The eyes beside him

A blind man's tour through a St. Pete neighborhood, with the help of a pup named Accelerator

click to enlarge SIDEKICKS: Chris Hofstader and Accelerator take a break outside WMNF. - dawn morgan
dawn morgan
SIDEKICKS: Chris Hofstader and Accelerator take a break outside WMNF.

Chris Hofstader says he's "somewhere between agoraphobic and claustrophobic," and he's one of the many Tampa Bay residents who complain there's nowhere to go, so he's a homebody by default. He's also blind.

Chris, 47, completely lost his vision more than a decade ago. The disease rooted into his retinas when he was 7 years old and slowly took away his sight until only traces of light remained. He relies on his wife Susan to drive him around, avoiding expensive cabs and inconsistent public transportation.

One afternoon I met him in his Five Point neighborhood in St. Petersburg to take a walk, hoping to learn how one blind man senses his surroundings. Using his memory and guide dog Accelerator (so named because he makes for faster travel than walking with a cane), Chris leads me to Dave's Restaurant, one of the few places he frequents on his own.

Accelerator is trained to stop at curbs and protect his master from moving vehicles, but he's excited to be outside and is acting up in front of someone new. The 2-year-old pup likes to stop and smell the flowers, but Chris tugs at his leash to keep him going. "He likes to hear those 'good boys' when he does right." Eventually, Accelerator follows Chris' order to "find the curb."

With gentle movements of head and harness, Accelerator signals to Chris a ramp, a building, a car coming close. "He is almost always telling me stuff."

Traffic is one danger they face every time they step outside: "The nitwit turning right on red, who seems to be completely oblivious to a person with a 100-pound dog."

When crossing major intersections, Chris often has to wait through several cycles of lights before he can cross. (Pinellas County lacks audible devices at crosswalks to let the vision-impaired know when it's their turn to cross the street.)

Several blocks from the house is busy Martin Luther King Blvd. Standing on the sidewalk, I'm intimidated by the rush of cars flying by a few mere feet away, and to Chris the sound suggests "potential deadly weapons." Accelerator keeps Chris to the inside, away from the street. Taking the same path each time, Chris knows each store we pass, and the dog has learned that just because the automatic doors at Ace Hardware trigger as they pass doesn't mean he's supposed to go in. (Chris prefers electronic toys to tools.)

Chris has a habit of counting the streets as he crosses them so that he knows exactly where he is, but we've been talking for the last mile or so, and he's lost track. But Accelerator knows we've reached Dave's and takes his owner to the door.

Chris has the menu memorized, but the waitress already knows what he's going to order. We get our mugs of coffee and chat, discovering we're both transplants from New Jersey. Although Chris doesn't rely that much on his sense of smell (the wind can be misleading when it changes direction), he jokes that the smell of Florida rivals Jersey, what with the people and the swamps.

Chris moved to St. Pete from Cambridge, Mass. when he was in his mid-30s, so he's never seen the city he lives in. But he's begun to appreciate his adopted state. He has just finished training as an WMNF news volunteer, so he'll soon be on the air reporting on local issues.

And he loves outdoor sports, like kayaking and fishing. He told a story of being in De Soto Park with a friend and hearing a young bald eagle circling overhead. "The predator, with a 6- to-7-foot wingspan, was incredibly graceful, for an animal that big," he said. "It leaves you speechless, whether you see it or hear it."

Chris, a former software engineer turned writer, is pursuing a doctorate in "Human Understanding of Complex Semantic Information through Non-Visual Stimuli," or, in other words, how anyone sighted or blind can deliver a ton of info non-visually." One example: working with simulators to get Michelangelo's David online for anyone to feel and hear.

When the food comes, Chris "accidentally" drops some on his hands and into Accelerator's mouth. "A dog's sense of smell is 10,000 times better than ours," he says. Why subject an animal to the smell of food without giving him a taste?

As we walk back, Accelerator keeps trying to lead Chris off to the right, into the neighborhood too early. We cross another street, and again the dog veers to the right, this time putting himself between Chris and the car that pulls up into our path. The driver waves at me to signal she's sorry, and I acknowledge in silence, continuing to follow Chris as he follows his dog around the car and back on their well-worn path. Every step might rely on routine, but the trip doesn't get any easier.

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