By ROBERT JACOBS
Robert Jacobs is originally from Long Island, New York. He earned an Associates degree in Advertising Design from New York tech. he transferred to the Rochester Institute of technology to major in Communications Design, receiving a Bachelors of Fine Arts Degree.
Rob suddenly lost his eyesight from CMV Retinitis in September, 1995. It ended his professional application engineering career. Loss of access to his great passion for the visual arts further compounded his distress.
Confronting total blindness, Rob learned adaptive technology, thereby implementing specific skills needed to continue writing, teaching and to maintain his independence. While adapting to blindness, Rob wrote and lectured for the MSPCA. He also facilitated a support group for others facing sight loss due to CMV. Additionally, he continues an on-going volunteer role as a tutor of English as a Second Language for immigrants.
Rob became a winter resident of Key West in 1999. He was invited to write a weekly column for a local alternative GLBT publication. His column, “The Blind Snowbird”, was very well received by a diverse and devoted readership. Rob has always maintained that the goal of his writing is “to engage, entertain, and enlighten people about each individual’s personal struggle with adversity”. He aims to creatively inspire others by presenting a unique perspective for a greater social purpose.
In March 2003, Rob published “Songs of the blind snowbird”. The book weaves previously- published columns with dramatic stories of concurrent events. He has since adapted some items into performance pieces.
Rob continues writing, developing a new manuscript entitled “Pluck: A Bird’s-Eye View”. His blog serves as a platform for new writings and to post timely extractions from the incomplete manuscript.Rob also works in equity research and market investment.
“What’s that cologne you are wearing?” he asked as we pulled out of his driveway..
Intentionally wandered off the sidewalk at the sound of a water fountain behind a chain link fence, voices had lured me up the driveway to seek directions. I’d been walking through this unfamiliar suburban neighborhood for over one hour.
I was in the passenger seat beside him when he posed this question.
“I am not wearing any cologne”, I replied.
“Something does smell familiar”, he insisted.
“Well,,,” the only fragrance may be my unscented deodorant or bath soap.”
(The previous week, my sister-in-law, Jane, felt compelled to inform me that it was Dove Beauty Bar. However, to me it was still soap.)
“Dove Soap.”, I told the driver.
“Oh, that’s it! I have a friend who uses cologne that smells like Dove.”
With that mystery resolved, I again thanked him for his generous offer to drive me to my destina-tion. He said it was still too far to walk.
That was far from the oddest exchange I would have that afternoon.
“I haven’t had sex since I lost my clitoris in the accident”, THE curiously odd LESBIAN confided to me. I was little more than a perfect stranger when she chose to impart this rather intimate bit of information. Without pressing her, I knew that, in time, further details would emerge.
It may not be that I am just a sort of guy that people naturally feel comfortable sharing personal details with, rather, I think that she is the type inclined to be gregarious — particularly when the information she chooses to share might have shock value. She relished the chance to intermittently toss me small bits of information about this topic throughout the afternoon. Was she trying to elicit a startled reaction from me?
Later that afternoon,”Here”, she placed my hand on the crown of her head. “Feel this indentation? That was also from the accident.”
Was she disappointed with my restrained response? Far more was yet to come. I sensed that it would be unnecessary to encourage her. It would ooze out slowly, like the viscous fluid contents of a cracked egg. Sure, my curiosity had been aroused, but, it did seem like an awfully personal matter, and I really did not know her. It already felt like an odd afternoon.
As I was leaving the apartment on this epic journey, I recall telling my friend, “I am heading out. I feel that an adventure awaits me.”
I believe that nothing interesting happens if you sit around and wait. So I get out there. This gets noticed and commented on all the time. Total strangers often comment, “You sure do get around”, as if a blind man isn’t expected to do so.
I value something which my first Orientation and Mobility instructor had said. He meant this ad-vice to be more specific to the day’s lesson, but I have found wider applications for this phrase: “Keep walking forward into more information.”
His statement was intended to teach how to find out what lies ahead. It is true — just standing in place will get you nowhere. I’ve condensed this concept into the common idiom: “Don’t just stand there!”
Over 13 intervening years, I have found it applicable in many situations. I am frequently reminded that blindness presents interesting unpredictable challenges. For instance, I realized that blind-ness makes me “mingle impaired”. Standing in a space crowded with people,, I hear them inter-acting, mixing, socializing, yet I do not know where to turn to find a familiar face. Never mind a familiar face, just any face at all — one that I might wish to address… like to ask “Is there any ven-dor here selling coffee?”, or “Where is the bathroom?”
