SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
July 7, 2019

CrippleFest 2019!

 

Sometime early this spring, my friend Jack, a blind musician-artist-activist from Chicago, told me he was coming to NYC at the end of May to do something or another at some art gallery in Queens. These past few years Jack’s been blending acoustic experimentation and blind awareness in galleries all over the country. He was going to be in town for four days, and though he had no idea what his schedule might look like once he got here, we started making preliminary plans to get a beer at some point. That all sounded cool. I’d be back from my annual trip to Wisconsin by then, and nothing I was working on was all that urgent, so my schedule was open.

            What exactly he would be doing at the gallery remained unclear, but his recent audio work had been mighty interesting, and it could go anywhere. At first I balked at the idea of making the haul up to Queens, but then remembered I’d seen some pretty weird shit up there over the years, from tawdry and boneheaded heavy metal shows (complete with between-act bikini contests!) to art exhibits curated by the mentally ill in abandoned industrial bakeries. So who knows? Queens was a weird place, and so again, whatever was happening at the end of May could go anywhere.

            A week before he arrived, Jack sent me the link to a press release announcing the event he was involved in. Far beyond the simple one-man experimental sound performance or installation I’d imagined it would be, he was instead giving a talk in the middle of what could only be called CrippleFest (though for some unknown reason the organizers decided to call it something else). CrippleFest consisted of three days of seminars, talks, performances, readings, workshops and music focused on disability arts, organization, and activism. There seemed to be dozens of artists and activists involved, the blind, the deaf, the wheelchair-bound, autistics, people with MS, Parkinson’s and other chronic diseases, all of them reading poems, playing music, staging plays, leading talks and workshops. On Saturday they were even having what they called a “Disability Nightlife Dance Party.”

            I wondered again why I was never asked to participate in things like this. I also wonder why I was never once asked to participate in the annual Brooklyn Book Festival. I often ask myself questions like this. Then I pause a moment and remember the answer.

            Anyway, good for these stumbly-wumblies, I say. In the current troubling era it was important to go public and prove why we shouldn’t be warehoused in institutions again simply because certain powerful fuckers consider us an unsightly burden. It was important to get together, forge allegiances, prove cripples could do all the same dorky shit other normal people could do (like holding workshops and giving poetry readings) and take steps toward spawning a militant resistance to strike back at an administration that wanted us to disappear.

            (Which gives me an idea for a series of bomb-making  and automatic weapons workshops for the disabled. But that’s an idea for another time.)

            Reading the press release, it wasn’t the event itself that caught my attention. Once you got past the detailed schedule of who was doing what and when over the three days of CrippleFest, you got down to the more important part.

            There were a few little clues dropped in along the way. A description of the closing musical performance was accompanied by a gentle warning that the band in question “will feature loud music and flashing lights. We will have foam earplugs available for use.”

            Well, okay, that’s fine. I know a few normal types who’ve taken to bringing earplugs to concerts to protect what’s left of their hearing, and if you have any epileptics in the audience, warning about flashing lights is probably a good idea. But a little further down, other, similar disclaimers and warnings started creeping in. Then the floodgates were opened, and out came a torrent of Millennial p.c. righteousness:

With the goal of collective care, we are running our events on Crip Time, so please know that programming may start at a slightly later time than listed, depending on the needs and good vibes of our wonderful participants and visitors.

         We will serve light, gluten-free refreshments, and non-alcoholic drinks. Please feel free to bring drinks and heavier foods along. There will be a two-hour dinner break on Saturday and Sunday. You are welcome to eat throughout the event. Unfortunately, we will not be providing meals. Please see a local listing of eateries.

         Accessibility:

The gallery and ground floor, gender-neutral bathroom is ADA Accessible. No ID or fee necessary for entry. Free tap water is available as are chairs with backs.

         [CrippleFest] will include audio guides and large-print of written work. There is a quiet space within the gallery with low-level lighting, earplugs, chairs, cushions, eye masks, and reading material. Service animals are welcome. Please arrive fragrance free and with quiet phones. Thank you! If you require ASL interpretation or real-time captioning, please reach out two weeks beforehand if possible. Thank you!

