SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
March 6, 2016

Night for Day for Night

 

Last weekend I heard from my old friend, the Philly-based musician and bon vivant Dave Williams. Dave and I have been friends for almost thirty years now, but as happens sometimes as we get older and distracted, we’d been out of touch for far too long. It seems we’d both been thinking that in recent weeks, which is why I was so glad to hear from him. Last I’d spoken with Dave, he’d just returned from his first solo tour of Europe, and I had no clue what he’d been up to since then. When he said he and his girlfriend Jane were going to be in Brooklyn that Thursday and were wondering if I might want to get together, I agreed without hesitation. That in itself is kind of a shocker, as I have a well-oiled knack for ducking anything that would require me leaving the apartment after, say, four in the afternoon. Even more terrifying than leaving the apartment after four, they were going to be in Park Slope, because Jane was deejaying in a club there that night. Any visit to Park Slope at any time of the day or night always brings out the Goering in me. This was Dave, though, so things were different, and I’d put all my fears and hatreds aside for a spell.

            By the time Thursday came around, we’d agreed on a time and place, meeting in a little bar and restaurant just two or three blocks from the club where Jane would be deejaying. In much more selfish terms, the bar was also a quick and simple block off the subway stop I’d be exiting. It was right there on a corner, so all I’d have to do was get off the train, walk one block straight downhill, cross a street and there I was. Simple as pie, which is the main reason I’d suggested it. We were set to meet around seven, and since it would take me a while to get up there, I figured if I left around five-thirty I’d have plenty of time to make the trip, find the place, maybe even have a beer before they showed. It would be fine.

            I admit the old trepidations were there—I honestly hadn’t made a trip at night by myself in some time, but I figured if I left at five-thirty there would still be light enough left outside for me to get my bearings and find my way to the train with no problem before the darkness descended on me.

            See, during daylight hours, when I can still make that distinction between light and shadow, when there’s still some contrast to work with, I can navigate around here, if not exactly with “ease,” at least with something that doesn’t amount to “immobilizing terror.” Once the sun goes down, however, given the streets around here are pretty chintzy when it comes to streetlights, I have a tendency to get lost and discombobulated very quickly. Knowing this all too well, I avoid it when I can. Still, I wasn’t that much concerned. I knew my way to the subway whatever the light, and knew exactly where I was headed on the other end.

            What I hadn’t counted on however, was the sun vanishing early that afternoon. By the time five-thirty hit, it might as well have been two a.m., and considering it had been a stupidly stressful day as it was, dealing with banks and appliance repairmen and some unexpected tax forms, I was a little on edge on top of it. But I tried to leave all that behind as I put on my shoes and coat and hat, grabbed the cane and headed out.

            While for the most part and on most days I can honestly say this whole “being a blindo” business doesn’t bother me that much, there are times when I’m forced to admit I really fucking hate it.

            I went downstairs, tapped my way through the front gate, took a right to head for the corner, and immediately saw I was in trouble.

            Just as a quick refresher for the sighted, a good eighty-five percent of the blindos you see don’t live in complete darkness, despite what the TV or radio would have you believe. Some diffuse light still leaks in. Even if we can’t make out any details, see color, or recognize shapes, even if we can’t make any more sense of the light than it’s simply being light as opposed to shadow, it’s still something. There are some situations, though, that do leave us in utter darkness. So we develop an array of tricks to try and fill in what we can’t see. We interpret the vibrations coming through the cane to gauge what kind of terrain we’re treading over, and pay phenomenologically close attention to changes in sound. The slightest change in pitch and clarity can let you know if you’re standing next to a wall or in the open, if other pedestrians are getting close and how fast they’re moving, and which direction the traffic is headed. The problem was, see, that while I pull out all those tricks with ease when running errands in the morning, I’ve had precious little practice using them without any of that glorious contrast between light and shadow to inform my interpretations. Sometimes I think the cane training offered by the local blindo agencies should take place at night, simply because tapping during the day and at night are two completely different creatures. Even though I’d walked that exact same path at least two or three times a day since moving here, I suddenly found myself in an alien landscape riddled with invisible booby traps.

            Wrought-iron and chain link fences I’d sailed by with ease earlier that day suddenly shifted into weird, non-Euclidean angles and configurations, jumping out in front of me unexpectedly and snagging the cane tip every third or fourth tap. Trees that had neatly lined the curbs for the past eighty years or more had suddenly been transplanted to the middle of the sidewalk. The sidewalks themselves, which used to be wide and arrow-straight, had that night become narrow and impossibly twisty. I found I could not distinguish between the headlights of oncoming cars and the security lights over front doors, and ended up walking in the street twice. I somehow got lost in people’s courtyards, unable to find my way out. And being so focused on simply getting down the sidewalk I lost count of how many streets I’d crossed. It was a bit like being roaring spiffed, but without the stupid confidence. The sidewalks were unusually, even suspiciously devoid of other pedestrians that evening, so I couldn’t even ask anyone for a little assistance. To top it all off, and for simple slapstick value, on a couple of blocks it was trash night, so there were all those randomly-dropped garbage cans to navigate around.

            A trip which normally should have taken me ten minutes tops took forty-five, but when the cane finally pinged against the corrugated aluminum post marking the entrance and I finally did drag myself down to the subway platform shaking and exhausted, I nearly wept with joy and pride. I’d conquered the hard part, and was still alive. Maybe I’d be a little late (and being German I hate being late), but at least so far as I was aware I wasn’t bleeding too badly.

            The train eventually showed and I took an empty seat for the long ride up to Park Slope. That was the simple part. It gave me the chance to collect myself before the next leg of the tap. Oddly, I was far less concerned about the stretch from the train to the bar, maybe because I wasn’t nearly as familiar with the block I’d be walking, and so had no preconceived notion of what I should expect or where things should be located, so would more easily be able to take it as it came.

            The train pulled into the station, I climbed off and tapped my way toward the sound of the turnstiles. I was in New York’s Asshole Capital, but as soon as I got to the bar everything would be fine.

            As I was moving to feel my way through the turnstile, a Very Important Asshole knocked me out of the way because being a VIA he was entitled. Then another Very Important Asshole body-checked me from the other side because she was likewise entitled. Neither paused or apologized, not that I expected any such thing in Park Slope. Then when I finally did make it through and headed for the stairs to my right, three people kicked my cane out of the way so they could get to the stairs before me.

            It was about then I realized I’d had things pretty easy back in Bay Ridge, and also when I once again began thinking like Goering.

 

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