Volume 14
An Online Literary Magazine
January 30, 2020


There's Only One Ona


Paul Hostovsky


Paul Hostovsky and Ona Kim Stewart.


here is a poet named Ona Gritz and an actress named Oona O’Neill and another one named Oona Chaplin—and it’s possible that there are a few other Onas and Oonas here and there and in between—but there is only one deafblind Ona Kim Stewart, STRONG ASL, which in ASL means eloquent in ways that are foreign to most English speakers, fluent in the use of space, and face, playful and creative in the ways of the grandfather of Oona Chaplin.


Ona is the only deafblind person I know in Boston—and I know almost all the deafblind people in Boston—who travels the city independently with nothing but a white cane and a ton of gumption, riding the trains and buses to work, to meetings, to doctor and dentist appointments—and to rendezvous with me today in Government Center because I’m taking her out to lunch at her favorite restaurant: Cheers. It’s her birthday, the first day of spring, and lunch is on me!


But how does she do it? How does she navigate the trains and buses and streets of Boston with no vision or hearing? Well, she’s got that white cane, for one thing, which has a way of parting the sea of people wherever she points it. And she’s got those sunglasses and that Red Sox cap with the visor pulled down low for keeping the glare out. And she’s got three degrees of visual field (a normal visual field is about 180 degrees, if you include the movement discrimination we have in our peripheral vision). Oh, and did I mention the gumption? She’s got a ton of it. And a loud voice for yelling at people who aren’t watching where they’re going, who trip over her cane as it sweeps the ground back and forth in front of her. She gives them a piece of her mind by screaming at them, and her screams are almost as loud as the train’s Klaxon. She doesn’t talk with her voice but when she yells—or laughs or whoops or squeals with delight—her voice is downright stentorian. And it always gets people’s attention.


Do you know that song about Charlie riding the MTA ’neath the streets of Boston? (“And did he ever return? No, he never returned, and his fate is still unlearned....”) It’s a song that was originally written to protest the fare hikes on the Boston subway and it was later made famous by The Kingston Trio. These days, Ona rides the Boston subway for free, as do all blind people (deaf people ride at half price), and though she has never heard of that song about Charlie (nor heard it), she has a Charlie Card, the MBTA’s eponymous fare card, which she holds up to the magnetic reader on the turnstile to let her in for free. And if you happen to be accompanying her as her sighted guide, it lets you in for free, too. But today, she’s traveling solo from her home in Central Square to Park Street Station, three stops on the Red Line. The MBTA is the oldest subway system in America, and though the transit authority is constantly making changes to it, Ona navigates the system daily with aplomb, knowing exactly where to go and how to get there. When she gets to Park Street Station, for example, she knows the doors will open on both sides of the train, that she can exit either left or right, that if she exits left she must turn right and walk down the central platform to the first set of stairs, that if she exits right she must turn left and walk to a the stairwell at the end of the platform and climb those stairs to the upper level, where she follows the yellow tactile warning strip to where the Green Line to Lechmere stops. Then she will take it one stop north to Government Center, where I’m waiting for her on the other side of the turnstiles.


And here she comes now, the beak of her baseball cap down low over her dark sunglasses, a lanyard hanging from the temples, blue backpack riding her shoulders, white cane warning the other passengers to disperse as she makes her slow and deliberate way across the concourse. When she passes through the turnstile, I greet her by touching the back of her hand gently, and like a game of “slapsies,” her hand is on my hand faster than the speed of sound. “HI, HI,” I fingerspell to her without identifying myself, though normally I would identify myself since she can’t see who I am. But we had agreed to meet here in this place at this time, and so telling her my name feels a little superfluous. Plus she knows the feel of my hand. “IH, IH,” she spells back to me backwards, always the comedian. After the requisite hug, I ask her how she’s doing. SAVE SAVE RESTAURANT, she says, which means hold all the news until we get to where we’re going. I agree, offer my elbow, and we set out for Cheers—not the more famous and popular one on Beacon Street but the smaller one in Faneuil Hall, across from the pushcart vendors. Hopefully, there won’t be too many tourists, I think as we amble together, two people wide, through City Hall Plaza, down the steep red-brick steps and across Congress Street to Quincy Market.


I first met Ona almost forty years ago when we were both in our early twenties, both of us fairly new to Boston. She had moved here to attend the Perkins School for the Blind after having spent her childhood at the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf in Maine and, later, the Wisconsin School for the Deaf, where she graduated; I had moved here to camp out on the living room couch in my cousin’s Jamaica Plain apartment while allegedly looking for a job. After a month on that couch, not finding work (not offering to help with the rent or the cost of food), my cousin got sick of my schmegegge and kicked me out. I quickly found a job at a delicatessen in Cleveland Circle and moved into a tiny studio apartment in Brighton Center. One thing led to another: I met a blind guy and became interested in learning braille; I met some deaf people who taught me sign language; I got a job working with deafblind people and that’s where I met Ona. She could still see well enough back then to understand ASL without having to touch the hands of the person signing to her, as long as she stood back a little to fit you inside her shrinking field of vision. But it was shrinking fast, the retinitis pigmentosa blinkering her peripheral vision and squeezing out the light.


