Gary Wunder
Gary Wunder

Between Kindness and Honesty

by Gary Wunder

From the Editor: Gary Wunder is a Member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind. He is also a wise and gentle man who is not above using subterfuge to acquire the information he wants. The story he tells about his need to know appeared in Reflecting the Flame, the seventeenth in the NFB's Kernel Book series. Here it is, beginning with President Maurer's introduction:

How does a blind person deal with things that are done primarily for visual effect? How does he know if he's done them right if his friends are hesitant to tell him for fear of hurting his feelings? These are the questions Gary Wunder, who is President of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri, explores in "Between Kindness and Honesty." Here is what he has to say:

One of the most difficult challenges for blind people is to determine how well we do things which are done primarily for visual effect. Does the bathroom mirror have streaks? Is the window clean? Is the shirt wrinkled or smoothly pressed? Is the fence well sanded and painted?

There are several issues to address when we tackle some of these everyday chores. We must create an effect which, since it is visual, may be one about which we have very little understanding. Is the visual effect we're trying to create one which corresponds to something we can feel? In the case of sanding the fence, the answer is yes. But in the case of the window or the mirror, the answer is no. If we can use our sense of touch, will the act of touching to verify our work alter the positive outcome we seek?

Touching the fence to inspect one's painting job will probably have no long-lasting effects if the paint is dry, but touching the mirror or the window to see that one's efforts have been successful will probably go a great distance toward undoing the good work which was intended.

Striving to achieve a satisfactory visual effect isn't limited only to house cleaning and simple home repairs. Some of the clothing we wear is to meet a functional need, such as keeping warm. But a good deal of how we dress has to do with looking visually appealing as defined by the communities in which we live.

When I was a boy growing up on a farm, being well dressed meant putting on a clean pair of jeans and a clean shirt every two or three days and occasionally dropping one's sneakers into the laundry. After high school, college, and eventually a professional job, I found that the rules for being well dressed had changed. Now the requirement was that I wear a pressed white shirt, a nice two- or three-piece suit, and freshly shined wing tip shoes.

In my family buying a pair of wing tip shoes was quite an occasion. Wing tips were not a part of normal footwear in a family which made its living by running large dirt-moving machinery used in the construction of houses and other buildings. Wing tips were special-occasion, church shoes, which also made their appearance at weddings and funerals.

I suspect that, in my eighteen years at home, I had never seen my father polish a fancy pair of shoes more than two or three times. Even then my experience of seeing him do it really meant listening to the noise he made while rubbing the shoes with a cloth, a foam rubber pad, or whatever it was he happened to be using.

I was familiar with the smell of shoe polish and had a general idea that it was being applied to improve the looks of the shoes, but never had I tried polishing a pair myself. Any thought voiced about trying my hand at it brought forth the admonition that shoe polish was very messy and quite difficult to get off one's hands and that I would do well to avoid it.

All of this changed, of course, when wing tips were transformed from fancy shoes to working shoes. Wearing them for two weeks on a daily basis was probably equivalent to a year of use such shoes would have had when I was a child. It soon became obvious that I had to figure out a way to maintain them if they were to add to rather than detract from my appearance.

When I went to the drugstore for my first purchase of polish, I learned that it came in two forms--liquid and wax. Which should I get? A description by the druggist convinced me that wax would probably be easier for me to handle, so I handed over the money and went home to try my hand at the first polish.

My initial assumption was that what improved the look of the shoe was coating it with polish, much as one would cover bread with peanut butter. I had the idea that the polish would serve as protection for the shoes, so I laid on as much protection as I dared. Remembering the warnings about getting polish on my hands, I applied it with a foam rubber pad and was very diligent in seeing that none of it got on me. From the description of how hard it would be to remove if, God forbid, I ever got any on my hands, I came to think of the shoe polish as something close to toxic and held the conviction that, if I ever got any of it on me, I would be forever scarred, like those who, on a drunken impulse, have their bodies tattooed and then must carry the results of that mistake with them for the rest of their lives.

When I presented my shoes for their first inspection by a sighted friend, he told me that it looked like I had failed to remove the polish. I had no idea what he meant, as you can understand from my previous explanation. As he explained it, the visual effect had something to do with applying the polish and then meticulously removing it, the end result being an improvement in the appearance of the shoe.

So, with a new understanding of the art of shoe shining, I set to work on my shoes with a towel, rubbing vigorously to remove polish I had so generously applied. A second inspection brought me a higher score than had the first, but my shine still had major problems. Not only had I used too much polish, but I had applied it spottily and inconsistently.

