July 29, 2018

The Blind Finding the Blind


I’d had a fine and relaxing few days in Green Bay with my mom, my sister, my younger niece Jordan and my precocious four-year-old great niece Harper. It’s always swell to see them again. We didn’t do a whole lot, which was fine by me. We hung out at my mom’s house, or my sister’s, ran some errands around town, ate some things that do not exist on the East Coast and drank some Pabst.

            But as I boarded the commuter flight that would take me to Chicago, a few nagging questions remained about the week ahead. As I wrote a few months back, my friend Andy (Called ‘Jack’ in the original column, written when I didn’t think any of this would actually happen) had arranged to have me flown to Chicago for a week to work on a project with him. Andy’s the front man for a grungy blues funk outfit called The Velcro Lewis Group. He’s also an artist and audio engineer as well as being an outspoken advocate for disabled rights and an in-demand public speaker. We’d met about fifteen years ago when, being blind himself as a result of retinitis pigmentosa, he interviewed me for some magazine or another. Andy had just received a whopping National Endowment for the Arts grant through the University of Illinois at Chicago, and decided to use some of that money to collaborate with me on, well, something.

            That was the big question that was hanging over me as I boarded the plane. He’d offered no clue as to what this project might involve, so I had no idea what was expected of me. It could be a week-long disaster.

            There was a more immediate and pressing concern, however. Andy had said he would pick me up at the airport, which was very nice of him, but I couldn’t help but wonder how, exactly, um, two blind guys would go about finding one another in O’Hare International Airport. I’ve been in cities that are smaller than O’Hare. It had all the makings of an incredibly frustrating sit-com or Beckett play, the two of us repeatedly passing within a few inches of one another without noticing. And what happened if we, y’know, couldn’t find each other? Maybe that could be Andy’s project right there.

            The day before I headed down to Chicago, I gave him a call, asking how we might best pull off this little magic trick. He told me, simply enough, that he’d be waiting just outside the security check. That sounded feasible, so I tried not to worry about it too much. Still, as I took my seat on the plane I had to wonder.

            Whenever I travel, I make arrangements beforehand to have someone from the airport meet me at the gate to lead me where I need to go, which is usually another gate for a connecting flight, or the taxi stand. So sure enough, when I stepped off the plane an hour and a half later, I was greeted by a young airport escort named Edgar. The escorts at O’Hare are always very pleasant kids.

            “Where are you going?” He asked. “Are you making a connection?”

            “Well,” I said, “I’m not making a connection, no. Here’s the thing. I’m going to have to ask you to help me find a friend of mine. The tricky part is that he’s blind, too.”

            Edgar seemed to get a kick out of this little challenge. “Did he say where he might be meeting you?”

            “Shouldn’t be too bad,” I told him. “He said he’d be waiting just outside the security check.”

            “Okay, which security check?”

            I felt my stomach tighten and caught a whiff of doom in the air. “I . . . don’t know.”

            This was the first time I’d ever traveled with my new StupidPhone, so I pulled it out, turned it on, and through the magic of terrifying modern technology simply asked it politely to call Andy. A few seconds later he picked up. “So where the hell are you?” I asked. “I just stepped off the plane.”

            “I’m trying to find my way to the security gate in section Three-D, like three-dimensional, but no one I’m running into here has ever heard of section Three-D. They’re all acting like I’m crazy.”

            That stench of doom was growing stronger. I told him to hang on a second and turned to Edgar. “You ever heard of section Three-D?” I asked.

            “Yeah, sure,” he said. Well that much was a relief anyway.

            “Can you take me there?”

            “Is he by the security check?”

            I went back to the phone and asked Andy.

            “No,” he said. “Still looking for Three-D. I think I’m by the baggage claim.” He was sounding a little frustrated with the O’Hare employees he’d been running into.

            “Okay, we’ll be heading in that direction and Edgar here will keep his eyes open for you.”

