Disability and the Daily Grind

Disability and the Daily Grind
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“If a man doesn’t believe as we do, we say he is a crank, and that settles it. I mean it does nowadays, because now we can’t burn him.”

—Mark Twain

I am a crank and its high time I admit it. I’m blind, but that’s not the source of my Hypos as Herman Melville would say. Bear with me. I’m a crank and not a malcontent—a distinction important to us disabled types. The thing is, I just don’t fit in. From movie theaters to clothing stores I represent a problem. “How will we serve the blind guy? Should we panic?” I produce social distress wherever I go.

Disabled I’m a walking sign. It doesn’t say panic but it does say “this man will upend acquired habits and may cause headaches, cramps, even some dizziness.” The waitress leans in close to my wife who seems normal enough and with a nod in my direction says: “what will he be having?” I haven’t even opened my mouth and I'm a crank as my presence upsets custom and in most settings custom is what passes for belief. Disability is implicitly an overturning of practice which means it's suspect and maybe it's worse than that because it forces a revision of actual behavior. People living without disabilities, at least temporarily, genuinely dislike this.

Not long ago I went to the flagship Macy’s in Manhattan. It was time to buy a new raincoat. Inside I was met by a woman whose job was to greet customers. I told her where I needed to go and she gave me some convoluted directions. “Can you get someone to walk me there?” I asked. I made a joke: “My dog doesn’t read signs.”

She offered cheerfully to guide me to Men’s Wear. Up we went in an elevator, then whisked our way through many departments. When we arrived at the raincoat emporium she told the saleswoman: “I had to bring him here. He’s blind. Wants a coat.” Poof! She was gone.

My blindness had broken her ordinary day and for many non disabled folks that’s a challenge both to belief and also to how they’ll undertake the simplest actions. Having to help a disabled man wasn't difficult but it was consternating. Anxiety is the enemy not merely of custom but also of agreement. The Macy’s employee understood I was a crank.

Hand organs or barrel organs are played by turning a crank which is how the word became synonymous with annoying people. Street musicians annoy us repeating the same song over and over. The non disabled see the disabled as irritating buskers, and of course disability and gutter music come down to us through history. It doesn't matter what you think of yourself, in many settings you're a crank if you've a disability.

Knowing this I play with the matter. It isn't hard. First you must be problematic in public, then you become an auteur of strangeness. Several years ago I went into a hat shop in Ithaca, New York with my first guide dog “Corky” a big yellow Labrador retriever. I was a brand new guide dog user and in love both with my dog and my new found means of travel. I thought everyone would love my amazing canine friend. The shopkeeper wanted to know why I was in her store. She was distressed by my arrival. Because I have residual vision I saw a burgundy thing, a wide-brimmed felt fedora the color of cranberries. I admired the hat and Corky sat and admired me. It was a moment of small, contained, aesthetic pleasure.

“What are you doing?” asked the shopkeeper. Her tone was reproving. It was a tone that said, “Why on Earth are you here?”

She didn't say: “Can I help you?” or “What are you looking for?”

I pointed at the hat.

“A fedora,” I said. “A mauve fedora!”

“Well, yes,” said the shopkeeper.

“A mauve fedora,” I said again because I liked saying it.

“Mmmm,” said the shopkeeper. Then she said, “Maybe you can take the dog outside?”

“No,” I said. “The dog stays. It’s the law.”

“Indifférence violet,” I said then with a bad French accent.

The shopkeeper stared.

“Je veux acheter un chapeau pour mon chien,” I said.

“You want to buy a hat for your dog?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I want to buy her the mauve fedora.” “Oh dear!” she said.

“I might decide to buy two,” I said.

“One for my sister, one for my dog,” I said.

In the end I didn’t buy hats but walked away knowing for the first time that the freedom to go places with a guide dog didn’t mean I’d be treated warmly. I would have to do the work of being pleased with myself— which meant being pleased with ourselves. We were just a man and dog prowling for fashion.

“We can be misunderstood and stylish,” I thought. It would be a few years before I understood the crank factor.

Sometimes I call this outsider position the daily grind.

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