Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Of Vanity and Utility

I didn’t want a cane.  

“Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery,” say the twelve-steppers.

I didn’t want to take “steps.”  I didn’t want to “recover.”  I didn’t want to admit I had a “problem.”  And I sure as hell didn’t want a blind man’s cane.  Who would?  Who wants a bright white and red arrow pointing at you, screaming “Hey everyone!  Look at the blind dude!  It’s okay to stare because he can’t see you!”?  I’m sure everyone’s problems are so insignificant they can stop to gawk while I pass by.  Maybe they don’t, but maybe they do, for a second or two.  

I wanted to be noticed, sure, but not like this.  At the bars I was already being noticed as a stumbling drunk, and while I was a stumbling drunk much of the time, my RP thought it hilarious to take it up a notch.  It turns out alcohol plus RP minus cane equals bad.  All the same, I didn’t have to be drunk, and clubbing was a notable challenge at one establishment in particular: Anchorage’s most renowned meat market and watering hole, the World Famous Chilkoot Charlie’s.  Upon arriving at Koot’s, I’d walk into—rather than through—the front door, then into bar stools and cocktail waitresses.  Invariably, I’d be accosted by some meathead E3 at his bouncer night job.  Odds are he’d been taking crap all day from his superiors, but here he held all the cards.  He’d grab me by the nape, barking I’d had enough.

“Dude, I just got here.  I haven’t even ordered anything yet.”

“Yeah, well I think you’ve had enough, and it’s time to leave.  Now.”

With no cane, how were they to believe I couldn’t see?  Were they handicops?  Certainly, but in their defense, don’t blind people carry white canes?    

“Dude, I’m not drunk, it’s just really dark in here and I can’t see a thing.”  

“Get him outta here!” squeals the irate cocktail waitress, wiping up the drinks I’d toppled.

At times like these, I typically opted just to turn tail and comply.  What was the use, otherwise?  But the drunker I was the more likely I was to pull the blind card.  And if I was with a crew and didn’t want to leave, I’d do whatever it took to defend my right to be in the bar.  Koot’s bouncers are themselves world famous for being ultra-militant wannabe cops—and to such an extent that they asphyxiated a man to death some years ago, on his birthday.  By the time a Koot’s bouncer has your number, you’re done and there’s no turning him back, blind card or no.

A baseball manager is more likely to convince an umpire to reinstate him into the gave after an ejection for arguing balls and strikes. 

There was, however, one time--the only time--I’ve ever heard of a male successfully persuading Koot’s security to reverse a decision.  It was the night of the Murder City Devils’ last show in Anchorage, ever, and we packed Koot’s to booze it up and boogie to the Devils’ groovy organ-driven Goth punk.  They’d been to Anchorage before, and always delivered one killer show after another.  This was their last, and I’d be damned if I was going to miss it.  Bounding through the bar, I could scarely contain my excitement.  In my excitement, I failed to notice the bouncer until I’d bounded into him point blank.  In his defense, I was at three sheets, and shamelessly I pulled the blind card.  At once a cadre of support rushed to my side.  

“He can’t see!  He’s blind!  Don’t be an asshole!” until, with all my drunken cunning, I'd nearly managed to convince the bouncer to let me stay.  This was uncharted territory, and I was not going to miss this show.

“Look man, I have really bad eyes, and I’m supposed to be using a cane.  I swear.  It’s dark and I just can’t see anything in here,” concentrating on holding still and speaking clearly.  The bouncer grumbled nervously to himself, and then angrily to me.

“Don’t move.”  He slipped off to confer with his colleagues.

I’m gonna miss their last show in Anchorage.  I can’t believe this.  Jesus, if I had a stick—   

“Alright, you can stay, but I’ve got my eye on you.”

It was a rhetorical triumph I may never equal.  

I nearly had to miss the Murder City Devils, which caused me to reconsider the cane question.  Had I a cane, I wouldn’t need to convince anymore bouncers.  Hell, I could get away with murder!  This was sheer pragmatism speaking, but, as usual, Utility ran smack dab into Vanity.  They were at loggerheads, two extremes of a mind-numbing dialectic.    

Utility:  You really should get a stick so you don’t get hassled like this.  And maybe you’ll run into walls less often.  And street signs.   And bouncers.  And post offices.  

