SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
December 24, 2006

Why I Don’t Go Out Much

As I stepped out of the 57th St. subway station, the rain began coming down hard. Harder than I’d seen it in months. People began to scream. I should’ve figured. I hated Midtown.

     I bowed my head against the rain and tapped my way down Sixth Avenue. Fortunately I only had a few blocks to go, and rush hour was still a couple hours away. Rain aside, it was about as good as I could’ve hoped for.

     What brought me to Midtown in the first place was an old friend from California who was in town for a couple days. Although he was going to be spending most of those days running here and there from meeting to meeting, he’d arranged a couple free hours so we could get a drink. The only stipulation he made was that it be somewhere close to his next appointment. Best I could find was one of those high-end fake Irish places in the mid-50s that was just around the corner. I’d never been there before, but I’d heard there was a bar “in the back.” I figured someone would help me out.

     We had a long history, he and I. He knew me before I lost my eyesight, in fact. We offered each other constructive criticism on the various projects we were working on, even worked together on a few things. It would be good to see him again.

      I found the canopied entrance and stepped inside. Soaked from head to foot at this point, I stood there a moment, not exactly sure where to go. There were several people standing in front of me.

     “Are you going upstairs or down?” a woman next to me asked.

     “I . . . ” I said, “I . . . don’t know.”

     “Well, the restaurant’s upstairs, the bar’s downstairs.”

     “Well then,” I said, dripping shamelessly, “I guess I’m going downstairs.”

     She vaguely directed me to the stairs, and I tapped downward a few steps. At the bottom I bumped into a wall. Then another. Finally I found something that wasn’t a wall and, assuming it was a doorway, stepped through it.

     “Can I help you?” another woman asked. She sounded matronly. She was also trying to hide her nervousness. (That’s something I’ve noticed—you go into a dive bar with a cane, people will be friendly and help you out. You go into a high-zoot place, people just get scared.)

     “Yes, I believe you can . . . I’m looking for the bar.”

     “Just walk straight ahead,” she said.

     Now, this is a tricky direction to give someone who can’t see, given that “straight ahead” means “whatever direction we happen to be pointed in at the time.” She quickly realized this, turned me in the proper direction, then let me go.

     I could tell from the voices that there were tables on either side of me. It all sounded very tight and narrow and low. I had the good sense to move slowly, so when I inevitably careened into one of the tables, I wouldn’t wreak too much havoc.

     I continued straight ahead until I noticed a change in the sound. Things seemed to open up a little bit. To my left I heard the telltale clinking of glasses that told me I’d found the bar. I reached out a hand to find a stool, and grabbed somebody’s arm. It was large.

     “Whoops—I guess that seat’s taken,” I explained. Then I tapped on.

     Finally, a voice to my left asked, “Can I help you find something, sir?’

     “Just looking for the bar,” I said.

     “Well, you found it.”

     I stopped and turned toward the voice, and heard the sound of a barstool scraping against the floor. Then a hand slapping against the wooden seat. “There you go.” another voice said.

     I thanked him, folded up the cane, sat down and slipped out of my soaking coat.

     “Raining out?” the old Irishman sitting next to me asked.

     “Pouring,” I said.

     “Aye.”

     He said nothing more, and I ordered a beer. There was someone on the other side of me, too, but he never made a sound.

     Sitting there squeezed between two morose Irishmen, I began hoping Homer would be able to find me. I had figured out that this was one of those Irish bars with small partitions separating every three stools. It makes things nice and cozy, so long as you’re not there with a couple of dour strangers. Then it’s just weird.

     I was early—Homer wasn’t due for another 20 minutes or so, and I hoped to hell these guys would up and leave after they finished their drinks. The chances seemed good—having a blind guy show up unexpectedly in a small space tends to make most people very uncomfortable.

     Sure enough, both of the morose Irishmen gulped their drinks silently and left. I removed my sopping hat and laid it on the bar next to me.

     Then I finished my own beer and ordered another.

     “So . . . ” the bartender said. “Whaddya think of this weather?”

     “It’s all right,” I said. “Awfully damp.”

