Suddenly, it was second grade and we were allowed to walk to school together
without a parent. We had to cross at the corner. If we didn’t obey, Jane’s mom, that witch
in her bobby pin curls, would yell out from her second-floor kitchen window: “I’m going
to call your mothers if you cross when the light is red.”
Being tattled on by another mother was like having a note sent home by the
teacher. In my house, it meant my easily riled mother would get angry and say that I was
fresh, with that look. It felt worse than being hit.
We always walked to school down Ocean Avenue, the noisiest four-lane street in
Brooklyn. The brakes on the trolleys shrieked when they got to our corner. The trucks
rumbled by and the drivers banged on their horns.
It was just before Columbus Day. when I said to the other kids, “I don’t want to
go to school this way anymore. It’s too loud and boring with these old apartment
buildings that look like creepy dominoes. We’ll go around the college. Okay?”
They agreed. When we crossed the avenue, we walked a little further and made a
left turn onto Campus Road which circled around Brooklyn College. As we were talking,
laughing, and clattering around the corner, we crashed into a man who was walking his
dog, just minding his business.
He was a handsome man who looked like Jimmy Stewart with dark glasses. I was
startled when I saw his white cane. I knew what it meant.
“Are you OK?” Sharon asked him.
“Sure. Were you all running because you’re late for school?”
I said: “No, we just like to run.”
He laughed and said: “I did too. I live around the corner. I’m Carl. Is one of you
I clapped my hands. “I’m Carol!”
“I recognize your voice. I once met you in Bohacks with your mom. She plays
mahjong with my mother.”
“Please don’t tell her we were running.”
“I won’t.” He laughed.
“Who are you?” he asked the other kids.
They each said their name: Joey, Sharon, Paul, Alan, Susan.
Carl said, “This is Smokey.”
Joey asked, “What is he?”
“He’s a fox terrier.”
Smokey had a black and brown coat, a cute face, and seemed happy for us to pet
When I got home from school, I told my mother about meeting Carl. She knew
him and said we shouldn’t bother him. She told me that he’d lost his eyesight when he
was a soldier.
“He said he’d meet us again on Wednesday morning.”
“Well, don’t be a pest.”
Almost everything I said was met with her frowning face.
I don’t remember that we made a real plan with Carl to meet every day, but we
started seeing him on the corner almost every morning. When we arrived at the school
yard, we’d say “See you tomorrow.”
I began to watch Carl; how he figured out where the curbs were by feeling with
the toe of his shoe, and how he used his cane to find the parts of the sidewalk that were
damaged and stuck up at jagged angles. He made a system that worked for him.
Unlike Carl, I hadn’t figured it out because I was always in a hurry. I’d trip on the
tree roots and tilted sidewalks in front of my apartment building and scrape my knees.
My father always said: “Your knees have the map of Brooklyn on them.” Bits of
sharp mica and cement would get stuck in the scratches and my mother would yell at me
as she tweezed the bits out. She'd put iodine on the cuts, ignoring my pleas to use
mercurochrome so it would sting less. She said, "If you stop running so fast, I won't have
to put the iodine on."
Carl was a good listener. In the way that kids work things out, we developed an
understanding that if one kid was hanging out with Carl, the others would walk ahead,
realizing that it was a private talk. I decided to try it out.
When I told Carl about my knees and my mother, he tilted his head to one side,
“Carol, about falling, when I became blind, I had to learn how to slow down and
figure out how to avoid obstacles. Slowing down, looking and listening might work for
After that, I stopped hurrying and paid more attention to where I was going. It
worked. No more iodine. I worried about telling Carl how thankful I was. I didn’t want
him to think I was silly but I wanted to let him know how he’d helped me.
I said: “Thanks for telling me about slowing down. I’m not banging my knees so
Unlike Carl, my mother was hard to read. She was nervous sometimes, but I
didn’t know why. If I came up behind her, she’d jump and yell. If I dropped something,
she’d suck in her breath behind her teeth and gasp: “Don’t do that again.”
And she never hugged me if I was upset because someone teased me.
In a hard voice she’d say: “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words
will never harm you.”
All I wanted her to say was, ‘I’m sorry you were hurt,’ and hug me, but she didn’t.