Vanity:  But I can still see, kind of.  If I get a white cane I’m going public, like I’m coming out of the blind guy closet.  It’s like leaving my sighted side behind and taking on the blind side as my identity.  Instead of relying on the vision I have, I’m giving up, taking up this crutch.  

Utility:  What the hell’s the matter with you?  And what’s so great about running into people and tripping over benches and barstools all night long?  Why not make life easier for yourself?  Why you gotta reinvent the wheel?

Vanity:  Yeah, but I can kinda see, and I have a million tricks for getting around.  Having really good hearing is a huge bonus, and my friends can help me out—  

Utility:  Yes, relying on your friends: how is that independence?  You’re asking too much from them, and they can’t always be there to hold your hand, which, by the way, makes you guys look gay. 

Vanity:  But I love that I can still see some, even if only a little.  I don‘t want to give that up.  So long as I’m not using a cane, I’m not a blind guy.  I’m not really visually impaired until I start acting like it.  You think I look gay, eh?  Well, I am like a gay guy who doesn’t want to admit to it and stays in the closet.  

Utility:  What are you, stupid?  The gay guy might be in the closet, but he’s still gay.  He ought to just come out and be himself.  You should just admit to the world that you’ve got eye trouble.  Are you afraid people will love you less? Of course, they won‘t.  Are you afraid people will look at you differently?  

Vanity:  Of course I am!  And that’s what sucks the most.  I don‘t want to be special, at least not like this.  I want to be respected for what I can do, not what I can’t do.  

Utility:  You’ll be respected as a blind man who can get around on his own.  And what the hell is that?  You really think everyone’s gonna just think of you as a blind guy and that’s it?  

Vanity:  Yeah, when I first meet them, they will.  No matter what.  You see a dude with a white cane and you think “holy shit he’s blind.”  I know this because that’s what I do when I see a blind dude.  And when I meet a girl, I know—I fucking KNOW—her first thought will be “that dude has a white cane.  He must be blind,” and every other thought she ever has—no matter how laudatory—will have been preceded by that original reaction.  I want her to notice my eyes, not my eyesight.  

Utility:  Pull ease! As it is now her first reaction is “look at the dumbass drunk!  He just walked into a guy shooting pool.  Oh, look!  Now he’s getting smacked with a pool cue.  Serves him right.” 

Vanity:  Look, I just need to be more careful and stop running into dudes shooting pool.  I won’t walk around as much.  I’ll just go to the same bar and memorize everything.  Stay closer to home.  Be a bit more cautious and conservative.  

Utility:  You should listen to yourself.  You sound like a total pussy.  You can’t let this thing beat you up.  You gotta live your life.  I can’t believe what I’m hearing from you.   

Vanity:  Look, I also hate being seen as weak, as different, as…as crippled.  

Utility:  “Crippled”?  What century are you from?  Look, Cowboy, you need to grab the reins and deal with it.  Because you know what?  You are crippled.

And scene.  

Every day hit me in the face with the fact that Vanity must eventually yield to Utility, especially during the long, dark Alaskan winters when it’s usually night and night blindness is all the more cumbersome.  Darkness presented countless opportunities for reconsidering the cane question.  Reality gave me pause in view of each new mishap, like one evening whilst sprinting across Minnesota Drive at rush hour.  It’d be close, but I reckoned I could dash across the six-lane street just in time to miss the oncoming traffic, but as I bolted across black ice I failed to notice the center median, tripped over it, and slid face-first, hands outstretched  across two lanes ala Pete Rose.  I scrambled to my feet and safely to the other side in front of honking traffic.  As had so often been the case, things could have gone badly.  With all this drinking, with all this darkness, with all this vanity, I was going to hurt myself.  I didn’t need to be behind the wheel of a car to pose a nuisance; the world was sketchy enough on foot.  But Vanity continued to dominate Utility, and I wasn’t going to do a damn thing.  Someone was going to have to make me.


  1. "and every other thought she ever has—no matter how laudatory—will have been preceded by that original reaction."

    Too true. Even to this day, 18 or so years later, every thought I have of you must struggle to overcome the still-crisp image of the plaid bellbottoms you were wearing the first time we happened to meet.

  2. dave-- you need to put this all in a book! you are an amazing writer. i passed this post on today to a guy who has RP and hearing loss who has been struggling for years with using a cane-- you articulated the inner diaglogue so well!