     He talked a bit more about the weather, then went to wait on someone else. Most of the people there sounded like they were regulars. They’d have to be, I figured, just to be able to find the damn place.

      I finished the second beer and had ordered a third, cautioning myself to take it easy, not get too drunk before he showed—when I felt a hand on my arm.

     “Hey, Jim,” he said. The voice was quiet, but unmistakable.

     “Thank god you found me—I felt like Maxwell Smart coming down here.”

     He took a seat and ordered a beer. He was tired and a little stressed. He’d been running from place to place for two days, with more running in front of him. He was also in the midst of a home repair fiasco in California, and he’d heard the night before that one of his kids was, well, acting like a kid.

     For it all, I both felt bad and was touched that he’d made the time to get together with me. He could’ve taken a nap or something, relaxed, watched the television. But here he was.

     Thing is, apart from Morgan, I don’t talk to many people, and actually get together with even fewer. For the most part this isn’t intentional—it’s just the way things work out. As it happens, over the past, oh, four or five years in fact, I’ve seen him—a man who lives 3,000 miles away—more often than I’ve seen people who live down the block. But I guess that’s the old, sad joke, isn’t it?

     Homer, I’m guessing, is about 15 or 20 years older than I am. He’s also much smarter, much more energetic—and that night, much more sober.

     It was as if that Canadian television producer from a few weeks earlier was getting his revenge. From the start I could hear the slur in my voice, and noticed that I had to think carefully about what my tongue was doing in order to properly form the words I was trying to say. Worst of all, I was talking a lot.

     I don’t talk much in general. Part of the reason for this, I think, is that when I do start talking a lot, I ramble—and I ramble in very uninteresting ways. I also tend to get lost, meaning that I tend to repeat myself. If the person who’s with me is also drunk, that’s not such a big deal. When they’re sober, though, I wake up the next day full of horror at the things I’d said—those things that I  remembered, anyway.

     “So what was I sayin’?” I remember mumbling at one point. I was leaning in close, my hand on his wrist. “Oh, yeah—so he’s runnin’ down the hall naked, throwing orderlies to the left and right, see? He’s a big guy. Bear of a man. And the nurse, she says to me, y’know, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t tell you how he’s doing at present, ‘cause he’s running down the hall naked . . . ’“

     I paused then and admitted aloud, “I have no idea where I was going with that.” Then I realized it probably would’ve been a much funnier story if I’d put it in some sort of context first—or bothered to tell the beginning.

     A small voice in the back of my brain was chastising me for not having eaten anything before coming out that afternoon. Homer was cool about it, though. He always was. Just carried on like it was a normal conversation.

     We’d been there about two hours when the bartender came by and asked me if I wanted another.

     “Oh, yeah,” I said, reaching for my wallet.

     “You know,” Homer said, “I need to head out in a minute. But if you just wanted to stay here, I can—”

     “Oh no—” I stopped him. “I’ll call it.” (I think by that point I just wanted to show him that I could.)

     I unfolded the cane, and he led me back though the narrow restaurant, back up the steps and out the door. The shame of what a drunken fool I’d been hadn’t struck me yet. It wouldn’t until the next day. At that moment, everything was swell. I was blind and unemployed, for godsakes—what else was there for me to do but drink?

     “You ever see the movie they made out of Daredevil? he asked as we walked over to Sixth Avenue and around the corner.

     “Oh my god—” I started in again. “You know, I’ll tell you—I was talking to Morgan about this a while ago. People can do whatever they want, make whatever jokes they want about the blind. Have them step in buckets or coils of . . . of garden hose, and I don’t care. It’s funny. But when they start in with the jujitsu, shit—that’s where I draw the line—”

     I could feel myself sliding toward another pointless rant. Fortunately for both of us, we were already standing in front of the building he was looking for.

     After he went inside, I set out to find my way back to the subway.

     I received a note from him a few days later, after he’d returned home and had a chance to relax. He didn’t use the term “drunken galoot” or “soused-up jackass.” In fact, he said sitting in that fake Irish bar for a couple hours that afternoon was the only time he’d been able to really relax when he was here. That made me feel a little better about everything.

 

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