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Going Deaf and Blind in a City of Noise and Lights

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Alexander and I chat for a while about her personal life. She spent her mid-twenties in therapy, ardently addressing her sensory loss, which is especially hard for someone so physically wide-awake, so literally pulsing with energy. She has always found great solace in sex; touch is her most meaningful sense. But when she was younger, her reliance on sex as a lifeline backfired. “I used to find myself in very compromised positions with guys. I would hide my hearing aids under the bed. I remember hooking up with a guy, without hearing aids or contacts, and he wanted to start fooling around again. And it was so dark, and I wasn’t familiar with his place, that I ended up going along with it when really I wanted to be left alone. That’s the worst feeling in the world, to feel so helpless.”

She worked hard in therapy and picked up master’s degrees in social work and public health from Columbia, in addition to her bachelor’s from the University of Michigan. “I challenge you to find anyone who accomplishes more in a day,” says her brother Peter Alexander, 32, an NBC correspondent. “She texts me, and she’s like between her third and fourth spinning classes, about to do a counseling session.”

I begin to understand why everyone uses the adjectives amazing and awesome to describe her. I find that I adore her, too. Which makes it painful to imagine her slowly closing world. “It’s really the isolation,” says Swiller. “Most people wake up and the first thing they do is turn on the radio, and the last thing at night is turn off The Daily Show. We input all that noise to blast out thought. She doesn’t have that. She’s alone with her thoughts, in her own world, in a way.”

Whatever keeps her up at night is not something she talks about. “Well, we all have our shit,” she says. “One of the things that’s so unique and wonderful about this is that you’re forced to use other senses. It makes you creative. For example, I was meeting a friend at Houston’s on 53rd, and it’s really dark on the stairs. I wanted to put my name on the list, but I wasn’t gonna break an ankle over it. So I watched people exiting and counted how many times their bodies went up. Sixteen stairs, then turn, then five more.”

The next day, I ask Alan about the driving. I can practically hear him wince over the phone. “I think it’s impossible for anyone to put themselves in her shoes,” he says. “She sees a difference over time, and she’s scared about what the future holds for her. This is me getting into her head more than she’d want, but I think she keeps going 100 miles an hour to not have to process it all.” He pauses. “Which, I guess, is the best way to do it. It’s sort of the idea that everybody has their cross to bear. Hers is just more defined.”

Disability is not easy anywhere, but Alexander suggests benefits to being deaf in Manhattan. “Whenever there’s a fire truck or whatever, I just turn my hearing aids off and I’m in my own world,” says Alexander. Her ex-boyfriend Sam Swiller (brother of Josh), a deaf banker and economics professor, says that when he’s walking on the street, “my favorite thing is to turn off my cochlear implant. In the city, there’s a rhythm to everything. It’s like poetry in motion.”

The New York area is home to 6 percent of the country’s legally blind, creating a subculture of roughly 80,000. The young flock here for the opportunity to play on a level field, where everybody is dependent on public transportation, cabs, deliveries, and Internet ordering. “It’s very attractive that most of New York is on a grid system,” says Matthew Sapolin, the city’s disabilities commissioner, who as a young blind man came here to attend NYU. “If you can count, you can get around.”

Taxis are essential to Alexander, though they’re hazardous too: Her tally of lost taxi items includes wallets, cell phones, bags, shoes, very important papers, and her favorite black pullover. “When I turn to see if I left anything, it’s black-on-black. I can’t see crap.” Pinto keeps buying her portable flashlights, but she doesn’t use them because they’re not bright enough.

Her doorman, Tony, is her link to the outside world. I call him to find her when she’s late to meet me at Bloomingdale’s, since she doesn’t always pick up her phone. Tony buzzes her apartment. “She’s either not there,” he says, “or she took out her hearing aids.” We chat, and I realize that he doesn’t know about her vision problems. He thinks she’s just deaf.


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