When a stranger loves your dog and in turn appreciates you—the “you” being a compound figure—well, that affection comes with a price. Henceforth wherever you are, whether the somnolent lobby of a hotel or a glittering appliance store, you’re called upon to accept unsolicited conversational laurels from those you don’t know, or you know only marginally. The role entails a daily commitment to cheerfulness.
I was cheerful when a woman wearing what appeared to be a raccoon coat approached in the cereal aisle of the supermarket and said: “Oh I just love guide dogs!”
“Me too,” I said.
“I mean,” she said, “I really love them!”
“Remember you’re an ambassador,” I told myself.
“Remember you’re not in a terrible hurry,” I thought.
“Surely,” I thought, “people must advance toward strangers in parking lots and say Oh I love Volvos! That has to be the case.” I had to think this. Needed to remind myself how chance conversations inevitably reflect shy fascinations. I love the New York Mets.
But then beside a mountain of corn flakes I was alone with the raccoon woman.
She told me about her cousin who raised guide dog puppies. Told me about her husband who had a blind room mate in college who had a dog. Told me about her own dog, a German Short Haired Pointer.
Upside. I was in the world. Upside. I was able to look pleased though I was in a honking hurry and all I wanted was a box of shredded wheat.
“Be friendly if it kills you,” I thought. “This is not a serious problem. You’re part of something much larger than your meager life.”
The proscenium arch, favorable version: association with dogs makes blindness approachable. One is in the community, whatever that might mean. (Even Margaret Mead couldn’t say what this means.) Right there in a row of corn flakes I sensed approachable blindness meant “easy to talk to” blindness. And a dog is a talisman, the charm that opens the door. “And yes,” I thought, “what else is disability after all but a temple; a forbidding ziggurat.”
Over time I’d learn the upside game was complicated.
The expectations of strangers have many incitements. Under the proscenium the blind are handed diverse scripts.
Some of them have nothing to do with blindness at all.
In LaGuardia Airport, waiting for a flight, a woman suddenly appeared before me to say: “I had a dog like that once.”
“Oh yes,” I said.
“Yeah, someone poisoned it,” she said.
“Oh dear,” I said.
She stood and regarded us for a few silent seconds and then turned away.
You bet the upside game is complicated. You’re under pressure to be a good citizen. You represent the tiny world of guide dog users. There aren’t many of us. Blindness is a low incidence disability. According to estimates there are only ten thousand guide dog teams in the United States. All guide dog users together equal the population of Sleepy Hollow, New York.
In turn the sight of a guide dog team is exceptional. I perceived quickly that Corky and I were as odd and yet simultaneously familiar as Ichabod Crane and his horse.