hard-on, a response Rebecca never elicited in me. I was afraid to talk about this with anyone, and the idea of being gay never really crossed my mind. I just knew that I was much more attracted to Douglas than to Rebecca.

Often, Douglas would tell me how sad he felt because Marcia wasn't interested in him; he was an emotional guy and would cry. We would hug and I would try to console him, all the time trying to control my feelings. Of course he never knew the effect he had on me.

Despite these confusing emotions, I felt comfortable with all three of them. Rebecca had even learned some basic Braille, and would write me notes. The best part was that I did not feel different with these kids: I felt accepted and at ease. I was able to forget about being blind and just enjoy myself.

When we got ready to set off that day, Rebecca suggested that I could put my folding cane in her pocketbook if I liked, which seemed an excellent idea, since without the cane I could walk with a friend on each side. I walked with Rebecca on my left, and would alternate between having Frances or Douglas on my right. I was quite demanding, and during our walk I would suddenly say, "I want to walk with Douglas NOW!" and he would go to my right side.

Having someone on each side made for wonderful walking. We even ran a bit, and Frances tried to teach me to skip, which was a disaster: I wound up falling and pulling Frances and Rebeccane down with me, but it was all in fun, and I was the happiest kid in the world.

We walked around Manhattan, ate in a diner of sorts, and decided to take the subway downtown to explore Greenwich Village. I was supposed to go back to Rebeccanene's house in New Jersey that night, so I didn't have to check in with my mother.

At the subway station, waiting for the train, Douglas called Rebeccanene to come look at something while I stayed put. I was accustomed to being left when sighted people wanted to look at things, so I wasn't at all upset, but then I heard the train arrive and depart, and nobody came back to me.

I called out the names of my friends: "Rebeccanene, Douglas, Frances! Are you there?" No answer. I stood stock still, trying to listen. I heard throngs of people, and trains pulling in and out, but nobody approached me. I must have been mistaken, I thought to myself. The train I heard must have been across the platform, on the other side. My friends were probably just looking at something. Why was I such a worrier? They would be right back.

I tried to relax as I listened to the throngs of people coming and going, the trains pulling in and out all around me. But still nobody came. I called out again, "Rebeccane? Douglas? Frances?" No answer. I realized then that I was alone—alone on a double-edged subway platform without my cane.

I cannot express in words the terror that seized me. To understand how I felt, you need to have an idea of how a white cane is used. First, you learn to swing the cane from left to right in an arc. As you swing left, you step with your right foot, and vice versa. At each step, you tap the cane from side to side to establish a regular rhythm, a technique called two-point touch. You lift the cane slightly as you swing it from left to right, and the tip touches the ground only when the arc is completed on either side.

There is one exception to this technique, and only one: when you are on a subway platform. There, you slide the cane so that the tip never leaves the ground. This is because subway platforms, especially those with tracks on both sides, called double-edged or island platforms, are as dangerous for a blind person as walking a tightrope would be for someone sighted.

Due to the noise level, the distorted acoustics, and the crush of people, you must walk very slowly, and make certain that the tip of the cane does not leave the ground. Because it's difficult to walk in a straight line, you have to worry about the platform on both sides of you.

When I walked subway platforms, I used to put the cane over one edge and trail that edge; I'm sure this looked dangerous, but it enabled me to worry about only one edge and kept me walking straighter. Now here I was, on a subway platform, totally alone, with no cane.

I began to yell for help and a woman came over to me. "What's wrong?" she asked. "My friends left me and I don't have my cane!" I managed to say. "What's wrong with you?" she asked. "I can't see," I answered. (My mother forbade me from using the word blind, but I figured that the dark glasses I wore were enough of a clue.) "I need to call my mother; please help me." "There's a phone upstairs," said the woman. "But I can't see," I shouted.

"I think he's crazy," another woman said. "We better get away from him." I realized that my terror had driven me to flail about with my arms, feeling for a pole, reaching for anything solid, but by doing this I had gotten totally disoriented, lost all sense of where the platform edge was. Everything echoed. It all sounded loud and confusing. I felt like I was going to pass out.

Calling on the orientation skills I had developed, I made clicking sounds to see if I could locate a pole. If only I could grab a pole, I'd be safe—I wouldn't risk falling onto the tracks. As I clicked, I could hear solid objects, but I could not tell if they were on my side of the platform. I was getting more and more turned around. By the time I stopped trying to orient myself, I was more lost than ever, without the slightest idea where the edge was in relation to where I was standing.

My fear grew, and I resigned myself to the inevitable: I would never get off that platform, or, at the very least, I would wind up falling onto the tracks and being crushed by a subway train. This had happened to a blind instructor at the Lighthouse, and people were still talking about it months afterwards. He was a good cane user, but he did not survive. And there was the blind woman named Mary Lou who had fallen onto the tracks and had lost both legs. Now it would be my turn.

I felt someone touch me and a man asked, in a kind voice, "Can I help?" I tried to answer, but I was so upset that I could not talk. Instead I started to cry. At last I managed to say that I could not see and my friends had left me. The man asked if I was blind, and I said that I wasn't supposed to say that word, but that I was. He asked what he could do for me, and I asked him to take me to a phone booth.

Just then, a train pulled in and suddenly my friends were hugging me and apologizing. Each one thought the other was watching out for me. "Oh, thank God you're OK!" said Rebeccane. "Now we can go visit Greenwich Village."

I stood stock still, trying to regain my composure. It was obvious to me that they hadn't taken this whole thing very seriously. They had forgotten me, but now they were back, and all was fine with the world. Well, all wasn't fine with my world. "I don't want to go with you guys any more," I said. "I want to go home." They tried to convince me to stay with them, but I was too upset.

"Give me back my cane!" I demanded, practically shouting at Rebecca, "and put me on the subway!"

Rebeccane gave me my cane, and my carry-on bag, and they waited with me until the subway came. I got on, sat down, and the doors closed. When the train reached Sheepshead Bay, I laboriously used my cane until someone showed me the Down stairs. Once on the street, I knew where the bus was and took it to within two blocks of my home.

"What are you doing here?" my mother asked. "I thought you were going to stay in New Jersey?"

"I decided to come home," was all I said.

I did a great deal of thinking that night. I knew I would never fully trust sighted people again. I decided that no matter what the circumstances, I would always keep my cane with me and always carry enough money to take a cab.

Although my friends called me a few times, I brushed them off, and never went out with them again. To this day I cannot understand how they forgot me. I cannot fathom how they failed to comprehend my terror. It was then that I began to sense the chasm that exists between what I experience as a blind person and what sighted people understood about me. I realized that I could never totally relax with sighted people. I could never let my guard down because I had to "watch out for myself" unceasingly.

If these friends who knew me and supposedly liked me could have forgotten me, then nothing was sure. Thirty-six years later I still remember the terror I felt that day.

2002 Robert Feinsein



Bob Feinstein and Harley live 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.



BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/May 2002