Spring 2009

Volume 4, Issue 1



Blind Newsy Sees


The quickest way to show how inept you are is to work for a blind man. I learned this lesson at high school age when my blind uncle sometimes asked me to cover Friday afternoons at his newsstand, so he could catch an early train or plane for weekend frolicking.

Uncle Johnny’s newsstand was in the lobby of a federal building in downtown Brooklyn. The lobby was always teeming with people either doing business at the ground-floor post office or taking elevators to the upstairs courtrooms for trials of murderers, Communist spies, and major tax evaders. It wasn’t odd for trial defendants (with or without guards) to stop off at the newsstand on their way upstairs and, while they were waiting for the Life Savers or Juicy Fruit that would help get them through the next few hours, glimpse headlines predicting they were about to be sentenced to prison for the rest of their lives. I didn’t care about the prison part. My worries were about the Life Savers and the Juicy Fruit.

To compensate for his lack of sight, my uncle set his wares over two enormous counters, two display cases, and various wall racks in a meticulous coded arrangement that would have stirred envy from the New York Public Library. His main improvement on the Dewey Decimal System was that he dispensed with the call numbers. The candy and gum, for instance, might have been logically enough in the stand’s candy and gum areas, but that was like saying they were in the appropriate annexes of Willy Wonka’s factory. Beyond that, and with a waiting customer tapping his foot for reasons other than being musical, any bumbling substitute vendor was on his own pawing at the chocolate bars that occupied one row, the hard candy tubes that occupied the row below, and the chunky mound things that occupied the one above. The key to the system, as Johnny could have told anyone he had felt moved to tell, was not alphabetical order, assortments next to their constituents going solo, or the separation of the suckables from the chewables, but feel. When he reached down to the third row in his candy section, he expected to distinguish the flatter surface of the plain Hershey from the lumpier almond kind the next box over. It was the fools with 20-20 vision who created confusion every time they went for the Chuckles and came up with the Dots.

But at least the candy and gum were displayed openly enough for most customers to do their own reaching before paying. That wasn’t the case with the cigars and the cigarettes, numerous enough to send a surgeon-general screaming into an alternate universe. The cigars were exhibited under glass with the box tops open and facing the customer. This would not have been remarkable except for the sloppy practice of manufacturers to advertise their brand name on the inside of the top, which was also facing outward to the customer. The result was that reaching down from behind the lid could easily turn into a game of non-blind man’s buff - a game that became especially thrilling when a customer forgot he had an index finger for pointing. A terse “two White Owls” without accompanying gesture could lead to a scramble through the whole bird kingdom before landing on the right box. This wasn’t a problem for Uncle Johnny, of course. Since he had decades of sales figures in his head, he knew the White Owls, Muriels, and other big sellers deserved pride of access right inside the sliding door at the back of the display cabinet while the premium-priced specials from countries he had never heard of belonged in the extreme front to the extreme left where his hand seldom traveled. Unfortunately for inferiority complexes, when there was the random request for one of these specials, he got to it with a swiftness suggesting he hadn’t anticipated anything else.

The thirty-odd cigarette brands posed a different challenge. Bottoms protruding, these were stacked in vertical slots behind the counter. This allowed for a comparative study of manufacturing lot numbers, but otherwise the package bottoms had only one thing in common - they didn’t identify the brand for anyone except the quality control people back in North Carolina. Granted that with some practice you could remember that only a dozen brands printed the lot numbers in red while all the others used black, but as retail aids went, this wasn’t much. None of this mattered to Uncle Johnny, either. He stacked them into the slots ass backwards because he insisted it was easier to slide them out that way on their cellophane wraps. It was a topic he really wasn’t ready to debate, least of all for the argument that showing the tops might have permitted instant identification of the brand. Beneath what might seem like whimsical stubbornness was his profound belief that people with vision also had to learn to live with their handicaps.

As for the order of the stacking, it started off plausibly, with Camels, Lucky Strikes, and the other people’s choice brands occupying the slots closest to the front of the stand. But then, somewhere in the vicinity of the menthols, the hit parade buckled. Once again, the key was the feel - specifically, the L&M box that marked off the bestsellers to its left and the also-rans for several stacks to its right. Where was the L&M soft pack? Several more files down because it had its own divider responsibilities with the boxes of other brands Madison Avenue was promoting as crush-proof. Why had L&M been given this mediation role in both cases? Both hard and soft, its cigarettes came in slightly taller packages, meaning it stuck out more from the cabinet files, meaning it hit Johnny’s hand tellingly when he did a quick swipe over the cabinet, meaning he could get to some brand not in the Top Ten to the left or right of it faster.

