SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
December 3, 2017

Tapping in the Dark

 

This past July, two full years after I first put in a request to the state blindo commission, a cane lady showed up at my apartment to give me a quick refresher course. Okay, so officially they’re known as “mobility instructors,” but to me they’ll always be cane ladies. Two years before she arrived, after all my standard neighborhood landmarks seemed to vanish overnight, I thought a professional might be necessary to help me re-learn my way around. Turns out they weren’t, and by the time this cane lady showed, I’d re-taught myself and was getting around fine, but didn’t want to make her feel bad.

            It was a moot point anyway, as it was pouring the day she came over, so she decided against going out to watch me tap around. Instead she just sat here for about twenty minutes, then left again.

            Before she left, I admitted that even after all these years the prospect of heading out and trying to find my way someplace after dark still tied my guts in a knot. In the daytime I could still discern enough contrast between light and shadow to function, but after the sun set I was lost. She suggested she could come back in the fall when things got darker earlier and she’d see what she could do. Thinking that sounded like it might actually be useful, I agreed. She also suggested we might try some amber goggles, as those seem to help some people, and I agreed to that, too, for two reasons.

            I’ve had eye doctors try the amber lenses deal on me twice in the past—once when I was fifteen and once when I was about twenty-five, and both times it was a bust. Never really knew what they were supposed to do—something about gathering more light or cutting down on the glare I think—but whatever it was they didn’t do it for me. But the most recent try was almost thirty years ago, things had changed a lot, so might as well give it a try.

            I think at heart I was more driven by the second reason. Back when I was in grad school, all the students in the smug and much-reviled Comparative Literature Department, and a few students in my department as well, took to wearing little round John Lennon sunglasses. They made it their own identifying fashion statement, as if they were in a club or a gang. They all thought they were so fucking cool with their little round Lennon sunglasses. So my friend Lefty and I thought we’d out-cool them by wearing wraparound amber goggles with the white rubber strap, which at the time were being pitched to the elderly on a bunch of lo-fi locally produced TV spots. All those geezers in the commercials were having so much fun zipping around town on their three-wheeled scooters, all of them wearing those amber goggles. We thought we’d make them a real status symbol, and show up those Comp-Lit fags to be the poseurs they were. In the end we never got around to it, but now as I approached geezerdom myself, here was my chance. I’d suddenly become the coolest damn blindo in Bay Ridge.

            Along with the goggles, I figured I’d also get my free cane, which was standard to all cane training sessions as a kind of door prize. She’d neglected to leave me one at that first visit on the rainy day, but I guessed maybe it was because I never actually did anything.

            Much to my surprise given the two-year delay before that first meeting, she called in mid-October and asked if I was still interested in night training. I was, if only out of curiosity and greed, and she said she would stop by on the Monday before Halloween at six-thirty.

            Well, shit. By six-thirty on any given day I’m already pretty drunk, and that was getting close to when Morgan and I normally had dinner. But whatever, fine, let’s just get the fucking thing over with.

            Again, I don’t know why I agree to these things and then bitch about them endlessly, knowing full well they’ll be pointless wastes of time. But I did want my cane and amber goggles.

            At about six on the appointed evening, she called and asked if she could come an hour or two later than planned. Well, no she couldn’t, to be honest. I don’t get enough alcohol in me by a certain point, things just turn ugly. And she was mucking with my schedule enough as it was. So we arranged for her to come the following Thursday at six-thirty. Which itself was nuts‚—the fucking clocks got turned back two days after that, and it would start getting dark at four or five. It would be much easier on everyone’s schedule, it wouldn’t mess with me at all. But no, that made too much sense so she wanted to come by that Thursday. Again, fine, whatever, let’s just get it over with.

            “If she shows up,” my mom warned me over the phone early Thursday afternoon, “just be nice to the cane lady.” My friend Laura, meanwhile, suggested that since it would be two days after Halloween, maybe along with the free cane, the cane lady would also bring me a bag of leftover candy. That was something to think about.

