Machiavelli: From Grad School to the Stage to Bullying Trump, Essay 25 of #52essays2017

Sometimes I feel like I confuse friends and family with my chameleon approach to life, but in my own mind, grad school led me to the stage which led me back to the page, where I started so long ago before the eye disease. I’d like to think that my changeability stems from the need to adapt and adjust to the winds of time and the caprices of Fortune. As Machiavelli says in The Prince, “a prince will be fortunate who adjusts his behavior to the temper of the times, and on the other hand will be unfortunate when his behavior is not well attuned to the times.”

I taught Machiavelli many times in a course called Conversations of the West, offered by NYU as part of their core curriculum for non-humanities students to help broaden their perspective as they stepped into their lucrative boxes as doctors and lawyers and business executives–cue Little Boxes.

Teaching Conversations of the West was a team effort led by professors all over the humanities–from the German department to philosophy, history to English, and each professor inflected the course in his or her own way. Even the English professors, with whom I taught each had their own version based on their academic leanings. I should say though, that the first part of the course was more similar–everyone had to do The Odyssey, The Aeneid, some selections from the Old and New Testaments, something by Plato, and a Greek tragedy. So there was flexibility–in the many times I was a TA for this course, we always read Genesis, but sometimes we read Oedipus and other times Antigone, sometimes Phaedrus and other times Credo. The second half of the semester would be completely up to the professor, so long as it continued to dialogue with the ancients. I taught the Renaissance flavored class most often, the Eighteenth Century several times and once, in a perverse twist of fate, the Medieval, but always with English professors because that was my department.

My favorite flavor was taught by Professor Ernest Gilman, and it is from him that I stole my reading of Machiavelli that became the song D’Orca–in a process similar to that of the origins of Sludge. Written with my buddy David and first performed with our band gutter & spine, I later adapted it for solo performance with my loop pedal.

 

 

Here’s the passage from which I lifted the lyrics:

“The next point is worthy of special note, and of imitation by others; I don’t want to pass lightly over it. When the duke took over the Romagna, he found it had been controlled by impotent masters, who instead of ruling their subjects had plundered them, and had given them more reason for strife than unity, so that the whole province was full of robbers, feuds, and lawlessness of every description. To establish peace and reduce the land to obedience, he decided good government was needed; and he named Messer Remirro de Orco, a cruel and vigorous man, to whom he gave absolute powers. In short order this man pacified and unified the whole district, winning thereby great renown. But then the duke decided such excessive authority was no longer necessary, and feared it might become odious; so he set up a civil court in the middle of the province, with an excellent judge and a representative from each city. And because he knew that the recent harshness had generated some hatred, in order to clear the minds of the people and gain them over to his cause completely, he determined to make plain that whatever cruelty had occurred had come, not from him, but from the brutal character of the minister. Taking a proper occasion, therefore, he had him placed on the public square of Cesena one morning, in two pieces, with a piece of wood beside him and a bloody knife.8 The ferocity of this scene left the people at once stunned and satisfied.” –Chapter VII

godin performing dorco @ penny’s open mic 6 15 2010

In other words, the very excellent almost-prince and son of a pope Cesare Borgia uses a real bastard named Messer Remirro De Orco to do his dirty work in stamping out some intractable towns and then, realizing that de Orco has left some pissed off Italians in his wake, he turns around and… well just listen to the song…

The song is also influenced by another brutal passage from The Prince, in which Machiavelli offers some words of advice regarding what a virtuous (manly) prince ought to do with that bitch Fortuna:

“I conclude, then, that so long as Fortune varies and men stand still, they will prosper while they suit the times, and fail when they do not. But I do feel this: that it is better to be rash than timid, for Fortune is a woman, and the man who wants to hold her down must beat and bully her. We see that she yields more often to men of this stripe than to those who come coldly toward her. Like a woman, too, she is always a friend of the young, because they are less timid, more brutal, and take charge of her more recklessly.” –From Chapter XXV

It is sad to me that, the political climate being what it is today, I must hesitate here to stress the fact that this is a metaphor. That brutalizing women, or creating a climate where women may be brutalized, should be, by now, safely tucked away in our society’s embarrassing and brutal youth.

