A new book tells the extraordinary story of how, before stardom dawned, the musician devoted himself to being eyes—and a lifeline—for his beloved roommate Sanford "Sandy" Greenberg, who went blind during their junior year.

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
July 15, 2020 02:15 PM
Advertisement
Sanford D. Greenberg

Art Garfunkel remembers vividly — from 61 years ago — the first inkling he had that the boy in his freshman humanities class at Columbia, Sanford "Sandy" Greenberg, was best friend material.

"It was his voice," Garfunkel, now 78, recalls exclusively to PEOPLE. "I'm a singer. The voice is terribly important to me. All life long, I read through people's voices so much of their temperament, their nature, their soul. When I first met Sanford in the very beginning, the resonance of his bass baritone was just beautiful to me. As I started talking to him, I felt I was singing with him."

Within months of their friendship's beginning, it was Garfunkel's voice that mattered even more. "It lifted me out of the grave," says Greenberg.

In his new memoir Hello Darkness, My Old Friend (the iconic opening line of Simon & Garfunkel's mega-hit single "The Sound of Silence"), Greenberg, now 79, tells the extraordinary story of how, at age 20, he suddenly went blind in his junior year of college, after emergency surgery for long-misdiagnosed glaucoma.

As he despaired in darkness at his parents’ house in Buffalo, N.Y., convinced he’d never make it through Columbia without sight, Garfunkel "flew in, turned me around and said, ‘I will help you.’”

It "was, for me, the beginning of the end of gray hopelessness," writes Greenberg.

By then, the pair were roommates on campus. And when Greenberg returned, he found that Garfunkel, an aspiring architect at the time, was meticulous about keeping their room arranged exactly as Greenberg had memorized it. Garfunkel read his friend's coursework to him aloud. He walked Greenberg to class, repaired his tape recorder and bandaged his bloody cuts when he banged into things.

Greenberg, to this day, will not use a cane or guide dog, and he wears glasses — "to fool people and look like somebody who has working eyes," as Garfunkel puts it with a chuckle. But the practice was born of pain, Greenberg recalls.

"On campus, a number of friends dropped me because I wasn't worthwhile anymore. And I could hear them sneering, 'Hey, there is Greenberg the blind guy.' It was a searing statement. I didn't want to be recognized as Sandy Greenberg, the blind guy. I wanted to be Sandy Greenberg, the human being. And by the way, he's blind."

As Garfunkel devoted himself to being his friend's eyes, he would sometimes call himself Darkness. “He divorced himself from the life he’d been living, altering his own ways to conform better to mine,” says Greenberg. “Arthur would walk in and say, ‘Sanford, Darkness is going to read you The Iliad.’”

Garfunkel, joking that "I'm a nutty guy," remembers it as his way of staying close. “I was saying, I want to be together where you are, in the black.” 

Greenberg (left) and Garfunkel reunited on Columbia's campus in 2018. Photo by Jeffery Saks

Greenberg, who after graduate studies at Harvard and Oxford, went on to be a philanthropist, well-connected public servant (Al Gore and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are close friends) and inventor, says he’s spent the intervening decades weighed down by “a debt that cannot be paid because it stands outside of measure.”

The two men stayed close even as Greenberg started a family while Garfunkel traveled the world as a star. "He took me everywhere, whether it was Saturday Night Live, or I stood next to him when he was recording Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. He was on a stool. He asked me to come and stand next to him while he sang. Talk about a beautiful experience! He could have passed me by, but he stayed loyal. And that's a tough thing to do when you're a world-famous star," marvels Greenberg.

But Garfunkel sees a clean balance sheet. With Sandy, “my real life emerged,” he says. “I became a better guy in my own eyes and began to see who I was — somebody who gives to a friend.”

For more on Art Garfunkel and Sanford "Sandy" Greenberg's lasting friendship, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.