I suppose almost everyone can remember incidents in which he or she acted in a manner that now seems cringe-worthy. Every one of us can behave as a complete ass at some point, right? Surely every one of us can survey the past and think “Oh no, did I really do that?”. Yes? Maybe not everyone? For my part, it’s the opposite, really, there are actually only a few moments, maybe five or six in my whole life, that I can look back upon and not feel that sick sense of embarrassment and shame. I generally don’t acquit myself very well.
I’ve managed, sort of, to make my peace with that, but a conversation with my wife this evening triggered a memory that I wish could just be wiped, but it’ll never be wiped, and every time it resurfaces it’s going to cut me until I bleed.
It was an ordinary working day. I was changing subway trains at Toronto’s St. George station, a nexus at which the East-West trains meet the North-South trains. One set of platforms sits a floor above the other, and if you’re coming West to East, and now need to go South – South, towards the financial district at Bay and Bloor, where I worked – it meant climbing up a set of stairs to the Southbound platform. I travelled at odd hours, specifically to avoid the crush of rush hour, so there was no escalator option; they reversed the escalators from up to down when the morning rush to the downtown had crested, in anticipation of the evening rush away from downtown, back home.
The stairs it was, then, but OK. There was none of the rush hour crush of frantic commuters, the station was pretty much empty when I got off the Eastbound train, and it wouldn’t be any hassle. Hardly anybody was about. But as I made my way to the staircase to go up, there was a young woman standing at the foot of it, alone. She had a white cane. She was blind. Blind and all alone, and it was obvious that she was, for this moment at least, disoriented, she wasn’t at all sure where she was within the station’s labyrinth of stairs and platforms, and my heart just broke for her. Normally, let’s be honest, I tried to avert my glance form the human tragedies you encounter daily on the Toronto transit system, and just go about my business, but this girl was all alone, and my heart just broke for her. Christ how horrible to be alone, lost, and friendless in that place.
I resolved to help her, what else was I going to do? I felt the need to be careful. I was lugging around a ton of emotional baggage by that point, and I’d learned the hard way that sometimes when you offered a woman assistance it was apt to be interpreted as a slight, an assertion that you didn’t believe she could handle anything on her own, and a woman who’d navigated this city on her own while blind, I figured, was apt to be jealous of her independence, and her competence to get along. One had to approach these things with some delicacy. I remembered reading that you’re supposed to announce your presence to a blind person, and then offer help in a way that was kind, but not condescending, so that’s what I tried to do. “Hello”, I said, “you’re standing at the foot of the stairs that take you from the East-West platform to the North-South”. I wanted to give her spatial coordinates, allowing her to form a mental map, without opening with the idea that maybe I should take her by the arm and guide her. Something about her bearing made her seem proud, and strong. She didn’t want to be treated like some sort of cripple, I thought. She just needed to form the right mental picture, she was momentarily disoriented, that’s all, and if I gave her the “you are here” information, she could set off by herself again with dignity. If she wanted further help at that point, I’d be there, and she’d ask for it.
She turned towards me, swallowed, and half-yelled “just give me a second, can’t you?”. Probably, those of you with more common sense than I have would have known exactly what she meant.
Not me. I was completely at a loss. I wasn’t at all sure what her emotional response signified. Maybe any offer to help insulted her? Maybe she thought I was trying to belittle her because she wasn’t certain, for a moment, exactly where she was, and she was thinking, pissed, why did we sighted types always assume she couldn’t figure it out on her own? Was she saying “Don’t you dare treat me like a charity case”? All I could think to do was mumble something like “Um, OK”, before I went up the stairs and caught a Southbound train.
I was about two stops away when it dawned on me. She’d thought I was angry at her. She’d thought I was saying “you’re in the way”. “This is the foot of the stairs, blind girl, you’re an impediment to traffic”. That’s what she thought.
It was too late to go back.
Ever since, I’ve seen her there, in my mind’s eye, alone, temporarily helpless, and then having to experience the abuse of someone who was a big enough asshole to tell a blind girl she was getting in the way. To leap to that conclusion, she must have received that sort of merciless treatment before. Everything would have been different if I’d only started with “Hi, can I help?”. Why, why, why, hadn’t I started it that way?
I can accept, to some small extent, that we deserve to be punished for the stupid things we’ve done with ignorance or malice in our hearts. In those cases, we’ve earned the sleepless nights. But if only there was some way to get a do-over, maybe just one in your whole life, to fix a misstep when you simply didn’t understand what was going on, first time around. For ever after, there’s a woman who remembers that a craven piece of shit barked at her, as she stood there alone, blind, and hoping for some help, because she was getting in the way.