Some might try and convince you that a blind person has extraordinary senses to compensate for a lack of sight. They ain’t telling you a truth there. My dog Benjamin, I am told, had this terrible odor that stunk up my whole apartment, but I could never smell a goddamn thing. I guess that’s more to do with how accustomed I’d become to having him around. Seventeen years we go back, Ben and I. It woulda been eighteen years this September. He wasn’t just the first and only dog in my life. He was also in the first set of dogs that ever graduated from that Guide Dogs for the Blind School in Toronto. At least that’s what they told me when I picked him up. That was 1984. Lots sure has changed since then.
Ben and I lived right here in this subsidized housing project in Etobicoke for all his life. I got to know every little curb and crack in the sidewalks of this neighborhood, and so did Ben. We walked down that street enough times to know when we were passing Mr. Humphrey’s bakery. That place was easy to tell from others, especially in the summer time. That ol’ Mr. Humphrey, he’d be out sweeping up that sidewalk like it was his kitchen floor. I think it had more to do with him letting his door hang open so all them beautiful bread smells would flood out on the street around him, attracting customers. I couldn’t see him but, listening to that brushing noise on the concrete, I just know he was using that broom to guide those pretty smells up to the noses of every passerby.
Next door to Mr. Humphrey was Josselyn and her flower shop. Even though I can’t smell any better than the next man, I could sure smell that place loud and clear, and I steered clear of it too. Josselyn was a fuddy-duddy old lady who made it her business to know everybody else’s fuddy-duddy business. You couldn’t even sneak a dandelion off to a secret lover through that woman. She’d take it upon herself to call up the man’s wife, pretending to talk about some flower sale, and then she’d mention the whole thing straight away. It’s amazing she got any men back in that shop at all. The few times I did get close to Josselyn, I was expecting her to smell like flowers. I was mistaken. She smelled like old perfume bottles. A most rancid smell as you can imagine. Another thing I wasn’t too fond of was the way she always called me her “tall dark stranger”. She said I looked just like an oil sheik from one of her romance novels. I told her my parents had been Turkish, and as far as I knew, but there were no oil sheiks in Turkey. I also let her know, I wasn’t really that tall.
Ben could walk for hours –hours more than I ever wanted to, that’s for sure. He would take me on adventures throughout our neighborhood, stopping to visit with all our favorite people on route. There was Jimmy outside his Barber Shop on 4th street who always had a biscuit for him, and there was Mrs. McPherson over in the park. She was always there sitting on that bench, rain or shine. I swear she didn’t have a home, and if she did it must have been damn near that bench cuz I never saw her nowhere but that bench in all my years of walking. Well, I never saw her nowhere, but you get the idea. Ben liked her. He really did. Used to search her out every time we left the house. It was like she must have had treats she gave him when I wasn’t paying attention, which was most often. Maybe she did. I dunno. I just liked the freedom of being outside with Ben. I knew I was safe wherever he took me. He knew it too.
When Ben started to get sick, I knew something was wrong long before any vet did. He started to lose confidence in our walks. At first, he started only going places near the project, like the park to visit with Mrs. McPherson, but then he’d just want to go home. I always just listened to whatever Ben wanted and didn’t ask questions. He was in charge, not me. What it was, the vet said, was Ben started to get cataracts in his eyes. The irony of that eh? Poor dog saved me from the confines of my blindness for all those years just to get the affliction himself. I told Ben and I’ll tell you just the same. There aren’t no Gods in this world or in any other. Can’t be. No God would have let that poor creature go blind after living a life looking after a guy like me. There’s just no way.
Ben died one night sleeping on the end of my bed. He had been getting bad for weeks and I know he thought he was too much of a bother for me. Once he went completely blind, I tried to take him for walks around the building when he needed it, but to tell you the truth, I was pretty scared even doing that. I’d relied on that dog for my vision for seventeen years. I was lost without him and he was lost with just me. I think he died that night cuz he knew he was breaking my heart.
I called my brother out in Seattle a couple days after Ben died. He was my stepbrother and although we had never been too close, he was still my family. I didn’t know quite what else to do.
“Brian? Ya… its Herm out in Toronto… I hope the kids are doing swell… I got your Christmas presents again this year and I just wanted to thank you very much again for that.”
“You’re welcome Herm. Is everything ok?”
“Well Brian that’s why I’m calling. Umm… you see… Benjamin died.”
“My dog. My seeing-eye dog, Benjamin.”
“Well, that’s terrible news Herm. Can you get another one?”
“It’s really not like that Brian. I can’t replace him. I’m thinking about coming out your way. I don’t want to be a burden or anything. I was just thinking of getting an apartment near where you’re at just so maybe you could drop off groceries for me once a month. Just maybe once a month. Would that be all right Brian?”
It took me awhile to find an apartment out in Seattle close by where Brian lived. I did it with the help of some folks down at the CNIB that checked around on that internet thing for me. I couldn’t walk around anywhere anymore, not without Ben, so I just took cabs when I needed to get somewhere. I planned on flying out to Seattle in October. People told me Seattle gets really wet in October, but I didn’t mind. As long as I could be near some family that would help me out just a little bit, help me get the things I needed, then that would be just fine.