Our relationship was purely platonic, for she had made it clear to me from the beginning that she preferred women. But somehow we clicked, and we became good friends. I appreciated her brand of humor, her merciless banter, her creativity with language, and her gumption. She appreciated my patience, I guess, and my willingness to learn, my curiosity about ASL, Deaf culture, and DeafBlind culture. Slowly, hesitantly, she began to trust me enough to touch my hands on occasion—when the lighting was too poor, or the evening too sudden, or the sun too bright to be able to see my signing. Reaching out to touch is a leap of faith that many deafblind people with Usher syndrome have a hard time making at first. Because they don’t want to have to touch another person’s hands in order to understand them. And because it can feel awkward to ask permission to do so, and even more awkward to be rebuffed. There is this resistance to signing tactilely that many deaf people losing their vision have, and for many reasons, including hygiene, personal space and boundaries, and because many deaf-sighted people aren’t comfortable signing with someone’s hands pressing down on top of their hands—it can feel ponderous, cumbersome, unnatural if you’re not used to it. Also, the thought of going blind is unthinkable for most deaf-sighted people, who are of course intensely visual people, and so in a way it triggers their own worst fears. But Ona made that leap with me. She felt comfortable enough with me to touch my hands, to practice tactile signing, and I was there to catch her if she fell, if she had trouble understanding me; honored to be there, really, when she reached out to touch or track (a combination of visual and tactile) during those long conversations we had together back when we were both learning—me learning her language, her learning to apprehend her language through a different modality. I think I learned more from her in those early years than I did from all my sign language books and teachers put together.


And now, all these years later, we’re both experts of sorts: She expertly reads ASL tactilely on a daily basis, advocates deafblind services and speaks to groups and classes about her experience as a deafblind person. And me, I make my living as a sign language interpreter, working with deaf and deafblind people, occasionally interpreting for Ona at her various appointments or at her job as a weaver and potter at Gateway Arts. Interpreting for my old friend is a pleasure and also sometimes a challenge: She can be a tough customer, after all. And she’s STRONG ASL, as she likes to call herself. If I don’t understand her right away, or if I miss something that she signed—a number, a name, her point—she’ll suddenly cross her arms in the attitude of a disappointed parent, make a pouty face, shake her head and tell me: GO-BACK INTERPRETING SCHOOL. Only one Ona!


When we arrive at Cheers, the hostess seats us at a table near the bar, gives us two menus and asks if we’d like something to drink. Ona orders a Miller Lite. A seltzer with lemon for me. She folds up her cane, puts it in the blue backpack and fishes out her red Pebble, a very cool little electronic magnifier with which she is able to read the small print of the menu. You can adjust the contrast, the color of the background, the color of the print, and the size of the font, according to your needs and preferences. You can even take pictures with it and then immediately enlarge them in order to see them better. She got it for free from the Commission for the Blind in Boston. At first it doesn’t seem to be cooperating, but that’s because she has the menu upside-down, which I tell her diplomatically. She snorts, turns it around and starts hunting for a turkey burger. I settle on the fish & chips.


And what do we talk about? Everything and everyone: Her new computer from iCanConnect; the woman who’s teaching her how to use it; the renovations in her apartment building; the deaf neighbor across the hall who recently moved in and who, it turns out, is related to a mutual friend of ours; her vacation plans; my vacation plans; the new commissioner at the Commission for the Deaf; the new commissioner at the Commission for the Blind; the upcoming Helen Keller DeafBlind Awareness Day at the State House, which she tells me she’s boycotting. And when I ask her why, she enumerates her reasons: BORING, FUSSY, B.S., SAME-SAME. And I tell her that I agree with her—the annual event, run by hearing-sighted people, is long on platitudes and short on actionable talk by and about the signing deafblind community. We continue chatting about local politics, about our shared weltschmerz, about her sister-in-law in Maine, about her work at Gateway Arts, about other deafblind people we know, about other interpreters we know, about the weather, the Red Sox, the Marathon, her torn rotator cuff, my irritable bowel, her carpal tunnel, my aching bunions. And finally, we take up the question of dessert.


Talking to a deafblind person while she’s eating can be a delicate business. You don’t want to reach for her listening hand when it’s engaged in transferring food from her plate to her mouth. Once the transfer is complete, however, and the mouth is amiably chewing and the hand is resting idly or reaching for a napkin, there is a window of opportunity. For those who know ProTactile, chatting up a deafblind person while she’s eating is perhaps less of a challenge. ProTactile is a new system of tactile communication (those who are proficient in it would say it’s less a system than an actual, distinct language, different from visual ASL) that creatively, brilliantly, is often able to bypass the listener’s hands, occurring instead on her body—arms, knees, shoulder, back, etc. But Ona and I don’t know ProTactile, at least not very well. It was developed by deafblind people on the West Coast and it’s quickly spreading among deafblind people and their friends and allies and interpreters around the country, but it hasn’t quite caught on here in Massachusetts yet.