In any case, this is a metaphor, about the need to bend circumstances to our will and not be bent by them. Substitute women for men in these lines, and any old name–let’s go with Trump–for Fortune, and we’ll get a pill that might taste more palatable:

“I conclude, then, that so long as Trump varies and women stand still, they will prosper while they suit the times, and fail when they do not. But I do feel this: that it is better to be rash than timid, for Trump is a Man, and the woman who wants to hold him down must beat and bully him. We see that he yields more often to women of this stripe than to those who come coldly toward him. Like a man, too, he is always a friend of the young, because they are less timid, more brutal, and take charge of him more recklessly.”

 

*This is #25 of #52essays2017. Read my previous essay, about my adventures in the writing life HERE*

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Touching Egypt: Art Accessibility

*Recently Artsy reached out and reminded me of this article (written last August) and the importance of art accessibility. Also, I should note that things are continually improving, as exemplified by my friend Claire Kearney-Volpe who offered a Co-Lab through the NYU Accessibility Project, to help Cooper Hewitt bring art accessibility to their design museum*

“You can’t touch the artifact!” said a female voice in an urgent museum whisper. In fact we’d been directed to the pieces in The Met’s Egyptian collection that are touchable by blind patrons by another museum guard, who clearly had great love of his job generally, and this aspect of it in particular. He shushed his alarmed colleague and explained to her about art accessibility. You’d think all the guards working the Egyptian wing would be informed of this unique aspect, or at least that they would have looked at the exhibits they were guarding over and learned what the signs clearly state, but people don’t read.

My boyfriend Alabaster told me that several people stood staring aghast during the course of our tour, and that one woman nearly screamed when she saw me with my hands on a sarcophagus until her husband pointed out the braille title card and the printed sign explaining that the object may be touched by BLIND PATRONS ONLY to enhance their museum experience.

You may be jealous and confused, but don’t be! Out of the approximately 26,000 artifacts in the Egyptian collection, only a handful may be touched. The rest must be explained verbally, which is just not the same thing.

I have been on several “sense” tours at NYC museums over the years and, while I appreciate the impulse, it often feels like they are phoning them in in order to check the accessibility box. Take for example a sense tour at The Met wherein our tour guide described almost every object as “very colorful.” Or the time at MOMA, when, at the top of a tour of Soundings, an exhibit of contemporary sound art–perfect for blind people right?–we found ourselves sitting on portable stools in front of a silent piece–the only silent piece of the exhibit–with a tour guide who, in an effort to encourage us to commune with the art, sat on the floor with her back to us and began to meditate.

I haven’t a very long fuse for the unbearable and soon I was fuming, not the least because I could hear the happy buzzing and whirring and chattering of a dozen or so other pieces–and as you may have noticed I like soundscapes a lot! Still, I felt somehow guilty for not appreciating the effort, so instead of having a tantrum, I handed my headset to the tour coordinator, claiming a terrible back spasm, and Alabaster and I got out of there to enjoy the museum in our own way.

He described in great detail some of his favorites–Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian –and I was able to ask questions when I didn’t understand. Even though I used to see and can readily access visual memories, I find it difficult to assemble descriptions into an art object visible to my mind’s eye. But, with great effort, enthusiasm and empathy on the side of the describer, and intense and artistic concentration on the side of the listener, it can happen that a heretofore-unseen object can manifest in the mind’s eye and occupy mental space as vividly as any object once-seen. As with all translations, this one is not perfect but it is wonderful.

Friends of ours with a similar dynamic–Caroline (visually impaired) and David (sighted)–went to Paris and were delighted to find that all museums were free for blind people. It made so much sense that this should be the case, since, really to get anything out of the museum experience, only a few objects can be described and integrated at a given visit. There are no cursory glances for blind people. All must be savored and chewed slowly if it’s to make any impact, and so what might take a sighted museum-goer a single trip to see, could take several for a blind person and her trusty describer.

Godin presents crushed lockers at the Whitney MuseumBack in the states, it never hurts to ask about art accessibility. At the Whitney, we were pleasantly surprised when, upon asking if there’s a discount for blind patrons, we received the good news that it would be free for me–whether this was policy or not was unclear, but it was nonetheless welcome and, in addition to having a fine time talking through the art, with many articulate gestures on the one hand and far-flung questions and analogies on the other, we apparently attracted attention. More than once, Alabaster caught strangers filming or photographing us.