            I cracked the first beer around four that afternoon.

            “You’re drinking already?” Morgan observed.

            “Need to get something in me, and besides, it’ll help to keep me from punching her.”

            By the time six-thirty rolled around, I had four in me and was eyeing the fifth. That’s when I heard the doorbell.

            “Just be nice, there’ll be prizes and it’ll be over soon . . . just be nice, there’ll be prizes and it’ll be over soon . . . ” I kept repeating as I walked down the stairs to the front door.

            I opened it and found her standing there. “So, did you want to come upstairs first or just head out?”

            “No, let’s just go.” It was clear from her voice she wanted to be here about as much as I wanted her here. Yeah. This was going to be loads of fun. I went back upstairs to collect my cane and hat as she waited in the front hall looking at her phone.

            “So let me ask,” I began as I returned downstairs, just by way of making conversation. “I know it’s a common name, but you don’t happen to be related to someone named Leigh in San—“

            “No.”

            Jeepers. Okay then.

            We stepped out to the sidewalk and decided I should tap to the subway stop and back. It sure was dark, I’ll give it that.

            “I want you to use your ears instead of trying to remain dependent on your eyes,” she said.

            “Not a problem,” I replied, given I couldn’t see anything at all.

             I found my way to the first corner, getting tangled up with two parked bikes along the way, and turned up the avenue toward the parkway. She said nothing more, so I didn’t know if she was scientifically appraising my tapping method or looking at her cellphone as she walked behind me.

            “You have a very unorthodox technique,” she said eventually.

            “Really. I had no idea.”

            “Some people still use the tapping method, which is okay I guess, if a little outmoded. Most people today use constant contact, leaving the tip on the ground and dragging it back and forth.”

            Who knew there were caning trends?

            “So why do you do it that way?” She asked.

            “What way is that?”

            “You tap. Then you drag, then you swing the cane and tap again.”

            I shrugged. “I dunno. Works for me.”

            “Mm-hmm. You might want to try constant contact. That way you won’t miss anything.”

            “Yeah,” I didn’t tell her. “But that guarantees the cane tip will get snagged in every last crack in the sidewalk, stopping me short and driving the handle into my guts. It also guarantees I’ll drag the tip through dog shit. There’s a big dog shit problem around here. At least my way I have a fighting chance.”

            As we turned another corner and headed down the block, I noticed I seemed to be finding my way a bit more easily than usual. Maybe I should make a point of heading out drunk whenever I needed to go some place at night.

            As we approached the next intersection I stopped short to get my bearings. For me anyway, it was a particularly deadly corner. The streets met at a weird angle, so it always took a bit of listening to determine which way the traffic was flowing and find the right crosswalk.

            “Why are you stopping?” She asked.

            I explained it to her.

            “Well, come back over here,” she said, taking my arm and pulling me back a few steps. “Are you using your ears? You need to use your ears more than your eyes.”

            “That’s what I was doing.”

            “What street are you trying to cross now?”

            “Right now I have no idea, because you turned me around and I don’t know which way I’m facing anymore.”

            “Well use your ears and listen to the traffic. Don’t try to use your eyes.”

            “Okay, though right now listening won’t do me much good since I don’t know what street I’m facing.”

            Somehow I made it across the intersection without dying and continued down the next block.

            “Why do you tap along the gates that way?” She asked. It’s what I’d always done. I tend to veer when I walk, and following the gates in front of the houses kept me moving straight. Otherwise I ended up barking my shins on those knee-high fences around the trees that line the sidewalk, or colliding with parked cars, or stumbling off the curb into traffic. I explained all this to her.

            “Well, you should try to stay in the middle of the sidewalk, she counseled, apparently having missed that whole first part of my explanation. “Otherwise you might get poked in the eye by a branch or something.”

            “Okay,” I said, as I continued tapping along the gates.

            Much of the trip took place in silence, and it went much more smoothly than it ever had before. Screw the cane ladies, I thought—beer was the answer.