I never understood why she was like that. But also, I remember how she was always kind
when I got sick. She’d bring me soup and tuck me in and sometimes sit on the bed next to
me and read a story. She’s lucky I didn’t get sick a lot, just to have that other side of her.
My father was a policeman and had a washing machine business, so he was
hardly ever home. When he was, he would get into a bad temper if he felt bothered by me
or my little brother. Although, sometimes he’d tell us about plants, and history or watch a
tv program with us, you never knew when he’d turn nasty. Then, I’d quickly find a book
to read on my bed, or go outside.
Some school mornings we didn’t all get to the corner at the same time. Other
mornings Carl wasn’t there because he was going to college to become a teacher. One
morning in the pale November sunlight, I got there first hoping to talk with Carl.
I told him, “I can’t talk to my parents about anything that bothers me ‘cause I’m
sorry when I do. Mostly they say I’m fresh and I should leave them alone. Sometimes I
get a pinch from my mother”
“My parents called me fresh too. It means you’re curious. I’m a good listener:
Ask me your fresh questions.”
That made me giggle. “Thanks, Carl.”
I wondered about him a lot. Was he ever sad about being blind, or worried if
someone would love him? I could never ask him that, of course. But I knew that I loved
him. Being with him filled up some of the empty places inside and helped me feel less
He sensed that I was looking out for him. “You’re sweet to ask how I'm doing.
I thought maybe he’d be annoyed with my overzealous attention but when he
thanked me, I knew it was all right.
Carl taught us how he listened carefully to know when cars or trucks were
“That’s how I can feel safe crossing the streets. There’s a huge difference
between hearing and listening. I hear the sounds of traffic and I listen so I know what
each sound means. Remember, listen to the horns, the car brakes squealing, a car
backfiring, the old men calling ‘Cash for Clothes’, the bells on the ice cream truck. Get to
know the sounds of the neighborhood.”
We began to play a listening version of I Spy. We’d go around the neighborhood,
listen for new birds, and figure out how to describe them to Carl. We looked for kinds of
dogs or cats we’d never seen before. I paid attention to the hail on the window panes and
the soft silent snow falling outside my bedroom window onto the canopy below. It lay
smooth as a blanket and never got dirty.
Once after school, I heard the coal truck rumbling to a stop in front of our
building. I could hear it even though I was up on the third floor. I ran down to grab some
lumps of coal quickly before the driver got busy unloading the truck. It came tumbling
rapidly down the chute. I had to be very careful as I reached into the chute for the pieces
with sharp, broken edges that you could write on the sidewalk with. It was only possible
if you heard the truck right when it arrived. Susan came out of the doorway too, then
Joey. We grinned as we ran to the truck.
We began to hear things from far away, like the trolley bells. That gave us time to
drop pennies on the trolley track while it was safe. Then we’d collect the pennies that
were bent in half by the trolley wheels. All our listening began to pay off.
We heard our parents say that we were learning a lot from Carl. We laughed so
hard. We knew that it was a good thing that they didn’t overhear our conversations with
him. They wouldn’t like knowing it was so much fun. Our immigrant parents liked the
education we got at school: reading, writing, arithmetic and memorizing. It was their
desire, more than anything, for us to get a good education.
‘Education is the way up,’ they said.
Carl helped us learn too, but not in the way that our parents necessarily wanted.
He kept encouraging us to notice and pay attention to our environment. Carl taught us to
use all of our senses to explore the world. It was hands on and therefore messier, but
much more interesting. We thought that spending time with Carl gave us a better
education than being in school. I felt my brain growing smarter and I became aware of
“C’mon kids, you don’t live in your apartments all the time. Get to know the
great outdoors. Touch and smell; look and listen.”
That autumn, we began learning about leaves.
“Can someone pick up a leaf?”
“Thanks, Jane. Carol, Paul what’s this leaf? If you don’t know it, can you
describe it to me?”
I said: “I’ll make up a riddle. It’s usually green, but now it’s tan. It’s shaped like
a fan with little cuts on the outside edge.”
Carl said: “That’s a gingko leaf.”
Susan found one. “It has six points and it’s red now. It’s got some itchy balls
attached to it.”