Before leaving my rented apartment, I had inventoried the many pockets of my cargo pants. This ritual ensures that I am well-equipped for an outing: money, phone, digital recorder, keys, talking clock, hankie, etc. I don’t know if these shorts are still in style, but I’ve never been very concerned with fashion (to the horror of many Gay friends); I wear what feels most comfortable, or as little as possible, other than for compliance with local ordinances about nudity.
My destination was set: “Pridefest”. I summoned up courage, adventure, confidence and bold-ness. After all, I was alone in an unfamiliar city, armed only with recorded text directions, down-loaded from Google earlier that day:. A set of specific instructions from my front door to a certain public park, calculated to be exactly 2.4 miles.
At some point, I expected the need to solicit some assistance. This part of Florida is primarily suburban: a car-centric culture. Pedestrians are rare.
I had long ago walked passed my last known milestone, and had not heard a single voice for quite some time. I had no way of measuring the distance already traveled. I walked along under the hot Florida sun. I stripped off my shirt. Cars and trucks whizzed by. My instructions called for a left turn on “Progresso Drive”. But how many streets before I reached this intersection? For the last dozen blocks, I detected no storefronts into which I could inquire.
Quite some time had passed before I finally heard human voices in the distance. I could tell that they were locals. Even from a distance, it was clear that they were just loafing. I moved quickly, closing the gap. They were not going anywhere. As I said, they were just loafing, aimlessly stand-ing around. I know that some people do this, I don’t know why, but not everybody has much of an agenda.
The words emanating down the expanse between us were, for all practical purposes, unintelligi-ble. Unfortunately, this remained to be the case even as the distance had significantly shortened. I approached with caution and low expectations.
“Can you tell me if I passed Progresso Drive?”
I repeated my question.
“Never heard of that street.”
“Am I still walking south on Fourth Avenue?”
“Yeah, this is Fourth Avenue.”
“Am I heading south?”
No response. I seemed to have taxed them too much already with my first two questions.
I took a chance, fishing for some more information:
“What is this cross street?”
To myself, ‘the directions mentioned 8th Street, it seems I missed Progresso Drive. I’ll just keep heading what I believed to be south with the hopes of finding 8th Street, and improvise from there.’
I calculated that I was facing south, as the afternoon was getting late, and the sun was above and to my right. I started moving forward, ABOUT TO PASS this small assemblage. A woman ap-proached me and grabbed my wrist. Her voice was barely audible,
“I’ll get you across the street”
Despite her kind gesture by offering to help. Never mind that she grabbed the arm which held my cane. No time for me to give her lessons in leading the blind… She had pulled me so that the tip no longer touched the pavement. And suddenly, woops, there is the curb at my feet! Not much further along, I heard the water fountain.
“I’ll drive you to the park. Wait here”, the man who identified himself as Robert had instructed me. He had made this offer when I first asked him for directions.
“Give me about fifteen minutes”, he said. I didn’t want to wait fifteen minutes, but the alternative was dimmer. And I needed the rest. I would still get there quicker by his truck than by my own faulty devices. He had started to tell me that I would have needed to cross a major boulevard and some train tracks. I had known about the train tracks, but I thought that I had already crossed them… oh well; I was now in his hands.
I put on my shirt.
In fewer than 15 minutes, . He pulled up in front of me and told me to get in. Jumping back onto my feet, I moved a few paces toward the sound of the engine, felt for the door handle, and climbed into the passenger seat.
He backed the truck onto the avenue, then asked about the cologne.
I had learned that beyond the chain link fence was his Home and Garden Center.
“Did you leave someone in charge?” I asked this man named Robert — industrious as he must have been — a business owner who was working on this beautiful Sunday afternoon — so unlike the loafers I’d encountered about three blocks back.
“No, I think I will close up for the day.” I had already told him of my ambitious goal of walking to this park, but that I had missed Pro-gresso Drive. He had never heard of any such road. Then, Robert smugly harrumphed at my mention of the directions from the Google Maps web site. He commented how ‘they are not very accurate’… as if I was a real chump to put my faith into anything on the Internet.
Was there really a Progresso Drive? Well, it didn’t matter anymore. And how I was to get home?.. well I’ll worry about that later. Robert left me off at the entrance to the War Memorial Park — the site of Pridefest.
“Just walk straight ahead”, he directed me from the driver’s seat as I disembarked. “The ticket booth is about 50 feet in front of you.”
I vowed that I would use Google again in the future. I would also accept offered rides, if one hap-pens to come along. My excessive pride about being independent is not always to my benefit.
“Stay to the left, and on the path”, suggested some standers-by, upon entering the park. I took this unsolicited advice. Hearing music and commotion up ahead, I knew that I had arrived.
