A Blind Guy Eyes the Safe Streets Act

Why the Liberals’ law misses the point, and won’t stop my cookie thief.

By Ryan Knighton 2 Dec 2004 |
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Shopping on Vancouver’s east side is confusing enough when you’re blind, as I just happen to be. That’s why I could do without my provincial government adding to the confusion. My recent tangle went something like this.

Last night I moseyed up to my local IGA, which is no easy task. Nothing crushes a man quite like traffic, and there’s plenty of that around here. Lots of traffic, few people. I should, however, get out of the house more often, so my wife, Tracy, encouraged me to fetch some pasta and English muffins. While I was at it, I figured it would be a good time to replenish the Fig Newton supply, too.

Once I found the store, the only problem was finding everything else. The IGA has its own perils, despite its safe distance from intersections.

My normal navigation strategy is memorization, and so I've memorized the layout of my local IGA, which, although easy to do, is about as interesting as memorizing, say, a Superstore. But it works. I don’t even look at the aisles anymore with my sliver of remaining sight. I just count the lanes as I pass them by, then walk to the general vicinity of whatever I need.

On this particular expedition I strolled  down the aisle towards the general area of IGA's cookie stash and reached for a box. Usually I snag the wrong one on the first try, but that’s okay. I can then look long and hard at whatever I've grabbed and spend some time figuring out how far I am from the good stuff. That's my system.

Mistakes happen

That’s how far I’d chased the Fig Newtons when I heard a woman next to me say, "Those your preference?"

Now, I didn't feel like debating the entire sordid fig versus raspberry Newton pros and cons, so I didn’t invite a discussion. "Yes, these taste the best," I said. 
From what I could hear, she walked away, apparently in total agreement. It turned out that I was noodling around in the wrong aisle.

So I was surprised when I jammed my face and good eye up against a massive box of tampons, the ones I'd accidentally plucked from the shelf. In my defense, I have a Master's degree in English, not Math. Counting aisles was never my discipline. 

This is all by way of establishing some context. I worked hard for my Newtons, a little toil and a little humiliation, so it was difficult to let them go, as I was about to discover.

Hit up

I left the IGA with my goodies and began to saunter home down Main Street. A few blocks from the store a woman, very strung out on something, and perhaps as confused as me, sidled up. 

"I'm starving,” she said. “You got some food?" 

Without thinking, I answered, “Sorry, I don't have any.”

"Yes you do!” she shouted, impatient with my stupidity. “It's in the bag."

Maybe it's the blindness, I don't know, but I'd forgotten that grocery bags can have letters on them—in this case, I and G and A. When I lived in South Korea people carried bundles of cash out of their local banks in sacks like these. It seemed like an invitation to trouble, but the bags always declared the name of the particular institution in large characters. “Lots of money in here” would’ve been equally informative advertising.  Likewise, IGA on a bag must mean “Lots of food in here,” I’ve learned.

Out of habit, more than anything else, I stuck to my guns. 

"No, I don't have any food," I said, then added, “for you." Best to be clear on the matter.

I didn’t understand this was a debatable point, but she didn’t agree with my position. Without more haggling, she reached into my grocery bag and began to rummage around for something nice to munch. What to do?

My hands were full. One was politely holding the bag for her and the other was busy with my white cane.

I’m still horribly sheepish about this, but my reflexes, as it were, kicked in. More like kicked out. Before I knew what I was doing, I punted her. Not a Grey-Cup-level punt, mind you, but a get-out-of-my-goddamn-grocery-bag punt. It didn’t connect, what with my bad blind-man’s-aim and all. Still she gave up on shopping through my shopping bag. I felt about as low as I could go.

Stop thief!

But while I was busy getting acquainted with remorse, my personal shopper changed tactics. She ripped the bag open, snatched my Fig Newtons, and tried to get out of Dodge, fast. I could tell by the sound of her receding footsteps. It sounded as if she wore wooden clogs, because her feet made a loud clomping noise as she fled. Maybe she had really, really big feet, I don’t know.

Now, I can live with the outcome. I mean, sure she probably needed the food more than I did and all that, and it's true, more than any other motive, I’d simply been lazy about sharing. I can't begrudge her the Fig Newtons. Really. 

Besides, stealing a blind man's cookies, is about as reliable a report on how successfully municipal and provincial action plans are working on poverty and addiction in my neighbourhood as anyone could deliver. 

This is happening to me and my clog-wearing acquaintance at a time when the B.C. Liberals are championing their idiotic Safe Streets Act. It's quite a simple piece of legislation, really. The substance of it demands that citizens not bug people with their needs, no matter how needy the needy are. Nice. It's about as effective as the Ministry of Health outlawing certain medical symptoms in order to decongest our emergency rooms.

Safe streets for SUVs

I'm sure the Safe Streets Act will do wonders. Mostly, from what I can gather, the act is intended to quell the fears of SUV drivers who don't like to be bothered by squeegee kids and don't like dirty people asking for change outside funky, poverty-chic Main street restaurants. 

I’m already blind, I don’t need all this added confusion. Safe streets? Streets are what people pass through, like shopping aisles. They aren't the real target or even a worthwhile goal. Safe people is the real problem. I want to be safe, and, more to the point, my hungry addict wants to be safe, too.

I’m the one with the boots on, after all. I’ve got the Safe Streets act on my side, too. Both the blind guy and the hungry addict are a threat of sorts, some of us with better aim than others.

Pinching Fig Newtons from a blind man, whatever else it says about her character, indicates how unsafe she is at this moment, not just me. Ensuring one of the two of us won't bug the other solves less than half the problem. The street on which we met was totally safe, from what I could tell. Safe from my sorry boot and safe from her basic needs.

Back to the action. To add insult to no injury, I listened to the sound of her wooden clogs running away. She ran maybe about thirty feet, then slowed down, and strolled. She realized, of course, I was in no condition to give chase. But since I’m college educated, out came the old college try. I strolled after her, you know, briskly. To anyone watching—and I really hope no one was--It would have looked like the keystone cops in slow motion. Both of us reached a nice pace, but it didn't do me any good. She simply kept her distance. Both of us were safe with that 30 feet between us. 

So, here's my proposal to make the Safe Streets Act do what the B.C. Liberals want it to do: a thirty foot law. I need a standard measure of distance between me and my neighbours, whoever they may be, whatever their needs. We could call it the Personal Public Space Act. What worries me, given the social imagination this government has, is that they just might listen. 

A reader may be wondering why nobody jumped in to lend me a hand.  My addict and I were the only people on the sidewalk, a conduit here that knows no rush hour. Nobody helped me or her because everybody was too busy driving by. It’s flattering to think a piece of legistlation could be designed for just the two of us, in order to make up for the lack of company.

Busy sidewalks

Vehicular traffic is more dangerous in more ways than one. It threatens to run me down all the time, and it leaves me and my addict more or less alone out here. I’d wager busy sidewalks make for safer streets in more ways than one, too.

More useful than the Safe Streets Act would be someone at IGA who could help me find the cookies, the ones I’ve got to replace. I even know somebody IGA could hire. She’s very adept at finding groceries.

I’m not saying indentured servitude is the answer, not at all. I may be blind, but I’m not codependent. I just think it’s better to extend a hand both ways, not a unilateral boot, be it leather or legislated. I want to have Newtons, and my neighbour to eat them, too.

Ryan Knighton's third book, The View from Here: Dispatches from the Edge of Blindness, will be published in 2006 by Penguin (Canada) and Public Affairs (US). He is a frequent contributor to and The Vancouver Sun.  [Tyee]

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