Safety First by Olivia Muscat
I am sweating a bit. I always forget what 24 degrees actually feels like by the time September and October roll around, and constantly wear too many clothes. I get into such a rhythm of long sleeves and tunics and tights and coats and socks and scarves during the winter months that I forget how hot it actually gets in this city. I have way too many layers going on. At least I was smart enough not to wear a jacket.
The tram clunks and dings down Elizabeth street, then Flemington road and I am mostly content, if a little warm.
There is an annoying sound coming from the seat across the aisle from me. The person who got on at the last stop has noticed my companion and is trying to subtly get her attention. This is not unusual. I do my best to ignore it. I pull a kind of… are you serious? Face and hope I’ve aimed it at the correct person and that they’ve got the message. I don’t want to say
anything at this point, because what if I’m wrong? That would just be embarrassing.
Mt Alexander road now. They’re still going. I’m at the twitchy, uncomfortable stage. Extremely tense. My hand is gripping the leash a bit too hard for comfort and my shoulders are way hunched.
I know my sighing and frowning is ineffective. People don’t see me. They see the cute golden Labrador beside me and I disappear. I am a shadow, a ghost, an after -thought. A mere insignificance compared to the beautiful member of the animal kingdom sitting under my seat.
I feel unavoidably conspicuous and completely invisible at the same time.
They don’t see a person. They see a blind person. And a blind person is not like a real person.
But the dog. Oh! The gorgeous dog. I know she’s gorgeous. Believe me I know.
There’s no need for you to tell me how much of a shame it is that I can’t see her.
I just want to check my emails.
Or maybe listen to an audio book.
Is that too much to ask?
“doggy.” Alright this is pissing me off.
“Doggy” fuck. Off.
I still say nothing because my very well-trained pup is ignoring this idiot like she should be. Just another day of being a guide dog handler on public transport.
“doggy” I can feel something horrendously rude bubbling in my chest and I clamp it down before it can escape my pursed lips. Because it’s rude to tell people off for being ignorant. This tension must be bad for me. I’m going to die an early death. Poisoned by all the impoliteness towards nosy, ignorant, harmful strangers I’ve held in over the years. All the shouts of “YES SHE’S CUTE. YES, SHE’S SMART. YES, I’M BLIND. NO, MY LIFE IS NOT A TRAGEDY. NO, I DON’T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT YOUR DOG OR CAT OR GUINEA PIG OR STICK INSECT. NOW GO AWAY UNLESS YOU’VE GOT SOMETHING INTERESTING TO SAY!!”
“Excuse me.” My teeth grit even tighter.
“Excuse me” Deep breath. At least they said excuse me. That’s way more than I get from some people.
“If I pat him, will he bite me?”
Another deep breath Staying calm
Avoid rolling your eyes
Maybe try and smile
Actually, forget the smile
Moderate your tone
Wrestle with the urge to say, “actually yes. If you pat her, she’ll rip your face off.” I don’t
want to give Guide Dogs a bad name.
“No, she won’t bite. But you can’t pat her. She’s working” “So I can pat her?”
“No. You can’t pat her. She’s working.”
“She’s a working dog. A guide dog. She’s doing her job. If you pat her. She Gets distracted.”
Resist the urge to say “If she gets distracted. Then I die. And it will be all your fault. So I guess you’re OK with that?” It isn’t people’s fault that they don’t know. But also my peaceful tram trip/sunny, slightly too warm Saturday afternoon is ruined. I’ll brush it off sooner or later, It’s just part of life, well my life anyway. I will push it aside and go on with my day. But I’m always braced, tensed, preparing, waiting for the next one.
The person grunts as if I am being an unreasonable bitch. Which may not have been what they meant by it, but a thousand encounters just like this one, and more confrontational than this one, have left me primed to interpret it in that way. The people around me titter uncomfortably. Really funny.
I remind myself to be thankful that on the tram I am not in any danger. I am annoyed and frustrated, but I am safe. Unlike the following Friday. Another warm spring afternoon. When I will get off this very same tram on Elizabeth street. I will cross the busy road at the lights, minding my own business when a person crossing the other way will start making conversation with my dog, and she will decide that she wants to follow this person. I will try and get her focus back. I will very hurriedly tell the person to stop. I will yank sharply on the leash, trying in vain not to lose our straight line, and even more frantically tell them to stop. But they choose to ignore me and there is no hope of getting my dog’s focus back. She is distracted now. She is a two-year-old dog after all. All the training in the world won’t stop her from latching on to a friendly person. But it’s really very inconvenient when we’re in the middle of an intersection.
Because that’s where we will end up. Right in the middle of a busy, Melbourne CBD intersection. I will be completely lost and disoriented. Heart racing, trying to get out of the way of moving cars. And where will that person be?
They will be safely across the road. Not a care in the world. Not a thought for the poor stupid blind girl who will nearly get run over thanks to the fact that they aren’t able to control their impulses to talk to a Labrador for 45 seconds.
I will be humiliated and scared and angry and sad. I will spend about five minutes having to compose myself so I don’t start crying or having an asthma attack in the important meeting I am on my way to.
Just another day as a guide dog handler. Deep breaths. Shake it off. Don’t let it get to you.
But that hasn’t happened yet. I am safe on this tram on this Saturday morning. Irritated and sweaty, but safe.
Almost getting hit by a car can be a nice surprise for another day.
Stay alert. Stay focused. Be prepared.
Now I have a headache.