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2006-07-10 09:46
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

Right around the time that Jason Giambi launched his grand slam Sunday afternoon, I was on the IRT headed downtown. At 225th street, a tall, scraggly-looking man in shorts entered the subway accompanied by a seeing-eye dog. The man sat directly across from me. The car was almost bare. A Latin couple sat to my right and a young girl--no more than 9 or 10--sat to my left. Next to her was what appeared to be her older brother. The dog--a golden retriever--wore a leather harness and had a red bandana hanging from its neck.

In no time, the owner asked if I wanted to pet his pooch. Somewhere in the back of my head I couldn't remember ever interacting with a blind person's dog, but since I love retrievers I didn't hesitate. Before long, the dog was in love, and true to its nature, it couldn't get enough of me. He pressed his head against my legs and slobbered on my lap. Later, as he faced his owner, he leaned into me hard (I love how dogs lean into you as a way of being friendly). The girl next to me looked cautious.

"She's afraid of dogs," the blind man said. I started to wonder if he had only partial vision. His eyes were clear, but what do I know? I figure he had heard the girl speaking to her brother.

I got to chatting with the guy. He had just returned from upstate via the Metro North railroad. Now he was headed back home--turns out he's from 70th street on the Upper West Side. I tell him I'm originally from 103rd steet. The first thing he asks is where I went to school. If you are from New York City, this means high school, not college. So I tell him that I actually went to school in Westchester. The expression on his face went cold and I could tell that I had just gone down a notch in his book. This is a common attitude you'll see from kids who grew up in the City. (I used to feel terribly lacking, completely un-cool, that I didn't go to high school in New York, but I'm just too grown to care about that kind of nonsense anymore.) Thing of it is, dude was older than me, but I could just tell he never outgrew his I'm-too-cool-for-you, Manhattan-snobbery.

We continued to shoot the breeze. He went to Stuyvesant high school and was classmates with Tim Robbins. The longer we chatted, the more I realized I didn't really like the dude too tough. My Spidey Sense was tingling. He asked what I did for a living and when I told him I was a sports writer he told me a long, rambling story about a sports writer he knew that became a junkie. He didn't care about following sports at all--"I play them, I don't follow them." (In fact, he was running hours late for a volley ball game.) I found myself wanting to prove myself to him. "My first book was published this year," but the more I pressed, the more he looked completely bored and distracted.

That I was letting this guy get to me says as much about me as it does about him. Regardless, I finally asked, "So, just how blind are you?" His eyes twinkled, and he said, "I'm not blind at all, I just train seeing-eye dogs." It was as if he had not only been waiting for me to ask, but had been timing me, sizing me up by how long it would take me to call him on it. He explained that the dog is trained and he rents him out for months at a time as a seeing-eye dog. Further, he simply likes the company and by pretending that he's blind, he gets away with taking the dog on public transportation. "Nice schtick. So you basically con people," I say. He tells me that he doesn't tip his hand one way or the other, but clearly, he gets off on playing with people's heads.

At first I felt vindicated that something wasn't entirely kosher. "I knew there was something off here." Then I thought, "Man, this dude is a complete toy. What a dickhead."

The train became progressively more crowded as he moved downtown. I figured the dude was going to get out at 72nd street, one stop after I planned to leave. I tried to return to my book but he wouldn't let me. He persisted in engaging me in conversation, probably for no other reason than to entertain himself. (That's what you get sometimes...if you open your mouth and start chatting, you never know when and if it'll ever end.) I was frostier now but continued to talk. At 110th street, two police officers entered the car. The guy says to me, "Time to go to work" and drew the dog close to him. A woman entered the train and sat next to him and they began a conversation. Naturally, she assumed he was blind.

Yo, I had half a mind to rat this guy out to the cops. For real, I was just so put-off. I didn't, and when the cops exited the train at 96th street, the guy starts talking to me again about how what he's doing isn't wack. It's like he picked up on how much I disapproved and was now trying to justify himself. I chose not to call him on it any further. I guess I passed.