Which brings us back to our Met tour on Saturday in which I was able to touch Ancient Egypt. It was really cool to feel the mane of the lion goddess, and squeeze the nose of a king’s sarcophagus, but my favorite part of the tour, and the reason it far surpassed the tour the Met organized a couple years back of the very same objects, was spending time reading the hieroglyphs with the help of our personal Egyptologist (and voiceover artist extraordinaire), Lloyd Floyd.

Before we learned which artifacts I could touch, we started the tour at a colossus where Lloyd Floyd described the pharaoh’s many titles, spelled out in hieroglyphs, and I found it difficult to concentrate, but later, with my hands on the hieroglyphs, the meanings that he explained corresponded to a sense impression–just as you, my dear sighted reader, may take information in through your sense of sight while listening to information regarding that description.

I realized how incredibly enlightening it was to hear what the signs meant when I was not splitting my brains trying to keep the image just described in my head at the same time as incorporating information about the object described. In other words, incorporating two abstract concepts into my poor pickled brain at the same time is exponentially harder than incorporating one abstract and one concrete–or in this case granite!

That’s not to say that, as mentioned above, it is not wonderful to receive a description of an art object, but it takes a long time, and when the description of what is seen comes at you alongside esoteric context, the brain easily boggles! However, with my hand on the hieroglyph my ear became very attentive. Besides, feeling the shapes and being able to participate in the discussion of whether the thing under my fingers, and their gaze, represented, as the archaeologists claim, a horned viper or, as our senses suggested, a slug, was a precious moment, not to be underestimated.

Not all museum pieces are made of virtually indestructible granite, but there are other ways of creating environments of art accessibility. Through models and replicas and many other ingenious tactile analogies as described in an article at Art Beyond Sight. Mentioned in that article is a brief warning to be careful not to make the experiences segregated:

“Some museums offer visitors in-depth tactile investigation of selected works, Godin experiences art accessibility at The Metfrequently in an alternate space. It is crucial that this not become a “segregated” program, but rather a supplementary educational approach to gallery programming.”

I agree with this, and believe the experience of others to my even being in a museum makes the whole experience educational in a multi-faceted and fun way–nothing like freaking out sighted people on a Saturday afternoon at The Met!

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Submitting: A Day in the Life of A Blind Writer, Essay 24 of #52essays2017

Black Static cover.Yesterday I sent off a story–a rather sick and twisted tale that has disturbed the dreams of more than one workshop companion–to a reputable UK horror magazine using Submittable. If you’re not a writer, Submittable may be new to you, but if you are a writer, you can hardly avoid it these days. Submittable is the online hub of submitting work for journals, magazines, even fellowships. I’ve used it many times and have always been so happy and grateful that it exists.

Submitting electronically makes it possible for writers who are blind to participate in the vital, if often painful, act of submitting work without sighted help.

So, while submitting “Beautiful Limbs” to Black Static yesterday, I was aghast to find that, according to my screen reader, there was no button to choose a file or browse for one. In other words, I suddenly could not attach my story. And for those non-screen reader users, buttons are usually pretty accessible. I cursed and then asked Alabaster to mouse click the damn thing for me, and took it from there–the “submit” button was still accessible.

Then, as is becoming my habit, I wrote a note to the tech support at Submittable telling them about the problem and offering to help test any changes, a typical example of how I reach out in the face of such difficulties:

Hello,

I am a blind writer and have used Submittable many times for submitting in the past (and also as a member of the editorial review board for Newtown Literary), and today is the first time I’ve not been able to attach a file. My sighted partner had to click the “choose file” button, which did not appear to my screen reader Jaws in Firefox, though the “submit” button showed up fine. Usually such buttons are no problem at all…

Please let me know if I can be of any further service, and feel free to have your developers reach out with any questions, or if they would like me to test anything out for them.

Sincerely,

Leona

Happily, Submittable is awesome and I received an email within a couple hours:

Hello Leona,

Thank you for letting us know. We’ll get this fixed asap. I’ve also let our development team know about your kind offer to help them test the system. I’ll be back in touch when I get word of a fix.

Thanks again! Best,

Laurie

Although I always offer to help developers test their systems, I’ve only received a taker once before, and that from the premiere screen writing software Final Draft, with whom I’m working as a beta tester, which is super. It’s just kind of sad that most of the time developers do not take me up on my offer. Why not? Hubris? That’s my guess until some one of them explains it otherwise….

