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Issues 2 & 3




Charity Begins At Home

By Georgina Kleege

Whoever wrote the spiel for Magazine Girl never counted on the possibility that she might run into a real blind person.
The other day I'm sitting here on my couch, minding my own business, when I hear a knock on the front door. Before I've gotten the door all the way open a young, female voice says, "Hi, how's it going?" She says it so unceremoniously I wonder for a second if it's someone I should know, but before I get any farther with this thought she goes on, "I'm out here today trying to meet new people. A friend of mine dared me to meet five new people every day. I already met your neighbor Ted over there."

I do not know my neighbor Ted. I assume she means the guy who just bought the house two doors down and turn my head vaguely in that direction. As it happens, I may be feeling a little guilty about my neighbor Ted, as if I should have done something neighborly, brought him a plate of cookies or something. In any case, her mention of his name catches me off guard.

Actually, everything about her catches me off guard. She seems wound a little too tight. She talks very fast, which makes her a little out of breath. She seems hyped up on something -- too much coffee, too much sugar -- something. She is gesturing more than she needs to, and sort of dancing around on the balls of her feet. Maybe she's just self-conscious, which leads me to wonder if the alleged friend who dared her to accomplish this stupendous feat is lurking in the vicinity. Part of me wants no part of this, but when she introduces herself, I stick out my hand and we shake. I am fully aware that this is not the true purpose of her visit. It is a ploy to get me talking to her, a foot in the door, so to speak, except that she's standing well away on the edge of the porch, in a way I suspect she's been told will make her seem less threatening. In other words, I suspect that this little song and dance is leading up to something.

Sure enough she now launches into a spiel about how she's a high school senior selling magazines door-to-door so she can earn points to help pay for college. Who is it that awards these points I have always wanted to know. You see, this is not the first time I've heard this particular spiel. And I am on the verge of asking, when all of a sudden she stops, mid-sentence, and says, "You can't see me can you?"

I say, "Well, no, as a matter of fact I can't see you. I'm blind." I'm mildly impressed that she can detect this. I do not have a guide dog, and around my own house I don't use a cane either, because hey, how hard is it to get up off the couch and open the front door? Furthermore, people tell me that I don't "look blind" by which they mean that I don't look like blind characters in the movies. My eyes blink, and move around like other people's eyes. I don't walk around with my arms stretched out in front of me like a zombie or a sleepwalker. True, I don't make eye contact, and I don't fixate on people's faces the way Deaf people are supposed to do, but the average stranger would not necessarily leap to the conclusion that I am blind. So what is it about this high school senior that she can tell something that is not generally obvious to other people.?

At the same time, I feel I've been given a warning here. I mean, it's not the smartest idea in the world to open your front door if you don't know who's there. A sighted person could look out the window in the top of the door and see that it's just a harmless teenager, but I can't. I grew up in New York City; I should know better. But this is not New York. People in this neighborhood don't even keep their doors locked all the time. Girl scouts still sell cookies around here. Kids trick or treat at Halloween. Neighbors come by to ask if I know a good plumber. The mailman delivers stuff that doesn't fit in the box. So I've let my guard down over the years. She's right, I should be more careful. I should stand behind my door and ask, "Who's there?" But the thing is people can't see me through the window in my door so it would be like saying, "You can see me but I can't see you. So if you'd like to commit a felony on the premises, feel free. I won't be able to pick you out of a police line-up." I should get myself a different door is what I should do. I should shut the door now and be done with this.

Still, I'm wondering how she knows this about me. She must be pretty sure of herself too, since what if it turned out I wasn't blind? Wouldn't I be insulted and slam the door in her face?

As if she guesses what I'm thinking, she says, "I figured as much. My grandmother went blind last year and you have that same spacey look she has all the time."

Spacey, I think, well that's a nice thing to go door-to-door telling people. I am now on the verge of sounding off at her about how it's a mistake to attribute a psychological condition or personality trait to a physical characteristic along the lines of vacant eyes do not equal empty head. I may be blind but I am not spacey. Generally speaking, I am a very alert, on top of things person. If I look spacey at the moment it may be because she interrupted me in the middle of something. I was sitting here, minding my own business, which is an absorbing topic for me so it's hard to shift gears. If I look momentarily distracted -- which is a college word for spacey -- it may be that I'm thinking about the cookies I'm going to bake for my neighbor Ted. It may be that I'm thinking about the vision-proof door I should buy. Or else, it may be that I'm pondering about this magazine racket and the point-awarding entity she claims will help her pay for college. Maybe I have my doubts about her claims since I know something about higher education and financial aid and feel there's a possibility that I'm being scammed. Maybe I'm trying to figure out how I can distract her for a minute to go and call the Better Business Bureau or the cops.

