The Blind Leading the Stupid

(Published in the Spring 2007 issue of Breath and Shadow)
(Edited by Kari Pope)

It was the performance of a lifetime.

All my acting training, the dozens of roles I’d portrayed, the thousands of plays I’d performed in….all of it had led up to this. My piece de resistance. My entire life’s work had been preparation for this one…split…second.

Was I ready? Did I have the balls for it?

You’d better believe I did.

I was rushing through Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport (well, if you want to call my jerky imitation of Pinocchio “rushing”), after being dumped off a scant few hundred yards from my gate by the Woop-Woop Cart. (Those are the carts with sirens that transport the aged and infirm through larger airports; the drivers are crazed with panic, and apparently the loud “woop-woop” sound the carts make causes absolutely no one to move out of the way.)

The plane to Atlanta was just a shuttle, so we’d disembarked out on the tarmac. The sun had just bloomed over the horizon when we touched down, so I put on my sunglasses as we left the plane. In my haste to reach my next gate in time, I didn’t give them another thought.

My cane, one of those generic chrome four-footed jobs, was missing a rubber bumper, so it made an annoying “clack, clack” as I jerked my way towards the gate. I hobbled as fast as I could up to the ticket counter.

“Has the….plane….left yet?” Breathless, I held out my boarding pass.

“No, you’re right on time, Mr. Turner,” the attendant replied sweetly. After she’d run my pass over the laser, she grabbed my hand as she put the ticket back into my grip. Weird. Why did she…?

Seconds later, another attendant popped out (of the wall? Where did these folks come from?), stepped over to me and put my arm through hers. “Come on. I’ll give you a hand,” she said. “The plane’s still boarding, so we have plenty of time. Now…coming to a doorway…there’s a little step down…there you go…”

Suddenly, I understood: the cane, my limp, I still had my shades on…. I let out an involuntary laugh. They thought I was blind.

The realization hit me like a shock-wave. Are they really that stupid? My cane isn’t the least bit white…and how do they think I made it all the way to the gate unassisted? Lord.

I had to make a snap decision: Should I tell them? Or did I want to keep it going? I was an actor, after all. This would be my own personal Oscar moment. I figured I’d play it for all it was worth, throw in all the idiotic stereotypes, and see if someone caught on.

Hearing me chortle, the attendant said, “What’s funny?”

“Huh? Oh…oh, nothing. You wouldn’t believe it if I told you.” You’re looking at her face…don’t look at her face!!

In the early days of my acting career, long before my brain injury, I’d played the blind guy in Butterflies Are Free at the local community theater. It’s a play about a blind kid, Don, who finds the guts to move out on his own, away from his domineering mother. He moves into an apartment next door to a saucy piece of meat named Jill, and she and Don pretty much boff on the couch for the rest of the play.

I’d thought Jill must be pretty desperate to date a guy who couldn’t see her–remember, this was years before I became disabled myself—but the actress who played her was named Lhay Whiting, and she was beautiful. (Yes, Lhay. Pronounced like “lay.” How could I resist?)

I’d visited a school for the blind to prepare for the role, and I remembered how the blind people I’d met just look in the general direction of people they talk to. So as we walked down the jetway, I focused on a spot on the wall just beside the attendant’s head. I pasted on a huge, shit-eating grin and nodded as if I had no idea what she was talking about. (And it’s funny how people barely hid their looks of sympathy; I could see it in their eyes: Oh, this poor kid…)

The sympathy masks continued when I entered the plane. The attendant exclaimed, “This is Mr. Turner! He’s in…?” She looked at me, forgetting that I couldn’t read the boarding pass (which I almost did anyway). After a moment, she started and looked at the pass.

“12D! It’s 12D. Have a safe flight.” As she turned to scurry away, the look of relief on her face was too much. I dug my nails into my palms to keep from laughing as I shuffled around to face the flight crew.

“Misterrr Turrnerrrrrr!! Right this way…” A beautiful black attendant stepped forward and grabbed my arm. As she pulled me down the aisle towards my seat, I nervously glanced at the faces of the passengers already seated. Was I believable? Could I pull it off? The looks on their faces said I could; some people gave me looks of pity, while others just stared.

“Okay, here we are…12D,” she said, gently guiding me into the seat with her hand. “Here, let me take your luggage for you.” She reached towards my carry-on bag.

“Ummmmm….can I keep it with me?” I asked the seat in front of me.

