SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
September 17, 2017

A Fistful of Snippets

 

The only person I know in Washington, D.C. has held a number of positions at a number of departments within the federal government for over twenty years now. He’s hardly a household name, but a deep Washington insider. We first got in touch maybe a dozen years ago when he was working in the White House, after I somehow accidentally ended up on his mailing list. He’s blind as well, and even longer than he’s been a Washington insider, he’s been an outspoken advocate for disability rights. Over the years I’ve interviewed him a couple of times about assorted issues for a few blindo-related stories, though he always made it clear he could only speak as an individual, not as a representative of whatever department he was with at the time. He was blunt, funny and fearless, and never hesitated to call out the feds when he felt they had fallen short in their defense of the rights of the disabled.

            So as the present administration deals a king-hell knee to the groin of the Americans with Disabilities Act (particularly in the Departments of Education and Justice), what better person to talk to for an inside glimpse into what the hell was going on, right? So back in March, when it became patently clear some evil shenanigans were well underway even if they weren’t being widely reported, I dropped him a line. It was a simple note, asking if he’d be willing, off the record, to discuss what the future of the ADA looked like under the Trump administration. He’d always been open and eager to talk in the past.

            Six months later, here’s the response I received:

            “Unfortunately, it would not be appropriate for me to have a conversation with you of the nature you are requesting. If you need to gain further insight even unofficially, it may be best to go to other individuals.”

            Getting this kind of response from this particular individual was, I gotta say, pretty fucking scary, and doesn’t exactly bode well.

***

I’ve been going to the same barber shop since first landing in Bay Ridge. It’s cheap. I’m not picky about my hair. And most important of all for my purposes, it’s a block away.

            Over the past seven years the shop has had four owners. The first, and my favorite, was Anthony, a hunchbacked Italian in his eighties who, despite speaking almost no English (and despite being in his eighties), desperately wanted to be a stand-up comedian. He sold the place to Greg, who told me he was half Chinese, half Japanese, and half Spanish, somehow. Despite that unlikely lineage, he was also one of the most boring people on earth. He in turn sold it to an Uzbek named Gary. Gary was very nice and his English was slightly better than Anthony’s, but he seemed worried and overwhelmed by life itself. So wanting to do away with all the headaches that came with owning a small barber shop, a few months ago he sold it to a guy named Mike. I just met Mike for the first time.

            His speech flows smoothly from fluent Russian to fluent Brooklyn, often in the same sentence, but when he stays in Brooklyn mode for awhile, a strange transformation occurs.

            If Martin Scorsese decided to make a film about a Brooklyn barber shop starring Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci — well, Mike would be in there someplace.

            Okay, so here was my introduction to Mike. Imagine DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta holding a pair of scissors aloft as he stands over a customer in a barber chair and speaks into the huge mirror.

            “So this lady comes in, right? One day just off the street this lady comes in and starts lookin’ around. She says ‘you gotta nice store here,’ and I says, ‘tank you very much,’ right? So she’s lookin’ around and she says, ‘what’s with the flag out front?’ An’ I says, ‘what the fuck are you talkin’ about?’ An’ she says, ‘you’re not supposed to have a flag out front.’ An’ I says ‘get the fuck outta here. I see stores all over the place with flags out front. Look at any barber shop, they got a fuckin’ flag.’ An’ she says I’m gonna give you a ticket for that.’ An’ I says, ‘FUCK…YOU. Get the fuck outta my store.’ Who the fuck is this fuckin’ broad, right? Walkin’ down the street an’ comes in here an’ wants to give me a fuckin’ ticket? Fuck her. What, did she call in an’ consult with some fuck? What the fuck is this? Long as I owned this place I ain’t never heard no fuckin’ thing like that. Only ticket Gary ever got was when he left that fuckin’ thing out there on the curb for a couple days an’ some fuck called it in. An’ now I’m getting’ a fuckin’ ticket? Fuck that.”

            Yeah, nobody likes Mike much.

***

So I went back to one of my neurologists to find out the results of the latest MRI. First thing he says when he walks in the office is, “You have a very interesting brain.” I have no idea how to take that, given it was coming from a neurologist.

            On the bright side, he told me, after scanning through the files, there was no sign of any tumors or earlier strokes. There were, however, what appeared to be a few bloodstains on my right frontal lobe. “Those might be the result of head trauma,” he said.

            “Hmm,” I replied. “Can’t see how that would happen.”

            The more interesting thing, he said—and it was interesting enough to prompt him to grab the top of my head a few times in his excitement—was the status of my shrinking brain.

            “ It only seems to be affecting the cerebellum,” he said, at which point with superhuman effort  I refrained from reflexively inserting the obligatory Ramones reference. He went on to tell me it could possibly lead to a form of dementia that wasn’t Alzheimer’s. But after ascertaining there was no history of dementia in my family, he admitted he had no idea what might be causing it, though he again suggested head trauma might be the culprit.