Worse than all of this, I learned (horror of horrors) that this time I had actually gotten shoe polish on my hands. For a few moments the condition of my shoes was of no consequence whatsoever. The only thing that mattered was figuring out how I could undo this terrible accident which would forever label me as the careless and hapless blind man who had disregarded the loving advice of his family and had experimented with--yes, had actually tried--shoe polish. Would it matter that I hadn't inhaled?

Much to my relief, I learned soap, water, and several repetitions of vigorous hand washing would remove any trace of the stuff. So, when I went back to the task once more, I did so knowing that I had the freedom to use my hands, not only to apply the polish, but to help ensure I was spreading it consistently.

After a time my shoe-shining efforts moved from unqualified failures to something more acceptable. Just what that something was I couldn't say, but I began to notice that shoes I paid to have shined at the airport brought me compliments, while shoes I shined myself seemed to bring only silence.

If I inquired of family or friends about the condition of my shoes and explained that I had shined them the night before, invariably I was told that it certainly looked like I had worked on them. Thereafter the conversation would move from the appearance of the shoes to the virtues of cleanliness and attention to one's appearance. It was admirable that I cared about my shoes and bothered to shine them when so many, who were probably more able than I, completely neglected their footwear.

Since I was aware that airport-shined shoes generated compliments while my own efforts did not, my assumption was that somehow the quality of my work just wasn't as good as that of the shoeshine experts. To try to learn how my shoeshines were different, I would ask friends to critique my work and give me suggestions for the improvement of the shine.

Again the conversation would soon move from the work I had done to how wonderful it was that I cared and would bother to take the time to shine them. I almost never got suggestions about how to enhance the appearance of my shines, no matter how much I coaxed and pleaded, and no matter which of the trusted friends I asked.

From time to time I would think about the problem of evaluating my shoeshines and would wonder whether there was really a problem at all. Perhaps I was just showing an unflattering lack of trust, and the real problem wasn't the shine on my shoes but a lack of confidence in myself.

If people advising me were really my valued friends, why didn't I just take their word for the fact that my shoes looked okay? Wasn't it true that one always got more compliments on his hair on the day when it was cut and styled by a professional than on the days following his washing and combing it himself?

My reservation about simply accepting the assessment of my shoeshines had its roots in an incident which occurred when I was a teenager. From time to time my parents would meet a blind person or would meet a person who knew a blind person and would ask if I wished to be introduced.

On one such occasion my mother had the opportunity for us to meet with a blind couple who were visiting friends in our little town. My mother and I agreed that this would be a good thing. So on a Saturday afternoon we were escorted into the living room to wait for the blind couple to come downstairs. We were seated on furniture which the blind man had upholstered for his friends, and while his work was greatly admired, in whispered voices we were cautioned not to mention the defect on the arm of one chair. We were given to understand that the man took great pride in his work and that his friends were concerned that his feelings would be hurt were they to tell him about the mark or the scratch or the stain or whatever it was which marred this otherwise admirable work.

Obviously I didn't pay much attention to exactly what the defect was, so flattered was I by being taken into the confidence of the grown-ups with our little secret. I felt some discomfort about knowing and keeping the secret, but the source of that discomfort didn't really come to me for some time. I was too caught up in being talked with like I was actually an adult (and at fourteen I certainly knew I was).

If the adults thought concealment was the right path to take, far be it from me, the newest person in the room to be elevated to adulthood, to dispute with them about it. Besides, I too felt sorry for the blind man, somehow believing that he was very different from me, and only realizing long after that one day, if my luck held, I too would grow into a blind man.

On the day I've just described, I met a nice blind couple, and we shared some food and drink. But what I really took with me went far beyond two new acquaintances and some cordial conversation. What I learned was that in the name of charity and kindness it would be considered unacceptable by many with whom I would associate for them to give me a candid and unbiased assessment of anything I might do.

The charity which I was so willing to extend to that blind man was unwelcome when it came to me, but it didn't matter whether I welcomed it or not, for the decision whether or not to extend that questionable charity would be made by someone else. It didn't matter that the someone else was a good friend or that there were strong bonds of trust between us. In fact, the very friendship we shared might be the strongest and most compelling reason for the secrecy with which my friends would proceed.

Given this as background, perhaps you can understand why I kept looking for a way to get a candid, unbiased assessment of my shoes. The inspiration came to me one morning while taking a cab to attend a National Federation of the Blind-sponsored event. The cab driver who drove me was one I knew quite well, he and I both sharing an interest in computers and baseball and politics and religion and any number of things one talks about to keep from being haunted by the ever-present clicking of the cab meter.

