On Helping A Blind Woman Across the Street

Few writers can claim to have invented an entirely new form of literature, but Ramon Gomez de la Serna was certainly one of them. Born in the Rastro district of Madrid, Ramon (as he was invariably known) devised greguerias–acute observations of everyday life tinged by his surrealistic wit and then distilled into brief, aphoristic insights. In one of his several autobiographies, he says he coined the term greguerias (which means an irritating noise, gibberish or hubbub) around 1910. He was visiting Florence in that year, gazing at the river Arno from his hotel window, when he suddenly imagined that the banks of the river wanted to swap sides. This kind of whimsical perception became characteristic of his aphorisms. He even devised a formula for their creation: metaphor + humor = greguerias. He dubbed his peculiar writing style ramonismo. One of his characteristically arresting aphorisms has to do with helping a blind person cross the street:

After helping a blind man across the road, we remain slightly undecided.

I recently helped a blind woman across the road and was struck by how accurate Gómez de la Serna’s observation is. I was walking back home from the local shops when I saw an elderly blind woman picking her way along the pavement. Construction was going on up and down the street so the woman with her white stick was constantly coming up against barriers and piles of bricks. I caught up with her and offered to lead her through the construction zone and across the street. She gratefully accepted, took my hand and we set off slowly towards the corner.

Helping a blind person has to be one of the most intimate casual encounters you can have with a complete stranger in the street. If you think about a typical day, how many times do you actually touch a stranger? Very rarely, if at all. The only experience that comes close is exchanging money in a shop. Then your hand may brush the hand of the person behind the counter, but observe how careful you both are to make sure that your fingers do not touch. Admitting a stranger into your personal space, allowing him or her to touch your skin, is not undertaken lightly.

This is why helping a blind person across the street is so intimate, and part of the reason it leaves you undecided. I held the lady’s hand and we made very slow progress up the street. Her hand was very soft and wrinkled and slightly cold. There we were, it would be some time before we reached the corner, so I thought I should start a conversation. So for the remainder of our journey we made small talk—about the neighborhood, about how there always seemed to be construction going on—and I periodically gave her updates about where we were and how far we had to go the corner. Finally, we crossed the street and I pointed the lady in the direction she wanted to go and we said goodbye. I resumed my walk home.

I didn’t get but a few meters down the street, when I stopped and turned back to look at the lady. Had I taken her far enough? Would she make the rest of her trip alright? Should I have asked if there was anything else she needed? I was undecided. Just those few moments we walked together had created a kind of intimacy, a camaraderie, and I was now unsure if I had done enough for her.

Gómez de la Serna wrote thousands and thousands of greguerías. Each of his aphorisms is both profound and comical; no event is so trivial that it does not contain some kernel of humor or wisdom or an unexpected insight:

Ants rush about as though the shops were just closing.

The giraffe is a horse elongated by curiosity.

How quickly they pack suitcases in films!

Now, reading Gómez de la Serna always leaves me slightly undecided. Am I really seeing what’s going on around me? Do I need to add a little more metaphor and humor to my life? Am I making the most of all the hubbub?