Then there was the money. The coins presented no difficulty for Johnny because he wore a belt changer that had tactile safeguards against quarters trying to slip into nickel slots and nickels trying to fit into dime slots. The belt changer and I got along fine as long as I remembered that it worked like a gun - all squeezing, no jerking. What a jerk inevitably got the jerk was a bottom ring stuck one-third out with an unreleased coin, a finger bent on freeing the nickel or dime, and the ring seizing the finger with the disapproval of a bear trap as it dropped the coin and slid back into its metallic groove. In mundane practice, I had a big edge on Johnny on bills, but that also left me standing outside another part of the system he seemed to have worked out during a congress of Talmudic scholars. If the transaction involved only the passing of a bill for an item less than a dollar, no doubts or disputes: the assumption was that the dead president was George Washington. If the transaction was for less than a dollar and the customer helpfully declared “out of ten,” Johnny repeated “out of ten” and one of the lobby guards usually hanging around the stand sauntered over to say that the Yankees needed more pitching. In guard talk this meant the customer wasn’t a would-be conman.

Needless to say, there were times the Yankees could have found all the pitching they wanted from Johnny’s customers. One journeyman of the game, for example, tried to pass a single off for a twenty and was immediately escorted to the main door with a warning not to come back unless it was to be tried upstairs. Another wiseguy, apparently more prone to receiving than kicking when he played football, handed over two singles, then claimed one of them was a ten and asked for it back. What he hadn’t foreseen was Johnny’s rigorous delegation of pocket tasks - the left pants pocket receiving only twenties, the right pants pocket only tens, the left duster pocket open only for fives, and the right one accepting only singles. When a ten didn’t come out of the right duster pocket, the guards had somebody else to escort to the street. If there was no guard around when Johnny had serious suspicions about a customer, he resorted to the simple expedient of saying he couldn’t change the big bill being declared.

Taking such an out was no easy compromise for my uncle because it reminded him of his physical vulnerability. He didn’t like the reminder, not after years of denying any such frailty, including eschewing the use of a seeing-eye dog or cane. In their place he had developed another personal system for getting around - counting his steps. Only history’s earliest map makers matched his nerve, ambition, and reliance on primitive mathematics. When he went off to work in the morning from the apartment he shared with my grandmother, his meter marked the number of paces down to the corner, up the three blocks to the subway, and down the stairs to the train. Inside the train he was one of those obnoxious linemen who blocked the door, in his case because his regimen demanded that when he arrived at his station in downtown Brooklyn, he restart the meter from the door to the street staircase as precisely as possible. Despite the normal commuter crowds in the morning, the last lap back up on the street was usually the easiest stretch because of the probability of running into someone headed for his building. That left him with the final task of discouraging his found companion from favoring either the tortoise or the hare so his own moderate tempo wouldn‘t be jumbled.

The paces of others were just one of several irksome drawbacks to the steps system. Another annoyance was when Johnny ran into an acquaintance on the subway platform who distracted him from his calibrations about where he was with snooping questions about how he was. Higher on the irritation scale were cops or firemen who didn’t understand why he wasn’t quick to obey their orders to detour from some accident or fire site. Higher still were those who took the absence of a dog or cane as evidence he was lying about his blindness. On one occasion, this led to being hauled off to a station house for trying to disguise his pimping; on another, for being the lookout for a grocery store robbery taking place two doors away from where he was waiting for a bus. One constant of all these misadventures was that the more outrageous they were, the more he relished recounting them at holiday family gatherings with a Presbyterian in one hand and a cheese-covered cracker in the other. The neighbor he had run into on the train platform would always be a serious menace for his commuting, but the cops who had run him in as a heist lookout would always be the stuff of hilarious anecdote. It was in line with this same trajectory that he never tired of relating his single most humiliating moment. That was the evening he had come up from his normal subway stop during a violent snowstorm, had to wander more to the left than he normally did because of drifts, and begun noticing that the steps he was counting were getting hillier and hillier. He had halted that night only when a cop had yelled for him not to trudge another step through the snow or he would fall off the roof of the car he had just climbed.

But occasionally flawed as they were, Johnny’s programmed solutions to daily tests saw him through. At the stand, the magazines were flanked in a wall rack from the costliest down to the cheapest so that most customers shorter than basketball centers betrayed a grunt going up for what they wanted. Each pile of newspapers - and there were plenty of dailies in New York at the time - had its own plastic change tray, making that part of the stand look like Woolworth’s crockery department. When there were too many coins clanging other coins instead of a plastic bottom, it was the cue to empty the tray and retire the nickels and dimes to the belt changer. About the only commodity to daunt Johnny was a tree of paperbacks a distributor talked him into carrying, however briefly. The problem wasn’t his inability to negotiate their varying prices; he devised a system of razor-nicking the tops of the covers, the placement of the cuts from the spine over to the edge marking the cost category. More troublesome was that he had to stick the tree at the back of the stand where it blocked his already-narrow passage for getting out from behind the counter to go to the bathroom or just stretch his legs. “I’m spending half the day crawling around the floor picking up the goddam things,” he grumbled after his second collision. “People want to read books, let them go to the library.” The paperbacks lasted less than a month.

