SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
March 19, 2017

I Didn’t Ask for Your Life Story

 

            That’s usually how it starts, with an offer to help me across the street, or find a seat on the subway, or identify something on a grocery store shelf.

            Even though I assured the middle-aged man who offered to help me maneuver across treacherous Fourth Avenue yesterday that I’d be just fine, thanks, he insisted and crossed with me anyway. He had his reasons.

            “I was raised by my grandfather,” he began with no prompting from me. “He went blind when I was six. My father died when I was nine months old, so my grandfather raised me. I used to walk around with my eyes closed as a kid, just to see what it was like.”

            Once we reached the far corner, he stopped, patted me on the back, shook my hand, and introduced himself as “Jerry the Pediatric Dentist” before heading on his way.

            “Jerry the Pediatric Dentist”? Was that his full name? At least he was brief about it, and had some kind of semi-relevant point to make about his own dealings with the blind. Most people simply see it as a rare and golden opportunity to unburden themselves, to share their life stories with a stranger who could never identify them later in a court of law, like a priest in a confession booth.

            I’ve already written about the young homeless mother who’s latched onto me twice now during downpours in Park Slope. I’ve also written about the kid who used the random accident of finding himself seated next to a blindo on the train to tell me all about his time as a truck dispatcher in Kentucky, as well as all the various busboy jobs he’s had since moving to New York five months ago. Oh, and then there was his roommate, an old friend from Kentucky who moved up here three months before he did and now wanted to be a cop. A few months ago a Danish tourist in his twenties, without provocation, told me all the neat things he’d seen during his two weeks in Brooklyn. He was heading up to Williamsburg next. Things here are very different than they are in Denmark, I’m told. They all open with a few standard blindo questions, then they’re off into Me Me Me Land.

            Last week I was trying to find a sixer of Hoegaarden in the extensive beer aisle of my local grocery store. After watching me fondle the necks of half a dozen bottles, a kid I’d guess to be in his early thirties asked if he could help me find something.

            “Thanks, but I think I’ll be okay,” I told him. “Just looking for the Hoegaarden, but I think they’re out.”

            No one ever believes me when I say I’ll be fine, it’s just a given, so of course he started scanning the shelves anyway. “You’d think I’d be able to find it,” he said, “working in a German restaurant the way I do.” I knew immediately I was in for another episode of This is My Life.

            “It’s not a bad place to work at all. A real family operation. Sometimes I work the bar with Jackie, sometimes I bus tables, sometimes I work upstairs. Always on Fridays and Saturdays, if you ever wanted to stop by. Happy hour between four and seven every day. It’s been kinda sad though, ‘cause Rudy’s mom died not that long ago, and his dad’s been in and out of the hospital. That was rough with both of them sick at the same time in different hospitals. Both my parents were sick awhile back, but at different times, so it was a little easier. Glad it worked out that way, ‘cause my brother and I are having some problems, mostly because our girlfriends hate each other . . . ”

            “Uh-huh, I’m real sorry to hear that,” I told him. “Hope you can work it out.” I didn’t tell him I had no idea who these Jackie and Rudy characters were.

            This past Monday I was waiting to cross Third Avenue on my way to one of the local fish markets. It was about nine-thirty in the morning. Another guy in I’d guess his early thirties materialized next to me, asking if I needed help crossing.

            “Oh, I’ll be fine, but thanks,” I told him reflexively. “Just listening for when the traffic’s with me.”

            “Yeah, but this is a tricky intersection, because the cars are coming from all these weird angles. It’s okay, I’ll wait with you. I got time. I don’t have to be into work until twelve-thirty. It’s a pretty decent job, I guess. Been there a little over three years now. Got no real complaints, but . . . ”

            It turns out he did have a few complaints after all, though some had more to do with his mother than his job. As I stood there listening, I found myself wondering two things. First, did he usually make a habit of wandering the streets for three hours every day before going to work, in the hopes of running into someone who would listen to him? And second, was I going to be standing there on that corner half a block away from the fish market until twelve-fifteen listening to this guy?

            In the end he did get me across the street, helped me find the fish market, held the door open, and led me to the counter. Then he shook my hand, introduced himself as Danny, and went on his way having done his good deed for the day.

            The capper may have come this morning. I was taking out the trash when the elderly Chinese bottle lady from down the block who collects my empties every morning stopped by the front gate. I run into her two or three times a week, and she’s fully aware I’m blind. “Good morning neighbor!” she chirped in her heavy accent. “Thank you! Thank you!” That represented the extent of her English. She then launched into a ten-minute monologue in Cantonese, interspersed with brief, high-pitched laughter. She just rolled on as if she figured I could understand every word. Despite having no idea what she was saying, given the earnestness of her tones I just figured like everyone else she was sharing her life story. When she was finished, I said “I have no idea what you’re saying, but thank you.” Then she laughed again, grabbed the bag of empties, and headed back down the block.

            Another given in all this is that no matter who they are, what their story is, or where the encounters take place, in the end they all send me on my way by saying “God bless you,” Granted I can’t be certain the old Chinese bottle lady said this, but I’m presuming she did. And when they do, I always have to refrain from responding, “Yeah, your God’s done me plenty of favors already, but thanks anyway.”

            Thing is, I don’t really mind hearing these stranger’s stories. I’d much rather hear someone else’s than tell my own again. Plus as a simple recurring phenomenon, I’ve come to find it mighty entertaining. It does leave me curious as to what they’re thinking, though.

            My simple guess is that these people have bought into the myth forwarded by Homer, Plato, Sophocles, Shakespeare, and pretty much every religion on earth that the blind are by nature possessed with some deep and mystical insight and understanding. That we can hear and empathize with their stories, like a Father Confessor, without passing judgment—maybe even offering a little wise counsel or a glimpse into what might await them in the future. Or maybe they just see us as an easy captive audience. It ain’t exactly like we can run away, especially after they’ve stopped to offer a helping hand like that.

            Whatever the case, I’m always hesitant to tell these people that the extent of my mystical insight amounts to being able to identify brands of beer by the shape of the bottle. Wouldn’t want to break the spell. And maybe that’s my own good deed for the day.

 

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