*Parts of This introductory essay first appeared for White Cane Safety Day 2018 at Catapult*
“God’s curse on you,” said the blind stripling sourly to the oblivious passerby who’d knocked his cane, “whoever you are! You’re blinder nor I am, you bitch’s bastard!”
The blind stripling is one of the hundreds of Dublin characters who crisscross Ulysses. His unfortunate encounter with Cashel Farrell comes in The Wandering Rocks episode, but Joyce apparently felt strongly enough about the blind stripling’s curse to repeat it in The Sirens episode, where we learn that the young blind man is a piano tuner and a player as well. He’d left his tuning fork at the Ormond, and the barmaid/siren tells Mr. Dedalus, “I never heard such an exquisite player.” Then she offers pity, “So sad to look at his face,” and we hear the echo of the blind stripling’s curse echoed as if by a disembodied voice.
“God’s curse on bitch’s bastard.”
I’m pretty sure every blind person using a cane can relate to the blind stripling’s sourness.
In San Francisco an oblivious girl passing perpendicularly in front of us kicked my cane aside and I shouted, “Excuse you!” Her response was a giggle. If I’d not been walking with Alabaster, the move would have totally thrown me off course.
And a horror story from a blind New York City friend who, while descending subway stairs, was cut off by some asshole, whose rush to get to his destination was more important than everyone else’s. He crushed her cane, leaving her with a useless broken thing. He did not even stop to notice let alone apologize. Luckily, there were others more kind who helped my friend to get somewhere safe.
I cannot help but think that Joyce, suffering from eye troubles throughout his adult life, experienced both the carelessness of those who, like Farrell, will knock your cane without so much as a glance, and the kindness of those who, like Leopold Bloom, are always looking to help. “You’re in Dawson Street, Mr. Bloom said. Molesworth street is opposite. Do you want to cross? There’s nothing in the way.”
In The Most Dangerous Book, Kevin Birmingham tells us, “By the time he reached his late forties, Joyce was already an old man. The ashplant cane that he had used for swagger as a young bachelor in Dublin became a blind man’s cane in Paris. Strangers helped him cross the street, and he bumped into furniture as he navigated through his own apartment.”
Although this refers to a time after he finished Ulysses, Joyce began having eye trouble long before. Bouts of iritis (a swelling of his iris) began in 1907, and through the years, despite and sometimes because of the many surgeries, Joyce experienced periods of partial or full blindness. So it is no surprise that both his main characters consider life without sight. After his encounter with the blind stripling, Bloom “slid his hand between his waistcoat and trousers and, pulling aside his shirt gently, felt a slack fold of his belly. But I know it’s whitey yellow. Want to try in the dark to see.”
This yearning to see in the dark echoes Stephen Dedalus’ attempts to get around “the ineluctable modality of the visible.” On the beach he closed his eyes and used his ashplant as a blind man’s cane. “I am getting on nicely in the dark. My ash sword hangs at my side. Tap with it: they do.”
In honor of White Cane Safety Day (October 15), I offer a tasty bit from Joyce’s Ulysses that features the blind stripling/piano tuner, but first, here’s a brief history of White Cane Safety Day…
White Cane Safety Day
It is commonplace to think of the ancient blind man with a staff, but when did the staff turn into the white cane? This was my question after reading A Sense of the World, about James Holman a blind Victorian who was known as “the blind traveler,” because of his solo trips around the world. His biographer, Jason Roberts, tells us that Holman used his gentleman’s walking stick to echolocate. Instead of sweeping a slender stick from side to side, as a blind person today is trained to do, Holman would use the tip of his walking stick to indicate the depth and dimension of his surroundings: “the metal ferrule can be easily bounced up and down, producing an authoritative series of taps.”
This use of the cane as sonic, as well as tactile, tool is suggested in Ulysses as well, where the repeated “Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap,” of the blind stripling’s cane, seems to indicate that the sound was emblematic of the blind person, unlike today, where it is the look of the thing that seems to signal difference.
