For the Cunningham family, who are all legally blind, grocery shopping means taking a 45-minute bus ride. (Daniel Wirtheim)

by Daniel Wirtheim

It’s the first of December and a heavy overcast sky stirs above Anita Cunningham as she waits for the No. 12 bus that will take her to the nearest Walmart Supercenter.

Her purple rain jacket is unzipped. A Greensboro Transit Authority pass hangs across her chest. Her hair, dyed a fire-engine red, matches her dangly Santa hat earrings. And her glasses amplify a pair of blue eyes to the edge of the frame as she scans the street for the No. 12.

She’s brought a black collapsible bag along with wheels and a long handle designed to make lugging groceries easy while using public transportation.

The bus stop is just a sign on a quiet corner of Greensboro’s Warnersville neighborhood, just south of downtown. Behind the stop is a white picket fence that belongs to the single-story home where the three Cunninghams live.

There’s Arianna, Anita’s granddaughter and adopted daughter, who is 14 and a student at Kiser Middle School. Arianna is autistic and legally blind but thrives musically, she’s a violinist in the Greensboro Youth Symphony Orchestra. Arianna has what the Cunninghams and her instructors call “perfect pitch.” She often learns instrumental parts without reading the music. In concerts she has absolutely no way of reading the music, so she memorizes everything. Getting Arianna to her orchestra recitals is one of the few instances that the Cunninghams use SCAT, Greensboro’s paratransit program.

There’s also Lonnie Cunningham, Anita’s husband, who is 74 and has been legally blind since birth. Lonnie was born in Roxboro, to a poor family that didn’t have the means to buy the young, mostly-blind and albino boy a pair of glasses. Lonnie worked in tobacco fields as a boy and went to Governor Morehead School of the Blind in Raleigh before moving to Greensboro to work at the Industries of the Blind.

The Cunninghams bought their house specifically because of its proximity to the bus station — since being legally blind means no one in the household drives.

Typically Lonnie gets groceries on a Sunday, when the factory is closed. But today Anita needs a few things so she’s waiting for the No. 12.

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Anita’s granddaughter, Arianna Cunningham, reads The Wizard of Oz in braille. (Daniel Wirtheim)

The No. 12 will take Anita to J. Douglas Galyon Depot, where she’ll switch to a connector that takes her the rest of the way to Walmart at the Pyramid Shopping Village in far northeast Greensboro. When Lonnie shops on Sunday, the bus runs a direct route to Walmart but on every other day a connector is necessary. If she misses the No. 12 bus, there’s also the No. 13 that passes the Cunningham house. All routes convene on the depot and one of the two arrives at Anita’s bus stop every 30 minutes. As a member of the GTA board, Anita says it’s the best bus system in the state.

Before working with the GTA Anita used to teach in the compensatory program at GTCC, until a serious back injury left her unable to work. While she collects disability and Lonnie continues to work at the factory, Anita fills her time with volunteer work. She meets weekly with the GTA board, she volunteers with her church the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church and the Mobile Oasis Farmers Market. She takes Arianna to orchestra recitals, sings in the church choir and goes bowling with a blind league once a week. So much of Anita’s life is built around the bus schedule and five minutes after its scheduled arrival time, the No. 12 arrives.

The No. 12 passes the Greensboro NCWorks Career Center office on Elm-Eugene Street, meaning that it’s often a full bus. But this morning Anita has no problem finding a seat in the front section.

Most passengers stare straight ahead at Elm-Eugene Street passing through the front windshield. That image, obscured on both sides by rows of seats and the bus’ interior is not unlike how Anita sees the world.

She was born with cataracts, a genetic trait that could have been fixed by a standard surgical procedure had the German Measles not further complicated her eyesight and led to secondary glaucoma. With the help of an extremely magnified pair of glasses, Anita’s blindness is reduced to near-sightedness with a mild tunnel vision.

