CRAWLING BLIND AND OTHER PENULTIMATE VISIONS
I had a dream that I was crawling blind. Since the dream I keep meaning to try it. For some reason I forgot to do it on the last crawl and the one before that I was thinking about Burn’s death and I wanted my eyes open.
A busy warm evening on Broadway in Harlem could be a good time to crawl blind. My plan is to try one block without sight. I tell myself I must do it, but I can feel there’s a chance I might lose my nerve.
The dry cleaner closed early. No idea why. The steel gates are shut tight. My suit is locked inside and the crawl is scheduled to start in thirty minutes. For a second I think I might need to cancel. Teddy and Larry are already on their way uptown.
I consider my options. I could wear anything. Who says I must wear that exact same suit? Nobody gives a shit--- always a liberating realization. But I wouldn’t want to break the continuity of the piece. I crawl in that suit! The suit has become the uniform. Maybe it’s time to let go and improvise. These things happen for a reason. The crawl must go on.
I choose another suit that once belonged to my father. I’ve got a few. No point in ditching the father connection. The suit is a rare green with a hint of gold and blue pin stripes. The inside lining is ripped up pretty bad.
The sun is sliding down a cloudless sky and Broadway is thumping, thronged and humming with people. Bass pumps from cars, the air is warm, soft, and a breeze is moving the leafy green trees. I wait alone for a few minutes on the corner. Larry arrives with his fourteen-year old son Jack, a budding young filmmaker. Some small talk and waiting as I gear up. Jack will be carrying my little daypack.
We can’t wait for Teddy. The penultimate crawl must begin. At the last moment Teddy ambles towards us across the intersection at 135th street. We all embrace before I begin. The sensation that we are near the end of the crawl is infusing every moment. Pads and gloves on—I drop down to the ground as the light turns green.
After one block I remember the blind idea. At the start of the next block I dare myself to shut my eyes.
It turns out crawling blind on a crowded city street is deeply alarming. It feels like a nightmare and I want to wake up, but I’m already awake. All adrenaline, internal alarms ringing wrong and dangerous---exactly like crawling with vision felt at first, way down by Wall Street. Who knew that I could make it new just by shutting my eyes?
I’ve created a bit of an emergency for myself. I attempt to stay calm with a plan to feel my way along and eventually reach the corner curb at the end of the block. But my sense of direction is spun. Which way is forward? Do not open your eyes, I keep telling myself. Do not break your promise.
Being blind is only half the battle. It’s the staying blind that is hard. This is a volunteer situation. This is temporary elective blindness. The desire to open my eyes is nearly too much. I move slow and tense. I am sure I appear to be very out of sorts, like I’ve lost my contact lenses, or worse. My hands are now my eyes and I am sweeping them around in front of me on the sidewalk. I feel loose ground under my gloves, mulch from around a sidewalk tree? I planted trees and spread mulch all over the city when I worked as a landscaper in the 1990s. I know the feeling of the bark pieces in my hand. Trees are planted near the curb so I must be veering off course. It takes real effort to manage my desperate need to see. I hear people saying things to me in English and Spanish, but I am too focused on finding my way to respond.
I move to the right and feel for a seam in the sidewalk that I can follow. Rock climbers follow seams, small openings, up stone faces. The sounds of the teeming urban scene are bouncing off my body, poking me, making me wince and cower. I need to find my seam. I should have done that before I closed my eyes. Once I have a seam I will trust it to lead me in a straight line to the end of the block. I’ve studied these seams for miles of crawling. They are a constant on every sidewalk. Where is it? The small space between the squares. I finally find it through a hole in the finger of my leather glove. Now I have my lifeline north.
I imagine this blind experience is a little like pre-birth. I am all the way back in the near blackness of the birth canal and the sounds outside are getting closer. Or maybe I’ve finally disappeared up my own ass. Whatever the case I am being pushed out into the world again.
The blindness changes the way I crawl. I am painfully careful, attempting to sense with my whole being. This is a radical new level of vulnerability. I am aware of my motions, one movement, then the next, stringing them together, making my progress. I can feel my face is bunched up in a pained grimace.
A child screams at me. The sound slaps at my head from above, and off to the side.
“Get up. It’s dirty. You’re crawling! You’re crawling on the street. Stop it!”
