August 30, 2009

The Practical Virtue of Blind Jokes


Morgan and I were walking down First Avenue on our way to a rare quiet Lower East Side bar on Thursday night. The unmoving mobs of the oblivious outside other bars along the way were thick, so I reached for my cane hoping it would help part the Lummox Sea.

            “Don’t bother,” Morgan said. “It probably won’t help.” I knew she was right.

            A red and white cane serves two purposes for the blindo who uses it. First, it tests the path in front of you for obstacles, gaps, curbs, what-not. And second, it lets the other people around you know that you can’t see for shit so they can make any necessary adjustments. In many ways, that second one is much more important.

It was a few months ago when a little problem first started making itself apparent. I’d run into it a few times before, but put it down to simple self-absorbed assholery. It took a couple of nights in Manhattan last Spring, though, to reveal that it was more than that—it was symptomatic of a widespread and sudden case of cultural ignorance.

            Back then—late May I think it was—Morgan and I were on our way to see a musician friend play a show in the East Village. It was about eight or nine o’clock on a comfortably cool evening, and Second Avenue, as expected, was lively with the youngsters. I had the cane out, but was using it more as a symbol than actually tapping with it. I had a hold of Morgan’s arm and she was maneuvering me around all the people loitering outside hipster bars or stumbling down the sidewalk toward others. Most were on cell phones, staring down at small screens as they composed text messages, or laughing much too loudly at things that just weren’t that funny.

            Along the way, I had more collisions with people than usual. Normally Morgan’s a wiz at ducking me this way and that to avoid obstacles, and when I have the cane out and visible, people tend to step aside to clear a path.

            That night, though, people (even those who weren’t distracted by hand-held devices) not only didn’t make room—a goodly number of them walked headlong into me, then clucked their tongues in disgust at my failure to yield. Apparently one lovely individual tried to pick a fight with me, but nothing came of it, as I wasn’t aware of what was going on.

            “Nobody’s getting out of the way,” Morgan said.

            “Ah, they’re probably just drunk,” I surmised, trying to give these people the benefit of the doubt for some boneheaded reason. “Or aren’t paying attention. Or they’re just assholes.”

            We made it to the show and had a fine time, having already forgotten the trip there.

            Then a couple of weeks later, on our way to another show in that same neighborhood, we encountered the same thing. People would clearly see me with the cane, but run into me anyway, and get upset if I bumped them. Something else was going on here—something that couldn’t simply be blamed on crowded streets and cell phones and drunkenness.

            “It’s like they don’t know what a red and white cane means anymore,” Morgan said. This hadn’t occurred to me, but when she said it I had the distinct feeling she was right. And that didn’t bode well for me.

            Like I said, I’d run into it before in my own neighborhood—parents and church goers who wouldn’t make the slightest concession to the drunk with the cane trying to tap his way home. But those were just occasional problems. It was almost something I’d expect, given the way most of the people around here behaved in other situations. Now, however, it had become an epidemic, as if everyone had had this simple cultural signifier erased from their consciousness, now just seeing a red and white cane as a fashion statement and nothing more.

            We mentioned this phenomenon to a friend of ours one evening, and he had an interesting theory.

            “I blame political correctness,” he said. I though he was joking at first. He tends to blame a lot of things on political correctness. Then he went on to explain. “Think about it. Because of political correctness, it’s no longer appropriate to make fun of blind people. So you just don’t see blind people with canes the way you used to on TV or in comic strips. So what a red and white cane represents is no longer reinforced in the public mind. People don’t see it all the time, so they forget about it, and don’t know what it means when they do see it.”

            As a theory, it made too much sense. It fit too well. Most of the people we’d been running into (literally) in the East Village were NYU students, most of whom had been born around 1990—right about the time the PC forces had taken a firm grip on the short hairs of the American media. These were kids who grew up on heavily censored Bugs Bunny cartoons and Smurfs. Beyond that, classic bumbling blind man sketches from W.C. Fields films and the like were suddenly “in very poor taste.”

Even when blind jokes do appear in contemporary media, the cane is strangely absent. Hans Moleman on The Simpsons is only seen with a cane a few times, and even in those instances it’s a support cane instead of a traditional red and white job. In Scent of a Woman (though that’s probably too old a reference for these kids), Al Pacino played a blind man who uses a cane, but for some reason it’s black and gold. (Go to the blindo store on Fifty-Seventh and try to find a black and gold cane. Jesus.)

            Now New York has a blind governor, and while SNL may make fun of him, he doesn’t use a cane. None of this reflects anything about the way the blind are actually operating these days—take a walk down West Twenty-Third past what used to be known as the Associated Blind building, and you’ll see plenty of folks tapping along. No, this is just what’s being fed into the public consciousness. Our friend was right—you rarely see a red and white cane in the media anymore, and so the youngsters, who didn’t grow up with images of blind folks and their canes stumbling into stacks of light bulbs or stepping in buckets, simply don’t know what it means anymore. And so the little fuckers make my life more of a living hell than it already is.

            I think there are three ways to combat this problem. I could turn the cane from a defensive into an offensive tool and start swinging it at head level as I walk down the street. Or we could all relax a bit and start regularly making fun of the blind on TV again. Or we could come up with some new obvious signifier, something that would tell other people on the street or in restaurants, “Get the fuck outta my way, I’m BLIND!” A special hat, or a bell. Or better yet, something electronic and digital—maybe a simple cane is just too analog for the kids to comprehend, like a Walkman or a VCR.

            Or maybe there’s yet a fourth option. A long time ago, when I first got a cane and was very hesitant to use it, my friend Joe chided my resistance. “Are you kidding?” he said. “If I had a cane I’d use it all the time. Walking through a crowd with a cane is like walking through a crowd with a shotgun.” (And he knew, having walked through crowds with a shotgun.)

            Now that the cane no longer seems to be doing the trick, maybe it’s time I found my way to a gun show to pick up a double-barreled pump-action. It seems to me that would solve two problems.


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