Tap, tap, tap continued the sound of my cane on the pavement. I halted abruptly at the noise of a generator blocking my path.
I must have looked weary and confused. One man took me by the arm and led me to a plastic seat, set a respectable distance from the front of the stage. The performer was some schlock hypnotist. From what I could gather, he had a group of participants with him up there. The people around me were busily gabbing and bustling about — obviously not very absorbed in the enter-tainment. There was occasional, but not very enthusiastic applause.
I felt silly sitting in that plastic chair all alone. I could detect that there were no other individuals on either side of me. The seat was in the shade, and the breeze felt a bit cool on my sun-baked skin. I yearned for the warmth of the sun. I moved over one seat. I stood up. I sat down. I stood up again. I moved back to stand in front of my original seat, turning my direction toward the sunlight.
In my mind, I heard my message: “Don’t just stand there!”
My feet carried me away from the empty chairs. Sunlight beckoned me forward.
I was nearing that time of day for coffee. When I heard voices gathered in conversation, I inter-rupted, and posed my question about coffee vendors.
“No, but they are selling beer just over there, and to the left of that, they are selling wine.”
This inquiry served as an entree to communication with other attendees — not a bad opening line, despite the lack of a positive
answer. It was my first South Florida Pridefest. I needed to be flexi-ble to accommodate the occasion. Wine was not coffee, but such an indulgence might arouse the spirit of the festival.
“We are mixing this Pinot Noir to create this champagne cocktail”, I heard the man behind the table say to the person in front of me. It must have been a promotion from one of the corporate sponsors of the event. I REQUESTED one of these cocktails. I wandered away with a little plastic cup. It occurred to me that the festival attendees had been imbibing alcoholic beverages all after-noon. I had arrived late to the party, but had no intention of trying to catch up. I was a blind man in a strange place with no idea of how I would safely return to my apartment sometime later that day.
I meandered through the crowd. A woman approached me.
“Can I help you find something?” she asked while lightly touching my arm.
“Are there any vendors selling souvenirs of Pridefest?” I asked.
“Sure, they are selling tee shirts.”
“Any tank tops?”
“I believe so. May I walk you over there?”
Flo was happy to see me arrive at her table.
“We have them in black or in white. There is a rainbow design above the circle logo for the event. Additionally there are stick figures along the top and …” she enthusiastically continued her sales pitch. That sounded like one busy illustrated bit of clothing. “Let me try it on in small.”
I stripped off my tank top and slid the yet- to-be purchased one over my head.
“Fits fine.” I assured Flo, as I dug into my pocket for some currency.
Now I would look like I really belonged there — that I hadn’t just wandered in by accident. Maybe that is why Jane, my soon to be good friend for the day, approached me. Then came her com-ment about her clitoris. I cannot say how this topic had come to be the initial line in our introduc-tion, but I was “in” with her.
“Did you see the guys this morning at the ATM discussing what they would be wearing?”
“Sorry I missed that.” Could she tell that I was being a bit glib?
“I want you to meet some of my friends”, she said grabbing my hand. WE took an excursion all around the park, and I was introduced to a lot of lesbians. Each one came with a personal com-ment such as “She is my ex-girlfriend.” Actually, most of them shared this label. A lot of girl-friends,
“When I was dead…” often preceded many of her statements.
“You must meet my friend Robert”, she gushed, as if he was some sort of celebrity. “He is really my best friend”.
It was good to have such a genial guide. As we dashed around among the thoughtfully- dressed gay males, and the comfortably- attired women, I had my left arm firmly around her waist, looping my fingers in her belt loops for security. I maintained control of my cane in my right hand.
“Do you want a beer?” clearly an encouragement, not a question. I must have still seemed a bit too sober for this crowd.
She was again chasing down her best friend Robert. It seemed that he was always just ten paces ahead. In brief encounters, we would occasionally be honored with his company. At one point, he had mumbled something about needing to go home to have dinner. I could not figure him out from these extremely brief episodes. He seemed rather aloof to me, but obviously was Jane’s hero.
“After I was no longer dead, Robert was the first person whom I recognized.”
This clarified some of Jane’s mystical connection to this earthbound idol.
I felt she desperately wanted to follow him. Standing inside the gate, WE WERE told that we could not exit with the beer.
I was holding a very large cup of beer. Actually, in my frequent state of not having the whole story, I did not know that she had been hanging on to a beer of her own. I thought that I had been holding her back from her mission. I made a gallant effort to drain my cup. I went from casual sips to chugging, so she could drag me towards the departing Robert, who already had a good lead on us.