When September came around, I began to hear about it on the news. They say people jumped out of those two towers like it was the only way they could think of getting out. The lady that comes in to clean for me told me that you could see them wearing their fancy dress pants, ties, dress shoes and white shirts as they fell. She watched it all happen on a little T.V. she brought over to my house whenever she cleaned. I heard it. When those planes hit the towers, it sounded like something I ain’t never heard before and I ain’t never heard since. They played it on that little T.V. all day, over and over again, so people wouldn’t miss it, I guess. I sure didn’t miss it. That sound stayed with me for days.
My brother booked the flight for me from Seattle. All I had to do was just get down to the airport and find the right place to check in. All my stuff, and it wasn’t much, went out the day before on a moving truck. My neighbor, Andy, brought over a cot for me to sleep on and some blankets on my last night in my apartment. I had my carry-on luggage packed and ready for me beside the door. In the morning, Andy came over and brought me a little breakfast and called me a cab. He asked if I was all right as I guess he could see me crying. I told him I could finally smell my dog in the apartment.
When you get close to an airport you can sure hear the sound of those planes landing and taking off. They’re like a thunderstorm that never stops. Sounds like they have huge fans going on inside them that blow out air real hard. I always had a few fans in my apartment for those hot summer days. That’s what a plane sounds like to a blind man –a huge fan blowing out a whole lotta air.
The cab dropped me off at the international departure’s terminal, just like I asked him to. So much noise going on all around me I almost got dizzy enough to fall down. I knew I had to go in and walk to the right, and that’s all I knew. Never having used a walking cane in all my life, it felt more like a weapon in my hands than a guide. I was swinging it back and forth, swatting people’s legs out in front of me. I’m surprised none of the people complained. I soon figured out that if I was gonna find my way to the right place, I would have to ask someone for help. Without really thinking about what I was doing, I started grabbing folks by their arms when I felt someone near me.
“Excuse me… excuse me mister? Pardon the grabbing but as you can see I’m blind. Could you possibly take me to the international departure gate number four? I can’t seem to find my way.”
“Sure I can. Don’t you worry about a thing, sir. I’ll get you over there no problem. What was your name? My name is Ben.”
“Well, ain’t that a crazy coincidence.”
“Pardon me? A crazy coincidence?”
“No worries Ben. My name is Herman. Herman Appleby. Thank you very much for your assistance Ben. If you only knew.”
“No problem. I believe this is where you need to be. You’ll have to move forward in this line until you reach that customs desk right ahead of us. I’m sure they can take care of you from there.”
“Thanks a ton Ben. Once again, you’ve been a great help.”
The line shuffled ahead of me every few moments or so and I shuffled ahead right along with it. I had decided to wear what I am told is a blue suit. My father gave it to me after the Korean War, not too long before he died. He said that since the war was over now, he probably wouldn’t have another occasion that worthy of celebrating again, so I might as well keep it just in case I ever have a war that ends with a party. My father never really said much else to me of any significance and it seems to me he never really stopped celebrating either. My mom, brother and I spent most of my kid years living in a different subsidized housing apartment. This one was in New York. I never really understood why my parents adopted me when they already had Brian. My mother died before I ever thought of the question, and by the time I did start to wonder about it, Brian was off to college. Maybe it’d be something we could talk about on one of our grocery runs. I’d like that.
“Mr. Appleby, do you understand why it is that you are being detained?”
“No sir, I don’t rightly understand what detained means.”
“It appears that you are a man of obvious Arab descent traveling with a passport showing a non-Arab name. Could you please shed some light on this discrepancy for us?”
“I… I… I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean. Can I call my brother? I’m sure he can clear all this up?”
“Do you mean to tell us that you cannot explain how an Arab man would have such a common English name on his passport?
“I’m not an Arab. My real parents are from Turkey. I’m adopted. That explains it pretty clearly doesn’t it? Can I phone my brother please? I’m sure he’ll explain all this.”
“Sir, I apologize for this inconvenience. It’s all a matter of procedure these days. Since September 11th all these sorts of things must be examined. You understand. It’s just that you have the obvious features of an Arabic man, like your very dark skin for example. We got a little confused by the English name on your passport. There is also the matter of the scissors we found in your carry-on bag. That sort of item is forbidden on the plane. We understand that you may not have been able to read the signs, but we still have rules.”
“I just want to get to Seattle. I’m just trying to fly to Seattle. Can I please, please call my brother?”
“There is no need to get so emotional, Mr. Appleby. I am sure we can clear this all up in no time and have you on a different flight out to Seattle. Now you say you have a brother? “
I finally flew into Seattle’s airport by the next morning. It took the customs people most of the night to get a hold of my brother, as he was at the airport waiting for me and didn’t hear his name being called over that airport’s speakers. I learned a lot about myself that night in the stuffy little room they kept me in at the back of the airport. Most importantly, I learned the colour of my skin could really get me into trouble and it had something to do with those planes hitting those buildings. I guess the men that did that were dark too.
My brother set me up in my own little apartment not too far from his place. He came over twice a month and made sure I had all the things I needed, just like I asked him to. I got a little better at using the cane, so I could get around just a little bit –to the little store around the corner from my building and downstairs to do my laundry in the machines. It was all pretty good. Much better than I was fearing it might get back when Benjamin died. Sure, I’d lost a little bit of freedom, but I was safe, and that’s what mattered. I’ve learned a little bit more about what happened on that day last September too. There are some kinds of buildings that you can see, and then there are the kinds of buildings that you can feel. I think we all live in a kind of building that everybody can feel now.