The Blind Leading the Blind

Working in a place where no one could see me, I began to see myself in a whole new light

When I turned 20, I left college, moved to Manhattan with my boyfriend and was slowly getting used to the idea that my parents might never speak to me again. I subsequently landed an interview for a job at the New York Association for the Blind, also called The Lighthouse. I had never known a blind person, had never held a full-time job (other than waitressing in the summer) and my skills for the posted position topped out at some mediocre typing. Still, I was ever the optimist.

The man in charge gave me a typing test, which I limped through. Then he placed a list of 100 words in front of me on the desk. "Some are spelled correctly and some aren't," he said. "Fix the ones that are wrong. Take all the time you need. It's really hard." Spellcheck was still decades away and correct spelling was a secretary's secret weapon.

Two hours later, he called me. In his 20 years at the job, no one had ever gotten all 100 words right. "When can you start?"

I struggled in my first few weeks at the Lighthouse, not because I couldn't do the work but because I wasn't getting the attention I expected—just for being me. I was tall and curvy and pretty, and in those days that was pretty much all that mattered. So far, I had made my way through life with pouty lips, a cute turn of the head or a soft look over my shoulder. (And, of course, I was a good speller.)

On my way to work every morning, I savored the stares and comments from men on the street. I learned that "linda" meant "pretty" in Spanish after some confused moments of my wondering how workmen on building crews knew my first name. Men in Brooks Brothers suits, the hippie guy behind the deli counter, a bald man with an Italian accent on the subway who said he could make me very happy—attention came at me, fast and furious, for doing absolutely nothing.

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But that all changed the moment I walked through the doors of the office every morning. Not only were the Lighthouse clients blind, but most of the administration and staff were, too. The "secretarial pool," of which I was a member, and a few others were the only sighted people in the building.

After a while, I began bonding with some of the clients as they made their way to and from classes or ate lunch in the cafeteria. Their stories came from all walks of life, with varying degrees of grief and conquest. One was a man in his late 30s who had lost his sight as a teenager. We talked almost every day about things we both loved: Jethro Tull and "Columbo." He also opened up about how his vision slowly faded over time, and how much he hated the word "rehab." He told me my voice sounded like Natalie Wood's.

On the day before he left for the University of Michigan—which was performing the first corneal transplants in the country—there was a cake. Other clients gave little speeches. There were no guarantees in those days that the operation would take, so goodbye parties like his always contained a sort of cautious revelry.

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A few weeks later when he returned, I saw him from across a large room, greeting his friends triumphantly. He stood very close to each of them and said if he was surprised or not on how they looked. Some of his blind friends were jealous, evidenced by their pained faces. Others—knowing it would never be their turn because their sight was beyond one good cornea—shared his joy more easily.

When he finally made his way across the room, he locked eyes with me.

"Wow," he said. "I had no idea you were pretty."

Then he wanted to catch up on the latest episodes of "Columbo."

That was it. Until that very moment, I didn't know there was another version of me past the pretty one.

Having started at the Lighthouse with my knowledge bar so low, I knew I'd learn some things that year, and I did. I never made the mistake twice of petting a guide dog. I became familiar with the Braille alphabet up to about the letter "P," where I gave up. When escorting someone down the hall, I learned to let the person take my elbow, not the other way around. But I had no idea that working in a place where no one could see me, I'd begin to see myself in a whole new light.

Tags: memoirs