I try really hard not to get frustrated by these encounters with lack of accessibility in the writing community, but it’s hard.

I recently filled out an extensive application for the PEN Center Emerging Voices Fellowship, where several of the menus–age, gender, race, etc.–were not accessible, another frustrating case, as combo boxes and drop-down menus are usually very accessible. So I let Submittable tech support know, and asked Alabaster to take care of these, as the deadline was strict, and there was no time to wait around for a fix.

I also had him choose “Other” in the race box, so that I could type in, “I feel it is important to state that although I am white, I experience many challenges because of my blindness.” Disability is rarely included in statements of diversity, though I think that is changing.

Because the Emerging voices Fellowship is meant to help out traditionally unheard voices, I was able to press the issue further, into the short answers. For example, to the question “Explain why you think you are locked out of the literary establishment,” I wrote:

I have a degenerative eye disease, which means that I’ve occupied pretty much every notch on the sight blindness continuum, but oddly, as my sight has decreased, the technology that gives me access to new books, journals, electronic submissions–in short all the things that are vital to a budding writing career–has flourished. Still, there’s a long way to go. even in this application, there are a few dropdown menus that are not accessible and for which I will need help before submitting. I run into such difficulties often, and I try to let web developers know, but if I picked every accessibility fight, I would hardly have time to write. Thus, in a very practical way, I have been, and often still am, locked out of the literary establishment.

Tin House cover.Up until very recently, it was virtually impossible for me to gain access in a timely fashion to contemporary literature. This is part of the reason that I stuck close to the Early Modern Period in graduate school. Through my twenties and thirties, almost nothing was available to me, and now I am surprised when I cannot get ahold of a new book. This is wonderful, but I feel I have a lot of catching up to do with regards contemporary literature.

Even now, there is snobbery in the literary community regarding eBooks, which are accessible books. Happily, more and more prestigious journals–“Tin House,” “Ploughshares,” “Granta“–are available as Kindle books, but others, such as “Glimmer Train,” are not. The point was driven home in a “Publishers Weekly” article, “Bill Henderson Marks 40 Years of the Pushcart Prize.” In it, the founding editor explains why there will not be a digital version of the acclaimed anthology. “’In the future, anyone can read it without using a battery”,'” which indicates a naïve understanding of readers and a complete disregard for accessibility. This illustrates how, even though the technology exists, there is an ideology that keeps myself and other print disabled people locked out of the literary establishment.

In a Catapult workshop I am currently in, we read “Cremains” by Sam Lipsyte, and though I enjoyed the story, my appreciation of the writing was tempered by the portrayal of Hilda, the blind character, who is fantastically stereotyped and badly drawn–I don’t know any blind people who can’t do their own dishes for example. Of course, as writers we will all be mistaken in our portrayals of the other, but until some corrective is offered in the form of blind people taking some control of their literary image, mythology, and metaphorics, not to mention the mundane bits of life that the sighted cannot know experientially, the stories will remain terribly lopsided both in terms of number and authenticity.

*This is essay 24 of #52essays2017. Read #23 “She Doesn’t Look Blind to Me” The Blind Actor Phenomenon, where I talk about challenges facing the blind actor*

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“She Doesn’t Look Blind to Me” The Blind Actor Phenomenon, Essay 23 of #52essays2017

In my last essay inspired by attending the NYC Disability Pride Parade, I presented a small rant on the dearth of actors with disabilities representing themselves on television. And I got to thinking about how, in a troubling landscape, I can say with as few sour grapes as possible, that the blind actor is pretty much non-existent, excepting of course in a certain Vanda commercial starring me!

Blindness is a very weird disability since, without the accoutrements of white cane or guide dog, it doesn’t look like much, which is why, I suppose, I receive comments on the Vanda iSpot page doubting my authenticity. Here’s an example from George:

“Doesn’t look blind to me. Her eyes are following the action. She at least has some vision.”

And another from Rhonda:

“This is an actor!!! They need real blind people. They stopped this one with the actor woman. Now they have an Afganastan [sic] vet.”

