HIS BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER
As a man goes blind, his friend watches his back
The university roommates who stood side-by-side when one lost his sight.
One day during his first year at Columbia University, Sanford ‘Sandy’ Greenberg stood on campus by a grassy plot with his classmate Arthur Garfunkel. “Sanford, look at that patch of grass. You see the colours? The shapes? The way the blades bend?” Garfunkel asked. Greenberg was smitten. Other guys talked about girls and sports, but Garfunkel wanted to talk about ... a patch of grass!
Was there a luckier guy on campus than Greenberg? Here he was, a poor kid from Buffalo, New York, on full scholarship, taking classes from superstars such as anthropologist Margaret Mead, physicist Leon Lederman, historian James Shenton, and poet Mark Van Doren. And he had a great new pal, a brainy kid from New York with a pure tenor voice.
But in the summer of 1960, just before his third year, Greenberg’s fortune changed. He was in Buffalo, playing baseball, when his vision “steamed up”. He had to lie down on the grass until the clouds went away. The doctor said it was allergic conjunctivitis.
Back at university that autumn, Greenberg had more episodes, but he didn’t tell anyone. He didn’t believe it was anything serious. Still, his roommates – Garfunkel and Jerry Speyer – saw that he was having trouble.
On the first morning of final exams, Garfunkel escorted Greenberg to the university gym, where exams were held. Greenberg started writing at 9am. By 10.30, he couldn’t see a thing. He lurched to the front of the gym and handed his blue book to the proctor. “I can’t see, sir,” he said. The proctor laughed. “I’ve heard some terrific excuses,” he said, “but that’s the best.”
Greenberg went back to Buffalo, where he received another diagnosis: glaucoma. That winter, doctors operated on Greenberg’s eyes. The surgery didn’t work. Greenberg was going blind. He was so depressed that he refused to see anyone from university.
But Garfunkel went up to Buffalo anyway.
“I don’t want to talk,” Greenberg told him.
“Sanford, you must talk,” said Garfunkel who then persuaded Greenberg to go back to Columbia and offered to be his reader.
In September 1961, Greenberg returned to campus. Garfunkel,
Speyer and a third friend read textbooks to him, taking time out from their own studies, and Greenberg ended up scoring A’s. Still, he was tentative about getting around alone and relied on friends to help him.
Then, one afternoon, Greenberg and Garfunkel went to Manhattan. When it was time for Greenberg to go back to campus, Garfunkel said he had an appointment and couldn’t accompany him. Greenberg panicked. They argued, and Garfunkel walked off, leaving Greenberg alone in Grand Central Terminal. Greenberg, bewildered, stumbled through the rush-hour crowd. He took a train to Times Square, then transferred to another train. Six kilometres later, he got off at the Columbia University stop. At the university’s gates, someone bumped into him. “Oops, excuse me, sir.” Greenberg knew the voice. It was Garfunkel’s. Greenberg’s first reaction was rage, but in the next second, he realised what he had just accomplished – and realised, too, who had made it possible.
“It was one of the most brilliant strategies,” says Greenberg. “Arthur, of course, had been with me the whole way.”
After graduation, Greenberg got his MBA from Columbia and a PhD from Harvard. He married his girlfriend Sue, was a White House fellow in the Johnson administration, and went on to become a successful inventor, businessman and a champion for the blind.
Garfunkel went on to become one-half of the 1960s folk-rock duo Simon & Garfunkel.
Recently, Greenberg recal led Gar funkel reading him Our Town by Thornton Wilder. The play’s message is that humans, caught up in daily concerns, fai l to appreciate life’s beauty and preciousness. “That’s all human beings are!” says the character Emily Webb Gibbs, a dead woman looking down upon the living and astonished by their folly. “Just blind people!”
Not Greenberg. He sees everything, sings every blessing, great and small: from the love of his family and friends to the dew-dappled grooves of a blade of grass.
“You are talking,” he says today, “to the luckiest man in the world.”
The two friends during their university days in the early ’60s
Sanford Greenberg (left) and Art Garfunkel in the grounds of Columbia University in 2016