When the cab driver greeted me with the question, "Well, young man, how has your morning been?" I said that it had been a busy morning for me, that I'd gone out to breakfast, had gone to get my shoes shined, and was now on the way to the airport. Glancing down at my shoes, the cab driver remarked, "Well, so you went and got your shoes shined this morning, did you?"

I said yes, that I thought keeping them shined was important, and this seemed as good a day as any to do the job.

The cab driver next turned to the subject of baseball and the rivalry between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals, who were, at that time, engaged in World Series play. Right in the middle of his commentary on the game, he hesitated, and almost as an aside said, "So you got them shoes shined this morning, did ya?"

"Yes," I said, "I got them done early this morning when I would rather have slept in."

Next the driver's commentary moved from baseball to computers, he being an amateur computer enthusiast, and knowing me to be a computer programmer. Often he had picked my brain for tidbits of information to make his system perform more efficiently.

Again, right in the middle of his strongly held views about the dominance of IBM and the superiority of other systems on the market, the driver interrupted himself to say "Got them shoes shined today, did ya?" Again I replied in the affirmative.

When we neared the airport, the conversation moved from computers to crime, as we talked about a recent murder which had shaken our small city. In the middle of his discourse on the sad state of the world when crime lurked just outside our door, the driver interrupted himself once again and said, "Tell me, young man, just who was the dirty ___ who charged you to shine them shoes?"

I sputtered, realizing that, while I had probably just evoked an unbiased judgment on the appearance of my wing tips, I hadn't reckoned with the possibility that this angry man might want to go and settle the score for me. I danced around the question and asked what kind of job they had done. The cab driver had every bit as much to say about my shoes as he did about baseball, computers, and crime--which he was certain had been committed here.

According to the driver, the negligent shiner seemed to believe that the only part of the shoe that would be visible was the toe. With great emotion he explained that the sides of the shoes still had streaks of polish on them, and the heels looked like they hadn't been touched at all. Yes, it was clear that from the cab driver's perspective we were still talking about the issue of crime, and I should avoid whoever it was who had given me that shoe shine.

Now at least I had some data with which to work. We had moved beyond how wonderful it was that I cared and how brave I was to attempt the job myself. As bad as that review sounded at the time, I now had reason to believe I was capable of delivering a quality shine, if only on the toe of the shoe. I reasoned that, if I was more methodical in applying and removing the shoe polish, my work would indeed be acceptable.

To my surprise and great benefit, I also found that, if I could tell my friends I knew I was having problems with certain areas of the shoe, then, for whatever reason, they felt free to offer constructive criticism of their own.

It would be wonderful if I could end this tale by telling you that I've now become such an accomplished shoeshiner that I work nights and weekends to supplement my income so that my daughter can attend the best college in the United States. Well, I hope she can, but if it turns out that she needs income other than what I can provide from my day job, she'll have to find some way to earn it herself.

The truth of the matter is that my shoeshines are something less than those offered by the professionals. Still, my ability to shine shoes at least now gets me an occasional compliment, and my work is normally free from those untouched spots and globs of polish which were once my trademark and signature.

Sometimes in my work with the National Federation of the Blind I'm asked to attend state conventions where this story finds its way into my remarks. When I first started using it, the purpose was to introduce a fairly serious banquet address with a tinge of humor. Later the story evolved into a tool I could use to explain how we who are blind sometimes need to be clever to get at visual information which others are afraid to give to us. At other times I have introduced the story to interject some self-deprecating humor when I thought my lecture on some subject or other was causing me to come across as someone who thought he had great pearls of wisdom to dispense.

Now, however, when I tell this story, my intent is to have it hint at the kind of balance we must have when dealing with one another. As blind people we need to realize that, in the name of charity, people will sometimes be reluctant to tell us things we think we need to know. If we want that information, blindness will require us to work at a way of getting it.

Balance enters in when we simply accept this truth and cease to feel put out by having to make the extra effort to get the information we need. Balance comes into play when we realize that the charity and kindness which frustrate us in one situation are the same charity and kindness which reach out to us when we ask for a hand up and a chance to get an education, take a job, and live full lives in our communities.

The suspicion that one may not be getting the whole truth has to live side by side with the knowledge that we who are blind are every bit as reticent about giving people information which may come across as critical as sighted folks sometimes are when we ask them for information that they think we cannot use or may not really want. Walking the line between kindness and honesty isn't easy for anyone, blind or sighted, but I leave the subject feeling grateful that both exist and that both serve their own distinct functions in helping us in our journey.