For some reason, Ronda believes in the vet, but not me, the assumption is that the vet is a real blind person, which in fact he is. Mike and I shot our commercials at the same time and chatted during lunch once. But why getting blinded in war is more credible than having an eye disease remains a mystery.

I am not alone in being denied authenticity. On Molly’s Dove Shower Foam iSpot page, I read a comment from Roseanne:

“don’t think she’s blind”

And another from Carol:

“Same she doesn’t look hummm noract like any actual blind person I know and I have friends and family blind from infancy to loss of sight from wound in war to elderly! And lost sight even to being diabedic [sic]. She doesn’t appear to act in any way as they do”

Spelling mistakes and typos aside, I accept these comments as representative of a certain percentage of the American sighted population. Happily for Molly (and human kind), there are others who believe. Someone took the time to Google her and discovered her authenticity. From Shelley:

“I googled it and I think her name is Molly Burke and she has retinitis pigmentosis [pigmentosa]. You gradually lose your eye sight when you have that. My grandma had it along with two of her sisters. She was declared blind in 1967 but didn’t completely lose all her sight until 10 or so years later.”

Indeed Molly Burke is authentic and has a popular YouTube channel in which she talks about life with blindness.

I wonder if others in the disabled world get victimized by such able-bodied scrutiny. Probably. And yet there are disabilities that are hard to fake. No one doubts that Peter Dinklage, who plays Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, is the real deal.

Part of the problem is that able-bodied actors have been portraying and often winning Academy Awards for their performances of disabilities for so long that seeing someone who is actually disabled defying stereotypes–not looking blind, for example–that when they see the real thing, they doubt the authenticity and somehow feel duped. It’s odd that people cannot imagine a real blind actor, but only real blind people, as if actors were not also people.

For my Celebrating People With Disabilities in Film and Television article I wrote for NYFA earlier this month, I was delighted to find enough actors with disabilities that I could not fit them all into my space limitations. However, beyond the TV ads, I had to stretch for a blind actor.

 

Kitty McGeever starred in the long-running “Emmerdale,” but sadly died age 48 as a result of many health issues. McGeever was the first blind actor to star in a British soap. Having trained at RADA, she lost her sight at the age of 33, shortly before winning her role on “Emmerdale.” She described her character as “naughty” and “manipulative in the extreme” to the BBC, and added, Lizzy “uses her disability to her advantage and then disregards it to her advantage whenever and whichever way she chooses.

 

There’s also a young French actor Melchior Derouet, who starred opposite Natalie Portman in Paris Je T’aime. Here’s a fun Hollywood Reporter article about him navigating Cannes.

When I was called to audition for the part of Reba on NBC’s Hannibal, I dreamed of not just the stardom and money, but the idea of doing talk shows and the like, speaking as myself to a mass audience of sighted people about my particular flavor of blindness. How delicious, I thought, and important, to offer a perspective that might not square with the usual perceptions! I also imagined insisting on the importance of having people represent themselves on TV, providing more nuanced and authentic representations, representations that have behind them, at least to some extent, experience that reaches beyond stereotypes. This is important not only regards viewers but also the immense cast and crews on a television or film set.

The director of the Vanda ads, Malcolm Venville, told me on our first day of shooting that how I moved was so interesting. That it was so different from how a sighted person moved, and yet subtle and not what you see in the media–not superhuman and not slapstick. The cast and crew’s experience of a blind actor can only help to explode stigmatic portrayals. There is hardly a mainstream blind actor working today, and yet the portrayal of blindness is practically a staple on the TV series, where main characters are struck blind at alarming rates, usually just before jumping the shark–yes, I’ve got Fonzie’s Blindness in mind.

But things they are a changing, and I’m excited for the blind kids coming up. Soon, I hope, it will be as frowned upon to have a blind character played by a sighted as to run around in blackface. But for now, we must be satisfied with pharmaceutical ads and training videos… Below you can watch my friend George Ashiotis and I tell poll workers how to treat people who are blind!

 

*This is #23 of #52essays2017. Check out #22 Disability Pride Parades Matter 2, about my happy march up Broadway flying my freak flag with thousands of others!*

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Disability Pride Parades Matter II: people with disabilities are the most unrepresented minority in Hollywood, #22 of #52essays2017

Last year I wrote about why Disability Pride Parades Matter, from a bookish perspective since I unfortunately did not make it to the parade. This year, I did make it and was very pleased to run into friends including my old pals from Lighthouse Guild Music School! They may never forgive me for flubbing my chance to distinguish the Lighthouse from amongst the hundreds of other disabilities organizations in my impromptu loudspeaker announcement, but perhaps this video mitigates somewhat. Anyway, please excuse my excitable camera guy, who got a little nervous when I took the mic–he’s a much better singer composer!)

