Traveling blind is always a cross-country game of pass-the-parcel — and I’m the parcel. I am handed-off from one person to another, on and off planes, into and out of cabs, until, finally, I’m deposited in my hotel room at the end of the game.
As I get ready to leave my home, I pace. I prowl. I check everything around the house half-a-dozen times before calling a cab. Often, I’m doing this early, middle-of-the-night early. I call a cab, then stand on the step to smoke and wait. It will be hours before I have another chance to smoke. Cab arrives, and we’re off.
It’s twenty minutes from my house to the airport. Usually, the driver will help me inside the terminal; once inside, I’m looking for someone who works for the airline. I’ve already checked in online, but I need help through security and to my gate. I find a person, and the process begins.
“Can I just check your boarding pass, please?”
I show my boarding pass.
“Thank you, I’ll just ask you to sit for a few minutes until someone is free to walk you through security.”
Guides me to a seat.
“Don’t worry, sir. It won’t be long.”
I wait. Everyone understands waiting in airports; everybody has to do it. But my waiting is overlaid with wondering—have they’ve forgotten me this time? They haven’t, of course. It’s only my anxious brain on overdrive. At least, I’m smarter about traveling than I once was. Only carry-on luggage on these trips.
Retrieving luggage from the carousel at my destination airport can be problematic, especially when I forget the colour of my bag. I managed this once flying to Glasgow. The burly Glaswegian helping me find my luggage kept hauling bags off and back on the carousel.
“Is this your bag? Here, have a look.”
“No, not that one.”
“Is this your bag?”
“Not that one either. It’s…sort of a…duffle. I think its grey”
“Is this your bag?”
“Yes, thank god, that’s my bag!”
A customer service agent arrives to collect me, and we are off to security. I show my boarding pass again, and the guard points us to the fast-line. I need three bins for all my stuff: the laptop, of course, needs its own bin; carry-on suitcase in the second; backpack, coat, and hat in the third. The guard behind the conveyer checks my boarding pass, once again, and then I hand over my white cane. Here, it gets tricky. The agent aims me at the metal detector. Another guard tells me to walk forward and reach out my hand. I’m good at this—I hardly ever setoff the alarm. I take the latex gloved hand and slip through the detector. No alarm.
“Now, sir, if you could just stand here for a moment, please.”
And there I stand—caneless and more than usually vulnerable—while the customer service agent has her turn with the detector.
I think of all the names people have for my white cane. It’s my lifeline—this length of rubber-handled aluminum that keeps me from harm. It collapses into four pieces, held together by a strong length of elastic, and I always fold up my cane before handing it over to security. People have called it a cane, a stick, a walking stick, a blind stick, and a seeing-eye stick. Once, an agent, upon retrieving my cane from security, asked me: “Can I please unfold your cane?”
“Of course,” I said, with a laugh.
She held the handle and let my cane snap together. “I’ve always wanted to do that!”
The customer service agent is through, and now, it’s packing up and off to the gate. In an ideal world, I would be happy to wander through the airport and head for my gate with ten minutes to spare. I could get coffee, maybe a cookie, and allow my anxiety to settle.
But I’m in the hands of this kind and efficient customer service person. I’m taken to the gate, shown a seat, and told that someone from the desk will come and get me when it’s time to board.
Talking to and thanking these people is an important part of my airport experience. Those who move me around the airport go out of their way to be helpful: they are kind, generous with their time, and never in a rush. I’m always grateful for their assistance. And it doesn’t matter the city: Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Charlottetown, Chicago, Glasgow, Auckland, Melbourne, San Francisco, or Portland. These people unfailingly get me through the airport unscathed and onto my plane.
Now, I’m at the gate. I sit, the package, waiting for my next currier. This is usually someone not at the desk, but someone there to assist anyone with special needs heading down to the plane. Most often, that’s me, people using wheelchairs, and parents with kids.
Once, I was waiting to board a plane home. This precocious, nine-year-old kid was waiting with me. Apparently, the kid had been busy charming all the flight attendants. An airline personnel came to collect us, and she started talking to little Mr. Charming. The two of them walked away, leaving me sitting there.
I thought, “What the hell?”
I grabbed my stuff and followed them down the bridge and onto the plane.
Such things don’t usually happen, but the customer service machine sometimes experiences a hiccup. I’ve been taken right out of the secure area by mistake; I’ve been shunted around, asked to wait here and there, apologized to, driven back and forth in the airport golf-cart, and asked many times if I required a wheelchair. I never require a wheelchair.
Once on the plane, I check my phone a last time, and then start reading. A flight attendant finds me.
“Good morning. Have you flown with us before?”
“Yes, thank you. Many times.”
“Fabulous! Would you like a braille card that describes the safety features of the aircraft?”
“No, thank you.”
Then follows a quick recitation on emergency exits, the fan, and the call-bell. All good. I prefer the aisle, but I’m often in a window seat. Once, a young woman staffing the gate came to tell me that airline policy required anyone with special needs to take a window seat. She was moving me. “Not that I mind moving,” I said, politely, “but why is that?” The poor young woman was immediately flustered. Someone else intervened, an older woman with the airline: apparently, people with special needs had to sit by the window in case of an emergency. Able-bodied people needed to sit on the aisle in order to assist others in need. In an emergency, they’ll sacrifice the old, the lame, and the blind while everyone else vacates the plane. I smiled and thanked the young woman, and, of course, sat by the window.
The flight passes, and I read. Once we land, I text my kids, and pass-the-parcel begins again: out of the plane, across the bridge, into the airport, and into a cab. I’m usually feeling nervy by this point—freeways, traffic, and an unfamiliar city all adding to my sense of displacement. Finally, the hotel. I pay the driver, hope to hell I can stand outside the doors of the hotel to smoke, then I venture inside.
I check in at the desk, and the last person in this chain of people takes me in hand. In a few minutes, I am in my hotel room, the door closed behind me, my ears ringing with the unfamiliar quiet, and my nerves twitching in the grips of an anxiety hangover.
I’m here, wherever I am, for just a few days. If it’s a conference, it, too, will pass. Navigating the hotel, the conference, and the surrounding area is its own challenge.
Once my trip is done, I will experience the whole game of pass-the-parcel in reverse: cab, airport, plane, airport, and cab. At last, I will be deposited on my front step, a worn-out and crumpled package, exquisitely grateful to be once again in my own, familiar space.
BIO: William Thompson is totally blind, and he teaches children’s literature for MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His work has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Penmen Review, The Danforth Review, and Literary Orphans. He has two collections of stories—The Paper Man and Other Stories, and Fractured and Other Fairy Tales—both available on Amazon. He also maintains a blog at www.OfOtherWorlds.ca. He considers coffee a food group, and he loves to walk and read, usually at the same time.