“Well…” She tried stuffing it under the seat, but it was way too big, so she faked it. “I guess you can. I’ll just put it under this seat.” She guided my hand to it so I’d know where it was. I could tell without looking that it stuck halfway into the aisle. “All set?”

Oh jeez, I’m onto something here. I said to the seat, “Yes, thanks. Can you…I might need some help with the snacks…?”

“Of course we can!! We’ll be serving them after the plane takes off.”

I settled in for the flight. Airplanes are great for people-watching, so I began scanning the cabin for other interesting souls. Then I remembered: you’re friggin blind, idiot! I quickly unfocused my eyes and, reapplying my “I’m blind and maybe feebleminded” grin, cast my gaze back on the seat in front of me.

I was proud of my performance so far…but all the special treatment had me confused and a little nervous. Why the heck are they being so damn nice? I seriously doubt they treat all blind passengers like this. Do they know? Is all the special attention their way of setting me up?

I finally realized that there was no turning back. What’s the worst that can happen? It’s not like they’re gonna throw me off the plane.

After we took off, I began to “look” around the cabin again by doing a Ray Charles-type head swing. The other travelers were as diverse as an ACLU poster. Behind the sunglasses, I was able to really study people–their mannerisms, the way they shifted uncomfortably in their seats. I also noticed that folks would steal only quick glances at me, like they were afraid I would catch them looking. This puzzled me even more. Am I obviously a fake? Or are they really that ignorant? Just don’t break. You’re doing fine, Stevie Wonder.

We leveled off, and it was snack time. When the attendant reached me, she put down my tray table herself and positioned my hand on my soda. Then she opened my minuscule bag of pretzels and settled them in my free hand. “There you go,” she said. I was close to losing it.

“Thanks.” You can do it. Think about the time you started the mower after a newborn kitten had crawled onto the blade.

That seemed to sober me a bit. I popped the pretzels into my mouth with machine-gun rapidity and drank my soda in three gulps. My giggles stifled for the time being, I put on my headphones and dozed until we began our descent. I again marveled at the way they were treating me. Boy, if this is how blind people are really treated, I’m gonna do this every time I fly.

During my semi-slumber, an idea began brewing in the part of my brain that controls nastiness. By the time we were strapped in for landing, I’d talked myself into it.

Seeing my grin, the black attendant teased, “Now what’s so darn funny?” I sat up, startled.

“Wha…oh, it was something I was listening to.” I put my headphones into my bag.

“You like comedy, huh? You know, I saw that new movie with Tyler Perry, where he plays a woman? I laughed…” She droned on and on, but I wasn’t listening. I was absorbed by the potential fallout after my little stunt. What if they arrest me? They won’t. Just do it and get out.

We landed without incident, but a warm ball was forming in my stomach over what I was about to do.

As we taxied to the gate, the attendant gave her “Welcome to…” speech, grinning broadly at me the whole time. Towards the end, she winked. Wait a minute. Why would she do that? Does she know–

The “Fasten Seatbelt” light blinked off with a “ding,” prompting the eighty or so passengers to rise in unison. As they slowly filed towards the door, I waited, my heart racing. What now? Even if she does know, the others might not. Just do it.

After the last passenger had shuffled by, I sprang into action. I whipped off my sunglasses, stood and put my bag on my shoulder. I strolled down the aisle beaming, making sure to make eye contact with each member of the flight crew. They stood and stared, and as I approached them, their faces were like slot machines: disbelief, rage, joy, and back to disbelief again.

No one said a word, though, as I shuffled through the door into the jetway.

********************

I’m not blind. I have a brain injury, which causes me to move and talk slowly. I have no mental damage. I’m still the same charming, goofy, sneaky, malicious bastard I’ve always been. The fact that the airline people assumed I was blind because I moved and talked funny–and I happened to be wearing sunglasses—is their mistake, not mine. And in making that mistake, they picked a guy who would take it to the next level. That’s it.

But perhaps in taking it to that next level, I was too good, considering all the extra attention I got. My disability doesn’t normally gain much notice, save for the occasional holding of a door. Why, then, was I treated so well when I appeared to be blind, too? It’s a thought that still perplexes me.

As I exited the jetway into the terminal, I looked for the flight attendant who had winked at me. I just had to know whether she’d found me out, and I prepared myself for either a good laugh or a harsh scolding.

Sadly, I didn’t see her, so I was doomed never to know if she had indeed discovered my secret. Even so, I walked through the terminal with a near-spring in my step, and I was still giggling to myself when I left the airport parking lot.