SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
August 11, 2013

The New Cane Lady

 

A day after first hearing from my new Blindo Genie at the state blindo agency, I got a call from my new Cane Lady. (Of course these people have actual and serious-sounding job titles, but my titles make much more sense.) Her name was Maxine, and she said she wanted to meet with me to assess (these people at the blindo agency and their assessments!) whether or not any more mobility training was in order. I’d been warned that I would be hearing from her. In fact it was about nine months ago that I was told I’d be hearing from her “in a week or two.” She was one of the many people I had to meet with before the agency . . . well, I’m not exactly sure anymore what the agency was supposed to be doing. Nevertheless I was expected to see a New Cane Lady at some point along the way before they did it, whatever it was.

            “Do you think you need training?” she asked. It struck me that everyone I’d dealt with up to this point had a funny voice. The Genie had a wet and impenetrable lisp. Maxine here had a high and light Hispanic accent that not only lilted up at the end of each sentence, but at the beginning of each sentence as well, as if she was perpetually addressing a four-year-old.

            “Well,” I told her, “I don’t think so. I mean I’ve been living in New York a long time now. Been using the cane to get around the streets and the subways and the people for about twenty years and I’m still alive. Guess I must be doing something right.” I left out the “and I did much of this while outrageously drunk” part, even though it might have driven the miracle of it all home a little better.

            “Well there must be some kind of problem, otherwise they wouldn’t have asked me to call you.”

            “But I was told meeting with you was a necessary step toward . . . ” I let my voice trail off for a moment. “ . . . along with meeting all the other counselors and what have you.”

            She seemed to accept this, so we agreed to meet on a Friday morning in mid-July. Then she wanted to know everything that had gone on with all the other people I’d met there, interspersing this with repeated queries as to whether or not I thought I’d be able to make the trip to the office okay.

            “Oh yeah,” I told her, this time leaving out the “even though it’ll be a useless pain in the ass” part.

            Back in the early nineties my first Cane Lady was a trip. An older and robust woman with one of those academic hairdos. Along with instructing me to position the handle of the cane directly in front of my crotch as I tapped down the sidewalk (this is simply not a good idea on so many levels, especially if the sidewalk in question is cracked and uneven), she also found it necessary to assault me with uplifting stories about blindos who were much nobler and more successful than myself. Made me sit still and listen to a taped radio interview with a blind federal judge once. I came to despise that woman.

            Maxine, on the other hand, was an incredibly pleasant woman, a tiny thing really, but with that inescapable oddly lilting voice. She met me in the reception area and led me back to her office. “Put the cane down on the carpet,” she instructed at one point along the way. “See how that feels different than the tile did?”

            “Look at that,” I said. I didn’t want to be rude, but I always get a little testy when people find it part of their job to treat me like a child, pointing out new and wondrous obviousness.

            We sat down in her office and she asked me all the same questions all the other counselors and trainers had asked. By this point I was actually starting to feel bad about the whole thing. I no longer expected anything—I was just coming back to see what these people would do. I was merely wasting their time when they had real and helpless and frightened clients to deal with. Oh well.

            “Okay,” she said when she was finished filling in all the necessaries in her file. “Now we’re going to go outside and walk around a little.”

            As I’d been waiting in the reception area, Maxine had come out with a girl in her early teens who seemed to be new to the whole blindo game. Upon returning to the office, Maxine explained to the girl’s fretful father that they’d just walked up and down the block and tried crossing the street. “Next week I’ll take her down into the subway station and we’ll practice riding the train.”

            “The SUBWAY?” the father shrieked in horror.

            So Maxine and I headed out into the warm, damp afternoon. I didn’t know my way around Downtown Brooklyn much, so I was going to have to trust her not to abandon me anywhere.

            “Okay,” she said, “You’re going to walk down to the corner and I’ll be trailing along to watch your technique.”

            I began tapping as she (I presume) trailed close behind. It’s a funny thing. You can do something every day of your life. You can do something until it becomes absolutely reflexive, allowing you to think of other things as you do it. But someone comes along and tells you they’re going to be scrutinizing you as you do it, and everything just goes to hell. When I reached the corner, I stopped and Maxine came up next to me. She was quiet for a moment.

            “Are you at the corner?” she asked. The question alone gave me the answer.

            “Um, no . . . No, of course not,” I said. “Just catching my breath a moment.”

            I tapped another six yards until I found the corner. “Well, there goes that,” I thought.

            From there we headed into deeper crowds as we angled toward the Fulton Mall, then around a crazy and ill-conceived intersection, around a construction site, then back into the heavy and grid-locked lunchtime foot traffic. At one point she grabbed my arm to stop me before I crushed my balls on the railing of a wheelchair ramp that stuck way too far out on to the sidewalk. Along the way she offered a few suggestions I will likely never heed. I was just relieved she didn’t scold me for not angling the cane handle directly in front of my crotch, because that simply wasn’t gonna happen. As I tapped along in my clumsy, self-conscious way, we also started talking about other things (like those fucking pedestrians and what parts of town were worst in caning terms). She was, I must say, the most pleasant of the bureaucratic lot I’d dealt with thus far.

            When we returned to the office she told me that I’d done quite well and didn’t need to return for any more training. That was a relief. Then she replaced the tip on the cane I was using (which was pretty well gone anyway) and gave me a shiny new cane to take home as, I guess, a door prize.

            When I got off the subway in my own neighborhood about an hour later, I was dazed and drained, but relieved to be done with it. I began tapping toward home, and two blocks later I realized that I was completely lost.

 

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