Anyhow, he was now more interested in talking with the woman next to him. "How many dogs do you have?" he asked. At least I was able to return to my book. I didn't want to tip my hand as to what stop I was getting of at--I just didn't want to talk to the guy anymore. The train pulled into the 79th street station and the dogs opened before I closed my book, grabbed my bag and made a quick move for the exit. The guy looks up and tells me to take care. I look back at him and in a loud voice I said, "Keep it real, bro." (Something I would never say with a straight face.) Then I put my right index finger underneath my right eye and pulled down slightly. "I'll see you around, huh?"

Comments
2006-07-10 11:56:29
1.   Max
I love getting my Alex fix so early in the week. Great story!

I actually found myself so immersed, and enjoyed the last line so much, that I did something I always see my 9 year old daughter do when she's reading and comes across a line that really grabs her because of the language -- she'll quietly act out whatever it is she just read, mouth out the words, and put a little extra dramatic flourish on it. Sort of her way of engaging the power of the language she just encountered for the first time.

I found myself pulling down on my right eye and imagining staring at this dude you were stuck on the train with...and then the punchline came into deeper "focus" for me. Weird, I know, but it's cool when good writing can make you behave like a kid, sometimes.

2006-07-10 11:58:30
2.   Sliced Bread
I think the poor retriever was subtly requesting a change of ownership.
Imagine having to play "blind man's bluff" with a schmuck like that all day.
2006-07-10 12:05:20
3.   Alex Belth
Yeah, the thing of it is, I don't ever recall a blind person's dog ever being that friendly. Maybe the dog wasn't fully trained yet, but even if a blind person were to command their dog to say "hello" to a stranger, by training I think they would be more reserved than the dog I met yesterday. I've even seen some seeing-eye dogs with signs on them that read, "Don't pet dog," or words to that effect.
2006-07-10 12:25:26
4.   Nick from Washington Heights
odd, when I was back in NYC this past spring, I was also on the 1 train above ground and I also encountered a blind person and seeing-eye dog. The dog was quiet and seemed bored, and I thought about petting it to cheer it up. But, then I thought, well I've never pet a seeing-eye dog and, in fact, I've never seen anyone else do that, so would it be really messed up if I did that? There was a whole internal struggle going on for a while for me and then I decided that the dog was doing a job and that was more important than it being cheerful. Actually, this past weekend I met someone who used to work with seeing-eye dogs and said that I did the right thing, that most seeing-eye dogs understand that they're "working" and that the time to play with them is when they're off duty. And the cool thing is that they'll become happy-go-lucky as soon as they're off the clock. So, since it wasn't technically working, I don't think it was unusual for the dog to be cheery.
2006-07-10 14:16:31
5.   BklynBmr
Thanks Alex, great reading for a ballgame-less day! I don't think I've ever seen anyone interacting with a guide dog, either. Goldens are awesome. We have one that's 98lbs of pure love and mischief. I'll always approach one on the street unless, as Nick writes 4, he's 'working'.

Off topic, there's a pretty good 'test your baseball knowledge' quiz on espn.com:

http://tinyurl.com/pzczg

You can compare your score to a few players (including Mike Myers) and ESPN analysts. My score? 'Dunce cap' is all you need to know ;-(

2006-07-10 14:25:49
6.   Alex Belth
Hey I got 39 out of 50. That's the best I've done on any kind of test in years...
2006-07-10 14:43:25
7.   standuptriple
How is Vin Scully's alma a true test of baseball knowledge? Give me a break.
2006-07-10 15:03:41
8.   randym77
In honor of the Home Run Derby, "How far it really went":

http://www.hittrackeronline.com/index.php

An engineer with too much time on his hands has come up with a method of measuring home runs. If it hit something, he calculates how far it would have gone if nothing was in the way. He also takes wind and other atmospherics into account.