            At the next corner she gave me a brief history of those textured corner cuts designed to help cripples of all sorts. To be honest, I’ve always found them incredibly helpful. The latest advancement to protect pedestrians in general, she explained, was to theoretically extend the corner cut into the street the width of a parking space with beige paint.

            “But I guess this wouldn’t help you,” she admitted.

            “Not really, no. But thanks anyway.”

            I tried to help out and be pleasant, I really did. Half a block from the subway station, we passed a bus stop, and I noted aloud that we’d just passed a bus stop.

            “Did you hear that,” she asked. “Or just see it? You really need to stop being dependent on your eyes.”

            “The pitch of the traffic sound changed.”

            When we reached the subway station, I was really, really hoping she’d just take it as her chance to hop on the train, go home, and let me be. She didn’t. Instead, that was apparently her cue to give me a lecture.

            After chastising me repeatedly for trying to remain dependent on my eyes, she offered a number of useful pointers that required me to use my eyes. She also suggested that if I was going to insist on following the gates down the sidewalk, I wear a hat with a brim to protect me against getting poked in the eye by any low-hanging branches.

            “You mean like the hat I’m wearing now?” This was all even more pointless than I suspected it would be. Worse, she insisted on following as I walked home.

            At the first corner I stopped, took a step to the left, and found the textured curb cut.

            “Why did you do that?”

            “Do what?”

            “Take a step to the left like that?”

            I sighed, trying really, really hard not to swing the cane at her. “Because there was a bush in front of me. So I figured the crosswalk must be over here.”

            She wasn’t mentioning anything about amber goggles. Which worried me a little. I should have said something, but didn’t. Maybe she was assuming if they did any good at all, whatever it is they’re supposed to do, they would have me dependent on my eyes again instead of my ears.

            I tried to break up the monotony of the long trip back home by saying, “These are really scary times for the disabled.” I’d been trying to get assorted officials within the blindo community to talk about what was going on in the country, but nobody would. Maybe this was a chance. The blindo agencies, which had to struggle for any kind of funding as it was, were going to be decimated. This was her chance to vent.

            “How do you mean?”

            “Well, you look at what’s happening in the Education Department, and Justice, and the new tax bill, and they keep scraping away at the Americans with Disabilities Act at every turn. They’re just dismantling it piece by piece every week.”

            There was a long pause. “Well,” she said. “I guess those people with money just want to keep it, and don’t want any of us to have it.”

            “That doesn’t really have anything to do with anything, but okay.” I decided to drop the political angle, and thankfully thought of another nagging cane bugaboo.

            “So…do you have any tips for caning in the snow? Once we get more than an inch, the cane becomes completely useless.”

            “I would suggest just using constant contact again, rolling the tip over the top of the snow.”

            “Oh. Okay.” It was clear this woman either had no idea what snow was, or at least had never tried to use a cane in snow herself. In any case the advice made no real sense, so I guess I’d simply follow my usual tack by staying home whenever it snowed.

            I think it was about then I recognized she was working on autopilot. With rare exception, she was simply spouting the same advice she’d give anyone, regardless whether it made sense. She wasn’t even thinking about it.

            Okay, so maybe she was tired. Maybe she was having trouble at home. Maybe she’d just been diagnosed with cancer earlier that day. She told me she’d been doing this for twenty years—maybe she was bored and simply didn’t care anymore. If so, why waste her time and mine this way? Though I guess by coming out she at least got a check.

            “I guess I didn’t really offer anything useful,” she said as we turned the last corner before my apartment.

            “That’s okay. Thanks for coming out anyway.”

            In the end, she never gave me a new cane, never pulled out any goggles, and worst of all didn’t even give me any candy. If you can’t count on the cane ladies of the world to give you candy, what the hell can you count on?

            I went back inside. The whole pointless ordeal had taken about an hour and a half. Morgan and I got started on dinner. And I opened another beer.

 

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