So mostly I just watch her while she’s eating, and wait for that window. When she puts down her burger and reaches for a napkin, I graze her forearm to get her attention. She holds up a finger, finishes wiping her hands and mouth, then reaches for my hand. How’s the turkey burger? Thumbs up. And how are the fish & chips? Likewise, thumbs up. We decide to forego dessert, agreeing that both of us could stand to lose some weight. After I’ve paid the bill and silently signed-sung “Happy Birthday,” she thanks me elaborately and then tells me she needs to use the ladies room.


This, too, can be a delicate business: A sighted male guiding a deafblind female into the ladies room, not just to the door but a little way inside the door, taking a look around because she has asked me to peek inside and describe to her where the stalls, sink, paper towels, and garbage bin are, to get her oriented. As I’m doing this, a toilet flushes, then a woman comes out of one of the stalls and scowls at me when she sees us standing in the open doorway. I tell Ona about the scowling woman, who is washing her hands now, and she signs T F-BOMB B, which means too fucking bad—a directional sign in ASL—which she signs in the direction of the woman, who is already out the door and possibly on her way to complain to the manager about the man in the ladies.


While Ona is in there doing her business, I stand outside and check my iPhone—no messages—and I can’t help thinking back to the old days when she and I first met, before there were cell phones, before there was email, and before there was refreshable braille. Back then, deaf people made phone calls with TTYs, or teletypes. I remember I had a big old clunker of a TTY—the Green Monster, we called it—a model 28 from Western Union that I bought from a deaf guy who repurposed those machines and sold them cheap out of his garage. It was big as a piece of furniture, with a modem for plugging in the handset—back when telephones had handsets—a large keyboard with olive-green cylindrical keys sticking up and a roll of paper the size of a Bounty extra extra large, on which all the TTY conversations were typed out and saved in a cascading scroll forever thickening on the floor behind the machine. Today, most deaf people don’t use TTYs; they use FaceTime where they can have their phone conversations in ASL (roll over, Alexander Graham Bell!) or they use their videophones or a host of other video apps on their smartphones or computers. But Ona is one of the few who still uses a TTY. Because the videophones and video apps are not accessible to most deafblind people. Granted, she’s not using an old teletype with a modem for the handset anymore; she’s got a modern, compact version with a large-print LED screen that she can still read with her three degrees of visual field. She also uses email and likes to text with her iPad, using ZoomText and other magnifying software to enlarge the screen as needed.


I put my phone back in my pocket when I hear her cane smacking the ladies room door, and out she comes, left hand trawling the air for my attention. BATHROOM STINKY, she says, fanning her hand vigorously in front of her nose. And then, HEY, WANT BUY HAT. I ask her where she’d like to buy a hat, and she guides me guiding her out of the restaurant to where the pushcart vendors are selling hats and T shirts in the wide corridor of Faneuil Hall. She knows where they are and points me in that direction. She wants a new hat for summer, the lightweight mesh kind, she tells me, dark blue, Boston Red Sox. I peruse the first pushcart stand for a mesh hat, but they don’t have any, which I tell her, and she says, GO LOOK MORE ME STAY. So I park her between the first pushcart and the wall, and I walk briskly down the corridor scanning each of the pushcarts for the desired blue lightweight mesh hat. Nada. Not a one. The only mesh hat I see is a white and crimson one that says Harvard, and I report this back to her. SEE-SEE, she says, and I guide her down the corridor to the next-to-last pushcart. She tries on the hat, asks me how much it costs. I don’t tell her the price; I tell her it’s on me. BIRTHDAY GIVE-YOU. She thanks me, gives me a hug, asks me if I want a hat for myself. Or maybe a T shirt. No, I’m good, I tell her.


It’s a sunny day, so we walk all the way back to Park Street instead of Government Center. That way she can take the Red Line straight to Central Square and won’t have to switch trains. When we arrive at Park Street, she thanks me again for the birthday lunch and the hat, says SEE-YOU THURSDAY (I’m interpreting her dentist appointment) MEET BOYLSTON OUTBOUND TIME 8:40. Then she gives me a hug. ILY. ILY. And she turns from me and walks away, that idiosyncratic Ona-waddle, that blue backpack bobbing, that white cane dowsing, that gumption sparkling all around her. When she gets to the turnstile, she changes the grip on her cane, holds it vertically, proffers her Charlie card with her other hand and walks through the opened gate, turns left and is gone. I stand there watching the disappeared image of her, a sort of Ona-aura in my mind’s eye. There are hundreds of thousands of deafblind people in America. But there is only one Ona: My first and best deafblind friend in Boston, who taught me something about what it’s like to be her. And like Charlie on the MTA, she goes on riding ’neath the streets of Boston. And to most of the clueless ridership her “fate is still unlearned.” But unlike Charlie, Ona returns. And keeps returning. Every day. Incredibly. Independently. Powerfully. Kudos to Ona! Deafblind people don’t have agents, but if I were her agent, I’d represent Ona and her story, and sell the movie rights!



Paul Hostovsky is the author, most recently, of Late for the Gratitude Meeting (2019, Kelsay Books). He has won a Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net awards, the FutureCycle Poetry Book Prize, and has been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer's Almanac. He makes his living in Boston as a sign language interpreter and Braille instructor. www.paulhostovsky.com.







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