He even has maps of each one. Here's A-rod's off Sosa:

http://www.hittrackeronline.com/hrdetail.php?id=2006_2555

A-Rod is leading the list of "Golden Sledgehammers." Nobody's hitting them harder (average of 416.3 feet). Mr. "I hit them 500 feet" is actually hitting them 404.2 feet. ;-)

2006-07-10 15:22:53
9.   Chyll Will
Hey Alex, good story as usual. I likely would have "passed" on the opportunity to snitch on that idiot as well, but then again I probably would have brushed him off earlier. You never can tell, but it's interesting to observe people's behavior in that first ten seconds when they've made an impression versus the time afterwards they either undermine or support it. (Look at me talking!)

FYI, I agree with Nick; etiquette-wise and professionally, you're not supposed to pet a seeing-eye dog. I've heard from a few trainers that it throws off their consentration when you do, and some might even react badly. My rule of thumb in any case is never to pet a dog I've never met before unless the owner is present and close enough to intervene; tug the leash or something. If I ever get bit, the owner better worry more about himself than the dog.

What about a Banter Baseball Quiz? (It's not biting, it's homage!)

2006-07-10 15:40:16
10.   mikeplugh
Great story Alex. There are plenty of those characters around. They're the grown up version of the kids who sell candy for their "basketball uniforms".

7 I agree. Vin Scully's alma mater is not baseball knowledge, and I felt as though a number of the questions are such trivia that it hardly tests anyones knowledge of baseball history. The questions that actually talk about the game are fairly easy. Rickey Henderson stole 130 bases in a year. Who else would it be.

Fun to try. I got 22 out of 50 on the quiz, which was far less than most of the players and writers, but I got most of the baseball related questions right, as well as a few of the older questions which surprised me.

2006-07-10 15:54:08
11.   Chyll Will
Wowzers, I got 29. Who wouldda thought? Don't even count the Scully question, that was someone's attempt at stand-up.
2006-07-10 16:38:22
12.   Yankee Fan in Chicago
C'mon boys, who doesn't know that Scully -- the best announcer ever? -- went to Fordham. Go Rams!
2006-07-10 17:41:33
13.   Simone
Ummm, that guy on the train sounds like a real con artist.

Anyone watching the Home Run Derby? Miguel Cabrera is putting on a show. That kid is a stud.

2006-07-10 18:02:15
14.   Chyll Will
Did it occur to anyone that the dog was wearing colors? And that if that guy had been for real, there would've been beef (a crip walking a blood)...

I know... but I don't have cable, so I'm susceptible to thoughts like these instead of catching the HRD...

2006-07-10 18:40:08
15.   Chyll Will
Oooo-kay. Either the room got empty really quickly, or this is the longest dead-air in history. Must be one hell of a battle going on.
2006-07-10 19:05:12
16.   Jen
I got 36 correct. At least I did better than Steve Phillips. So I got that going for me, which is nice.
2006-07-10 19:08:25
17.   Bama Yankee
Great story Alex. Somewhere in the Twilight Zone that guy would end up really going blind and there would be no seeing-eye dogs to help him...

I think Sliced was right in 2, that dog was a pretty good judge of character and he wanted to get away from that guy and hang with someone with class for a change. The fact that the guy was willing to pull off the blind thing makes me wonder if he really even trained the dogs or if he just made that part up too.

2006-07-10 19:27:55
18.   Bama Yankee
I got 37 correct, not bad for a guy who graduated from a football school...

BTW, Mel Allen was also a graduate of the University of Alabama. Roll Tide!

2006-07-10 20:33:52
19.   unpopster
Alex, I'd like to say that I've been really enjoying your stories the last year or so. As a native New Yorker myself who is probably pretty close to your age (I'm 34), I can relate to ever last one of them.

When I used to hang out on the UWS during high school, there were a few panhandlers/beggars that EVERYONE knew by name (Shorty?) or by their schtick (the guy with a frame hanging around his kneck claiming that he needs some money because he's "been framed"). And these are the kinds of characters that separate NYC from so many other cities.

