Blind Man's Bluff
An African-American man, clad in a black leather vest with a triangle patch stamped “Recon Marine,” strolls up to the bus stop at Massachusetts and 31st Street. He's just returning from volunteering at the Veterans Hospital, but now needs to buy some “washing powder” at Walgreens.
At the rambling facility in Beacon Hill, he personally escorts patients to their clinics. “I never give directions,” says the man, who sports square metal specs, with smoky lenses. “It’s too easy to get lost.”
The retired Marine, in his mid-60s, confides he fought in the Vietnam War and recently won a battle with prostate cancer, caused by the defoliant Agent Orange. He doesn’t need any prompting to rattle off his latest PSA test numbers — which show his cancer hasn’t returned — and says his doctor is delighted. A long finger traces a scar running from below his nose to his chin, where his face was split open in combat. “They did a pretty good job [sewing it up]," he says, in a deep, scratchy voice.
That wasn’t his only memento from Vietnam. His service also left him sightless in one eye and legally blind in the other, he says. But when he recently applied for disability benefits — because of those injuries — his request was rejected. The reason: Officials claimed his vision problems preceded his military service. “What did you do in the war?” I inquire.
“I was a shooter,” he says.
“You mean an assassin?” I ask, impressed.
“I didn’t want to say it that way,” he demurs. “What? I had a seeing-eye dog? He’d bark once to shoot to the right? Twice to shoot to the left? Yeah, I had a dog that was looking out with binoculars.”
The man’s still chuckling as he boards the No. 14 bus. But then he misplaces his ORCA card. “That’s okay,” says the driver. He takes a seat in a middle row. At the next stop, he approaches her.
“I appreciate your kindness,” he tells the driver, with shoulder-length blond hair. “But I can pay.”
She waves him off. “You forgot your card,” she tells him.
“You don’t know that,” he responds.
“I trust you,” she says.
A dog with no name
A woman strides onto the bus, along with her yellow dog. She’s wrapped in a bright red parka with a fur lined hood that makes her chocolate skin glow. A thin blue strap encircles the dog’s snout.
“Hi Buddy,” I greet the dog. The woman furiously shakes her head. I guess she’s just unfriendly. Then, a few minutes later, I inquire about her animal. Before she answers that question, she offers, “I broke six canes. I walk too fast. That’s why I got her.”
I suddenly realize she is blind and her animal is a service dog.
The woman’s companion is a six-year-old lab — 42 in dog years, she emphasizes. “She’s younger than me,” the woman notes, with a laugh. She cradles the dog’s muzzle and kisses her on the snout. “She’s my baby,” she coos. “I love her.”
This is her fourth guide dog since November 1983 and she rattles off the dates she received each one and the amount of time they trained together — about three weeks apiece.
How long can an animal work as a service dog? “Nine or ten years at the most,” she says. “When she’s done, I’m going to give my dog to my vet, who wants her.”
“Won’t that be sad?” I ask.
“No,” she says, matter-of-factly. Once the dog retires, “I can’t see her for six months, since I’ll be in transition. I’ll be working with a new dog.”
When I ask the animal’s name, she’s mum. “I don’t want my dog to get distracted,” she explains. “Even the people at church know her name, but they don’t use it.”
Humans aren’t the only ones who can damage a working dog’s concentration. She explains her companion was attacked by a lab-shepherd mix near the front of a No. 41 bus which shuttles between Northgate and downtown. “It was 2009, March 8 at 6:41. p.m,” her owner recalls, and the lab’s nose wound bled for several days. After the ordeal, the animal, “refused to get on a No. 41 bus for three months,” the woman recalled, explaining that a trainer helped the dog to recover.
Even so, her companion still suffers from occasional panic, she notes, as the bus door opens, and the dog nervously tugs at her leash, attempting a quick escape. The woman kisses her dog’s pink scar. “Mommy loves you,” she whispers.
The Chicken Man cometh
It’s just after 5 p.m. and the sun’s setting on a brisk winter day, as the No.14 fills up and heads west on Jackson. The passengers remain silent — and nearly comatose — except for the rumbling of their stomachs and a mother singing the ABC song to her two-year-old, who bobs her head and exclaims, “Yeah!” at each pause.
A black guy sporting a grey and red letterman jacket settles down across the aisle and places a Styrofoam container next to him. He proceeds to yack into his cell, prompting the bus driver to punch in a recorded warning to keep phones and listening devices at low levels.
The riders suddenly spring to life. “Who’s got that chicken?” asks one.
“Mmm, that smells good,” notes another.
“Where’d you get it?” inquires a third.
The man interrupts his conversation to reply, “The Chicken Shack. On Martin Luther King.”
I eye the box, calculating how easy it would be to snatch away. “You’d better guard that chicken,” I suggest.
“Calm down,” urges the man. “I don’t want anybody to get hurt.”
A couple stops later, the man ambles toward the front of the bus, clutching his dinner. He hovers near the fare box and waves the carton around.
“I’ll let you get a last, little smell,” he taunts us. As he disappears down the stairs, he announces, “The Chicken Man’s outta here!”