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'A Brief Disquisition on Visual Language' by Stephen Kuusisto


'I made the decision not to drive when I was 15 and was diagnosed with gran mal epilepsy,' writes David Hill. Read letter.


  Blind Pew Walks Everywhere in Columbus, Ohio

drawing of chicory

By Stephen Kuusisto

NOW AND THEN, WALKING the shoulder of a road, moving slowly with a cane, I feel like Robert Louis Stevenson's "Blind Pew" -- I'm the blind man who talks to himself as he makes his way to the supermarket, a two-mile round trip jaunt. I wear a backpack and I think of a cartoon I once saw entitled "Life Without Mozart" -- it showed a patch of desolate landscape, a desert, where only a cactus grew, and beside it lay a flat tire and a rusted can.

I'm walking the edge of a road where everywhere in the tall grass are the tokens of "life without Mozart" -- the McDonald's trash and the shattered beer bottles. I'm walking here -- that is, in a place not fit for recreation. This is walking in earnest and I'm thinking of Nanao Sakaki, a Japanese poet who as a boy was the radar operator on the day they dropped the bomb on Nagasaki. A survivor, he has spent his life walking across North America from one nuclear installation to another, writing poems, many of which are ecstatic. He describes how to eat from the ditch along the road. He pan fries grasshoppers, which he soaks in tamari: they taste like garlic. The thoughts of the non-driver. . .

It's no exaggeration to say the world of the non-driver is the wayside ditch. My progress is checkered with broken sidewalks that stop as the road wends toward the fast food places and the malls. Walking this city has made me an amateur archaeologist -- I follow the abandoned trolley lines. America had light rail transportation until the years just after the Second World War. Old residents always get a little dreamy recalling the trolley that went all over town. In "Life Without Mozart" one follows the half exposed skeleton rails of the buried trolley lines past the old foundry and the abandoned dairy.

I walk past the weathered clapboard houses which were bought directly from the Sears catalogue back in 1914. Weeds grow up through the sidewalk. On one unpainted and sagging porch a very old Dachshund gets slowly to its feet and barks as I go by. Even Little Fritz knows that the non-driver is always skulking, sneaking through people's yards. The forced walker is a cross between a reporter and a burglar with perhaps a hint of something more unseemly -- the "odd" uncle who might talk to children. Driving means honesty in America. Walking implies vagrancy.

As a non-driver I'm unprotected from the shabby and humiliating conditions that the elderly and the poor experience daily. Our Greyhound stations stink of urine. In the smaller towns, the bus depots are often closed and unlit at night. The drivers are Dickensian characters; Fred MacMurry, who once smilingly told Americans to "go Greyhound and leave the driving to us!" has now been replaced by Mister Murdstone who is unwilling to tell you when the next stop will come.

Sitting in the bus terminal one finds that buses come and go without announcements. In the Syracuse, New York station a pregnant Latino woman with two small children has just missed her bus. There was no boarding call. The only person on duty is a bored college-aged boy seated behind seven empty ticket counters. He doesn't know why there was no announcement. The next bus is hours away. The woman wants to know if there's a store nearby where she can buy formula. The station is located in the middle of a warehouse district. Outside there's only barbed wire fence surrounding the parking lots of abandoned mills. Life without Mozart.

We decide to call a cab and go to a supermarket. When I call the dispatcher he doesn't know where a supermarket is in the vicinity of the bus station and he's not interested. I imagine that the driver will know and tell him to send a cab and that we'll figure out where to go.

The cab takes forty minutes to appear and as it pulls up I discover that it has five people in it -- all of them going in different directions. One of the seated customers knows where there's a grocery and I get in alone and pay the driver extra to whisk me there and back. The others in the cab don't seem to mind. It's as if, forced to rely on the cab, they've lost something essential in their individual cartographies. People who can no longer remember what the map used to look like before the war. Six people in a cab which will take all day to get them where they want to be. Non-drivers.

I wonder why the others aren't driving? Bad credit? Sudden divorce? Everyone looks a bit frayed. My fellow passengers, four men and a woman, look like characters in a story by Graham Greene. We've all been walking in the wayside ditch and now we're taking a third-world cab ride through downtown Syracuse. I wonder if any of us has a driver's license -- especially the driver who, it turns out, has no peripheral vision. He's noticed my white cane and tells me about his near miss with a parked van. "Life is first boredom, then fear," I think, wondering if I shouldn't start driving myself. I'm reminded of Breughel's painting where the blind are leading the blind into a ditch.