            “Hmmmm,” I said again.

            “So if you notice you’re starting to have memory problems, or you find yourself becoming moody, irritable, or start to lose your normal social filter when you’re speaking to people, you might want to bring it to my attention.”

            “Okay, um,” I said, my eyes darting to the right. “I’ll do that.”

***

At present, I’m listening to my computer read my old friend Rev. Norb’s new book, Fear of a Norb Planet ($15 ppd, Bulge Records), in which he gathered together all the columns he wrote for Maximumrocknroll magazine in the Nineties. Amazingly enough, five years worth of monthly columns turned out to be, in standard book format, nearly a thousand pages worth of material which Norb has crammed into under three hundred.

            Anyway, along the book’s merrily meandering and peripatetic way, Norb mentions that he’s a Kasemite—that is, someone who follows the teachings of late American Top 40 host Casey Kasem.

            Kasemites believe that instead of using the position of a few constellations and planets at the time of one’s birth as predictors of your future life and personality, our fates are predetermined by what song was topping the Billboard charts the moment we slid out of the womb. In Norb’s case, the song in question was “Henry the Eighth,” which makes perfect sense. His long musical career has been as deeply influenced by Sixties bubblegum pop as much as punk rock, and besides, Herman’s Hermits were cool.

            I was born precisely two months before Norb, and what do I get stuck with? What was the number one song in America on June second, 1965? It wasn’t “Telstar” by The tornados as I’d been hoping, that’s for damn sure. No, it was The Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda.”

            Yeah. No wonder I’m fucked.

***

“Okay, sir, you can come along with me now,” the small Indian tech said.

            “Okay, super.” I unfolded the cane, stood, and reached out for an elbow. But there was no elbow to be found. I waited a second. “Hello?” I asked, but she had clearly already left the waiting room, expecting me to follow close behind. “Oh.”

            Noting what had just happened, the receptionist stepped from behind her desk and led me into the room in question, where the Indian tech was waiting. “Thank you,” I told the receptionist.

            “You’re welcome,” the Indian tech replied.

            Well, okay then. I was seated in a comfortable recliner, tipped back, and the tech began applying twenty-one electrodes to my scalp. “Why were you sent here today?” She asked, and I told her. Then she asked, “Do you have any other medical conditions?”

            “Well, there is that whole blindness thing, I guess.”

            “Blind? But you’re looking at me.”

            “That’s because I can hear your voice,” I explained. What, hadn’t she noticed the cane or the way I had to feel my way into the chair?

             Uh-oh, I could suddenly feel my Blindo Senses tingling. They always tingle like that when I begin to suspect I’m in the presence of a Doubter—those ignorant fuckers who conclude that since I’m capable of doing certain things, I must not be really blind. I let it slide as she went on with her preparations. There’s no winning an argument with someone who’s sticking electrodes to your head.

            When the test was finished a bit over an hour later, she again asked, “Do you have any other medical conditions?”

            That’s a little odd, I thought. “Well, um, there is that whole blindness thing. Still.”

            “What is the cause of your blindness?” She asked.

            I sighed. “It’s a degenerative genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa.” I began to explain how RP works, but she cut me off.

            “Oh yes. I have heard of this. My neighbor has that. It just means you have tunnel vision.”

            Okay, so now I was getting a little pissed, but held my tongue given I still had twenty-one electrodes attached to my skull. “Um, okay, not exactly, no. I did have tunnel vision thirty years ago, but things have deteriorated since. It’s the way the disease works.”

            She said nothing else for a bit as she removed the electrodes and scrubbed some, but not all of the glue out of my hair.

            “Okay,” she said finally. “You’re done. You can go now.”

            “Okay, fine. Thanks,” I said, unfolding the cane again and putting my hat on. She was busy in the corner storing things away. “So, ummm, where do I go now?”

            “You don’t have to go anywhere. The results won’t be ready for a week.”

            “No, I mean right now.”

            “You go home.”

            “Right, I understand that. But how do I get out of this room?”

            “What?”

            “Can you point me to the door and maybe the elevator? Just some vague directions will do—I’m sure someone out there will help me.”

            By this time the receptionist, gleaning what was happening once again, appeared in the room and took my arm. “Thank you,” I told the receptionist.

            “You’re welcome,” the Indian tech said. “Do you have someone meeting you here?”

            “No, I’m just going to take the subway.”

            “Oh,” she said with an undisguised “gotcha” sneer. “So you can find your way to the subway.”

            “Right. I just can’t find my way out of the fucking hospital.”

            I refrained from beating her senseless with the cane, but my god I hope someone else does one of these days.

 

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