A guide dog provides a series of “firsts”: the first time in a public restroom, the dog sitting obediently while you pee; two airline pilots seeing this and whispering about it. One of them laughs. The sight is also a first for them. They have no words for it. They like seeing the dog. They’re unsure what to say. The dog just sits and smiles.
The presence of working dogs in businesses is a catalysis—every moment is odd. In cosmopolitan work places people are not accompanied by animals. The arid environs don’t require them. A dog in a grocery store is strange, like seeing a horse in a saloon.
First time in a barber shop, Ithaca, New York. A Wednesday, early April, snow. I’d decided on impulse to get a haircut. Corky and I descended steps—the shop was below the sidewalk in a downtown building. A bell on the door tinkled when we went in. Men were talking as we entered but they turned silent upon seeing us. I wondered what the term was for a group of men gone quiet. The ancient soul surely knows what this is—five or six men staring and no one bothers to speak. The sight of a man and dog had violated the house geography. I shut the door. The bell wasn’t cheerful. “Christ,” I thought, “even the bell is against us.” Still no one said a thing. Disability scares some people. They have no words for it. On a primitive level they probably think disability is contagious like influenza, or worse, its the evil eye.
I had to be the one to break the ice. I went for a dog joke. “Hey, my dog needs a trim,” I said. That was all it took for the boys to snap back to life. It was like saying “abracadabra”. There was old guy laughter. “Great,” said the barber, “take a seat.” I took a seat. Corky lay down.
Though I was in the shop, happily awaiting a haircut, a tangible change had come over the men, who were not in fact getting trims or shaves. The old barber’s place was their social club and my presence had dampened things. Even the radio high on a corner shelf wasn’t helping as it was tuned to static. No one seemed to notice. The silence of the men continued for two full minutes. Corky rattled her dog tags. The silence was exceedingly strange.
Rather than throw out another joke I stayed quiet wanting to see what would happen. I thought the barber would toss out a cliche—something like: “We don’t get many dogs in here,” to which I’d reply, “at prices like these its no wonder.” But it wasn’t the barber who broke the silence. One of the old men said: “My friend, who I served with in Korea, he went blind—got a seeing-eye dog back around ’55.”
Then I understood their silence. It wasn’t the oddness of a blind man and his dog, or disability as a portent that had kept them quiet. It was memory. We talked a long time after the ice broke. But I felt faintly silly for my failure of human imagination.