As an actor and writer for New York Film Academy, I’m acutely aware of the challenges actors with disabilities face. So it was exciting for me and many others to have Micah Fowler of the current hit TV show “Speechless” grand marshal this year’s Disability Pride Parade.

Born with cerebral palsy, Fowler started acting when he was five. In a Vulture interview Fowler said, “I think it is sad that less than 2 percent of actors on screen are themselves actually disabled. Growing up a huge television and movie fan, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of representation of both disabled actors and disabled characters being portrayed on television. So I am so very excited that “Speechless,” a prime-time network-television show, conquers both of those missing links by having both an actor actually living with cerebral palsy as a main character and by having a “character” in the story line living with a disability.”

Although Fowler and other young actors with disabilities such as Lauren Potter who played Becky Jackson on Fox’s hit show “Glee” and Jamie Brewer who played several recurring roles on “American Horror Story,” including Nan in “Coven,” who both have Down Syndrome, offer viewers the glimmer of a new trend of hiring actors with disabilities, things are still pretty dismal.

According to a Variety article informed by a 2016 study released by Ruderman White Paper, “95% of characters with disabilities in top 10 TV shows are played by able-bodied actors,”

The study was commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation and took a comprehensive look at employment of actors with disabilities in television, and reveals that “people with disabilities are the most unrepresented minority in Hollywood.”

In all of this, there is a need for activism and a push for hiring practices to shift, but there are also things disabled people can do for themselves by themselves. A good example is marching in disability pride parades, because they bring bunches of disabilities into the public eye.

I could have wished that there were a few more people along the parade route yesterday, but there were a whole lot of people marching, and it felt good, though, I believe it was a little lacking in spectacle–a few too many matching t-shirts, if you ask me. I think we need to rip a page off the gay pride parade handbook. We need costumes and we need floats! I have big plans for a braille dress next year! But of course, Gay Pride has got a few decades on us.

Daryl Mitchell, who stars in NCIS New Orleans, was an established actor before a 2001 motorcycle accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. With support from friends, including Denzel Washington and Chris Tucker, he has continued his career and now stars in “NCIS: New Orleans.” He is an advocate for employing actors with disabilities. In an Ability Magazine interview Mitchell says, “You meet with these Labor Department guys, and you can tell everybody is enthused and ready to go. That’s the main thing, really. Their willingness to fly out from Washington and see us in Los Angeles and speak with us says a lot about them. But it’s really a matter of what we need to do, what we’re willing to do as people with disabilities. We need to be more boisterous. We need to let the world know that we’re here.”

So here’s to boisterous disabled people, costumed and bejeweled, marching in the Disability Pride Parade 2018!

*This is #22 of #52essays2017. Read #21 Bobst Library, the Education of the Blind, and the Buffoon of Saint-Ovide in which I wax nostalgic about my NYU library adventures and another kind of spectacle!*

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Bobst Library, the Education of the Blind, and The Buffoon of Saint-Ovide, Essay 21 of #52essays2017

When I started my grad degree at NYU, I was given, for my nearly exclusive use, a little padded cell in the basement of Bobst Library where, in the beginning, I read books on the history of the education of the blind alongside postmodern theorists. It was black, or I remember it as such because of the black acoustic foam on the walls. The room was insulated in order to keep the electronic voices from seeping out into the quiet library. It was the A Level below the main floor and it, along with the B Level was open twenty-four hours a day, excepting holidays. This meant that studious NYUers could enter any time of the day or night.

These were the days before the several students launched themselves off the balcony, perhaps hypnotized by the interlocking pattern of colored marble on the main floor. I know that on the occasions I was up there looking down, I felt drawn, and could easily imagine the invitation, the siren song of putting an end to the interminable expectations of youth. While I was still at NYU, the gates went up on the stairways and around the balconies to keep this from happening.