In fact, it was not until 1921 that the cane was given its iconic color. As the story goes, James Biggs, a blinded photographer, hit upon the idea of painting his cane white in order to be better seen in his Bristol streets. It makes sense to me that the mental eye of the former visual artist would recognize the importance of contrast. From England the idea spread to the continent and then to America, where the Lyon’s Clubs began giving white canes to blind people throughout the ’30’s.
Even so, the method of sweeping the long cane from side to side did not become the norm until blinded vets began returning from World War II. According to the Perkins School for the Blind, “The standard technique for using a white cane was pioneered in 1944 by Richard E. Hoover, a World War II veteran rehabilitation specialist. His technique of holding a long cane in the center of the body and swinging it back and forth before each step to detect obstacles is still called the ‘Hoover Method.’”
When you are fitted out for a cane, ordinarily you will get one that, when it stands upright, is about sternum height or taller.
When you are walking, the cane’s top end will be held in your dominant hand at about the level of your solar plexus and will sweep to the right or left in opposition to your step. The cane is meant to tell you what’s happening at a distance of about two paces.
When you sweep left, your right foot steps out, when you sweep right, your left foot steps out.
Some mobility instructors teach you to use a very low arc with a light tap at each end, and I have found this technique helpful when dealing with broken sidewalk or cobblestones, but mostly the cane should be in contact with the ground so that it can tell you when things like steps or curbs are coming, though there is a lot that must be done with your hearing as well. My latest mobility instructor tells me that I have great skills, but I am not the greatest at being brave about using them.
In the long years of my visual impairment, I liked to walk and think, and so it is not natural for me to think so hard about walking. I can keep up my vigilance for about twenty minutes and then I start walking out into traffic. But I’ve known many blind people who rock the white cane.
In 1964, President Johnson proclaimed October 15 to be White Cane Safety Day, and it has been celebrated to a lessor or greater extent ever since. “The Presidential proclamation emphasized the significance of the use of the white cane as both a tool and as a visible symbol,” writes the Tennessee Council of the Blind. “In the first White Cane Proclamation President Johnson commended blind people for the growing spirit of independence and the increased determination to be self-reliant and dignified.”
The Blind Stripling
*This comes from the final pages of The Sirens episode in which the tap tapping of the blind stripling/piano tuner interweaves with the flirting of the bar girls and Leopold Bloom’s wanderings, ending with an explosion of laughter and, um, wind!*
Gassy thing that cider: binding too. Wait. Postoffice near Reuben J’s one and eightpence too. Get shut of it. Dodge round by Greek street. Wish I hadn’t promised to meet. Freer in air. Music. Gets on your nerves. Beerpull. Her hand that rocks the cradle rules the. Ben Howth. That rules the world.
Far. Far. Far. Far.
Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.
Up the quay went Lionelleopold, naughty Henry with letter for Mady, with sweets of sin with frillies for Raoul with met him pike hoses went Poldy on.
Tap blind walked tapping by the tap the curbstone tapping, tap by tap.
Cowley, he stuns himself with it: kind of drunkenness. Better give way only half way the way of a man with a maid. Instance enthusiasts. All ears. Not lose a demisemiquaver. Eyes shut. Head nodding in time. Dotty. You daren’t budge. Thinking strictly prohibited. Always talking shop. Fiddlefaddle about notes.
All a kind of attempt to talk. Unpleasant when it stops because you never know exac. Organ in Gardiner street. Old Glynn fifty quid a year. Queer up there in the cockloft, alone, with stops and locks and keys. Seated all day at the organ. Maunder on for hours, talking to himself or the other fellow blowing the bellows. Growl angry, then shriek cursing (want to have wadding or something in his no don’t she cried), then all of a soft sudden wee little wee little pipy wind.
Pwee! A wee little wind piped eeee. In Bloom’s little wee.
