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Sandy Greenberg: Hello Darkness My Old Friend. One Man’s Blindness Into an Extraordinary Vision for Life

An excerpt from Sandy Greenberg's new book which reveals how, with his friend Art Garfunkel by his side, he overcame life's limitations

HELLO DARKNESS, MY OLD FRIEND is a book for people who want to know how they can transcend their own limitations, whatever they may be. It’s a paean to friendship, a love story, and a tale of courage. It’s a book to pass on to friends and family so they can learn how to turn their own darkness into a vision as luminous and profound as that of Sandy Greenberg.

What happens when a poor kid from Buffalo gets a scholarship to Columbia but then tragically goes blind during his junior year? Luckily for him, he has a roommate named Art Garfunkel — who reads his textbooks aloud, accompanies him to his classes, and guides him literally every step of the way. That kid — Sandy Greenberg — not only graduates Phi Beta Kappa as class president but goes on to receive a PhD from Harvard, an MBA from Columbia, a Marshall Scholarship to Oxford, and a White House Fellowship, before forging a remarkable career as an entrepreneur, investor, innovator and philanthropist.          

AGEIST has obtained an exclusive excerpt from HELLO DARKNESS, MY OLD FRIEND: How Daring Dreams and Unyielding Friendship Turned One Man’s Blindness into an Extraordinary Vision for Life by Sanford D. Greenberg.

Sandy Greenberg returned to Columbia University as a blind senior in September 1961. That fall, accompanied by his roommate Art Garfunkel, he went to the first of three meetings with a counselor at a Manhattan institute that served the blind. The meetings were increasingly frustrating. Sandy’s counselor insisted he use a cane or a seeing-eye dog, while Sandy refused to live by the usual rules of his debility. Afterwards, Art would lead his upset friend to the subway, and they would ride together uptown to the university. The tumultuous third and final meeting, though, had a different denouement. 

We pick up the story halfway through Chapter 11, “Tough Love.”

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The episode that has come to define me began that same day, outside the institute offices at 3:30 p.m.

Arthur suddenly remembered that he had to turn in a sketch of the famous Seagram Building, also in Midtown, at nine o’clock the next morning. He asked me what we should do. I told him that I expected a reader back uptown at the university in an hour and that we had better start back right away because I would like to be on time. He replied that wasn’t an option: he had to stay in Midtown and complete the sketch, as it would count heavily toward his final grade. For the next few minutes we discussed the alternatives and concluded that there weren’t any.

By this time, our attitudes had become polarized: Arthur stuck to his position while I insisted that I not miss my reader appointment. The discussion turned into a debate as to the merits of the other person’s “giving in.” This made Arthur an even more stubborn proponent of his proposal that I stay in Midtown with him, while I dug in on the other side, claiming that were I to miss this reader, I would be finished at Columbia. We wasted half an hour in this way.

“Well, if that’s the way you want it, so be it,” I said. “I’ve got to get back.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.” I felt that I was being abandoned but shrugged it off and began to move forward as though I was part of the crowd. And so I was.

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Arthur had now left me. I could feel that; his smell, his voice, his presence — all had disappeared. I would have to take the subway back up to the campus by myself. So why did I not just get into a taxi? The mentality of scholarship students figures here. We did not even think of taking taxis — a blatant waste of precious funds. My stubbornness was a factor, too. I didn’t realize that the ordeal ahead of me would take on an almost mythic cast.

I began to walk in the direction of what I thought was the subway entrance. As I walked, I held my arms out in front. That must have looked silly to the people around me, now on their way home from work. My hands and forearms came up against suited elbows and women’s backs although most of the people must have known to give me a wide berth.

There is always a spark of kindness in this world. A woman asked me where I was going. I said that I was trying to reach the subway. She asked what was wrong. I told her nothing was wrong.

“Clearly, something is wrong.”

“No. I’m just having a little difficulty seeing. If you could point me in the direction of the subway, that would be a big help.”

“I can, but if you’re having trouble seeing, how would you know how to even walk there?”

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The woman seemed young, but she had a throaty voice. As she walked along with me, she touched me here and there to make sure I did not step too widely out onto the street. “I’ll find it,” I said.