            Edgar and I set off through the crowded terminal toward the Three-D security check. Normally when I ask sighted people, usually bartenders, to help me spot Andy I just tell them to keep an eye open for a guy who looks like he’s in Molly Hatchet. Edgar here was pretty young, so I doubted he’d catch the reference. Better to keep it generic. “Now,” I explained, “You want to be looking for a guy with a white cane who looks like he fronts a metal band, because that’s what he does.”

            “Really?” Edgar said with a laugh. “I wouldn’t expect you to be looking for someone like that.”

            “Oh, I’m an old punk rock kid.”

            “I would never have guessed that. I thought you were English, the way you’re dressed.” Strangely, it wasn’t the first time I’d been mistaken for a Brit. That always confuses me, considering the Wisconsin accent.

            “Oh, these are just my traveling clothes. Makes things easier. The punk t-shirts will start coming out tomorrow.”

            “I can understand that, but I still wouldn’t have expected it. You seem like you’re English.”

            “Well, I’m not.”

            We chatted a bit more about Chicago and New York and why I was in town. Edgar was a very talkative and inquisitive sort. Eventually we reached the security check, but there was nary a blindo to be found. I gave Andy another call.

            “Ask him if he’s come upstairs yet,” Edgar suggested, so I did.

            “I haven’t found any stairs yet,” Andy told me. “But I think I found Three-D.”

            “Okay then. We’ll come downstairs and look for you there.”

            “I’m still by the baggage claim.”

            As with most airport escorts, Edgar was very worried about trying to take me on an escalator. Actually escalators are a helluva lot easier than elevators. No buttons to find. So after I convinced him it really would be okay and I wouldn’t fall or panic or anything, we took the escalator two levels down, and found ourselves, according to Edgar, standing in front of some doors clearly marked ‘Three-D.’ Andy was nowhere to be seen, which somehow didn’t surprise me.

            “Let’s look down this way,” Edgar suggested. Sounded good to me, as I had no idea where I was or where I was headed. As we strolled down the wide corridor I heard the clank and grind of the luggage carousel growing louder. Not only was there no Andy. There didn’t seem to be any people at all down there. I was starting to get a little worried. What if he was at a different terminal, or at Midway instead of O’Hare?

            “I’m not seeing anyone,” Edgar said.

            “Either am I,” I admitted. “Let me give him another shot.” We stopped and I pulled out the phone again. Once more I politely asked it to call Andy. I’m still not comfortable with these damn things.

            “Ask him if he went upstairs,” Edgar said.

            “Hey, where the hell are you?,” I barked into the phone.

            I’m at Three-D,” he said.

            “Okay, we were just there and didn’t see you, so we started searching the general vicinity. Did you go upstairs?”

            “No. Did you come downstairs?”

            “Yeah, we were right by the door marked Three-D.”

            “That’s where I am.”

            “Okay, then. We’ll keep looking.”

            Edgar and I cruised around the area for another ten minutes with no luck. “I’m really not seeing anyone, he said. Then he had a flash of inspiration. “Hey, could you call him back and ask him to wave or something?”

            “Sounds like a good idea,” I said. And pulled the phone out again. “Hey Andy, Edgar here was wondering if you could wave your arms or your cane or something.”

            A moment later Edgar said, “Oh, there he is,” and we started walking back to the doors marked Three-D, where Andy had apparently been waiting the whole time. Not real sure how Edgar could have missed him—Andy’s pretty unmistakable—unless of course he was just trying to stretch out the game a while longer in hopes of a bigger tip. All the work he’d put in, after all.

            A moment later I shook hands with Andy and introduced Edgar.

            “So can I help you guys get anyplace else? The taxis or the CTA or something”

            “Nah,” Andy said. “We’re just gonna get on the train, and I can handle that fine from here”

            “Okay,” Edgar said. “Have a good day and be careful. I thanked him, slipped him a tip, and he headed on his way to help some other feeb.

            “Okay then,” Andy said once Edgar was gone. “Where the fuck are we and how the fuck do we get out of here?”


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