Johnny’s agility hardly went unnoticed. It wasn’t rare for a customer to stand back after a purchase and dare the blind man to pull the same trick with the next person to come along. Many recounted their change in disbelief it was correct. For all the help they supplied at critical junctures, the guards also frequently assumed the role of fascinated spectators. (One exception was a security man who thought nothing about trumpeting to one and all “it’s no big deal - you’re blind, you get used to it.”) This isn’t to suggest my uncle was the only blind news vendor in the city; on the contrary, since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Federal statute had given priority for such jobs to veterans and the handicapped. But because of his location, he managed to attract extra attention. If a trial upstairs hit a lull, for instance, leaving reporters to meander around while they chewed their gum flavorless, a profile of the newsstand operator broke the monotony. Invariably, unimaginative headline writers at the copy desk bannered the article with some variation on “Blind Newsy Sees…………”

Then there were the celebrities who offered other kinds of exposure. For the most part, the Leo Durochers, Danny Kayes, and Barbara Stanwycks were in the building in connection with a court case, either as defendants or as witnesses. Their stop-offs frequently got them into enough conversation to reveal Johnny’s encyclopedic knowledge of sports, theater, and movies. If it was sports, he could recall in elaborate detail when Babe Ruth had been a pitcher for the Red Sox, a slugger for the Yankees, and a bum of a coach for the Dodgers. Show business was a journey back through the Berts - Williams in vaudeville, Wheeler in the movies, and Lahr on the Broadway stage. Few of the notables remained unimpressed, and they contributed their own little tales while judges upstairs and other customers at the stand waited. Fairly regularly, they also went off to their legal appointments with promises to send tickets for this game or that performance. Most of them delivered, and I benefited from it as much as anybody.

As a rule, Johnny confined his socializing to the weekends - hitting a neighborhood bar with a cousin or a friend from childhood on Friday nights, a Manhattan restaurant with a girlfriend he had met at the Lighthouse for the Blind on Saturdays, and another restaurant in Sheepshead Bay with the same woman on Sunday afternoons. A few times a year, there were also the bowling tournament trips organized by the Lighthouse in places like Omaha and St. Louis. During week nights, however, his regular companions weren’t always available even if it meant, as it often did, orchestra seats in a Broadway theater compliments of the latest actor who had been dragged into court by the Internal Revenue Service. Those were the days I had to do my homework as soon as I returned home from high school, so I would be free in the evening to be an escort.

As adventurous as they might have been to me, Times Square’s neon marquees and billboards on a weekday night might have been just an extension of the newsstand for Johnny, a part of his system that had preceded us over on the subway from Brooklyn. All he needed was the name of the theater we were passing to recite its history back to the Barrymores, Cornells, and Cohans. Titles of plays that hadn’t lasted more than a week weren’t his strong suit, but he hadn’t forgotten how he had laughed at “the one where they drop all the plates on the butler in the first act” and cringed at “the one where the saloon girl falls in love with the cop who’s always trying to roust her.” He might not have remembered the actors who had played the butler and the saloon girl, but I remember it was on these outings that I saw that the likes of Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, and Geraldine Page had existences outside of celluloid and that Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill weren’t just classroom names for a study of Great American Plays. Not to say that there weren’t discomfiting moments. Drug addiction, abortion, and castration weren’t Bert Lahr, and every time they emerged as a salient plot point, Johnny shifted uneasily in his seat in admission of his moral turpitude for exposing the teenager to their existence. But almost always his verdict was the same on the trip back home: “Some rough stuff there, but the actors were damn good.”

Where the actors weren’t always damn good, on the other hand, was in the movies. For years, Johnny had caught every major feature that wasn’t a western, a slapstick comedy, or something else that accented action over dialogue. His steady movie-going otherwise was an implicit testament to how basically stagy most Hollywood films were - schematic setups, tit-for-tat dialogue exchanges, and redundant on-screen references to what the characters were doing or about to do. Conversely, when my uncle began complaining that “nobody talks anymore!” and “what the hell are these people doing now?”, it was more instructive than any Martin Scorsese lecture that movies were doing a lot more moving than they once had. From there it was an inevitable decision for Johnny to go to movies less and less frequently since “people don’t say anything interesting anymore.”

What he could never do without, on the other hand, was the radio. Music, ballgames, proto-talk shows - he monitored them practically through his every waking hour, at the stand as well as at home. In his later years of retirement, when Sinatra might have been confused for the name of a new automobile and the talk shows had evolved from the proto- to the paleo-, he was given to calling it “screwball radio,” but he continued listening. And yet it was also radio that most strikingly marked Johnny’s reach beyond total dependence on what entertainment the mass media had to offer. When he went to Ebbets Field or the Polo Grounds, or later Shea Stadium, he relied exclusively on the play-by-play of his companion. Asked once by my father why he never carted along one of the numerous portable radios he kept in his bedroom to keep better abreast of what was going on, he growled “that wouldn’t be going to the game, I may as well stay home.” Then he had his own question: How much of a lead was the runner taking off the base?


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