I wonder if any of you reading this have ever experienced real terror. I don’t mean the kind of terror you feel while watching The Walking Dead, or riding the Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point. I’m talking about genuine, piss-your-pants terror, in which you are suddenly forced to confront your own mortality. It might be the kind of terror a reporter would experience in a war zone, or that of a police officer confronted by a mass shooter with an upraised gun.
I experienced such terror on February 19, 2018, one day after my 43rd birthday.
I did not hear of the harsh weather conditions on the radio because it was tuned to KOA out of Denver. My first hint that things were amiss came as I exited my apartment building to go to work and slid across the wooden front porch toward the steps. Still, I felt that I had the situation under control.
That self-assurance evaporated as I walked down the steps, slipped, and collapsed in a heap like a sack full of used kitty litter. My white cane went flying from my hand and I scrambled on the slippery ground, trying to retrieve it and get my feet back under me. It was a monumental effort. Sure, I’d fallen many times before, but this was the first time that every single surface was covered by a glaze of ice.
Eventually, I found my cane, got up and began to walk down the middle of the street to the bus stop.
Let me correct my last statement. The place where I pick up the Metro bus is not officially a designated bus stop. It’s a spot along the street where the bus drivers very charitably ignore Metro policy and pick me up, so that I will not have to walk in the street for a block-and-a-half to the actual bus stop. The walk is hazardous because there are no sidewalks along the route to the bus stop; only sloping grass and a curb that indicates the street.
So, I collected myself and off I went, trying to recall what an O&M instructor once told me about walking on ice. I think he told me to keep my knees slightly bent and to slide my feet, rather than taking actual footsteps. I tried this approach and was about as elegant as an elephant on a balance beam. Twice more, I fell before I got to the intersection of my street. Twice more I hefted my considerable bulk and soldiered onward to my intended destination.
Finally, I made it to the street crossing that I had to forge in order to catch the bus to work. I lined myself up, waited for a break in traffic and started across…
… And almost immediately, went down again. My cane flew out of my hand and rolled away. I began scrambling for it, but couldn’t find it. I tried to get up, but couldn’t regain my footing. Every time I managed to become half-upright, I would slam back down on to my hands and knees on the icy pavement.
And then, I heard the car rolling toward me. It didn’t sound as if it were slowing down. I scrambled like a gerbil on a hot griddle, but couldn’t seem to get any traction. The car rolled closer, then sounded as if it hit the brakes. I heard the unmistakable sound of tires skidding on wet pavement. I knew I was dead.
The two thoughts that flashed through my head like hurriedly-sent texts were:
God, don’t let Mags end up in a shelter!!! Please let one of my friends take her!!!
Why the hell didn’t I just take Amy to bed that night after my house-warming party?
It’s funny what we think about in times of mortal peril.
The next thing I remember was a lady’s voice saying, “Sir, you look like you’re having a hard time.”
“No shit!” I bellowed.
“Can I help you up?”
“Yeah!” I said. I threw my hand up, she grabbed it, hoisted me to my feet and helped me over to the curb.
“Here’s your stick,” she said. I felt such relief at holding my cane again that I didn’t bother to correct her on the terminology. It’s called a cane, not a stick.
“Can I help you get somewhere?” she asked.
“Nah, I’m good,” I said.
“You sure?” she asked.
“Actually, can you help me across the street? I’m gonna catch the bus.”
She took my hand and walked with me across the street. I don’t remember if I thanked her properly or not. She got in her car and drove away. I didn’t think to ask her for her name. I couldn’t look at her car to note its description, or memorize her license plate number. My head was full of an odd buzzing sound; actually more of a sensation than a sound. It seemed to reverberate throughout my whole body, making the tips of my fingers and toes vibrate like a tuning fork. After she was gone, I sheepishly felt the front of my pants, not certain if the moisture was entirely that of melted ice.
I waited for 20 minutes, but the bus never showed. So, I clinched my sphincter extra tight and skated back home, aided this time by another resident from my apartment complex who just happened to see me flailing around in the street.
When I moved from Denver to Omaha in October of 2017, I knew there would be adjustments. I knew the cost of living was lower. I knew public transit sucked. As a native Nebraskan, I knew that the winters were more brutal than those in Colorado. But I was not prepared for the lack of sidewalks in my living area.
In Denver, you can walk almost anywhere. Convenient to me in my neighborhood in Denver were all of the necessities; a bank, a grocery store, a vet for my cat, a post office, and at least half a dozen restaurants, bars and coffee shops. Here in Omaha, my coworker informs me that sidewalks become more and more scarce once you get west of 72nd Street. I live within walking distance of Westroads, but can’t walk there due to lack of a pedestrian-friendly route. Once a month, I attend meetings of our local NFB chapter at the Swanson Library, located only a few blocks from my home, but I can’t walk there because most of the trip would be in the street. Some NFB hard-liners would read this and say, “Just shoreline the curb, dumbass!” I tried that at first, but many drivers came way too close for comfort. When I learned cane travel in the early ‘80’s, I was taught how to navigate streets where sidewalks were not present. That was long before the existence of terms such as, “Distracted driving.”
Even so, curb-hugging is all well and good in the warmer months, but what about winter?
Imagine walking in my neighborhood last February, when we got one snowstorm on top of another and the drifts were piled high along the curbs. Sometimes, they can push me out into the middle of the road. Then, there’s the time of thawing, when we get slush. Cars drive by and I often get an unwanted shower, courtesy of their spinning tires.
Worse yet, the problem extends to my apartment complex. We don’t have sidewalks here either. We only have islands of grass that serve as boundaries for parked cars. When I first toured the facility, it never occurred to me to ask the manager if they had sidewalks or not. It just seemed like it would be good common sense to have them. Now, every day, come snow, rain or shine, I walk in the street to catch the bus.
The absence of sidewalks may seem a small quibble to all of those who have the privilege of driving automobiles, but I can testify that it carries a real impact on those of us for whom walking serves as a primary means of conveyance. It is far easier to either take a bus, or more often than not, to call for a Lyft or an Uber to take me a short distance to a meeting, to the mall, to dinner, etc. The problem has become so enormous, and my sense of isolation has grown so vast that I find it necessary to move from my complex when my lease expires.
There are other reasons, of course, the most glaring being that of the family of raccoons that lives part time above my head.
… But that’s another subject for a future blog entry.
In conclusion, let me deliver a heartfelt thank you to the kind soul who stopped and helped the struggling blind guy regain his feet on the cold winter morning of February 19, 2018, at the intersection of Burt Street and North 94th Plaza. Thanks to you, I got to celebrate my 44th birthday this year. I apologize if I spoke rudely to you and didn’t properly express my gratitude. God bless. The meager staff of the Radio Talking Book Service thanks you as well. Without your kindly interference, they would have had to start another search for a new station manager.
To the rest of you drivers, GET OFF YOUR FUCKIN’ PHONES AND WATCH THE FUCKIN’ ROAD!!!