I lost my vision.
I was walking through Central Park on a Friday afternoon when I became so blinded I couldn’t see my own hands in front of my face.
I tried uncovering my face from my hands, but still, I couldn’t see . . .
In pitch darkness with my arms stretched out like Frankenstein, I fumbled my way through a swarm of people. For nearly an hour, I groped everything in my path, including a newspaper stand, a mailbox, and a hot dog vendor (at least I think he was selling hot dogs).
Forced to rely on my other senses to compensate for my lack of vision, I became increasingly attuned to the scents, sounds, textures and temperatures around me. I knew instantly, for example, when my path underfoot changed from cobblestone to gravel, to someone else’s foot . . .
I attempted to make out the sounds: the trickling of a waterfall, the whoosh of a city bus, and the helpless screams of a tourist getting mugged . . .
Fortunately, the sounds I heard were manufactured, and the obstacles I felt were props, all part of a simulated exhibit at South Street Seaport called “Dialog in the Dark.”
The experiential exhibit allowed my family and about a half dozen others on the 4:00 pm tour to temporarily experience what it’s like to be visually impaired. Our vision would be fully restored as soon as the lights were turned on.
We relied on our partially blind guide, Ken, to lead us through the exhibit that takes visitors through a variety of simulated city environments, including the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, in total darkness.
Ken deftly took us through a series of New York City spaces and managed to calmly guide us nervous first-timers using only his voice.
We were each provided with an authentic walking cane, which we swung like a pendulum across the ground. The canes helped us navigate when we weren’t tripping one another.
I followed Ken’s voice from fake Central Park to the mock grocery store where he challenged us to explore our surroundings. He asked, “Did you find the refrigerated section?”
“I found a carton of milk,” my son replied.
“1% or 2%?” quipped Ken.
“Anyone find the produce section yet?” Ken asked.
“I think I found a basket of fruit,” I said, running my hands over a textured surface and suddenly recoiling my hand in pain. “Er, a pineapple . . .”
Next we took a simulated subway, where just like on the real subway, I couldn’t find a seat. When we arrived at “Lexington Avenue,” Ken warned us of stairs ahead.
“Stairs? You’ve got to be kidding me,” I mumbled. I suddenly understood why we were required to sign a waiver. Piercing by pineapple looked to be the least of my worries.
“Chris!” I called for my husband. “Can you hold my hand?”
A warm hand closed over mine and suddenly I felt safe.
“Lisa, would you like me to help you find your husband?” Ken’s voice rang out next to me. I dropped his hand like a hot potato.
“Sorry, Ken. Uh, no, I’m fine thanks.”
I took a deep breath and inched my way down the steps slower than a pack mule descending the Grand Canyon.
After we had all safely reached the bottom of the stairs and navigated our way down the hallway we entered a pleasantly scented room. “What do you smell?” asked Ken.
“Coffee!” we answered in unison.
“Starbucks!” my kids cried out, inhaling the aroma of fresh java artificially piped into the mock café. We fumbled our way into an actual booth and sat together, calm and relaxed for the first time in an hour.
Ken answered our questions about what it’s like to be visually impaired. My daughter asked him how he matches his clothes, and he told us about a clothes-matching app for the visually impaired. The lights flickered on. I glanced at my son wearing a red plaid shirt and green-checkered shorts. I made a mental note to buy him the app.
I left the exhibit with a renewed respect for the visually impaired. I vowed I would never take my sight for granted, whether I was picking out pineapples, matching my clothing, negotiating stairs . . . or, holding hands with a stranger.
Looking for things to do with kids in New York City? Check out Dialog in the Dark and its neighboring exhibit at South Street Seaport, the Bodies Exhibit showcasing preserved human bodies dissected to display bodily systems.
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Photo Credit: Daniella Zalcman, The Wall Street Journal