I look towards the child but I keep my eyes shut. I imagine this must appear rather disturbing, but I can’t stop now. Scaring children wasn’t part of the plan…
The child’s mother warns him away from me, but the kid keeps ranting, more annoyed than scared. I want to show him my eyes. I think my eyes might calm him down. But I can’t let that happen. I made a vow to myself. I have never been so hungry to see. I keep following the seam forward through my self -imposed darkness.
When I arrive at the corner I feel the curb and then the road in front of me. I hear a car rush by. I open my eyes and the world floods back into view. The colors are like air and I’ve just finished holding my breath for as long as I could.
The return of vision sets off a powerful chemical reaction in my body and I feel grateful, elated and shaken.
I wait for the light to change and my eyeballs drink in the visuals. An elderly man dressed all in white is standing by my side. White slippers and white pants and a white short sleeve button down shirt. His shock of hair is white too. He looks very old world, a slight build, like a jockey. He is light on his feet. He looks like he has come to collect me.
“Hola,” I say, knowing somehow that he does not speak English.
He speaks to me in Spanish and I hear words like Mafia and Christo and Cabron and Caballo, Corazon and Finca. He’s animated and spry and he begins to sort of dance around and clear the way for me. He blocks traffic for me and gestures my way like I am his prized and sacred animal, like I am for sale, or maybe just for show. I ask him his name.
“Roberto,” he says and smiles as if he already knows that this is my name too.
My Spanish isn’t so good anymore, but I try to talk with the man in white the best I can. After a while I decide it’s time for another first. With one crawl to go I need to get these things out of the way.
“Yo soy un caballo. Vamanos!” I say, motioning to my back. (I am a horse. Let’s go!)
His small eyes light up and without hesitation he gets on my back and rides me for twenty or thirty feet. He is light-- so light I wonder if he is real. I knew someone would ride me eventually. I just needed to find the right person. This guy is perfect.
Turns out a little goes a long way when someone is riding you up Broadway. It’s not long before I’m done being his horse and I pretend to buck and throw him and he understands the motion and jumps off me. Now he’s got a red rose in his hand and he’s taking out cash and waving it around. Maybe he’s trying to sell rides on the crawler’s back. It may be good that I can’t understand all that he is saying. I hear the words Don Quixote.
I make my way across a street and an agitated guy breaks away from a knot of maleness on the far corner and moves towards me, aggressive, angry, showing the street that he’s going to deal with me--- physically.
He speaks English and Spanish as he grabs my arm and tries to yank me to my feet. He smells maybe drunk or maybe cologne, and he’s compact, biceps bulging out of short sleeves. I resist and get up on my knees and pull my arm back towards my body as we struggle for a second. Violence is near. Our faces are close.
“Todos Bien!” I say hard, a few times in response to whatever he’s saying.
“Don’t bring this shit around here,” he says.
Not sure what he thinks I’m bringing but I say “Todos Bien!” again. Everything is Okay!
He can feel in my body, and see in my eyes, that I am not about to get to my feet without a fight and he gives up on me and returns to his knot of surly dudes.
The odd man in white is back and he stays with me for a few more blocks before a lady in short shorts and a skimpy top lures him away. But wait, he’s back. He’s putting money on the ground in front of me. Then he’s gone again. Cops appear and ask if I’m okay. I tell them yes and they go. More cops. Same thing. Friendly, open, innocent looking young people with badges and guns.
Night falls. The sky to the west has gone from fire to violet and now the afterglow. I am sweating freely and the city pulses electric in every direction.
At 149th street I stop, collapse and roll over onto my back. I stare up at the sky, looking for a star. Unexpected tears in my eyes blur my vision. When I get up we find a place to have a cold drink and talk things over. I am reeling and thirsty.
Later, shortly after midnight, Teddy and I walk north a few blocks towards my apartment and his train home. On a dark quiet block that runs alongside Trinity cemetery we hear a bird singing. The song is joyous, urgent, like this is it for the bird, like right now every note the bird knows must be sung and sung with feeling. Teddy and I look at each other and nod with the understanding that we have come upon a strange and rare performance. We can’t quite tell where the bird is. We zero in on a scraggly twenty-five foot tall cedar tree just up ahead. The city is quiet here and the bird is filling the night with music, hidden safely in the bushy crown of the tree. We slow down and approach as the bird keeps continually topping itself with new variations. When we stop beneath the cedar tree the singing cuts off mid note. The end is sudden and startling. We wait a second for the sound to begin again, but we can tell by the silence--- the song is over.