Arianna was also born with cataracts but she had to have her corneas taken out. Doctors thought her body might reject new corneas, causing more harm to her eyes. But with no other alternative, they went forward with the surgery and so far her body has accepted the foreign parts. She’s extremely near-sighted and learning Braille but she can see to a certain extent.

Lonnie was born extremely nearsighted on part of his albinism, although it didn’t stop him from playing basketball at the Governor Morehead School in Raleigh, a school for the blind and deaf. As he grew into adulthood, his blindness worsened until finally he could see only a speck of light.

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(Daniel Wirtheim)

In 2003 Lonnie had eye surgery that reshaped his cornea and left him far-sighted, which comes in handy when he bowls with the Gate City Blind Bowlers on Thursday nights.

At the depot, Anita finds the No. 6 bus that will take her directly to the Walmart Supercenter. The bus leaves at the top of the hour, which gives Anita about five minutes to transition.

The pungent smell of burnt tobacco fills the bus as a passenger enters carrying a half-smoked cigarette. A woman next to Anita has three full Walmart bags, one of which she carries on her lap and the other two on the floor.’

By the time the No. 15 leaves the depot, three men are left standing and holding the railing directly behind the driver. They seem content with their position as they converse and laugh.

“You can meet a lot of interesting characters here,” Anita says, smiling slightly as the standing passengers discuss the source of a foul smell that seems to have worked its way to the front. When the No. 6 stops at the Department of Social Services nearly half of the passengers exit and the standing men find seats in the front seating section.

As the bus approaches the Pyramid Village Shopping Center, the driver announces that that the “stop request” line is broken and that passengers will have to shout when they want to get off.

“I’m getting off here,” Anita shouts as the bus pulls into the Wal-Mart Supercenter parking lot.

In mid-November Anita was making cookies in her kitchen for the Mobile Oasis Farmers Market as the first Christmas music of the season music played softly on a radio.

The Mobile Market is a farmers market that makes weekly visits to food deserts, Warnersville being one of them. Anita’s chocolate and zucchini cookies were for the last market of the year that was held at Warnersville Recreation Center.

Anita offers her cookies to customers along with recipes that can be made with produce from the market. The recipes, Anita says, are meant to offer healthy recipes to her neighbors. Her eccentric recipes include cheesy apple quesadillas, butternut-apple lasagna and the chocolate zucchini cookies.

Projects like the mobile market are great, Anita says. But as it is the majority of her neighbors aren’t concerned with eating healthy but with food-security.

It seems like there is always someone crossing Elm-Eugene Street to shop at a convenience store that accepts food stamps, Anita says. There’s also a Food Lion on Randleman Road, but it’s only two miles closer and doesn’t offer all that Walmart does.

She finds a cart next to a Salvation Army bell-ringer and shuffles through the automatic doors with a dozen others from the No. 6.

She wheels her cart first to the pharmacy, maneuvering around a group of 10 or so waiting in the prescription pickup line. She places a toothbrush and a large handful of Kind snack bars into her cart before heading to the produce section.

Since her collapsible cart measures about a foot wide by a foot and-a-half tall, she shops strategically. She knows that Lonnie will be able to go again at the end of the week, and that they will eat at the bowling alley on Thursday night. So Anita only needs to get a few items for her Christmas cookies, some vegetables and ingredients for a tuna casserole for later in the week.

She pays a little more for frozen broccoli and carrots than Lonnie does. He just buys the generic, name brand stuff as he searches for deals rather than quality, Anita says.

She moves from the frozen section to the dry food and produce towards the front of the store. The Walmart at Pyramid Village Shopping Center recently underwent reorganization, says an employee packing cans onto a shelf. The tuna that she was looking for on a previous aisle wasn’t where it used to be.

With her sight-impairment Anita needs to be close to a product to tell exactly what it is. She stops her cart at a wall of pasta and crouches low. She reads the label and then moves to the next one, using a magnifying glass to see each item as she marks it off her shopping list. She does this with every product: frozen shrimp, mushrooms, spinach, coconut flakes, pecans, chocolate chips. Her entire shopping trip takes about 45 minutes.