As I walked across that shiny expanse that reminded me of a ballroom, I usually looked up not down. Although I thought how wonderful it would be to study up there in the light-filled spaces of the upper floors, my reading equipment was below ground. And so usually, I walked across the expanse to the bank of elevators that opened near my little room with its keypad code entrance just for the visually impaired and blind students of NYU.

If I looked left on my walk to the elevators, I saw the circulation desk and, in the first couple years I was there anyway, the card catalogue to the right. Later those very particular looking chests of pullout drawers with their little cards that held thousands of books–inaccessible to me since I was a very young teenager were replaced with a museum-style exhibition area with pointed lighting. No one would be using those cards anymore; every book would be catalogued online and accessible forever more, thank god.

The times I rode the elevator up instead of down, it was with my reader. We would hit the card catalogue and then troop around collecting my books. He would read some of those books to me–an intimate experience that deserves its own essay–but many of the books, especially those I planned to read from cover to cover and that boasted clear print, would get taken down to my little black padded cell to be scanned by an enormous stand-alone electronic reader called a Kurzweil. Today my Kurzweil software is in my laptop and I often use it to download books or occasionally to scan them on a portable scanner that is about the same size as my laptop, and it does a great job–big improvements in OCR over the past twenty years!

I kept a little pile of books in a plastic bag under the desk in my padded cell, and once, after a night out with friends–those were the days before guide dogs and white canes when I still looked normal and could mostly travel freely–I entered and scanned a book on the history of the education of the blind. I read drunkenly and while eating my bodega bagel, about Valentin Haüy’s dramatic discovery of ten blind performers, an account that always stands at the origin of the education of the blind.

Stumbling into a not-very classy entertainment venue in eighteenth-century Paris inspired Haüy to begin his path that would eventually lead him to found the first school for the blind. The scene of the blind men, gussied up and banging their broken instruments delighted the crowd. It may have been the Age of Enlightenment for the philosophes, but the rabble wanted their lowbrow fun! Here’s a representative version found in Journey into Light: The Story of the Education of the Blind (1951:

“Valentin Haüy was strolling through the streets of Paris one autumn day in 1771, some years before his meeting with Maria von Paradis, when a crowd hooting and laughing in front of St. Ovide’s Cafe on the Place Louis-le-Grand-today the Place Vendome-drew his attention. This grave young scholar crossed the cobbles to see what amused the shrill-voiced women in ruffled panniers, the rowdy men in tricorn hats, coarse yellow cloth coats, black breeches and copper-buckled shoes.

“He stared incredulously at the mummery being enacted on a platform raised above the cafe tables. Ten blind men scraped their bows in pantomime, drawing shattering discord from violins, cellos, basses and viols. They stared blankly at sheet music turned on the racks so that the notes were visible to the jeering audience. Their sightless eyes were ringed with huge pasteboard spectacles devoid of glass. They wore grotesque robes, with dunces’ caps and asses’ ears. A Midas headdress distinguished their leader. A peacock tail unfurled was the backdrop for his operations.

“Lighted candles cast shadows on their weary faces and gave raw emphasis to their infirmity. … Every day for two months they had scraped, fiddled and kept up a monotonous accompanying chant, while their audience jeered, banged tankards on the tables and screeched bawdy jokes. Now and again a drunken couple rose and danced in the street to the fantastic music. The rowdies who gathered at night stormed the blind men’s platform and would have demolished it in their exuberance but for a cordon of guards called in to keep order.

“Already the place was being renamed the Cafe des Aveugles [Café of the Blind]. Prints advertising the curious show were sold by M. Mondhar on the Rue St. Jacques, with a sketch of the scene, an announcement, and some misspelled doggerel verse.”

This extraordinary scene is woven into the origin story of the education of the blind, and it continues to haunt me because, after twenty years, I still doubt I’ll ever be able to shrug the moment off as being alarming, inexhaustible fodder for art. Here’s the first piece I ever wrote for The Spectator & the Blind Man, first published as flash fiction at Danse Macabre.

The Buffoon of Saint-Ovide

Hospice Quinze-Vingts, 1772

When the first fat coin smacked my face, I had to admit Monsieur might have been right about his strange money making venture. Of course that wasn’t my first thought. My first thought was, “Ow, what the hell?” And my second thought was, “Shit! Where’d it go?” I wanted to look for it, but I thought that if Monsieur saw me groping around in the dirt for it, he’d be on my ass yelling, “Get back to your banging and scraping blind man!”

