Blind Sticks

I remember that first moment, exiting the train, when I saw a bushy-haired man whom I assumed was blind for he tapped, tapped, tapped with his stick at the bottom stair. But was he? His eyes didn’t stay fixed, lazy and barren as one long blind, nor did they zip about like fruit flies, hopeful and wanting as one just realizing he is going blind. He tucked the handle of his stick into his left armpit while the rest of him slouched, the fingers of his free hand rubbing the bridge between his eyes. The stick was upright and solid, the bottom tipped by a white eye-like rubber ball. No, I thought, you carry a blind stick, but you are not blind. You tap-tap around for special treatment, taking the lazy way through a world that parts before you. While considering confrontation, he tap-tapped his way onto the train. But over the next couple weeks, I saw many similar specimens.

At first it was easy to imagine these imposters were just pretending to be blind, or quietly mocking the blind, or else some combination of such motivations, say, a pretty dental hygienist bothered by only a slight defect of sight who also happened to find the blind a little funny and not immune to some ridicule. Those like her, with mixed emotions, carried their blind sticks without conviction and their tapping was barely convincing. But soon I noticed other, more responsible tappers—those who, having neither warning signs of ocular degeneration, nor the desire to ridicule, nevertheless diligently underwent precautionary measures for blindness they resigned themselves to eventually acquiring. They were often older, a crease forming between their cheeks and chins, and mostly male, architects and engineers and administrators. Their walking was confident, taps insistent and searching, and their eyes usually closed.

As months passed and both the omnipresence of tap-tapping and the frequency of collisions on the train platform grew, others began tapping about with blind sticks too. I remember one lady waiting on the platform with co-workers. She looked like a fox with a long nose, angled eyes, a slight smirk and a brown fur wrapped around her thin neck. When a blind-mocker tap-tapped by, sliding across the tiled floor on the heels of a truly blind man identifiable by his honest, clean and sparse tapping, I blurted out what so many of us must have been thinking, “Look at all these assholes tap-tapping around.” I regretted it at once. I figured an argument would ensue, probably a fight. But instead the foxlike lady shrugged her shoulders and turned back to her group, each of whom had a blind stick of their own. Then the group dispersed, spreading out in all directions with eyes closed, tap-tapping in a very generic sort of way, except, I noticed, with a more vigorous habit. When a number of them paused to dictate observations into identical handheld tape recorders, I realized this was no leisure tapping. They were blind stick testers. There was a haughtiness about them; an air of righteousness on their dour faces, straining as they approached the staircase, or else, as with the foxlike lady, the escalator. Should any blind person go sauntering across the tile with full confidence in their implements only to tumble down the steps on account of some tester’s negligence, you could tell each and every one of them would burst into tears.

And what child, seeing the tap-tapping of all these adults, would not want to try it too? Children practice, that’s what they do, practice for when grown enough to have their own opinions on the humor of the blind, the mockery of the blind, the safety of the blind, or, godforbid, the afflictions of the blind. And there are plenty of occasions for children to find themselves blessed with an adult-sized blind stick of their own. Some of them—those with more practiced imaginations— must imagine they are blind and tap-tap their oversized blind sticks with one eye half-open, the eyelid closed just enough so the veil of eyelashes provides a filtered view of the world, all the easier for them to believe they are different people and that their tap-tapping is just part of the larger chorus of the everyday. Others, lacking in imagination (usually the poor offspring of blind-mockers), simply mimic their distracted parents’ actions, or attempt to. Their tap-tapping is the worst of all in its over-exaggeration—tapping up the walls, tapping on sleeping dogs, occasionally tapping an innocent bystander on the knee. Their parents provide no discipline. And just imagine how frustrating this all was for the children of the blind themselves. But who could tell? Those sad children were extremely hard to distinguish from the rest of the common, idiot children for neither had yet developed the nuances to distinguish their tap-tapping in any way, mocking or real.

I have never been any of the above faux-blind-types. My blind stick was purely ornamental at first, allowing me to move about unnoticed. I took it up just before meeting my wife, back when I still snuck peeks at the changing town and fumbled with my food. Drinks were easy, as were hamburgers a