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Ruining It for Everybody, Jim Knipfel's 3rd memoir. An anti-spirituality spiritual manifesto.

The Buzzing, a novel

Quitting the Nairobi Trio, available in hardback or trade paperback.

Slackjaw, available in hardback or paperback. Also available, Blindfisch, the German translation.

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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel

What the Blind Really Need

Even though I keep promising myself that I’m going to stop doing things like this, I found myself standing at 59th St. and Broadway on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon.

I’ll tell you this much–I wasn’t 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 midtown’s 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 I’m aware, the only retail outlet in town where you can just stroll in off the street and buy your own blind man’s 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 it’s jammed with weird crap. It’s 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 it’s 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 you’re living in the Valley of the Giants (either that, or that you’re the Incredible Shrinking Blind Guy).

The rest of the stuff was pretty standard–closed-circuit readers, talking appliances, clocks, flashlights. We’d seen most of it before.

But later at the bar, as we flipped through the catalog we’d 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 product–the "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 what’s 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 they’re reading is ‘Desperately Seeking Grandma.’"

"And is Grandma supposed to be insane? What sort of madness is this? Didn’t they think we’d notice?"

We began flipping through the catalog, and much of what we found there was to be expected–magnifiers 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 asshole’s earnest, heartfelt book about the tragedy of going blind (needless to say, it wasn’t mine).

Near the back of the catalog is a collection of items clearly aimed at the elderly–orthopedic 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 they’re expecting you to do all day?"

"Oh, you know us blind folk–dinner 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. "You’d 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 couldn’t you just ask who they were, as opposed to fondling their napkin rings?"

"I guess they figured this was easier than, y’know, sticking your hand in their plates and grabbing all their food, the way we normally do it.’"

"Or maybe it’s to make sure everyone’s seated properly. You wouldn’t want to end up with a socially awkward seating arrangement."

She looked down at the entry again. "And what’s with these ‘tablecloth weights’? Is that to make sure you don’t tuck the tablecloth into your shirt instead of the napkin? That could be embarrassing. But funny."

We’d 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 glass–with the added feature of a small attached light (I’ve tried those, by the way–they don’t work for shit). But like the image on the cover, if you look at what’s being magnified, everything changes.

"It’s a road map," she said. "I guess you’re supposed to use this one while you’re out driving."

What’s 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 I’d been foolish enough to believe that this driver’s license of mine would never come in handy.