Carl said: “It’s a Sycamore leaf, and those balls? What are they?”
Alan knew: “They are the seeds.”
"Are there any pine trees around here? Look for them.”
When we found some, he’d say “They have needles instead of leaves. Rub them
together with your hands and smell them. What does that smell like? Think of the words
that describe how something smells.”
“It smells sharp in my nose.”
“Is it paint?”
“Is it turpentine?”
“You’re both right!”
I began to explore the world the way he did. I learned to detect differences in
insect sounds and bird songs. The types of wind and rain., the smoky aroma of wet fall
leaves, and the crunch of dry ones. I felt sharper and smarter every day.
We almost never asked Carl about his war experiences. Although when one of the
boys asked him if he got any medals for being in the war, he brought a purple heart and a
distinguished cross to show us.
“I was hurt in the Battle of the Bulge, where I lost my sight from a head injury.”
That cemented his status for us. I loved him as a little girl loves her hero.
By the third grade, our walks had become all about baseball. Every one of us was
a Brooklyn Dodgers fan who worshipped Jackie Robinson: the first Black athlete in the
major leagues. I had my own Dodgers hat and blue satin jacket. My parents bought me a
wooden baseball bat and even a real leather glove. We played ball in the dirt yard behind
the apartment building. We all wore our baseball shirts, hats, and jackets whenever we
could because we were so proud. We all listened to the games on the radio with our
fathers and, of course, we collected baseball cards.
Paul told Carl, “You and Jackie are our heroes.”
Carl shook his head. “I did what I had to do. Jackie is a hero every day. He has to
fight to play because some people don’t want a Negro playing major league baseball.
People throw things at him and call him names.”
We all felt confused. How could people who cheered for the Dodgers hate Jackie?
I began to think more about why there were no Black people in our neighborhood. Jane’s
father didn’t like Black people and didn’t want them living near white people. The only
Negroes we saw cleaned houses or picked up the garbage. I took a chance and asked my
mother about Millie who cleaned for us.
“Do you like Millie?
“Yes of course,” she said.
But she never talked to Millie except to tell her what she wanted her to do. She
never said ‘how is your family?’ or anything like that.
“Why doesn’t Millie live around here?” I asked her.
“Because she wants to live with her own kind.”
I knew that was not an answer, but I didn’t ask any more. I always asked Millie
how she was doing. I knew her children were Louisa and Henry and her husband was Joe.
I didn’t want to be rude.
There were no easy answers. But I learned the major difference between Carl and
my parents. Sometimes, they didn’t seem to care about who I was, if I hurt or was okay.
As long as I behaved and made them proud of me in school, they were satisfied. Carl
liked me and thought I was okay just being me. That made all the difference.
Several years passed, and Carl still walked occasionally with us. I felt more and
more secure inside myself. In the fifth grade, that all changed. We began to see bomb
shelters being built, and our parents talked about an arms race and even a war between us
and the Russians. Our morning walks turned into talks about our worries and fears.
“Do you know about the air raid drills, Carl? We have to hide under our desks or
in the hall with our heads between our legs to protect us from bombs. I don’t believe that
a roof and our desks will keep us safe. It’s a bunch of malarkey.”
Each of us had something to say: “They gave us dog tags that we have to wear all
the time around our necks;” “I’m worried.” “I’ve had bad dreams about those dog tags.”
A few years earlier, I had seen something in the newspapers that I’d never
forgotten: pictures of bodies at a place called Buchenwald, that were stacked like frozen
bones with a little bit of skin and striped fabric stretched over them. Even the people who
weren’t dead were walking skeletons. I was only six and my parents chose not to tell me
that the people were Jews like us. I was terrified by the pictures and hearing that
information would have made me hide under my bed forever.
But by now, I knew. And it seemed it could happen again. The teachers said the
dog tags would help us get reunited with our families in case we were separated. When
my father said it was for body identification, that gave me a sour taste in my mouth like I
was about to throw up. The words body identification reminded me of those pictures in
the newspaper. I could never tell my parents about my dread. They’d just say forget about
One day, I woke up from a really bad dream about the bodies. I asked Carl if I
could tell him about it. I knew he could hear me crying, but that was ok.
