I first became aware that I was losing my eyesight when I was in Nicaragua, helping to celebrate the Sandinistas. A group of poets, writers and artists from New York had gone down to support their cause. It was there while walking on the sidewalk, that I kept stepping on the edge of the flowers. The fact is, I never saw the flowers, and had no idea I was stepping on them. It was then I realized I was losing my peripheral vision.
Upon arriving back into New York City, I had my eyes examined by different eye doctors from various ethnic groups. They all reached the same conclusion. The conclusion was, that I had glaucoma and would never see again. My last doctor was a Trinidadian man at the ENT infirmary on East 14th and Second Avenue. Ironically enough, he was also Bill Cosby’s ENT doctor. He informed me that Mr Cosby was suffering from the same disability as me– glaucoma.
Frightened and confused, I had to figure out how I would continue without my eyesight. This became especially daunting because I was still teaching at Medgar Evers college (CUNY). Since I was losing my eyesight, I had to get my student assistants to read the students papers to me. The two ladies I had were seniors who were English majors. The administration informed me they were not qualified to read the papers, because they were not graduate students. My answer was to find graduate students. The university responded that they did not have a feasible budget to do so. So I asked what options I had. The school suggested I retire.
The spring semester was coming to a close, and because I needed the money, I signed up to teach summer classes. And that’s when it happened. The town house that I owned on the Lower East Side was set ablaze. My ex-wife’s new boyfriend, in a fit of rage, had set fire to the only house I’d ever owned in my life. And it was then that I found myself in between a rock and a hard place – blue and depressed as all get out.
Not only was I losing my eyesight, but now I was losing the only home I’d ever had. I was so disgusted I figured I’d forget about New York and move back to New Orleans to be with my family. I told a friend of mine the same. He responded “You can’t leave New York; you haven’t finished what you came to do”.
Being in love with literature and having a deep love of movies and visual arts, I felt lost without eyes. Firstly because when alone I like to crawl up with a book of poetry or a novel and read. And when it comes to movies and art, I was mad about going to movies and art shows in the city. Without eyes I couldn’t figure out, for the life of me, how I would continue to enjoy the above and now the house had been destroyed by a fire.
The person I owned the home with had taken off with the insurance money.I was left with a shell of a house and no money, trying to figure out my next move. Luckily, my neighbors came to the rescue. Not only did they take it upon themselves to clean up the debris for the fire, but they also helped me get situated back into the house.
As for CUNY, I cut a deal. I had put in twenty five years of teaching, first at York college (CUNY), at Queens College, Hunter College and also at Medgar Evers College (CUNY) in Brooklyn. This totaled twenty five years of service to CUNY; therefore, I qualified for early retirement. With a friend from Toronto, I went up to the union headquarters (Professional Staff congress), and told them my story. The union representative there ran some numbers on the computer. She told me how much I would receive and the two of us came up with a plan.
She said to me, “Put in your papers for retirement now, it will take effect within 90 days. And since you’re sixty-five years old, apply for Social Security. The Social Security, will take about six months to go into effect. And you can use that money once it comes through, to fix up the house”. I did just that, and that’s how I got back on my feet.
Being totally blind, I had to figure out, number one, what would I do with my time, and how I would navigate through the city. Lucky for me, I’ve always loved music; as long as I was surrounded by music, I felt a sense of security. And since I’m a writer by profession, who also loves to read, I had to figure out how to continue with my craft.
The lighthouse for the blind gave me a talking computer. And they also provided me with an instructor, who came by to teach me how to use it. The program had many glitches, and we never got off the ground with it. I found it easier to get volunteers to whom I could dictate. With reading, that became a challenge. I sent a word through friends to get people to read to me from time to time; books, magazines, newspapers, etc. In that way I could keep up with current events, especially in arts and literature.
Those two problems were solved. Next I had to figure out how to get around the city to enjoy music and art exhibitions. Since I was too old, as far as I was concerned, to learn to walk with a walking cane or seeing eye dog, I decided the easiest thing to do was to have friends escort me to concerts, art exhibitions and even plays. It’s been thirty years, since I first lost my eyesight, and this is how I’ve found myself partnering with volunteers to assist me with accomplishing the vital things I need to get done.
In spite of being visually challenged, I’ve been able to still accomplish the things I’ve set out to do. With the help of others, I’ve founded an organization called The Gathering of the Tribes. We’ve published fourteen issues of the magazine of the same name and anywhere from ten to fifteen books of poetry. Tribes has also shown over a thousand artists and have been successful in helping many young artists with their careers in poetry, fiction and music.
When it comes to frustration, that’s one sensational emotion that I don’t suffer from. When no one’s around and I’m alone with myself, I spend my time thinking about what life means and my accomplishments, and what I want to do next. Through my 80-some-odd years of experience, I've learned the value of empathy, compassion, and love.