Saturday, March 29, 2008

Tip of the Cane

Just one monotonous whir buzzing by you,
the lights of a streetcar the
tip of a blind man's cane,
a needle on a record playing nothing --
the machine that is man.

"Fucking sighted people," Heath said, "Another one tells me to watch where I'm going I'll lose my shit altogether and smash my cane over their head."

He was usually a lot more mellow but I knew right away he was having a rough day. I couldn't even begin to imagine what it must have been like to live in his world. He had a rare form of myopia that affected the nodes and cones of his eyes. His vision slowly faded on him from the time he was a child until now, at age thirty, he described it as wearing swimming goggles painted all white. During his descent from normal sight to no color and no shape he'd gone through a bout of severe depression, and at one point even tried to take his own life.

It was almost nine o'clock and I was going about my closing duties in the restaurant, sorting out the days cash and trying to clear up the checks for the last few customers still at tables. Heath and I had worked together for about a year at that point. More to the fact, he volunteered in the restaurant where I was employed. He rolled cutlery and stocked and organized the service stations with coffee cups and condiments. He took out the trash and felt his way around the kitchen, cleaning up any mess that the cooks had left behind when they dashed for the door once the last order went over the pass. His self-appointed duties usually took him a couple hours, so that by eleven when the owner showed up to lock the doors the business was all set for breakfast the next morning.

For Heath, all of this was part of a routine that provided a kind of stability and normalcy to his days. He'd kept this up for ten years or so without ever getting paid a dime for his labors. At the outset of his arrangement with the restaurant he'd asked about the possibility of regular employment, of being put on the payroll like all the so-called "able bodied" staff. He provided the information and forms from government services that would have supplemented fully half of his wages and given tax breaks to the business for employing a "handicapped" person.

The owner said he looked into the details and found that the economics didn't work out, as the increased costs of insurance and installing safety equipment for the blind were far greater than the tax exemptions offered. He told him that it simply wasn't feasible and put the blame squarely on a poorly thought out government program, though my belief was that he was just as happy to have Heath work for no money. Either way the situation seemed deplorable and most of us servers gave a couple dollars out of the tip cup to him when we closed down. I appreciated that the work he did would normally have been my duties, and I suppose I wanted to make up for the slight he endured day after day, though I guess it was naive to think five bucks could do that.

The owner, generous fellow that he was, allowed Heath to make himself something to eat after his work was done, usually a sandwich and some fries. Once or twice when I'd first started at the restaurant I'd offered to buy him a beer, but he'd always declined. He didn't drink or smoke or use any drugs, not since his time spent at rock bottom. For Heath the greatest pleasures in life were to be found in green tea and the occasional night of karaoke -- he loved to sing and had a great voice. I think that it was the very simple things, the work he did, the tea breaks, the routine he stuck to, that provided the foundation on which the rest of his life was built, and the simplicity of it was what kept him sane.

As for what had gotten under his skin that particular day I can't say for sure. I knew better than to ask because he'd surely have just deflected the question and said something like, "Oh, you know, the same old bullshit." He wasn't one to complain or share his problems with other people all that often. I know that he hated having to go out in the daytime. "Too many people rushing and bustling about," he'd say, "Pushing me out of their way and passing their smug little judgments without even noticing I can't see a fucking thing."

He hated having to go to new or unfamiliar places. He didn't like the grocery store because he had no way to figure out the expiry dates on bread or milk or cheese. He didn't like taking the buses or subways because there was no way for him to tell which was his stop. He didn't like the pharmacy or the corner store, the barber or the pizza place. He wasn't especially fond of anything that had to do with money changing hands because of the number of times people had ripped him off. One time he pointed out to me that there's actually a braille cell in the top corner of every bill, one of the few services the government has seen fit to bestow upon the blind. The problem, he said, was that unless the note was crisp and new it was tough to feel the difference between a fifty and a five. For most everything in an average day that sighted people do without a second thought Heath was relying on the honesty and good nature of strangers , and those of us who see perfectly well can attest to the prevalence of those two traits in the population.

And it was the small percentage of people who would go out of their way to take advantage of his disability he disliked and feared the most. He could never know who was watching him. Every time he entered his own apartment the thought crossed his mind that some enterprising hood was hot on his heels, or, worse yet, was already waiting inside. He really had no way of knowing. He wasn't paranoid or anything, but the uncertainty was what he found most unnerving.




Honour said...

I'm eager to see where Heath will lead you ... engaging character, the bit about his love of green tea and kareoke is so quirky and almost trivial ... that it was exactly the point where he came alive ... looking forward to part two???

Hopper said...

so am i roxy... waiting for it to arrive... was thinking about putting him in a jaguar and having him drive off into the night... who knows... that's what i love about all of this... it's as much of a surprise to me as to anyone else...