He took my hand as he listened. “Carol, bad dreams are upsetting, but believe
me, it’s good to let it out. I know that this is a rough time, but we’ll get through it. I can’t
tell you not to worry, but I don’t believe that the people who run the US and the USSR
will push those buttons.”
It didn’t change a thing, but it was reassuring.
After the 1954 summer vacation, we all met in front of my apartment building to
start sixth grade. It was really hot and we were all in our summer clothes; so excited to
start our graduation year. I was wearing my prettiest sundress and shiny sandals. We all
looked so grown up. I couldn’t wait to see Carl again.
We turned the corner and he was not there. We weren’t early but we waited a few
minutes longer. Carl never showed up. We were stunned. All of us: girls and boys, teared
up and quickly wiped our eyes. We just looked at each other and then started talking all at
“I hope he’s OK.”
“Maybe he got that teaching job.”
“Do you think he moved?”
All the joy went out of the morning. The sunlight dulled down to gray and nothing
looked real. I never doubted that he’d be there on the first day of school each year. Four
years of knowing him disappeared in a flash. The other kids started walking to school.
But my heart started to beat quickly and I stood there not moving. I felt some more tears
and wiped my eyes.
The entire day, which should have been wonderful and exciting, was a blur. After
school, I ran home dripping with tears and told my mother about Carl. I had pulled away
from her a long time ago, but I allowed her to see my invisible pain and she called one of
Carl’s neighbors. They said that the family moved away in July while we were upstate.
“Carol, I’m sorry.”
I was surprised at her kindness. I knew she cared when she hugged me.
I told myself that he wouldn’t have had any way to let us know about the move. I
needed him so much I couldn’t allow myself to blame him for disappearing. From the
vantage point of age, I know there was hurt and anger that I didn’t feel safe enough to
face. He was the only person I could share my pain and confusion with, and now he was
out of my life.
Only now, as I write about him, do I encounter the remainder of the betrayal and
abandonment that I had to suppress. It momentarily twists in my chest and throat. Then
it’s gone. He was a life saver, but he inadvertently caused me pain so great that I had to
forget him completely for decades. I distanced myself from my hurt and from him. There
were no words.
It wasn’t that I believed that he didn’t care about me, or was trying to hurt me,
although that passed briefly through my mind. There simply wasn’t the same kind of
investment on his side. I’m sure if he was leaving in September, we would have said
good-by. But he wasn’t going to make a special trip to his old neighborhood to bring
closure to our relationship. For a long time that year, the only way I could allow myself
to think about him was to daydream that when we rounded the corner, there he’d be with
Smokey, leaning on his cane, grinning and hearing us from a mile away. Sometimes,
even that was too painful. I’d have to catch my breath and push the image away.
Carl helped me change from a scared, fresh child into a more confident one. I
learned that by just listening you could make a child feel heard and valued. Carl is why I
became first an elementary school teacher, and subsequentially, a therapist. His gift was
something powerful. He wanted us to be open to the world all around us. I still light up as
I remember how Carl taught us to identify the robins, orioles, starlings, pigeons, and
sparrows in our neighborhood. Once we learned, we could see and hear them all the time,
and like him, identify all the birds by their songs.
“Listen to the robin’s short tweets and screeches. There’s a song sparrow. It has
black and brown markings and high whistles and pretty clusters of notes. Listen for the
differences in the calls.”
“Have you ever seen or heard a woodpecker? They’re rare, but we might find one
right in our own Brooklyn neighborhood.”
A woodpecker in Brooklyn? None of us had.
“Keep watching for it and listening, you’ll know. It’s black with thin white
stripes on its wings and a triangular crest that could be red, sticking up on its head. It
sounds like this: ch-char-char. It’s a noisy chatterbox.”
We never heard that bird chatter, and the woodpecker remained as exotic to me
as a peacock. It was only my faith in Carl that let me believe that one day I would hear
and see one. His explorer legacy is still a strong part of me.
On that first day of sixth grade, I still hadn’t found a woodpecker in Brooklyn. I
never did. But as we stood in shocked and helpless silence that morning, there was one
consolation. I knew that this Brooklyn girl would confidently explore the world on her own.