August 5, 2007

The Blind Leading the Blinder


My friend Ryan Knighton came to town for a few days last week. We’d never met face-to-face before—whatever that might be worth in our case. Never even spoke on the phone. He lives in Vancouver, and we’ve been in touch via the email for the past year or so.

      Ryan, see, is the author of Cockeyed, a sharp knee-slapper of a memoir about growing up in the ‘80s and going blind from the same disease I have. Given that, I guess it’s not much of a surprise that we would get in contact; obviously, we had a few things in common. Funny thing was, it turned out that blindness was the least of them.

      He was in New York to give a reading, and we decided to meet the next afternoon at a bar in Brooklyn—not only to have a long-promised drink, but to conduct some sort of interview he’d arranged with a magazine. It was more about that drink, though. He’d turn on the tape recorder once we got to talking and see what came of it.

      I got there a little early and ordered a beer, just to quell those early afternoon shakes before he showed. The place was mostly empty, so I asked Mike, the bartender, if he could keep an eye out the front window, and let me know if he saw any cabs with blind guys in them pull up.

      I’d just started my second when such a cab arrived, so I hobbled outside to corral Ryan. He’s taller than I am, with a shaved head and a leather jacket. Almost immediately I saw what kind of troubles we might be facing. Having been on the blind end of the equation for so long, I had absolutely no idea how to best go about leading a blind guy around—let alone through a doorway into a dark bar.

      See, it’s just easier for a blind person to take the arm of the person who will be leading him around—and it’s bad form for a sighted person to grab the arm of a blindo. So there we were at the curb, and the first thing I did was reach out and take Ryan’s arm, as that’s my reflex these days. But in this case it just wasn’t going to work. Since I knew the neighborhood and the bar, it was up to me to take the lead.

      After a minor bit of poorly choreographed slapstick, I got us across the sidewalk to the door. Then when I pulled the door open, I felt it slam into something tall.

      “Oops,” I said. “Sorry.”

      I pulled him around the door and inside.

      That afternoon I came to have a much deeper appreciation for what Morgan goes through. Getting us around ain’t nearly as easy as it looks.

      Half-stumbling, half-waltzing, we finally made it to the bar, grabbed a couple stools at the end, and settled in. After that, things were pretty easy—apart from keeping straight whose glass was whose. That got trickier as the evening wore on.

      Ryan got his tape recorder up and running, and we began trading war stories—both about blindness (public bathrooms, we agreed, are the stuff nightmares are made of) and publishing (which can be a very ugly, stupid business sometimes). We chatted about Charlie Feathers and badmouthed that fucking skydiving, baby-saving Tom Sullivan. We also agreed—present company excluded, of course—that we preferred to avoid the company of other blindos.

      A long time ago, I promised myself that I wouldn’t drink during interviews—too many things tended to slip past the gatekeepers. These were different circumstances, though.

      I didn’t start losing track of the conversation until about the fourth or fifth round. On the one hand, I’m glad he had the tape recorder on—though of course I may live to regret the fact that he did. I live with a terrible fear—quite possibly a justified one—that I get real boring and banal once I lose track of what I’m saying. Guess I’ll find out.

      I don’t know if we got any funny looks as the bar started filling up that evening. I guess two blind guys getting progressively and publicly sloshed isn’t something you see every day. But I’m figuring a lot of folks in that bar had seen me around there with Morgan before, so maybe it wasn’t such a big deal.

      Around ten-thirty we figured it was time to head out. Ryan had to get back to his hotel in Midtown, and the easiest way to work it, I figured, was to go to my apartment—only a few blocks away—and I’d call a car from there. Trying to catch a cab on the streets of Park Slope was a useless proposition.

      This soon became the trickiest part of the whole evening.

      We unfolded our respective canes, and made it to the front door of the bar. Once outside, there we were again—I tried to take his arm and he tried to take mine. Somehow we made it across the street that way, but once on the opposite side we both realized that it just wasn’t going to work. The sidewalk was too narrow and jagged, we were both a little unstable, and those damn canes were swinging this way and that. It was a terrible fiery wreck just poised and waiting. So Ryan suggested maybe it would best if I just went on ahead a few yards and tap out the way while he tapped behind.

      This worked out about as well as such a thing could, the two of us stumbling along, still carrying on a conversation about lord knows what.

      It didn’t occur to me until we reached my front gate what a Fellinniesque sight that must’ve been, when a young Puerto Rican man stopped and asked if we needed any, you know . . . help?

      (I’m glad he only caught us there at the end—adding a third person to that parade, sighted or not, would’ve been disastrous.)

      The ironic thing, I learned later, is that the following day Ryan found himself lost on Fifty-Seventh Street in Midtown, trying to find his publisher’s office. Turns out he was a block off, but as he tapped around, both in confusion and in that day’s torrential downpour, nobody bothered to stop and ask him if he needed a hand.


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