Red Sea

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. (See “The Day I Quit Driving”)

On a bright, warm Los Angeles September afternoon, I was strolling down Fairfax Avenue past CBS Television City and Farmers Market, headed for the neighborhood supermarket, my purposeful stride belying the fact that my eyesight was more than three-fourths obliterated by Retinitis Pigmentosa. But so it was.

Despite advancing research on gene therapy, retinal transplantation, and even the development of an electronic intraocular prosthesis, 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 kind 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 scrambled 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.

Copyright 2000 Joel M. Deutsch.
Reprinted by permission of the author