The Day the Wind Lured Me to Walk Into Traffic

Stephen Kuusisto is a blind poet and writer. He describes how he was almost killed by a bus on a Manhattan street corner because the wind masked the sound of traffic.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Commentator Stephen Kuusisto is a poet and writer, and the author of a recent book titled "Eavesdropping: A Life By Ear." He is also blind, and he was almost killed by a bus on a Manhattan street corner because the wind masked the sound of traffic.

STEPHEN KUUSISTO: It was early spring and terribly cold. I thought I was standing near 8th Street in Manhattan. When you're blind, that corner creates an audible anomaly. Wind pours through the streets running west to east, and as it pushes through the gaps between buildings it makes white noise. As you stand there, the traffic vanishes as if by magic.

I was working my way south on 5th and eavesdropping as I walked. Two students from NYU, both women, were talking about jazz. They had gone to the Blue Note to hear Oscar Peterson. They had grown up on Madonna, but now they were grooving in New York and I was happy to be hearing about it.

I stood on tip-toe on the lip of a curb and thought about Oscar Peterson and how he used to accompany Ella Fitzgerald. And I was thinking of Ella singing "Angel Eyes," and I told Corky, my seeing-eye dog, to go forward.

I was remembering Ella's dulcet whisper at the end of the song and Oscar Peterson's understated piano coming in. I said forward to the dog because I heard no traffic whatsoever.

Suddenly, Corky pulled backwards, and I felt a rush of air across my face. Then I heard the roar of a cross-town bus. The street corner had once again masked its traffic sounds.

After my adrenaline was back to normal, I walked around the block and re-approached the same corner. The wind was astonishing, both in its force and in its absolute efficiency at blocking the sounds of cars and buses. I stood for a few minutes on the east side of 5th Avenue, on the north side of 8th Street, and listened with what I can only call reverence.

I thought of Igor Stravinsky, who insisted that most people, including composers, often fail to listen with effort. Stravinsky wanted us to hear beyond the narrow coil of easy expectations. As I stood on the corner, I noticed a woman laughing on the far side of 5th Avenue - a mezzo-soprano, loud and high - and laughing to beat the band.

The wind carries fragments of noise from far places like an absent-minded uncle who doesn't remember what's in his old suitcase. I stood in that place, where just 15 minutes earlier I had almost been killed. When the wind paused, I could feel the sun on my face and hear the radio from a taxi. Then the traffic was swallowed once more. The wind was back with news of its spacious, inverted, colorless landscape.

(Soundbite of song, "Angel Eyes")

Ms. ELLA FITZGERALD (Singer): (Singing) …eyes. Oh where's my angel…

BLOCK: Stephen Kuusisto's latest book of essays is called "Eavesdropping: A Life by ear."

(Soundbite of song, "Angel Eyes")

Ms. FITZGERALD: (Singing) Excuse me, while I disappear. Angel eyes.

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