My stomach had just accepted the final swigs from my cup, when she said,
“Here, help me finish mine”, and she poured it into my own empty cup, re-filling it halfway to the top.
She tugged me out the gate, past the security personnel.
We were walking fast, and she commented, “Isn’t that funny? They let you pass right by them with your beer!”
Was that a reference to my own blindness, or to theirs? Not certain.
We dashed rapidly forward.. There was a lot of laughter between us, which almost sent us crash-ing to the ground several times. We covered a long distance heading to Robert’s house, where she had parked her car.
“Gee”, she exclaimed after about twenty minutes, “I wonder where I left my keys?”
“That’s easy”, I responded calmly. “They are where all lesbians stash their keys. They are hang-ing by that industrial size hook from the belt loop over your back pocket.”
Our feet never touched any pavement as we forged forward. There were no streets to cross, no sounds of traffic — not even the sound of another person within range. I did not think this odd in the least, and was totally unconcerned about this mystical void. Maybe it was the beer buzz. Mov-ing at a fast pace, under my own power, with little concern for obstacles, provides me a sense of freedom, which I cannot achieve by myself.
I had faith in Jane’s ability to guide us safely — even as the bizarre conversations which we shared took many twisting routes of their own. Her idiosyncrasies might stun some folks, but I was already prepared for anything.
We finally returned to an urban landscape, and needed to cross a street. I learned that we were near the home of her very special Robert.
“Come on through the gate and around to the pool”, Robert instructed from the other side of a metal fence.
We snaked through the property and arrived at a very low table which was surrounded by curved benches of the same substantial architectural structure. The heavy composition of this unusual outdoor furniture seemed stable and sturdy enough to withstand a nuclear holocaust.
I was introduced to Robert’s current boyfriend. He slurred his very warm greetings. Unlike the furniture, steady and sturdy he was not. He kept falling off the bench. The table’s surface texture fascinated me. Irregular smooth materials were embedded into a dense cement-like form.
“Mosaic. Very fifties”, proudly boasted our host.
To myself, ‘Hmmm…Fifties… nuclear arms race… makes sense why this table fit a style of such sound proportion.’
We were politely offered cocktails. I accepted, Jane declined. Robert dashed off to his unit.
Left at the mid-century style table with Jane and the loopy lover, I suddenly realized that it had been an awfully long time since I had visited a bathroom.
“Jane, would you mind…?”
She led me back around the pool and to a set of stairs. I ascended first, and again took her arm at the top — the second-floor catwalk, lushly embellished with many potted tropical plants. We entered Robert’s dwelling. They chatted while I used the facilities.
When I came back out to the living area, Robert insisted on sharing with me some of the fine fur-nishings and ornamental fixtures of his home.
Not merely was this Robert a man of taste and style, but one of culture and aesthetic sensibilities. And with all this, he sported a sense of shrewd business acumen.
“Come here, you must touch this” he insisted. Personal pride and deep enthusiastic ardor per-vaded the room like oxygen.
He gingerly placed my hands on a brass figure which he described as a buck.
“EBay” and a price which I now forget.” The point was that it was a steal. As were the many origi-nal paintings which adorned the walls.
“I picked up two for a mere $____, and just sold them to a man in France for $15,000.” Robert could apparently highly value works of art for their beauty, simultaneously measuring their financial value.
I felt it necessary to mention my own collections of antique furniture, statuary and my vast collec-tion of antique photographic portraits.
I told Robert:
“My gay younger brother has always had much more fashionable taste than me. According to a smug comment which he once made a long time ago, ‘Your home is like a museum’.”
“Oh migosh!!” Robert cried out, “That’s exactly what my own friends say to me!” They say, “Rob-ert, your home is like a museum!”
There we stood: two proud homos named Robert — well, it was Pridefest, after all!
Maybe this scene is what reinforced my boldness to later remark, once we had returned to the six-ton outdoor low-slung mosaic table,
“You know, Robert, your toilet paper roll is hung backwards.”
This time, I think that it was Robert whom I heard fall off the concave cement bench.
“Really?” Is there a correct way?” he inquired with horror.
I spoke frankly, “Yes, according to Ann Landers. The end of the roll should be draped forward over the top.”
Had I exposed a flaw in his world? Still, I hope that I didn’t ruin his day. He did, however, usher Jane and me out of there rather abruptly.
Robert explained, as Jane and I headed for the gate, that he and the boyfriend were about to have their dinner.
I know that there really is not very much in this piece about South Florida’s Gay Pride Festival, but, you probably realized by now that this is not truly a story about Pridefest. Nor is it about the two Jane’s, Nor of the three Roberts who entered into these scenes.
You know what this writing is really all about, I am sure.