Creative Nonfiction: Disability Chicken
By Cory Fosco
Winters in Chicago suck for blind people. I concede that weather events such as these suck for everyone. Each time the city gets dumped on; a hotly contested debate begins about dibs. A person whose car is parked on a city side street and is covered in snow, takes the time to dig out the car. That person, at some point, will move the car and place a chair or some type of larger object that signals to others “dibs” is called on that spot. Dibs cause quite a stir.
Unshoveled or poorly shoveled sidewalks do not get near as much attention as Dibs. They are, however, a bitch for blind people. This was something we never remotely considered this summer, after we moved back to Wrigleyville and navigated the familiar, yet vastly different streets.
“Do you know why we crossed just then?” I ask my wife, Cyndi.
“I have no clue,” she says. Cyndi is blind and walks with a white cane. We walk most afternoons together with our dog, Darwin.
“We played a game of disability chicken,” I say. Our walks are sometimes quiet but more often where we connect through conversation.
“Disability what?” Cyndi asks, laughing. Cyndi cannot see the city around us as well as she once could. Yet the streets of Wrigleyville--filled with graystones, and sprawling front porches, thick, overgrown maple trees, and a story on every inch of every square block--are extremely familiar to her.
“I’ve never mentioned Disability Chicken?”
“No, Cyndi says. “You’ve never told me about Disability Chicken.” I can hear the excitement in her voice. She loves to hear stories and is a good audience.
“Further up ahead, there were two people across the street,” I say.
“I saw that there was something across the street,” Cyndi says. “But I could not make out what it was.” I should be clear; Cyndi is not completely blind. About 5% of her vision remains. She has no peripheral vision and the area where she can see is extremely limited.
“There was a lady in a wheelchair coming toward us,” I say. “She was with a friend.”
Cyndi has been training with the white cane since before we moved. One of the stipulations for getting a guide dog, something Cyndi has decided will help her, is the ability to effectively operate a white cane. Cyndi’s cane is named Lucy, after the patron saint of the blind. Cyndi wanted a strong female name. The most important aspect of her training is having the skill to successfully cross the street with the cane. This requires the touch of the surface below and using your ears. Cyndi also wears hearing aids.
Before we moved back to Wrigleyville, we lived in Downers Grove, a western suburb of Chicago. Cyndi’s orientation and mobility coach, Rachel, lived nearby which made the number of training sessions frequent. When we moved, Rachel agreed to continue working with Cyndi.
One of the first things she taught Cyndi in the city was how to listen to traffic at signals. “Listen for the surge,” Rachel told her the first time they went out near our condo. They were walking at Grace and Ashland. There, Rachel quickly realized it was an unsafe crossing situation.
“What’s a surge?” Cyndi asked.
“You know that sound a car makes when the gas pedal is pressed?”
“The rushing sound?” Cyndi said.
“Yep, that’s the surge. Listening for traffic is so important. Especially at signals.”
Ashland is a long, four lane road and Grace is a complex street. It runs east and west but turns into a one-way street going east at Ashland. The surge is almost impossible to track at that intersection. I’ve tried it. Cars begin moving just as the Walk signal has switched to the Don’t Walk signal. A blind pedestrian would not have enough time to walk across the street once it sounds like it is safe to proceed. It’s scary.
Cyndi has a connective tissue disorder called Stickler’s Syndrome. She had her first detached retina in December 1997, a little over a year after we were married. The aftermath of her first detached retina left her unable to drive at night. We were living in Round Lake Beach, a northern suburb (READ: closer to Wisconsin than to downtown Chicago), which limited Cyndi’s ability to drive for work. At the time, she was a consultant for a dietitian company; most of her customers were nursing homes in the city.
Moving made sense. We moved to Wrigleyville in the summer of 1998. Cyndi was not terribly inconvenienced from losing her sight. The driving at night issue was easily resolved (once we moved) by public transportation or planning ahead. Cyndi did not need much assistance while walking the streets. She certainly did not need Lucy or a guide dog-to-be-named-later.