The scoundrel had got us to agree to divide The take fifty-fifty, i.e., He would get half and the ten of us would have to split the rest. So I bet you’re thinking, “Well now, doesn’t that sound fair.” And of course we recognized the bamboozle. After all, we’d be doing all the work, making asses of ourselves etc. But here’s the thing: it was his idea. I mean, how could we have known you people would be so easily entertained? The sighted have very strange taste!

Monsieur had also got us our costumes and instruments, such as they were. But he hadn’t warned us about coins being flung at our faces, so after the coin bounced off my face and into the dirt, I decided to do a subtle reconnaissance. It was a delicate operation considering the fact that I was supposed to be playing the fiddle with the stick or whatever it’s called, and all that scraping and banging and yelling and clapping made it pretty difficult to concentrate on the business of my big toe.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m used to a tranquil or meditative lifestyle. I mean, I live with three hundred blind people who are constantly bashing around and messing with each other. It’s not the Paris madhouse, but it sure can get crazy in here! Still, you cannot imagine how damn loud it was at the Saint-Ovide Fair that night. There must have been a thousand people greedily imbibing our blind buffoonery!

Anyway, while my big toe was still looking around for my coin, I heard Jacques (who was next to me), go “Oof!” I guessed that he’d been hit with a coin of his own.

Then I realized he was crawling around in the dirt for it. “Holy horse manure!” I said to myself, “So much for subtlety. That guy’s as subtle as an elephant in a tutu. As subtle as that skinny, syphilitic whore with the oozing boob who calls herself Jubilee. As subtle as the paper spectacles rimming my blind eyes and the dunce cap with ass’s ears sitting on my head. As subtle as Denis, who suddenly starts braying like an ass! Seriously? Does he think he’s singing? Amazing. The stupid crowd is eating it up. This is war!”

I was not about to be outdone by that clown, so I wagged my head a little and trotted in place like a dancing donkey. It worked! People banged their tankards and cheered. Encouraged, I wagged more vigorously and trotted with gusto, and yep, brayed out some bits of song too.

All of a sudden the coins came fast and furious, too many to count. For a few exhilarating moments I felt like I had found my calling. I would be an entertainer. Make a ton of money. Delusions of grandeur, as ridiculous as any of Jacques’s, who always comes home from a day’s begging, convinced that the grand lady who’d tossed him a penny would certainly adopt him as her blind pet project.

I don’t indulge in that kind of bullshit, and I’ll tell you why. Because just when you think you might be able to do something other than live with a bunch of disgusting blind guys who are so horny they rub against anything that breathes, and smell like piss and moldy cheese twenty four seven, just when you think you might be able to get a taste of some other life, that other life jumps up, smacks you on the forehead, and says, “Get real blind man. You will never amount to anything.”

Case in point: The coins were flying, high velocity, dropping all around. Excited and reckless, I bent over to do, I don’t know, some kind of spastic crouching jogging thing, and slammed my eyeball, such as it was, into the corner of the music stand in front of me.

The music stands had been set up in front of each of us with their sheets of music facing the spectators. Nice comic touch, eh? But I’d forgotten it was there. Being blind is so marvelous.

Anyway, it really hurt. Started gushing. People laughed. But I couldn’t keep up the dancing donkey routine anymore. Besides, now all the guys were dancing. They’d realized it was solid gold. I heard later that Monsieur wanted more dancing as the crowd loved it, but by then I was feeling quite miserable, to say the least.

My mangled eyeball got infected, of course, and for the next six weeks I lay on my cot, certain I was dying. To add to my misery, the guys came back every night from the “Café of the Blind,” as it had been dubbed in our honor, with full pockets, whores, and massively inflated egos. They thought they were made, but I knew it wouldn’t last. And I was right.

After a month the crowds lost interest. Monsieur said thanks but he wouldn’t be needing their services anymore. He told them to run along back to their pathetic lives. (Our pathetic lives.) But at least they got that month. All I got was this stupid empty eye socket.

 

*This is essay 21 of #52essays2017. Read #20 From Derrida to Diderot: The Philosophe’s Dream to learn more about the history of the education of the blind and The Spectator & the Blind Man*

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