Illustration by Russell Christian.
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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel
What the Blind Really Need
Even though I keep promising myself that Im going to stop doing things like this, I found myself standing at 59th St. and Broadway on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon.
Ill tell you this muchI wasnt alone.
The collective populations of several faraway lands, it seems, had decided to gather at that very same spot at that very same moment, for reasons I cannot fathom.
Fortunately, Morgan was quick to grab my arm and get me the hell out of there before I began to hyperventilate too badly.
There was a reasonable explanation for our being at midtowns ground zero on a pleasant Saturday afternoon. The red and white cane that had almost been keeping me out of trouble these past few years was getting chipped and broken and ground down to nothing. Most all of the reflective paint had been scraped off, and the tip, a space-age polymer job that was designed to gently roll over bumps and cracks in the sidewalk, was now bumped and cracked itself.
It had served me sort of well, but I needed to get a new one, or two.
(When I first told my parents that I was getting a new cane, their immediate question was, "Okay, who did you whack with the old one?")
Now, so far as Im aware, the only retail outlet in town where you can just stroll in off the street and buy your own blind mans cane is the Lighthouse Store, at the corner of 59th and Park. The Lighthouse Store used to be called Spectrum. But at some point between my last visit there and this one, I guess someone realized what an exceedingly cruel name that was for a store aimed at the blind.
Thing about the Lighthouse Store (where, for the record, a helpful salesperson was able to provide me with two new canes without any fuss) is that its jammed with weird crap. Its like an old Spencer Gifts, except that everything, in one way or another (often in vague, intangible ways) is aimed at the "visually impaired." Which leaves me wondering why its so ill-lit.
Giant novelty playing cards, giant novelty dominos and dice. I was particularly impressed by the giant chess set, with kings and queens standing nearly a foot tall. Get enough of that stuff around the apartment, you can pretend youre living in the Valley of the Giants (either that, or that youre the Incredible Shrinking Blind Guy).
The rest of the stuff was pretty standardclosed-circuit readers, talking appliances, clocks, flashlights. Wed seen most of it before.
But later at the bar, as we flipped through the catalog wed been given, a whole, strange new world began opening up.
"What the hell is this all about?" I asked, peering closely at the cover illustration with my own magnifying glass.
The catalog cover featured a picture of a new productthe "Lighthouse Personal Reader"a more compact, sleek version of the clunky old CCTV systems of the past. Slide a book or magazine under the lens, and whats on the page will be blown up a gazillion times on a television screen.
In the cover illustration, the text on the screen reads as follows:
"Help wanted. Tree finishing. Dad too I has hands full. Would ideally suited with own hammer. teeth optional."
"What the hell?" I asked. "Is this person supposed to be reading some sort of Dadaist poetry anthology?"
I handed the catalog to Morgan, who looked herself. She shrugged, then looked closely again.
"The title of whatever theyre reading is Desperately Seeking Grandma."
"And is Grandma supposed to be insane? What sort of madness is this? Didnt they think wed notice?"
We began flipping through the catalog, and much of what we found there was to be expectedmagnifiers of varying powers, some of them pre-attached to appliances. Lamps of all sizes and shapes. Specially designed sewing kits and safety knives, pots and pans, tea pots, bagel cutters, can openers and spatulas. A clever suction cup dealie to help the blind replace lightbulbs without ending up with a fistful of glass. Special broom and dustpan sets. "Hands-free Shoulder umbrellas," an electronic bird identifier (for the legions of blind birdwatchers out there), magnified toe clippers and some assholes earnest, heartfelt book about the tragedy of going blind (needless to say, it wasnt mine).
Near the back of the catalog is a collection of items clearly aimed at the elderlyorthopedic pillows, draft-stoppers, neck massagers, and the like. Even an unmagnified brooch, for some reason.
But in the middle there, things get just plain noodle-headed.
"They seem to be selling mostly cooking supplies," Morgan noticed. "Is that what theyre expecting you to do all day?"
"Oh, you know us blind folkdinner parties night after night after night. We never seem to stop." Then I noticed a set of plates they were selling. On the face of each plate was a little picture of fruit. "Hey, look at this," I said, pointing. "Youd never know if you were finished or not."
Morgan caught sight of the Satanic-looking napkin ring/tablecloth weight set. "Enhance the experience of afternoon tea," she read aloud, "with these distinctive solid pewter napkin rings and tablecloth weights. Four unique napkin ring shapes helps you identify guests by touch alone. Well, why couldnt you just ask who they were, as opposed to fondling their napkin rings?"
"I guess they figured this was easier than, yknow, sticking your hand in their plates and grabbing all their food, the way we normally do it."
"Or maybe its to make sure everyones seated properly. You wouldnt want to end up with a socially awkward seating arrangement."
She looked down at the entry again. "And whats with these tablecloth weights? Is that to make sure you dont tuck the tablecloth into your shirt instead of the napkin? That could be embarrassing. But funny."
Wed flipped through a few more pages, when Morgan noticed the King-Daddy of inappropriate products for the blind. Just to glance at it, it seems like a normal, handheld magnifying glasswith the added feature of a small attached light (Ive tried those, by the waythey dont work for shit). But like the image on the cover, if you look at whats being magnified, everything changes.
"Its a road map," she said. "I guess youre supposed to use this one while youre out driving."
Whats more, the road map magnifier is on a page devoted to driving accessories for the blind! "Swivel Light for Your Car," heated seat cushions, a rechargeable jump-start thing for your car battery, and an air pump for your bike!
And to think Id been foolish enough to believe that this drivers license of mine would never come in handy.