Cyndi’s second detached retina happened in December 2018, two weeks before we were supposed to leave for Madrid for Christmas. We knew her vision would be affected, the doctors just could not confidently predict what it would be post-recovery, which was months away.
After several weeks, I was worried about Cyndi’s vision long-term. She was still struggling with clarity and her field of vision was not improving. The first thing I came to a realization about was Cyndi’s ability to drive.
“I don’t think it will happen,” I told friends of ours who had come to visit Cyndi during her recovery.
“What?” Cyndi asked quickly and with a slightly irritated tone. The tone was out of character. “You can’t tell me I can’t drive,” she said. “Only I can make that decision.”
Cyndi was right. It was a big lesson for me to learn. I could not dictate what her functional level was going to be. I could not force her to stop doing things. I could not make decisions for her.
The situation reminded me of a scene from the American version of “The Office”. Michael Scott, the Dunder-Mifflin Scranton branch manager is told by Oscar, one of the office accountants, that he is broke and should consider declaring bankruptcy. Michael walks into the room where everyone is quietly working. “I DECLARE BANKRUPTCY!” he shouts, breaking free of financial dependence, if only in his mind.
Several months later, it was obvious Cyndi’s peripheral vision was not returning.
“Ok,” she told me out of the blue, as if we were engaged in conversation. “I think I’m ready to stop driving.”
It was that simple. This was her declaration. Seven words that put her in control, breaking her free of visual dependence, and not only in her mind.
We had a nice bottle of wine with friends to honor her “retirement.” It was also the night our lives would change with a simple question.
“Does this mean you guys will move back to the city?”
Disability Chicken happens almost daily on our walks. It’s a high-pressure game I’d rather not play, but the alternative could be worse.
The more we walk, the less confident I am in Cyndi’s ability to be safe without me. If people don’t notice her when we are together, will she be invisible without me?
When we were in the suburbs, we’d occasionally encounter others. I never had to play games during those exchanges. Oftentimes, we’d both make a slight adjustment leaving plenty of social distancing.
Being back in the city means I have to play games against challengers who are almost always the same.
A guy in his 20’s, wearing AirPods, stares at his phone while walking toward us. This is the most common. I spot the guy at least a half block away. Each step he takes, he seems deeper in trance. I’ll call chicken as I shout “Yo” or “Hey” or my personal favorite “Heads-up!” He’ll look up in a screen time afterglow, glance quickly toward us, and look directly at Cyndi’s cane. I’ll make a pivot just in time to avoid a collision. He’ll quickly return to his trance.
There are also groups or couples walking toward us. When I see them heading our way, I now not only have to deal with technology and the stupidity of one, I have to anticipate how several others will decide who has the right of way. As we approach, I invariably shift myself or guide Cyndi with my voice to safely pass.
The toughest to navigate are the people with a “Scared-of-other-dogs” dog.The dog freezes as we approach. The owner follows suit. I have to control Darwin--who is on high-alert because the other dog often takes a defensive stance--and make sure the owner has the dog under control (spoiler alert: No). I do all this while guiding over Cyndi to ensure she gets past the disruptive scene safely.
“You see,” I say, “I figure, I am always looking for that win when we walk. Someone is heading our way and sees us walking together,” I say.
“We hope that person moves over or turns another way,” she says.
“Disability chicken,” Cyndi says and laughs.
As we walk toward home, I watch ahead for potholes and obstacles, looking for Cyndi’s next win. She moves her cane to her opposite hand, grabs my arm, and pulls me closer.
Cory Fosco received his MA, Creative Writing (nonfiction) from Northwestern University and his BA, Creative writing (fiction) from Loyola University Chicago. He has previously been published in Bright Flash Literary Review, Teach.Write, 101 Words, Superstition Review, and Hippocampus Magazine. Cory lives in Chicago.