March 23, 2008

“You Must Be Very Proud”


On the day New York’s new governor was inaugurated, I received a note from my old friend Grinch which read, “You must be very proud of David Paterson.”

            If you knew Grinch the way I do, you’d recognize the inimitably Grinchy sneer in that line.

            The sad thing is that there are people in the world—even in this very city,—who’ve said essentially the same thing to me, but in all sincerity. In fact, in the days after the announcement that New York was getting it’s first legally blind governor, I started receiving (of all things) interview requests on account of my (ahem) “unique insight.”

            Obviously they couldn’t track down that Tom Sullivan character, so they settled for the only other blind guy they could think of on short notice. But thinking about it, maybe it makes sense. After all, both Mr. Paterson and I received degrees from Ivy League universities, and we’ve both spent the last twenty-five years deeply entrenched in the nasty business of New York politics.

            The first question that came to mind when I heard these people wanted to talk to a blind drunk about a blind politician was “I wonder if they’re also trying to track down a crippled meth addict to get his insights into FDR’s legacy?”

            Then a few more jokes came to mind that were a bit more crass than that, and I began trying to figure out which ones I could get away with in a public interview. Not many, I’ll tell you that. Maybe the one about the new governor “playing piano at all official state functions.” Because the sad thing was, I agreed to the fucking interviews. I didn’t know anything about David Paterson apart from that be was black and blind, and I avoid political discussions whenever possible, considering them a waste of time. But why the hell not? I came right out and told them I had nothing to add to the discussion, nothing at all to say, really, but that didn’t deter them. Listening to the news every day, it struck me that having nothing to say rarely seems to be much of a deterrent to anyone.

            The only thing I did have to say about the recent ugliness in New York is that I was relieved that the fifteen minutes of fame allotted to that gold digging media whore of a hussy ended after about three minutes. But they didn’t want to talk about that. They wanted to talk about blindos.

            Governor Paterson himself, from what I could glean, doesn’t much care to discuss his blindness at this point. That makes sense to me. Imagine you were born with, say, a clubfoot. You worked your way around it, compensated for it, did what you wanted to do in spite of it, and at some point many years down the line—long after the clubfoot had become little more than an occasional inconvenience—you achieved something great. Something great not just for someone with a clubfoot, but for anyone. Yet after finding yourself in the limelight for the first time, instead of asking you about your accomplishment, everyone focused on the one thing that was wrong with you. That’d be pretty goddamned annoying if you ask me. If you live with something all or most of your life, it’s nothing special—it’s simply a part of who you are. Being asked about it repeatedly is like being asked at every turn what it’s like to have an opposable thumb.

            I was on the brink of changing my mind and blowing off the interviews as patronizing and cheap, when Morgan sent me an article from NY1 specifically about Governor Paterson’s blindness. In a few short paragraphs, they trotted out every old blindo myth you can think of. Because he can’t see, the article claimed, all of Governor Paterson’s other senses have developed to near superhuman levels! He can memorize entire legal documents after hearing them read aloud only once! They came just short of saying “ . . . and he plays piano with as much soul as Ray Charles!” and announcing that Paterson will be “using his super-abilities to solve crimes in his spare time!”

            I was at once amazed and not surprised in the least that this sort of crap was still being reported by almost reputable news sources. I certainly get that from people to this day, who seem to be under the impression that the blind, in exchange for their sight, are granted certain mystical powers.

            (Not that we aren’t, mind you—they just aren’t the mystical powers most people generally think of. It has nothing to do with hearing.)

            Also catching my attention was a weird quote from Governor Paterson in a New York Times interview. Regarding his condition, he said, “Every single white political consultant that I ever worked with likes to promote my disabilities, and I suspect it’s to mitigate race—to give me, in their eyes, an honorary white status.”

            I say “weird,” because in my own experience it’s been just the opposite. I still love the lady who stopped me on the street once and, not knowing a thing about me other than that I was blind, said, “I bet you play a musical instrument.”

            Morgan suggested that when I get asked that, I reply, “Yassa, ma’am—Ah surely, surely do!” Fact is, though, I don’t. I can’t even play the kazoo—and lord help me, I’ve tried.

            Ahh, well.

            You know, by all accounts—and I’ve seen no evidence to contradict this—Governor Paterson is an extremely accomplished, intelligent and reasonable man with a good sense of humor. A real rarity among politicians. But no matter how much he’s tried to put it behind him, he will forever be known as “New York’s first legally blind governor” even more than “New York’s first black governor.” There’s no escaping it. I was writing for a long damn time before I lost my sight, but I know that I will always be thought of as a “blind writer.” It’s just the way things works.

            Thing is, though, because of that blindness of his (the result, reportedly, of an optic nerve infection when he was three months old), he’s gonna have an easy time of it as governor. Oh, his abilities and intelligence might help, but let’s be honest—he’s gonna get a free ride from the press. Not because he’s black—that’s simply not an issue. It sure didn’t help David Dinkins or Booker or Detroit’s mayor.

            No, he’s gonna get a free ride because nobody wants to be known as the one who came out and badmouthed the blind guy.

            Okay, at this point I guess I can probably kiss off that cabinet appointment I was counting on, so maybe it’s time I simply wish him all the best and just shut my damn mouth on the issue.


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.