high desert sketches
Why I love Christmas . . . in New York
By GEORGE A. COVINGTON
It is surprising how many Texans journey to the canyons of New York City for the Christmas holiday. They overcome their fear of all the myths and legends they have heard about the denizens of that mystical place. I harbored many of the misconceptions about the city’s population before I moved there.
When I decided to move to New York after 20 years in Washington, D.C., I did so with great apprehension. I expected to meet the monsters of Manhattan on every street corner. I never found them. I had heard about “them” in Washington, Miami, Houston, LA, and all points in between. Why couldn’t I find “the legendary New Yorker?” I’d been told they were easy to spot by their callous, impersonal, impolite and arrogant manner dealing with people and situations. I had expected to meet these abrasive, ill-mannered people every time I walked down the street.
My inability to find these people had nothing to do with the fact that I was legally blind, with less than 10 percent vision and used a white cane. By legally blind, I meant that I have little measurable vision. Before I moved to Manhattan, I was certain that the New Yorker of legend would impede my getting around the city. I realized that my white cane would not be sufficient to deal with the monsters and I would probably need a seeing-eye Velociraptor.
What I feared would be my first encounter with the New Yorker of legend was my first attempt to ride solo on a New York City bus. I’d been given detailed instructions from a friend as to how to reach the nearest Number 10 bus that would get me to upper Central Park West.
When I reached the point where I was hoping to find the bus stop, I approached a blurred form and asked, “Is this a bus stop, and if it is, does the Number 10 stop here?”
The voice from the blur, that of an elderly lady, informed me that the 10 did stop there but that the bus that was arriving, was a 104. She boarded the bus and I waited. A few minutes later, another bus pulled up to the stop. Before I could approach the driver, a half-dozen voices said, “It’s another 104.” I waited again and another bus approached, and a chorus of voices said, “It’s another 104.” I began to wonder if 104 was the actual number of buses between two number 10s. A few minutes later, another bus arrived and a chorus of a dozen voices chimed, “That’s a Number 10.”
My first thought was, these incredibly helpful people must all be tourists. Over the months, I began to wonder if this was a town of mostly tourists.
Before moving to New York, I worked for almost 20 years in Washington, D.C. I worked in the bureaucracy on both sides of Capitol Hill and in the White House. Although legally blind since birth, a degenerative eye condition caused me to use a white cane the last six years in Washington. I used my cane daily and not one person in the city approached me on the street and asked if I needed assistance. I knew Washington extremely well and never did need assistance so this fact had no impact on me.
In New York I discovered that if I stood on a corner waiting for a light to change, someone would generally ask if I need any help crossing the street. I don’t think I looked any more helpless in New York than I did in Washington, although it’s possible. I actually tried to concentrate on looking alert, but it didn’t help.
The blurs that approached me seemed to cover the broad range of humanity. Male as often as female, young as often as old, and with a wider variety of accents than I would expect to hear at an embassy party in Washington.
Where were the New Yorkers?
I hadn’t changed but the people on the streets certainly had. I never thought I’d live to see the day when I’d come to the realization that New York was a friendlier city than Washington, D.C.
I tended to daydream between the short blocks, so I didn’t keep count. When I thought I was in the general area of the street I was looking for, I asked the nearest blur the number of the street. One day while walking up Fifth Avenue I asked a blur what the next street number was. His Asian-like mumble was incoherent and I realized he couldn’t understand my question. As I walked on, I suddenly realized there was a person walking close beside me who stepped ahead and was suddenly facing me. In the halting words of a deaf person, she leaned forward and slowly said, “Did you ask him what the street number was?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“It’s 46th Street,” she said. I thanked her and she turned and walked in the opposite direction. I thought to myself, I’ve heard of the blind leading the blind, but only in New York could the deaf lead the blind.
Because of a thousand such kindnesses I love New York over Washington. Sure, both cities have more than their share of pushers, pimps, and prostitutes, but in New York City most of these folks aren’t elected officials.
Today, I have absolutely no eyesight, but I think I would feel just as comfortable walking the so-called mean streets of New York today as I did then.
At Christmas time I loved to walk up Fifth Avenue and see the colorful Christmas lights glowing through the windows of upscale store fronts. I couldn’t see the products advertised, but the colorful lights, Christmas music, and chill winds of the city always gave me the holiday spirit.
Happy Holidays to all.
George A. Covington has worked in the fields of law, education, journalism and disability rights. He considers himself retired from every one of them with the possible exception of journalism. He is a graduate of the University of Texas schools of journalism and law. He moved to West Texas – Alpine – in 1997 after a 20-year career in Washington, D.C. where he once served on the staff of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (Democrat) and shortly thereafter served as Special Assistant to the Vice President of the United States (Republican) 1989-93.