And what do I know about her grandmother? For all I know, her grandmother was spacey long before she went blind. For all I know, spaciness runs in the family. My first impression of her, the granddaughter was that she was, if not spacey, something -- spacey on speed. But before I can get to it she shuffles her feet then says, "So I guess you wouldn't be interested in any magazines."

Again, I have a bunch of things to say. Why should she assume that just because I can't see, I wouldn't want to buy magazines? Perhaps she guesses that because I am blind I don't have enough disposable income to go in for magazines. While it's true, that the vast majority of blind people are unemployed or underemployed she shouldn't assume that simply because I'm here at home, this is the case with me. It's a Saturday. Everybody's at home. All around us are the sounds of hedge clipping and lawn mowing. Isn't that why she's out here today? After all, she didn't pick this neighborhood at random. She knows the demographics. She did her homework -- or someone did. This is the sort of neighborhood where people are home on Saturdays and can pay for their own magazines.

Or else is it that she assumes, because I'm blind and therefore would have no use for magazines, that no one else lives in this house, no spouse, no life partner or roommate, no one who might like to read a nice magazine? And while its true that the vast majority of disabled women do not have spouses or life partners, she should cast her terribly observant eyes over the car in the driveway. Does she think it's just there for decoration? And even if there wasn't someone else living here, why should she assume that I might not have other means to read these magazines? Certainly she must know, since her very own grandmother is blind, that blind people have all sorts of means, especially nowadays, to read stuff. At the very least we can get someone else to read to us. Surely a nice granddaughter such as herself must volunteer to read an article or two to dear old blind Granny from time to time.

But since she's so busy with her magazine business and counting up all her college points, Granny could still make use of talking book services, or all the latest text-to-speech gizmos. But being recently blind Granny may not be aware that there are such options. Granny, with her well-known propensity to spaciness, may be somewhat behind the times. She may assume that for her like the generations of Grannies before her the onset of blindness signals an end to independence and usefulness, an end even to the time-honored activities of grannies such as cookie baking since how can she turn on the oven? Maybe what her granddaughter perceives as spaciness is actually Granny's awareness of the peril of her situation, fear even that to ask some one to read her a magazine, much less to find out about talking book services, or mark the oven dial so she can use it, would be to question the natural order of things. Better, Granny figures, to appear spacey and keep her mouth shut except to express gratitude for any paltry show of attention.

But before I get to any of this I think, "Wait a minute here. Is it my responsibility to correct this person's misconceptions just because she came knocking at my door? Where is it written that a blind person, or any person with a disability, needs to be a goodwill ambassador explaining the weird customs of our alien world? After all, I am not the first blind person to walk the earth. Is it really so shocking to discover that we've figured out how to do things like read magazines and bake cookies? Not to mention that some of us even manage to go to college and be gainfully employed."

I mean, there I'll be, standing on some street corner, minding my own business -- which is what I always do -- and someone says, "It's amazing how you mange to get around with that thing! How does that work?" meaning my white cane. Though it's understandable that I might not readily know that's what they mean, that I might momentarily appear spacey, with my mouth slightly ajar, and my eyes rolling in my head, and the smoke beginning to billow out of my ears. How does it work?" In fact, it does not work. I'm the one doing the work. I sweep it along in front of me to find out if there's anything I might trip over or step in. The cane is just a hollow tube made of carbon fiber. What do they think -- that it transmits information into the palm of my hand with electrical pulses in Morse code? "Curb ahead. Watch out for that trash can." Of course, all this is better than what people assume about guide dogs. People assume it's the lovable pooch who's making all the decisions: "Yeah, buddy, you think we're going to the post office, but I think we need a walk in the park."

Of course, as a rule I don't sound off about any of this. As a rule I try to be nice, try to impart useful information, saying, "You see, it's just a hollow tube made of carbon fiber. Here, you hold it. See how light it is?" This is supposed to make them more accepting and less fearful. And this is supposed to make it better for the next blind person they encounter, like their very own blind grandmother at home. In spite of everything, I feel for Magazine Girl's blind Granny, feel that maybe there's something I can do to help, some information I can impart to this young person on my front porch that might change how she thinks about Granny and Granny's blindness. For one thing, I'd like to suggest to her that the problem is not Granny's blindness; the problem is that the world is not accessible to people who can't see. There need to be better public transportation, more chirping traffic signals, kitchen appliances with tactile controls. Magazines need to be available in formats blind people can use. But I have been around this block before. Nobody wants to hear about changing the status quo. Even if I raise these points only to benefit dear old blind Granny, people will hear it as unrealistic, preposterous demands." You can't expect people to go changing the world just because some body's grandmother went blind. Especially since she'll be dead soon." And what makes matters worse is that Granny is part of the problem. That's right, dear old Granny with her spacey resignation, her acquiescent "Don't mind me I'll just sit in the dark" attitude. She accepts her status as useless, defective and potentially discardable, afraid to question the natural order of things, afraid to stir up trouble. She believes that's how a blind person is supposed to behave, the good ones anyway, the ones worthy of pity and maybe a little admiration for their stoical acceptance. She knows this because pity was the only response she ever had for whatever blind people she ever saw, back when she could see them: "Aw, poor thing. Look at her tapping down the street with that cane as if she has somewhere to go. Someone should get her one of those nice dogs."

