by JIM KNIPFEL
November 18, 2007
War of the Tongue Cluckers
One of the questions I’ve been asked most often over the past decade or so (apart from “could you tell me where the hospital is?”) has been “So, how much can you see these days?” It’s a tough question to answer, because I have no reference point. I don’t know what normal vision is like, never have. so I can’t just say “I can see about one-eightieth of what you can.” It’s more complicated than anything a simple percentage could offer, anyway. Not only is my peripheral vision gone, but what I can see is hardly acute. Plus, it changes with time. I go back to the computer files containing stories I wrote just a year ago, and can’t believe I was ever able to work comfortably with a font that small.
In response to that question, then, I usually just say “Not a whole helluva lot, nope!” Or, if I want to give them something to imagine, I suggest taking two of those cardboard paper towel tubes, stretching some thin gauze over one end of each, then looking through them. But even that analogy only works under certain lighting conditions at certain times of day and year, if I’m facing the right direction. If it’s too bright out, then the world becomes nothing but an ocean of painful glare, and I can’t see anything. If it’s too dim, well, then I just can’t see anything. And if it’s a bright day with deep intermittent shadows (like what you’ll run into walking down the sidewalk in the early morning or late afternoon), then I can’t see anything and it’s annoying.
All of this is by way of an introduction to yet more proof that I am an idiot. I know it’s an old story—one I’ve told far too many times—but it’s been bugging me again in recent days, as things grow worse.
If I step outside by myself and it’s not completely dark, more often than not I still won’t use the cane. I can get around fine, I figure.
I’ll tell you, though—I used to think that a good working knowledge of the environment and a dose of dumb luck was enough to get around. It just ain’t the case anymore. Fact is, it’s pretty darn scary out there sometimes.
Many, many years ago, I said that walking around New York was like stepping into a German experimental film from the ‘20s: things would appear unexpectedly in my field of vision, then vanish again for no apparent reason. Sometimes these things were recognizable—a human form, say, or a goose. Oftentimes they weren’t—they were just shapes or patterns. And in some cases, they would seem to be one thing, then become something else. It’s startling and unnerving. If it really was a German avant-garde film, I could never imagine willingly sitting through the whole thing.
It’s also become clear over the past weeks and months that things are deteriorating. It’s just getting much more difficult to run the simplest of errands.
This morning I walked into a ladder propped up against a brownstone, having no idea there was a ladder in the middle of the sidewalk. An hour later, I became trapped in the vestibule of the neighborhood library, corralled by a dozen empty strollers. Then in the grocery store—through no fault of my own—a tall stack of cardboard boxes toppled over a few feet in front of me. I nearly shrieked.
Meanwhile, as the number of strollers being propelled at breakneck speeds by what are clearly demented and murderous parents and West Indian nannies continues to expand out of control, cars are no longer the greatest threat to my well-being. I recently asked a perfectly-sighted neighbor of mine if it was just my imagination, or if these stroller people really were aiming for the non-parents on the sidewalk. Without hesitation he replied, “Yes. Yes, they are.” (Morgan and I have contemplated getting a stroller of our own—or maybe a big, nasty, rusty hand truck—just to be able to combat these people on their own terms.)
Apart from the ever-present threat of physical peril, there’s also the other side. People see me fumbling about the drug store or stroking a door in a vain search for a handle, any handle, and it’s pretty clear what they think.
Here’s the thing, though, if I did use the cane, these same tongue cluckers who are so quick to jump to conclusions about my drunkenness and retardation would still cluck their tongues, but cluck their tongues in pity while trying to “help” me. They wouldn’t be helping me to help me, of course—they’d be helping me so they could feel good about themselves. Go home that night feeling all smug and self-satisfied, push the bloodstained stroller into a corner, then tell their husband or wife how they’re a good person because they “helped a blind man today.” The thought of it curdles my bile.
Then there’s the problem of taking the cane out and putting it away again depending on whether I need it or not—a move which, of course, in the eyes of this same stinking lot of Good Citizens immediately marks me a “fake.” (Man, I’m so fucking sick of hearing that.)
So that’s the quandary I find myself in. Use the cane and put up with the mountain of bullshit that comes with being easily identified as a cripple, or don’t use it and come home bruised and scraped every day—or worse, limit my movements even further out of simple frustration and fear.
Of course, why should I give a fuck what the people in this neighborhood (or any other) think? They think I’m drunk or retarded? Good—let them. It means they’ll stay away from me.
Still, though, when you run into one form of the bullshit or another every single day, it wears you down.
There is of course a fiendishly simple solution.
Normally if Morgan and I are walking around at night (or during the day for that matter), I’ll leave the cane in the bag, hang onto her arm, and she’ll lead me around. From my perspective it works very well, but from her perspective it can be damn frustrating. People who see us simply assume we’re walking arm in arm, and so they continue to act like the oblivious assholes they so often are. BUT if I pull out the cane and just carry it while still holding onto her arm, the crowds part like the Red Sea. It’s like carrying a shotgun through a shopping mall. It seems people (apart from those pesky Do Gooders, of course) want to stay even farther away from blindos than they do the drunks and retards.
I’ve seen plenty of blindos just carrying their canes, making it clear that while they can’t see, they can still get around without actually using the thing. Again, like a gun, you don’t have to use it for it to be effective. It would also help explain any unusual behavior. Problem there is that the cane would still get in the way—it would be hard to carry a couple of heavy bags of groceries and the cane—but it’s still a start. Plus, as Morgan pointed out, it would help when it comes to those people who’ve (quite literally) pushed me down after I’ve bumped into them. That, I must admit, is something I’d like to avoid if at all possible.
And if the fuckers decide they still want to try and run me off the sidewalk with their strollers, at least I’ll have something handy to swing at them.
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