When, as I do, you travel everywhere with a guide dog public space becomes a confessional of sorts. It’s a rare day when a stranger doesn’t approach to say, “I had a dog like that once, but he died,” or, “Labradors, they’re the best dogs in the world, but mine’s dead.” The first time this happened I was a newbie guide dog user, alone, in the Pittsburgh airport, and a woman said, “I had a dog like that once, but someone poisoned it.” She had an overpowering minty odor and kept snapping her fingers. My dog and I ran away from her.
It took some time but I began to see these encounters as having nothing to do with dogs. Or the dog was simply a calling card. My guide dog Corky meant in the eyes of passersby that I was approachable and might well have a heart. A more sinister variant was that being blind they might believe I couldn’t escape—like a hapless passenger on the Greyhound. I chose not to believe the latter. I am, essentially, a boy scout, (OK, not really) but I do believe in kindness and I’m as naive as the next man, or woman, and what the Hell, I thought, it costs me next to nothing to talk to wounded, anomalous weirdoes.
Of course “next to nothing” is just faux metaphysics—it did cost me. You can’t absorb the griefs of subway riders and ballpark fans without grinding your bearings. Three years into guide dog life I understood that the village square is filled with Tennessee Williams characters, lots of Blanches and Stanleys whose hearts are so broken they’ll think nothing about approaching a blind man to talk about the deaths of their pets. And I saw that behind the stories of doggie demise were divorces, run away children, job losses, car accidents, so that I wanted to weep for our strangeness. This is a high gravity world.
As a poet this wasn’t big news to me. About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters. Not only is it always occurring, but we’re invited to look away. Unless, that is, you go absolutely every place with a dog. On the airplane. In the shopping mall. Riding escalators. Then all bets are off. A guide dog user becomes a mark. In effect I became a walking minister. A circuit rider. My Finnish grandfather was a Lutheran pastor who preached to immigrant congregations in Minnesota and Wisconsin. I saw Corky was my Model T Ford. The common street was our patch of souls.
I’m an irreverent fellow. But I couldn’t laugh at the unbidden, constant sadnesses of happenstance people. And I couldn’t let them dominate me as the price of listening. Nor could I let them ruin my days. Her dog had been poisoned. His dog lived to be fifteen but succumbed to joint disease. Her dog got stolen. His was shot by hunters. You’re sipping coffee. You’re sitting on a bench. The sorrowing come to you like birds.
The trick as I saw it, was to abandon belief in fairy tales. The guide dog schools like to say that with a dog the blind have newfound horizons, freedoms, opportunities, etc. They’re right. But one aspect of freedom is that you’ve become a citizen like anyone, and yes, because of your dog you’re interesting. I listened. Still listen. Just enough. Then I say, “I’ve got to get back to reading,” and put on my headphones. Or tap my talking watch, then say, “nice talking, but Ive got to go.”
My guide dog brought me love. It cuts both ways: I’ll be your confessor, I’ll be on my way.
Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the award winning memoir “Planet of the Blind.” HIs new book, “Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey with an Exceptional Labrador” will be published in March 2018 by Simon & Schuster. You can visit him at: www.stephenkuusisto.com