Wait. Gluten-free snacks? A quiet room with eyeshades? Chairs with backs? A dance party? FREE TAP WATER? Count me in!

            I couldn’t decide if it sounded really weird and interesting, or more like some crazy, sprawling freak show with pretensions. Whichever it was (and my vote was for the latter) it all sounded incredibly uncomfortable and off-putting. I mean, a couple of weeks ago I wrote about being detained at O’Hare International Airport because I was a big retarded blindo who needed to be isolated from the general population. Reading this thing, however, I had the impression I’d feel far more comfortable in that sterile airport isolation room than I would be at CrippleFest. Which of course meant I had to go. At least nobody there would accuse me of faking my blindness.

            I wondered, though. Would I be turned away at the door if they considered sweat and stale cigarette smoke a “fragrance”? Even if I did get past the front door sniff test, I likely wouldn’t last more than five minutes before being given the bum’s rush by a bunch of differently-abled Millennials.

            As the days grew closer I became more intrigued by the possibilities at hand. When I was at the New York Press it was part of my job every week to cover strange and unlikely events like this. I spent more than a decade attending alien abductee conventions, stand-up nights featuring schizophrenic comedians, presentations by cult leaders who claimed to be Jesus, even an Engelbert Humperdink record release party!

            At the Press it was easy. The releases announcing these things just piled up on my desk, so it was less a matter of finding some weird event to attend every week than simply choosing which one sounded kookiest. After the paper canned me, I lost touch with what was going on. Nobody was sending press releases to my home computer, and trying to find a weekly roundup of “Weird Shit in NYC” was not as simple as you might imagine. I miss those days. But here was an event that was ready-made, and if I wasn’t tossed out on my ear for saying something grossly inappropriate to a transgender dwarf with rickets, who knows what I might be able to get out of it? Hell, even if I did get thrown out, there’s a story right there. Bet I could sell that one to a glossy for big big bucks.

            But other concerns began leaking in around my crass enthusiasm. Morgan had to work that weekend, so I’d be finding my way there and back on my own, which among other things would mean taking the R train from one end of the line to the other, a ride that would likely take well over two hours. And once I did find the gallery (if I could find it), Jack was the only one I would know there. He was going to be tied up with his talk and the necessary glad-handing, so I wasn’t about to burden him with having to show me around. Back in the day none of this would have been an issue, but loathe as I am to admit it, the eyes do get in the way sometimes. Since pretty much everyone else there would be crippled in one way or another, trying to find my own way around an alien environment was just asking for trouble. Stepping on someone in a wheelchair or accidentally whacking some deafie with the cane or mortally wounding an autistic seemed inevitable. And finding my way around those accessible toilets -- “gender-neutral” or not—always takes a bit longer than you would imagine, so long as I don’t decide to just give up and piss on the floor in frustration. It would be a bit of a nightmare, but again a nightmare that would add to the story. I got the sense their undoubtedly earnest fantasy of “collective care” would likely fall to splinters around me, with plenty of bad vibes and a great shedding of tears in my wake. It would all be another adventure, and I was in need of one of those.

            Jack’s talk was set for Saturday afternoon, and later that night was the cripple dance party, which I didn’t want to miss. Not that I enjoy parties of any kind or would ever entertain the notion of, um, dancing, but I am a sucker for a good and terrifying spectacle. Of course I wouldn’t be able to see it, but I still have a lively imagination. It would be a sea of twitching limbs and lumbering misshapen bodies, the deaf singing along with the music, the blind colliding with everything, the wheelchair bound spinning in circles, and the kids with Parkinson’s clearing the dance floor like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever as the colored lights flashed, the beat throbbed, the leg braces clanked and clattered, and the DJ spun hits by Tom Sullivan, Ronnie Milsap and Jose Feliciano. And if the noise became too overwhelming I could retire to the Quiet Room with all the weeping and trembling autistics.

            Yeah, it was going to be a time.

            Then of course Saturday morning arrived. The MTA announced both uptown and downtown service on the R line by me had been shut down for the entire weekend, I didn’t have the money to take a car up there, and my wife had come home from work the night before with what seemed to be a case of the flu. So that was that. I’m sorry there’s no real story to tell, but the anticipation was likely far better than the reality would have been anyway.

 

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