June 23, 2013

You Can’t See Shit


At the end of my first meeting with the social worker (as opposed to my case worker, who was supposed to be finding me work, as opposed to my counselor, who was supposed to be . . . well, I don’t rightly know exactly what she was supposed to be doing), she told me she would take care of all the necessary paperwork to get me a cripple MetroCard, which would allow me to ride the subway for half-price. It was the most practical and useful thing any of these people had mentioned so far. For her to do that, though, I needed to get a passport photo taken, then deliver it to her the following week half an hour before I was scheduled to see the eye doctor who would tell me I was blind. “Otherwise you’ll have to bring the picture to me some other time,” she said. “It would save you another trip up here.” I guess that made sense, too.

            The idea of wandering around my neighborhood and stopping into each store I passed to ask if they took passport photos seemed pretty pointless, so on Memorial Day Morgan and I found an open drug store with a photo counter in the East Village, where a friendly Southerner took a (by federal mandate, I’m guessing) blurry, washed out photo which I dutifully carried up to the blind services building at ten-thirty a.m. two days later.

            “Now I should warn you,” the social worker said after explaining again how she would fill out the forms. “This could take two months to go through. The MTA just keeps getting slower and slower about processing these things.”

            “That’s okay,” I told her, choosing not to mention that at that rate the MTA was still working a hell of a lot faster than any of the blindo agencies had.

            “And another thing. They could lose it. When I applied for my card—I get one for the elderly—I sent my papers in then didn’t hear anything. They told me it got lost in the mail. So I went down there myself to fill ‘em all out again, and that time they told me I couldn’t have one because I’d applied twice.”

            “I see.” I waited a moment for a resolution to the story, but none ever came.

            “So have you heard from Angie Patterson?” she asked.

            “Can’t say as I have.”

            “She’s your adjustment and logistics counselor.”

            “All right.” I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded terrifying.

            “How about Margie Hanson? She’s your mobility appraiser.”


            “Well, they’re both on vacation, but you’ll hear from them sometime. Now, is there anything else I can do for you?”

            Given that I had no idea what this woman did, or was even supposed to do, and figuring the MetroCard thing still put her leagues ahead of everyone else, I told her I was fine, thanked her for her time, and headed downstairs to the eye clinic.

            It was a cool gray room with gray walls and a gray carpet. From my perspective, entering the office was like stepping into a thick fog bank. But the receptionist remembered me and even seemed surprised that I’d made it. Everyone I’d dealt with in that building seemed surprised that I’d been able to make it anywhere alive, let alone on time.

            She had me take a seat, and in a side room to my right, an eyeglass salesman was pitching his latest line to two doctors.

            “Now look at this here,” he was saying. “We didn’t have things like this when I was a kid. This is real Space Age stuff here. Real Star Wars stuff. Like R2-D2.”

            I was trying to imagine what the hell he was describing when Dr. Mandolini, the man who was to tell me I was still blind, appeared in front of me.

            “Are you the one I’m torturing today?”

            It was a fair enough opening. At least he had more of a sense of humor than any of the others I’d dealt with. Assuming it was meant to be a joke.

            He was younger than I would have expected, more energetic, less beaten. He led me to an examination room and put me in a chair.

            “Okay,” he said, “so what’s wrong with you? I know absolutely nothing.”

            I told him about the retinitis pigmentosa and gave him a rough timeline of its progression.

            “It’s a really shitty disease,” he said. “And you started noticing it much earlier than most people do. So any other medical problems?”

            I told him about the seizures and how those came about.

            “You know, they’ve done studies about head injuries like that, and concluded it’s not a good idea to slam your head against a metal lamppost.”

            “God bless the Germans.”

            From there we fell into a conversation about genetics and the megadoses of vitamin A I’d been taking for twenty years. Back in the early nineties a study had come out claiming that ingesting enormous doses of vitamin A on a daily basis wouldn’t cure RP, but would at least slow its progression.

            “Yeah,” he said. “We were all real excited about the vitamin A regimen when the first study came out. But I think we’re learning now that it just doesn’t do shit.”

            “Figured as much,” I told him. “It seems kinda pointless to keep taking it, given where things stand. But there you go.”

            Then we talked about Brooklyn and publishing and a locksmith he used to know, and real estate.

            “Here, I’m going to try something.”


            “Can you see this?”

            “See what, exactly?”

            “I’m waving a book in front of your face.”

            “What, just to mock me? I think you should stop.”

            He did, and pulled out a small card and what felt like a battery-operated back massager with a ring of lights at one end. “Here, hold this card up and put this magnifying glass against your eye.”

            I did. “This is how I used to work.”

            “Okay, so what do you see?”


            “The card has numbers on it.”

            “I’m not gonna call you a liar, but ahhh . . . ”

            He took those things away and we talked about the voice software on my computer, and more about publishing, and Coney Island.

            He put some drops in my eyes and slid around a big gizmo whose name I never knew to take a look at my retinas. “Uh-huh,” he said before pulling the machine away again. “My job is to see if there’s any way we can accentuate what vision you have left, but to be honest you’re pretty hopeless. There’s not really a damn thing I can do. You can’t see shit.”

            “That’s fine,” I told him. “I pretty well knew as much before I left the apartment this morning. But, y’know, thanks for giving it the old college try.”

            “He led me back out of the examination room and told the receptionist, “I can’t do a damn thing for Mr. Knipfel here.”

            “Yeah, I get that a lot,” I confirmed. And with that I was allowed to head home again with no more useless appointments scheduled for the near future. Still, as pointless as it was, Dr. Mandolini was a swell and funny guy who dealt with the situation head on and never tried to bullshit me. “You got RP, there’s nothing anyone can do about it, so what are you gonna do but deal with it?” he said at one point, and that’s something I appreciate.


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