“If you’re sure you’ll be okay, then I’ll tell you,” she said. “But you have to promise me that you’ll be okay. That you’re up for it. It’s not an easy thing.”

“I am. I will be.” She gave me the directions. She explained how many steps this way and then how many steps that way. I did not know how she knew how many steps would lead me to the stairway down to the track, but she seemed to know.

“I’m going to walk on,” she said.

“Okay,” I said, but I did not want her to leave.

I felt my way along the edge of a building until it disappeared and the street became quieter. It was a smaller side street, and no one was on it even though it was a busy time of day. As I walked farther along, I felt as if the street were sloping downward, but at least it was easier to navigate. I placed my arm against flat brick walls and continued. My foot went into the breast of a pigeon; it chuckled and moved out of the way. A rush of sadness came over me, not for myself but for this lowly creature. My hands now felt gritty from pressing them against buildings.

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I came to an intersection I needed to cross. I walked into a man’s chest, bounced off, and fell to my knees. “I’m sorry,” I said.

He reached down with one hand and lifted me quick as a jump. “No, it was me,” he said. “It happens all the time.”

“What happens?”

“I take up too much space,” he said. “It’s hard for me to get around. Not that I can’t move— I can, but other people seem to fall into me.”

I didn’t know what this man was talking about. I knew only that he was a giant, well formed.

“I’m a fighter,” he said. “So I guess in some regards, it’s good.”

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“A fighter? You mean, a boxer?”

“Yeah.”

“That must be hard.”

“It’s hard to get beaten on every day. That’s no fun. But winning is fun.”

He had a light voice. I would never have guessed that he was a fighter.

“You seem to be having some difficulty,” he said.

“No,” I replied.

“Are you sure?”

“Maybe a little. It’s just that I can’t see. That was why I knocked into you. It wasn’t your fault.”

“Really,” he said. “Perhaps it was my fault. Though, sometimes no one is at fault.”

I didn’t know what he was saying. It was like talking to a ghost. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just that I’m not myself. Can you tell me where I am?”

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“New York,” the man said.

“Am I close to Grand Central Station?”

“Very close. Right across the way there.”

“Can you point me in the right direction?”

Then the man did something amazing. He took me by the shoulders and turned me right in the direction of the station. It was such a gentle movement that it was hard to believe he was a fighter. I could hear the noise of a crowd coming from over there.

“Thank you,” I said.

I left him and walked across the street and into the station. I found a railing and hung on to it as I made my way down. The railing was rock-steady, and the anger and desperation I had been feeling in my stomach were gone for a few moments because I knew the railing would always be there. It had been there for a long time, providing support for countless people. This random thought gave me an inordinate amount of comfort.

I made it down into the cavernous main area of the station, which I knew was both broad and complex. I was aware from my sighted experience that I would have to find my way to the crosstown shuttle train to Times Square. The shuttle would take me west to a change to the uptown Broadway train, which would then take me some seventy blocks north to Columbia. It gave me a sinking feeling. I asked someone how to get through the central hall to the shuttle area. He probably thought I was drunk, but he told me anyway. I still had my arms out, as if sleepwalking.

Being told directions is one thing; following them when you are blind is another. I knocked into benches, suitcases, briefcases; into people who had their backs to me. I stumbled on coffee cups that people had placed at their feet. Somehow, the skin on my shins got split open; I felt blood wetting my socks. My knees seemed to be swelling, probably because I had banged them so many times. I wanted to be both dead and alive, but alive only if I could get out of that pit.

Fortunately, I recalled some landmarks from my days with vision, and travelers around me answered my questions and turned me in the right directions. By this method, bumping into people and asking questions, I made it to the general area where I could take the shuttle train crosstown to Times Square. When I hit a turnstile, I reached into my pocket for a token, felt around the turnstile for the token slot, and paid my fare. A small thing, but it was huge to me.

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I was walking toward the track when I bumped head-on into an iron column. My arms, which had been held out like a zombie’s, had missed it completely and it was my face, instead, that met it. Blood came down my forehead. I swiped at it with my forearm. It hurt, but worse than the hurt was the idea that everyone would see me bleeding. I wished that because I could not see people, they could not see me.

