It felt like instant karma. Payback for almost running over an unsuspecting kid
a few years ago because I hadn’t been smart or brave enough to quit driving
when I should have.
On a bright, warm September Los Angeles afternoon, I was strolling down
Fairfax Avenue past CBS Television City and Farmers Market, headed for the
neighborhood Lucky, my purposeful stride belying the fact that my eyesight
was more than three-fourths obliterated by Retinitis Pigmentosa. But so it
Despite ongoing research into gene therapy, stem cells and retinal
transplantation, among other potential remedies, there as yet exists no
treatment or cure for this predominantly inherited condition that afflicts
something like 100,000 Americans. And so my irreplaceable photoreceptor
cells, which in most people last a lifetime, keep wiping themselves out by a
process of bio-suicide called apoptosis, with nothing to be done about it.
The world looks like a hazy, unfinished painting. After a few nasty mishaps
when the deterioration first became severe, I learned to scan ahead radar-like
as I walked to catch at least a glimpse of approaching hazards. I owned a long,
white cane, but I didn’t have it with me.
Isn’t a cane, I thought, for when life feels constantly like coming awake in a
strange house in the middle of the night? Doesn’t “blind,” after all, simply and
unequivocally, mean sightless?
I’d considered carrying a cane if only as a signal, to forestall incidents like the
time I stumbled into the side mirror of a bus while hurrying clumsily to board,
and the driver, climbing out of his seat to readjust it, inquired sarcastically if I
was blind or something. To simplify the process of asking strangers for help,
as from time to time I must.
But I wasn’t about to do it. No way. For one thing, I had this spooky
foreboding that to take up the cane would be a dangerous capitulation, would
bring on total blindness even faster. Magical thinking, I knew. Primitive. A
child’s metaphysics of causality. But I couldn’t help it. Besides, I’d be marking
myself disabled, for all to see, destroying whatever vestige of masculine appeal
I’d managed to preserve into middle age. I’d become just another blind guy,
groping his expressionless way along on some pathetic errand of the terminal,
aging bachelor. So the cane, as always, was hanging by its elastic handle loop
from a hook inside my living room closet, gathering dust.
Now I was passing beneath the protruding eaves of one of the Farmers Market
buildings, grateful to be shielded from the sun’s dazzle by more than just the
brim of my baseball cap. A few feet away, the midday traffic rushed by in a din
of car engines, horn blasts, diesel rattle, and the concussive thump of
mega-watt, bi-amplified hip-hop bass.
Suddenly, something charged past me, tugging at my T-shirt sleeve. Through
my remaining islands of vision, like a bird darting across a slit in a castle turret,
flashed the profile of a small face, a boyish body hunched forward over
handlebars, a flurry of legs churning.
“Damn,” I yelped, edging over more toward my side. I probably looked, I knew,
as if I might be playing a crazy, private game of chicken, had meant to
surrender those few extra inches of clearance at the last second, but had
simply miscalculated. When the truth, of course, was that I had no warning at
all. Anything moving faster than walking speed can slip from blind spot to blind
spot, completely undetected. Skateboards betray themselves by their clatter,
but Not so bicycles, with their rubber-tired stealth. I took a deep breath and
resolved silently to be yet more vigilant, in the future.
And then something slammed into my shoulder, the same shoulder, Another
flashing image of a small boy, pedaling. But this time, I was flung from my
feet. I felt my skull collide against asphalt. I had a dim but troubling realization
that my body was laid out full length across the northbound curb lane of
Fairfax and that I could, in a heartbeat, be crushed and dismembered. Fueled
by a burst of adrenaline, I made a mad scramble back to safety.
At the point where I had left the sidewalk stood a short, elderly woman. trailing
a two-wheeled wire shopping basket behind her. Crazy,” she clucked
empathetically, “crazy. They almost killed me, too.” She spoke with the
old-time Yiddish accent that is rapidly giving way to Russian as the Fairfax
District and neighboring West Hollywood become the Southern California
version of Brooklyn’s Little Odessa.
“I’m fine,” I assured her, and as she continued on her way, I brushed myself
off, gingerly checking for damage. My head was bruised and bleeding, my
shoulder ached, the forearm I tried to break my fall with was a mass of
lacerations, and my cap was missing, probably pulverized into blue cotton
oblivion. Dazed, but nonetheless still in need of groceries, I proceeded with my
shopping and trudged home to a stinging shower and some bed rest.
The next time I left my apartment, there was a nylon day pack slung jauntily
from one shoulder, the kind students carry their books in. The kind in which
the kid I knocked down that time with my Tercel was carrying his. And in my
right hand, I held the long white cane. Not tapping it in an exploratory arc.
Not yet. But bearing it before me like a protective talisman, a Mosaic staff. And
feeling relief mixed with horror at the sight of people making way for the blind
man I was still in the process of becoming.
Joel Deutsch is the editor of our poetry pages. He is a Los Angeles writer whose articles on his progressive vision loss have appeared in the Los Angeles Times. He has been writing and publishing his poetry for the past forty years and is a contributor to the poetry pages in our Fall 2004 issue. We here at r.kv.r.y. are highly grateful for the time and care he has donated to assuring the high quality of the poetry published here.