Anita places her Smart Cart on the checkout counter along with her groceries.

“Everything will fit if you pack it in there correctly,” she says to the cashier, who has a placid, bored look on her face.

The cashier puts almost everything in the Smart Cart besides a bag of spinach and a Styrofoam container of mushrooms, which she puts into a gray plastic bag.

The two bags together weigh around 20 pounds as Anita carries them out of the Walmart, stopping to place some change in the Salvation Army charity bucket and taking off across the parking lot. She passes the area where she was dropped off and wheels her bag across the entire Pyramid Village Shopping Center to wait at the No. 15, the next bus that will arrive in about 15 minutes.

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 Anita’s bag has wheels, easing the pressure from her injured back. (Daniel Wirtheim)

The stop sits in a lonely space between an open field and a cheesesteak joint on the outskirts of the shopping center. As Anita talks about the pain resonating from her back to her fingertips a throaty, low voice cries out from behind the stop.

“A little help,” the voice is pleading. It’s a woman struggling to get a bag like Anita’s out of a Walmart shopping cart. Once she has it free, she nests her cart into two others and moves to the bus stop in great lunging steps that swing her body wildly.

Anita says quietly that she’s seen the woman before and she might have cerebral palsy. It’s clear that the woman’s motor skills have been handicapped.

“You’re just gonna shop until you drop, huh?” Anita says to the woman, who takes a deep breath and shakes her head.

“I don’t know why I didn’t buy the gallon of milk the other day when I had a ride,” the woman says, in an exasperated whisper. The bus arrives just as she is catching her breath.

As the bus drives towards the depot, Anita and the woman carry on a conversation. She tells Anita that she became disabled in a car accident in the late 1970s.

“God’s keeping me alive for some reason,” she proclaims loudly as moves to get off at the first stop. The bus driver tells a young woman who’s getting on to please step out while a handicapped person exits. The young woman does not, but only presses her body against the ticket dispenser while the woman lurches off the bus.

“See, that woman could easily apply for disability,” Anita says. “She just wants to be independent.”

By the time the No. 12 has dropped Anita off at the house with the picket fence, more than two-and-a-half hours have elapsed since she stood on the corner with an empty bag.

Arianna will be home from school in the next two hours. Recently, Arianna came home with a coupon to play laser tag and bowl over the holidays, a problematic situation for a child who has difficulty seeing. Lonnie and Anita wonder if someone will be there to guide her. It’s difficult for Arianna to make friends as it is, so this might be a good opportunity.

Next year she’ll be enrolled at Grimsley High School and Anita is slightly worried about the change. At Kiser Middle School Arianna is segregated from the general student body and placed into special education classrooms. It’s difficult for her to make friends when she spends so much time in isolation, Anita says.

At school Arianna shares lunch time with another autistic boy who she knows from a class she took last year. Anita says that between the two, there’s not much dialogue.

The other kids sit on the opposite end of the table.

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Despite her seeing problems, Arianna plays both piano and violin. (Daniel Wirtheim)

“She had silent lunch today because she got in trouble,” Anita says. “I’m like, what’s the deal with silent lunch, she has silent lunch everyday. No one sits and talks with her.”

When Arianna comes home, she works on homework while Anita begins to cook. It’s about an hour later, at 4:45 p.m. that a chicken potpie comes out of the oven and Lonnie is home from the factory.

The Cunninghams sit at the kitchen’s island counter, even though they have a dining room table. Lonnie closes his eyes, while Anita and Arianna fold their hands in prayer.

“God is great, God is good, and we thank him for our food,” they pray, with Arianna’s voice carrying over the others. “By his hands we are all fed. Thank you, Lord, for our daily bread.”

Arianna eats quickly and places her empty plate in the sink. Soon the sound of “Ukrainian Bell Carol” is coming from the living room, where the young girl’s fingers move across the piano keys with fluid precision.

The adults move to the living room. Lonnie is beaming, his hands behind his back as he sways back and forth with Anita, her Santa hat earrings swinging with the rhythm.

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