I swung around to get away from the column. My forehead was still bleeding, but I think it had stopped a little. The smell down in the subway was greasy and oily. It made me feel dirty. I started to shuffle, little by little, toward the platform area. I again had my hands out. I dipped my toe into empty space and was suddenly greeted by a terrifying sound — to my left a train roared toward my probing leg.

I lunged backward, changed direction slightly, raised my arms once more as I pushed onward. They hit something soft. It was a woman’s breast.

“Pardon me!” this woman said.

“Oh God,” I said. “God, I’m sorry, I can’t — I didn’t see you.”

“That’s a first,” she said.

“I’m terribly sorry.”

“It’s all right. In my line of work, it happens, though never like that.”

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“Oh,” I said.

“But you’re not bad,” she said. “You look like a nice boy.”

“Oh.”

“Are you?”

“What?”

“Nice.”

I thought about what to tell her, what version of myself I should reveal. I didn’t know, actually, if I was a nice boy or not, good or not, decent or not. I thought I was all those things, but it was as if this affliction was somehow bringing me down, was spoiling all the goodness in me into darker things. I thought again of the market in Buffalo and the blind beggar I had seen there with my mother. The entire scene repeated itself to me now. He was a sickly looking man, with peeling scabs on his hands. He wore ragged clothes that seemed to fall off him, and his eyes were not covered — they were marked with black specks, as if they’d seen fragments of a grenade. When he held out his hand to me, my mother drew me close. Now, battered and lost in the subway, I was becoming that man.

“Well, you seem nice,” the woman said. “A nice young man. There’s a cut on your head.” She put her hand to my forehead.

“It’s nothing.”

“Are you sure?”

“No.”

“Hmm.”

“I have to get going,” I said.

“Good luck. It’s always the hardest, at first,” she said cryptically, “but then it gets easier, I think.” She continued on her way.

Rocked by my frustration, I nonetheless was still feeling lucky that my encounter with the woman had not turned out as badly as it might have. That feeling lasted only until, walking a bit more quickly, I slammed into a baby carriage. I fell onto the concrete and felt as if the ground would not let me up. I think the mother caught the baby. She said something very quickly, which I could not understand. It sounded angry. I couldn’t blame her.

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When I got to my feet, I apologized. I said I was sorry for knocking into her, for knocking her baby down, for not being able to understand what she was saying, for not being able to see where I was going. I apologized for my poor condition, for being stuck down here. It was my fault.

Well, it was my fault. I had been trying to make it back up to Columbia, but it was becoming more than clear that that wouldn’t happen. And it seemed as good a time as any to apologize to everyone for my general failure. To my family, who, though they didn’t like the idea of my going back to the city, suffered it because, at least partly, they must have believed that I could make it. That was all done now. I had tried and failed it happens. The image of my admired senator from New York, Herbert Lehman, and the image of John F. Kennedy — they were being washed away. They had for so long fooled me into thinking that anything was possible. I’d been a very young man then. But I was no longer.

I walked until I stumbled, and when I stumbled it was forward. My hand reached over a ledge, beyond which was the space where the train would arrive. I did not know whether one was arriving at that exact moment, but if it had, my head and shoulders were exposed so completely that I would have been severed in half. It would have been a reasonable way to go — quick and painless. I would be missed, of course, but I would no longer have to fake being a regular guy. And perhaps, lying there on the subway platform, I was already receiving the punishment for what I had done, for not accepting the reality of my situation.

This was Dante’s Eighth Circle, the circle of the fraudulent: those who failed to carve out their own salvation. I wouldn’t have to fake it any longer in front of Sue or my friends, who I knew relied on me for the posturing, for pretending that everything was fine. It gave them comfort to see me behave as if nothing had changed. They expected me to persevere. They had put their money on me and spun the wheel. They didn’t know my burden — or perhaps they did, but appreciated that I didn’t share it with them. Which made me, lying there on the subway platform, suddenly realize that if they relied on me for some sense of stability in their world, then it would be selfish of me to let myself go.

