SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
June 2, 2013

A Model of Efficiency

 

It had been six months since I heard from any of the blindo agencies, and I’d been relieved about that. Last time I saw a social worker she filled out a lot of forms and made a lot of promises about all the wonderful things she was going to do. Trick was, her doing any of these things was dependent on her sending me an email, and in turn my responding to it. It sounded so simple at the time, until I noted that she never took down my email address, she seemed to have no idea what email was, and she had no computer. Needless to say, as I’d been hoping at the time, that email never arrived.

            That meeting took place back in January, so it was both a surprise and a grave disappointment when I received a phone message from yet another social worker in late May, asking me to meet with her on the same floor in the same building where I’d met that last one.

            “Um, what’s this for?” I asked when I called her back, as she’d given me no real hint in her message. She sounded like a large black woman with respiratory problems.

            “I’m your social worker,” she explained. “So I just want to ask you a few questions to try and figure out what we can do for you.”

            “Oh,” I said. “Okay.” Over the past ten months I had met with three social workers and each one of them had told me the same thing. They all talked a good game, and to date not a goddamn thing had happened. My suspicion was that all those forms the last one filled out had been lost somewhere, she was too embarrassed to admit it, so now she had passed the job off to this new one who would fill out all the same forms again.

            “There are a lot of people you’re going to have to meet with,” she said. “But they’re all on vacation now. I thought maybe we could get some of the preliminaries out of the way.”

            Instead of reminding her that I’d supposedly gotten the preliminaries out of the way twice already, I said “All right.” We set up an appointment for the next week and I started plotting ways to get out of it. The simple fact was since I’d first started trying to contact these people a year or more back my fortunes had shifted a bit. I’d contacted them out of a desperation that was no longer clawing at me. It would’ve been easy to tell them to stop trying, to close my file and concentrate their efforts on the people who really needed it. I’d done that before, about twenty years earlier. But witnessing the level of grandiose incompetence at play in the city’s blindo agencies up to this point, I’d become hooked. It was high entertainment to me, and I was curious to see what they might do next.

            It was hot and unbearably humid on the day of our scheduled meeting, and wherever you turned the weathermen were threatening dangerous thunderstorms, heavy downpours, tornadoes, and hail the size of frogs. I also had a hell of a lot of work coming at me from every which way. Nevertheless I grabbed my cane and headed for the train that would take me to downtown Brooklyn. Having been there before I wasn’t too concerned about finding the building. Besides, so long as you get off at the right subway stop, the homeless have positioned themselves all over the area, each keeping a sharp eye out for people with canes, and each more than happy to lead them to the proper building in hopes of receiving a tip at the end.

            “You lookin’ for blind services?” one asked me as I tapped past him on the sidewalk. I knew then I was at least on the right block.

            “Oh, you know I am,” I told him. He led me to the building, opened the door, and got me inside where a security guard chased him away and took over.

            (I may have asked this before, but why is it that buildings housing blind service offices always have glass doors?)

            The social worker I was there to meet showed up on time and led me to her office at the end of an almost endless corridor littered with random boxes and filing cabinets. Instead of letting me take her arm she clipped on ahead, telling me to take my time as I collided into things. But I had no choice but to try and hurry as her voice was growing faint in the distance, and if I lost her I’d be, well, lost. Fortunately I eventually hit the end of the hall and heard her voice calling from an office to my right.

            Inside I took a seat as she cleared off her desk.

            “Okay,” she said once she was ready. “Now I’m your social worker, and I’m going to ask you some questions so we can figure out what it is we can do for you.”

            “I know,” I told her.

            Then as expected she began asking me all the same questions the last social worker had asked. I knew it. They’d lost my paperwork and were trying to cover their asses.

            “How did you get here today?”

            “Subway.”

            “Really?” They always sound so shocked by this. “Did you want us to get you Access-A-Ride?”

            “I most certainly do not.”

            As the questions rolled on and she made the same promises the other one had six months earlier (a cane refresher course, half-price subway fares, free blindo doo-dads and gadgets) I stopped her.

            “You know, the last woman I talked to said she was going to take care of all those things. Then I never heard from her again.” I even pulled out the first social worker’s business card, as I couldn’t remember her name.

            “Well,” the new one said. “That’s because she was your counselor. I’m your social worker. She was from the Committee, and I’m with the Agency.”

            And obviously the two, though they shared the same office, did not share information. It was like dealing with embittered operatives from two federal intelligence agencies. She continued with the questions.

            “So what do you do for fun?” she asked.

            I stopped myself from answering her honestly, namely from saying, “Well, ma’am, mostly for fun I test the limits of bureaucracies and stay drunk most of the time.” Instead I told her I didn’t have much time for fun.

            She asked about my parents and siblings, and I answered her plainly. Then she asked, “Do you have friends?”

            “Um, what now?”

            “Do you have friends?”

            “What, you mean like any at all?” What kind of assholes does this woman deal with all day? “Of course I have friends.”

            “Okay. Good.” She made a note but didn’t seem to believe me.

            “Have you been to see the low-vision people yet?”

            “That was something else the last woman, whatever she was, said she was going to arrange. But like I said, I never heard from her again.”

            I was really starting to wonder, not what this was leading to so much, but what this was even pretending to lead to.

            She picked up her phone and dialed the low-vision department one floor down. “Hi, Janet?” she asked the woman on the other end. “Do you have a James, uhh . . . ” I pronounced my name for her. “ . . . on your schedule yet?” She paused, then turned back to me. “She says she was trying to call you.”

            “Really.”

            “We should make an appointment for you now.”

            “What’s this for? To see that I can’t see?”

            The insanity continued for another half hour culminating abruptly when the social worker said, “Well, it was a pleasure meeting you today.” She stood from her desk and opened the door. Absolutely nothing had been accomplished, nothing beyond a few tests had even been hinted at. I had been registered with the state as legally blind twenty years ago, but they were going to test my eyes. I had been caning around New York, through the subways, through Manhattan and Brooklyn in various states of drunkenness for well over a decade and was still alive, but they were going to review my caning technique and offer pointers. Beyond that, it was unclear what was even supposed to happen.

            After leaving her office I was sent down to the low-vision center to fill out some more paperwork before returning the following week so some doctor could tell me I was blind.

            There was a recorded voice announcing the floors on the elevator. Trouble was the recording was so muddled, each floor not only sounded the same—it sounded like someone sneezing. I got off at the sneeze that most sounded like a “five” and turned left as instructed (“There’s a door to your left,I’d been told before boarding the elevator. “It’s the only way you can go. Go through that and the office is right there.”)

            So I turned left, found the door, and went through it. But for some reason I did not seem to be in an office. I took a few steps in a few directions hoping to find a desk or a chair, but all I found were walls. Finally I heard a voice similar to the sneezing on the elevator. “Come here,” it said. I followed the voice to a box on the wall, not knowing what the fuck was happening this time. “Come here,” it repeated.

            “Yes?” I asked. “What do you want?”

            “Go to your right,” it said. “The door is to your right.”

            Oh, why did they have to be so fucking weird about everything? I went through the door and found a receptionist.

            “Do you need help filling out forms?” she asked.

            “Well, as I believe I just proved, I can’t see a damn thing.”

            This was the woman who had apparently been trying to call me. I heard some papers shuffle. “Okay then. Now,” she began. “What’s your phone number?”

 

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