When I lived on the UES, there was a panhandler that camped out on my corner. His name was Michael and my g-friend and I became very friendly with him, always stopping to chat and occasionally dropping a quarter or two in his cup. I gave because I considered it protection money -- not for me but for my girlfriend. Since she had moved to The City to be with me, I liked to think that there was someone who watched over her as she walked around the neighborhood without me.

One day I asked Michael where he called home. I expected to hear that he lived in some homeless shelter in the area, but he openly admitted to me that he lived with his commonlaw wife in a phat apartment in Harlem. Everyday he'd wake up, take the 6 Train down to 86th Street, and go to his j-o-b, or as we call it, to b-e-g.

When I heard this I had three immediate reactions: 1) I laughed hysterically, 2) I felt like a sucker, and 3) curiously, I felt especially proud to be living in such a unique city.

After that, I curbed my "giving" to Michael but I didn't cut him off completely. I still expected his "protection" and I also got a newfound sense of amusement everytime a passed him.

On a separate note, I'm an avid amateur street photographer who really enjoys catching the uniqueness of NYC with my camera. When I read your stories, I almost feel like you do the very same thing with your words. I love it...keep it up.

Lastly, to tie the two together, there is a great coffee table photo book called "New York Characters" by Gillian Zoe Segal. You can buy it at any Barnes & Noble for about $20. Through a photo and a page-long story, Segal chronicles the lives of about 40 or so true New York characters that we've all seen on the streets -- from the "Opera Man," the Jets' Fireman Ed and Dr. Zizmor (he of the subway car advertisments) to our very own Freddy Sez.

2006-07-11 05:20:14
20.   Alex Belth
Yo UnP,
Shoot me an e-mail sometime. I'd love to check out some of your pictures. Maybe we can find a way to incorporate them into a post someday.
2006-07-11 11:54:53
21.   hugo
Thank you Dr. Zizmor!

I managed 37 ("Thirty-Seven?!!!!") on the quiz, including correctly identifying Scully's alma mater. Born and bred in NYC, I considered it a great question. But I got lucky with a whole bunch of guesses as well.

That guy sounds like a real piece of work, although I admit to showing disappointment when I meet someone who tells me they're from NY and then when I ask them where they went to school, they explain that they are really from New Jersey or Rockland County or something. It is not that I respect them any less, just disappointment that we did not have the connection that I had thought. I went to Bronx Science by the way.

2006-07-11 12:19:31
22.   unpopster
22 It's worse up in the Boston area. Anyone within 100 miles of Boston proper is suddenly FROM Boston when you ask them.
2006-07-11 12:43:27
23.   Alex Belth
That reminds me of the old Lenny Bruce routine "Lima, Ohio" when he talks about meeting a couple after a gig and the guy says, "I got a cousin over there in New York."

"Oh, yeah, whereabouts?"

"Rochester."

"Oh, Rochester, yeah..."

I'm just living in denial though. Even though I didn't go to school in Manhattan (my parents split when I was 10) I was there every weekend and then during the summers. It was a strange NYC experience in that I never socialized with kids my age. We always hung around my dad's friends. Precocious kids. We lived in a few towns in Westchester after leaving NYC when I was five. By the time I left college, the place I had gone to middle school and high school just sort of faded away for me as a town, while my family remained on the Upper West Side, which ultimately feels more like "home" than any other place in the world to me.

2006-07-12 07:43:17
24.   graciebarn
I got 36, though I would have missed the Scully one if I hadn't read 21.
2006-07-12 21:17:18
25.   chuie
I was told by a man whom I KNOW trained guide dogs (and whose wife was blind) that you should refrain from petting a working dog in harness. The harness is a signal to the dog that it's time to work.
2006-07-15 21:20:12
26.   T J
"I felt as though a number of the questions are such trivia that it hardly tests anyones knowledge of baseball history."

I didn't think there were too many of these; maybe Cy Young NOT in the first HOF class (but that's a perfectly fair question), # of perfect games ever, single-season team record for HR, ROY/MVP/Cy. They were hard, but fair.

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