That was followed by a second flash of insight. Sue, Arthur, and the others not only relied on me; they cared for me, cared so much that I had a reciprocal responsibility to them — not to wallow in self-pity or throw myself on the sword of my own self-esteem but to stop trying to camouflage my blindness from those closest to me.

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The train was coming. I got up and righted myself. I boarded with the others and gasped a sigh of relief. When my knees pressed against a seat, I sat. I was halfway home. My legs were bleeding, but the bleeding from my head, I think, had stopped. People must have been looking at me very much the way I looked at the ruined man I had seen many years ago near the butcher. The train echoed under the city.

The issue of making it back in time for my appointment had by now fallen completely out of mind. I was simply trying to make it back, which seemed highly unlikely. Then I smelled a familiar odor — something light, pleasant, something that had no place down here. I didn’t know what it was.

Where and when to exit was no challenge. The westbound shuttle made only one stop. Recalling a large gap between the train and the platform, I made sure that I took a giant step out onto the platform at the Times Square station. As I was feeling my way out of the car and onto the platform, I bumped into another man. There was again that sense of something familiar. It was nearer to me this time, like a ghost. I asked him where I could find the platform to catch the train heading north up to Columbia, and he told me. I heard some people snicker at my exaggerated movements, and I felt shamefully conspicuous. Still, I moved along with those leaving the train and managed to get down the stairs to the uptown track.

By my now customary query method, I came to an area that I thought was the right platform for the uptown local. I wasn’t sure, though. The express left from the same platform, but it didn’t stop at Columbia. I turned to ask anyone near me whether this was the uptown local to Columbia at Broadway and 116th. A man’s voice — muffled, as if he were trying not to be heard — responded: “Yes, it’s the right platform.” He added that the local was the track to my left.

The train pulled in and stopped, and the doors opened right in front of me.

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I worried, very briefly, that after all this I might get a shoelace caught in the narrow gap between the car and the concrete. It would be a fitting ending. That did not happen. Instead, I got on the train and found a seat. The train pulled out.

I was almost completely exhausted. I felt as though I had lost several quarts of blood. And I was semi-delirious. Was this madness? Why had I engaged in this absurd enterprise? I might instead have foregone the appointment with the reader — recognizing that the importance of that particular meeting was largely a creation of my own imagination. Why had I not simply waited with Arthur while he made his sketch of the Seagram Building? None of this nightmare trip would have happened.

As the train made its way north station by station, the thought of my grandmother and my parents forced itself on me. Nothing — neither poverty nor fear of the unknown future, neither disease nor war — had deterred them from their emigration across Europe and the Atlantic Ocean. They would not compromise their hopes or their dignity, whatever the price. So how trivial was my little excursion?

After quite a few stops, the PA system announced mine, and then my weary feet got me to the top of the subway steps at 116th Street. I do not think I was ever happier to find myself back at the university. I felt my way to the iron gates and went through onto College Walk. As I began to make my way, I was stopped by a young man I recognized by smell as Arthur.

“Oops, excuse me, sir,” he said, a slight sardonic emphasis on the last word. Then, in his normal voice, he said abruptly, “I knew you could do it…but I wanted to be sure you knew you could do it.”

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He had been shadowing me all along. He later admitted that he had in fact not been assigned to sketch the Seagram Building at all.

We were silent for a moment as we stood near the university gates. I wanted to kill him. Then I became euphoric. I grabbed his hands, exultantly raised them, and swung him around me. In sweeping circular motions, we waltzed out onto College Walk.

Jerry Speyer, who was a witness to that subway trial aftermath, recounted it in a speech he gave adjacent to College Walk at the 2008 commencement of the Columbia Business School: “You or I cannot even imagine how Sandy felt at that moment, but he summoned something inside of himself, some untapped courage…. I tell you this story because it has remained with me for forty-six years.”

It has remained with me as well. That moment at the gates of the university, the moment of my triumphant survival of that subway odyssey, was the moment when fear — fear of risk, fear of movement, fear of change — was vanquished within me forever. I don’t know if Arthur had a cathartic moment of his own then. I can say only that I realized something profound — my friends and family had become angels who would be with me and never leave. I was strong because of the strength we gave each other.

Find Hello Darkness My Old Friend here

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David Stewart
David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.

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