Gene is the blind man on the park bench who asks for your nickels and dimes when he's really expecting a quarter, or even a crumpled single. He's neither blind nor homeless, but he's a wonderful performer. His cousin, Marc, is a physical therapist at Downtown New York City Hospital, the one that just completed a two-year renovation of its grounds, and he was gracious enough to help a cousin out and swipe a white collapsible walking stick from the storage room. So, Gene is the blind guy in the park with all the convincing tools and method-acting.
See, he had a bout of conjunctivitis in both his eyes once. He was nine or eight, or maybe seven, but there were a couple durable weeks of blurred vision and myopia. His mom and dad kept him out of an extended hospital stay but let him bump into the soft, comfortable furniture in their guest living room instead of his costly private school crucifix walls. Gene considers the experience as a trauma, gives it seldom thought, but imitates it every Tuesday through Saturday in the southern corner of City Hall Park on an 8:00 to 1:00 basis. See, if he can time the morning commute right, get the tardy ten 'o clock stragglers and the early lunch-breakers, then he doesn't have to stay for the grumpy evening rush hour, or worse, supplicate to the good works of the pious god-fearing crowd on his only weekend day off. Saturdays are his sacrificial long days, his tourista fiesta. And Mondays, forget about it, they're a bust before they start; no one likes to work on Mondays, not even the professional homeless.
Still, Gene's a good guy. He's got a full smile, a nice set of teeth that puts all that urban professional veneer facsimile to shame. And he doesn't always expect a quarter, as sometimes he knows: "The economy"; "Hard times for all"; "Down with Wall Street"; "No time for the poor"; etcetera, etcetera. He'll rattle around a dime or a nickel in a chime of thanks, too. Singles like to play peek-a-boo; he'll sense that they're there, but not know how many or even if he's right that day, but then again he's always right.
Because Gene is kind of a looker. His grandmother told him that once, took a slice of his boyish chubby cheek and laid one on him. Called him a heartbreaker and a little stud muffin, other embarrassing things that Gene thought only grandmas on television say. "And that hair," she cooed to his mother as she ran her hands through it, over it, fluffed it, and pulled. "Where did he find such thick black hair?" She tsked once. "Not from your side of the family," she admonished, staring plainly at Gene's mother's straw like blond top. Or, "lush." She might have said "lush black hair," but Gene doesn't remember his grandmother very much. Not after her coronary when he was ten, or maybe twelve.
"Here," a young woman's voice tells Gene. He's dipping down in his seat, probably distracted, or merely fatigued, and his useful tin cup wasn't upright until he remembered it in his hand after the girl's helpful ting of change.
Gene just nods serenely. He never speaks, never bothers to disrupt the subdued aura of blind acceptance of his harsh life's circumstances that he's crafted, is still honing. It's not clever, though. It's not as if he doesn't pantomime friendliness to children or the plainly dense who walk straight up to him and declare their, "Sorry," or "Can't see at all, huh?" with naive gracelessness that gets him smiling. It's nice to be amused at work.
But then one 'o clock comes and the park gets quieter. Pigeons flap their wings and the fountain flows as business slows down and life recedes. Then, Gene doesn't care; he can't, really. He stands up with his sunglasses still on, folds up his cane. He creases the day's cardboard sign (he's penned several at different strokes of creativity), sideways first, then bends it a little more to pack it safely within his backpack. He shoves the little white folds of his cane in there, too. Zips up his bag, slings it over his shoulders, hangs his sunglasses from the collar of his shirt. Walks on, all in plain view of whoever's walking in the park.
In February of last year, he walked into BMCC and signed up for a class, a topics course on International Relations and Human Rights. He came with a white business envelope filled with clean Franklins with smiley faces written on them, enough to cover the cost of three credits.