I can feel Magazine Girl there on the edge of my porch, watching me, comparing my particular brand of spaciness to her Granny's. Does she think she can read my mind just by looking at me. If she can read my mind I sense she's thinking "Yes, Granny sometimes has the same sort of irrational fits of anger. I wonder why? Must be something about the blindness."

Calm down, I tell myself, get a grip. But I realize suddenly that what really irks me here is the assumption that because I'm blind I'm incapable of charitable feelings. After all, part of her racket is to get people to buy magazines they know they don't want or need just to help her out. But she assumes I'm different. She assumes that I am so preoccupied with the tragedy of my own condition that I cannot possibly feel compassion for others. In fact, I support a lot of charitable organizations -- feed the hungry, save the planet, protect the downtrodden. You name it, they've probably had a check from me. All of a sudden I'm starting to feel I need to prove myself to this girl on my porch, prove her wrong in her assumptions about blind people. What I should do is buy every magazine on her list. Sure, why not? Bring them on, because I support higher education. I feel an enterprising young person should have access to such an opportunity regardless of race, class, gender or disability. So sure, sign me up. Time and Newsweek. Practical Mechanics and Modern Bride. Then I can donate my subscriptions to the library, which I also support, or to perhaps a battered women's shelter or a retirement home. And then this girl can go home and tell her blind grandmother all about the nice blind lady she met today who was, contrary to what she'd always believed about blind people, compassionate and generous. "Yes, Granny," she will say when she gets home, "with that single gesture of generosity, that single tax-deductible check, she made me rethink all my previous assumptions. What's more Granny, she made me realize that you too have been subject to the same prejudiced view of blindness that previously tainted me. All that is going to change now."

Then all of a sudden, I'm starting to have my doubts about Granny. Maybe there really is no blind granny at home. This is a little far-fetched, but I'm all riled up. Maybe, just maybe, the blind grandmother was the part of the spiel meant to rouse sympathy, as in: "Help me out. I have a blind grandmother. My family is burdened with this tragedy so I cannot expect their financial support and am obliged to go door to door." It's like that McDonald's ad where the little blind girl is so thrilled to read the words "happy meal" on the braille menu, as if any kid in America, blind or not, needs a menu to know what to order at McDonald's. What is that all about? Clearly it's not a message to blind viewers that McDonald's is more accommodating to blind patrons than Burger King or Taco Bell since they're all equally obliged to provide braille menus and equally unlikely to be able to lay their hands on one on the rare occasion when a blind patron requests it. No, that little blind girl is there to make viewers tear up with feelings of good will for McDonald's -- a huge multinational corporation with a heart big enough to embrace even a poor little blind girl. Then, when everyone has a good cry, they'll run out and pick up a shake and some fries. I suspect that Magazine Girl's blind grandmother is part of the same mentality but whoever wrote the spiel for her never counted on the possibility that she might run into a real blind person and never gave her an alternative script: "If the customer is blind, leave Granny out of it."

Now she's going to have to think fast and come up with a new spiel because not only has she lost my business, but my existence has contaminated the whole block, the whole neighborhood. The blind grandmother sympathy ploy is not going to fly around here. Whatever my neighbors think of me -- and who can ever really tell? -- sympathy is not a part of it. They know me, they know I'm blind. They see me out there tapping my way up and down the street minding my own business, clipping hedges and raking leaves, carting the trash can to the curb on appointed days. They may even notice that a good many magazines get delivered to this house. If anything I guess they have me pegged as a pretty easy mark. Why else would they send me their kids every time there's some school fundraiser. They may marvel at the numbers of candy bars and rolls of gift wrap I buy so their kids can have new band uniforms. But these are the things one does for one's neighbors. Blind, yes, gullible maybe, pitiable, no. So the blind granny ploy is not going to work around here.

I should just say, "That's right, girly. I'm blind and therefore without disposable income and without a charitable bone in my body. So get lost." I mean, she's the one with the myths and the stereotypes here. She's the one who offered me this out. I should save myself some money, save my mailman's back, save a tree or two.

Still, I want to say something that might at least leave her wondering. So I smile my most compassionate smile, knowing that sighted people need this sort of reassurance, and say, "Thanks, but no thanks. I have all the magazines I can use. Good luck with the rest of your education." And then I close the door.

Georgina Kleege is the author of the novel Home for the Summer (Post-Apollo Press, 1989) and a collection of personal essays, Sight Unseen (Yale University Press, 1999)..

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