The semiotics of the American car must include in addition to "freedom" words like "autonomy"; "emancipation"; "independence"; "liberty"; "latitude"; "range"; "scope"; "agency"; "alternative"; "choice"; "option"; "ease"; "leisure"; "respite"; "boldness"; and "license".

Assured by the real estate agent that the Central Ohio Transit Authority would get me to work, I bought a house in a northeastern subdivision of Columbus. But as the Ohio economy falters, the public transportation system has also begun to collapse. Advertisers and test marketers think of Ohio's capital as being the nation's most representative city. The locals are commercial guinea pigs of sorts, products are rolled out in the stores and the shopping preferences of Central Ohioans are recorded. Will customers buy a taco with fried fish inside? The city is subjected to hundreds of fast food experiments.

It's no wonder that the bus system should have become a weird public trial too: the Central Ohio Transit Authority -- COTA -- recently began eliminating entire bus routes from its system and sharply cutting the frequency of other trips. What is particularly noteworthy about the elimination of these buses is that the cutbacks were discovered in much the same way the fish taco appeared -- it was a de facto move, managed without public consent. Riders found out about the cutbacks from drivers. On the day the cutbacks went into effect there were no revised schedules posted -- either on the company's website or through brochures. People stood at bus stops and no buses appeared.

There was, it turns out, a poorly advertised public meeting one month before the elimination of service, an event held downtown at which bus company officials announced the cutbacks. The irony behind the transit authority's thinking is rather wonderful, especially to a confirmed walker -- the explanation surrounding the elimination of these routes is fairly mouth-watering. COTA is taking the money they will save from providing bus service and using the funds to study the feasibility of building a light rail system. One is reminded of Aesop's fable in which the thieving fox assures the other animals that they wouldn't have liked the taste of those grapes. We can imagine the thing we didn't eat. We can ride the invisible trolleys. Even Joseph Heller couldn't have imagined this kind of public administration.

On the day the buses disappeared local televisions stations announced the cutbacks. The light rail system was not mentioned.

Naturally, on the day the buses disappeared it was unseasonably hot. I waited at a bus stop for an hour with a woman in her nineties. She told me she was ninety two and I told her that this might be the actual temperature. It turned out that it was ninety three degrees. My dog guide, a yellow Labrador, curled up on the sidewalk and baked. I gave my elderly companion my New York Mets baseball cap.

Blind Pew walks the dark lanes of Treasure Island because he symbolizes the ostracism of disability. He is one of those characters you will only encounter if your car breaks down or you are unwise enough to stop. He represents what the ocean will do to you if you don't watch out.

If you live in Columbus, Ohio I urge you to keep your automobile in good repair.

Posted June 9, 2004

Poet Stephen Kuusisto's most recent book is Only Bread, Only Light. He teaches in the graduate creative writing program at Ohio State University in Columbus. Read his recent poem Elegy for Lucy Grealy

WHAT DO YOU THINK of what you've just read? Click to tell us.

Readers respond . . .

Kuusisto's article struck a deep chord in me. I made the decision not to drive when I was 15 and was diagnosed with gran mal epilepsy. Since I lived in Alaska I had to rely on an undependable bus system or rides from friends.

After much frustration I began to bicycle everywhere. This is great in the summer but the winters proved to be a challenge. Making my own studded tires, finding the right clothes that would keep me warm but not make me sweat and finding a bike that could stand the temperature changes were hit-and-miss projects. Riding on black ice or three feet of snow took years of practice and many hard falls.

Would I drive if I could? Of course, but there is no way I would risk other peoples' lives.

-- Peter Hill, East Windsor, NJ


A Brief Disquisition on Visual Language

By Steven Kuusisto

You may notice that despite my blindness, I use terms like "I see" or "I once saw" in this essay. There are three basic reasons for this. The first is that this is the language of common speech. Like most American writers I'm always aiming to speak in what the poet William Carlos Williams called "the American grain."

The second incentive for using terms like "I see" is that meaning itself is driven by nouns. All nouns are visual because the human brain makes a one to one correspondence between words and things. You will see a luscious, many-faceted fruit when I write the word "strawberry". Ancient people believed that language was magical for this reason.

The third motive for using visual language has to do with laziness. This is an equal opportunity indolence. "I saw in the newspaper" is much easier to write than, "I powered up my Sony laptop, loaded JAWS for Windows, a text-to-speech screen-reader computer program for the blind and visually impaired and then I subsequently right clicked on today's on-line edition of the Boston Globe and listened to an article about the Red Sox."

Of course, when using visual language it's important to know your medium. I once heard former U.S. President Gerald Ford tell a national television audience between innings of a baseball game that "he loves watching the Tigers on the radio." Sorry, Jerry, only blind people can do that.

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