—Was he? Mr Dedalus said, returning with fetched pipe. I was with him this morning at poor little Paddy Dignam’s…
—Ay, the Lord have mercy on him.
—By the bye there’s a tuningfork in there on the…
Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.
—The wife has a fine voice. Or had. What? Lidwell asked.
—O, that must be the tuner, Lydia said to Simonlionel first I saw, forgot it when he was here.
Blind he was she told George Lidwell second I saw. And played so exquisitely, treat to hear. Exquisite contrast: bronzelid, minagold.
—Shout! Ben Dollard shouted, pouring. Sing out!
—’lldo! cried Father Cowley.
I feel I want…
Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap
—Very, Mr Dedalus said, staring hard at a headless sardine.
Under the sandwichbell lay on a bier of bread one last, one lonely, last sardine of summer. Bloom alone.
—Very, he stared. The lower register, for choice.
Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.
Bloom went by Barry’s. Wish I could. Wait. That wonderworker if I had. Twentyfour solicitors in that one house. Counted them. Litigation. Love one another. Piles of parchment. Messrs Pick and Pocket have power of attorney. Goulding, Collis, Ward.
But for example the chap that wallops the big drum. His vocation: Mickey Rooney’s band. Wonder how it first struck him. Sitting at home after pig’s cheek and cabbage nursing it in the armchair. Rehearsing his band part. Pom. Pompedy. Jolly for the wife. Asses’ skins. Welt them through life, then wallop after death. Pom. Wallop. Seems to be what you call yashmak or I mean kismet. Fate.
Tap. Tap. A stripling, blind, with a tapping cane came taptaptapping by Daly’s window where a mermaid hair all streaming (but he couldn’t see) blew whiffs of a mermaid (blind couldn’t), mermaid, coolest whiff of all.
Instruments. A blade of grass, shell of her hands, then blow. Even comb and tissuepaper you can knock a tune out of. Molly in her shift in Lombard street west, hair down. I suppose each kind of trade made its own, don’t you see? Hunter with a horn. Haw. Have you the? Cloche. Sonnez la. Shepherd his pipe. Pwee little wee. Policeman a whistle. Locks and keys! Sweep! Four o’clock’s all’s well! Sleep! All is lost now. Drum? Pompedy. Wait. I know. Towncrier, bumbailiff. Long John. Waken the dead. Pom. Dignam. Poor little nominedomine. Pom. It is music. I mean of course it’s all pom pom pom very much what they call da capo. Still you can hear. As we march, we march along, march along. Pom.
I must really. Fff. Now if I did that at a banquet. Just a question of custom shah of Persia. Breathe a prayer, drop a tear. All the same he must have been a bit of a natural not to see it was a yeoman cap. Muffled up. Wonder who was that chap at the grave in the brown macin. O, the whore of the lane!
A frowsy whore with black straw sailor hat askew came glazily in the day along the quay towards Mr Bloom. When first he saw that form endearing? Yes, it is. I feel so lonely. Wet night in the lane. Horn. Who had the? Heehaw shesaw. Off her beat here. What is she? Hope she. Psst! Any chance of your wash. Knew Molly. Had me decked. Stout lady does be with you in the brown costume. Put you off your stroke, that. Appointment we made knowing we’d never, well hardly ever. Too dear too near to home sweet home. Sees me, does she? Looks a fright in the day. Face like dip. Damn her. O, well, she has to live like the rest. Look in here.
In Lionel Marks’s antique saleshop window haughty Henry Lionel Leopold dear Henry Flower earnestly Mr Leopold Bloom envisaged battered candlesticks melodeon oozing maggoty blowbags. Bargain: six bob. Might learn to play. Cheap. Let her pass. Course everything is dear if you don’t want it. That’s what good salesman is. Make you buy what he wants to sell. Chap sold me the Swedish razor he shaved me with. Wanted to charge me for the edge he gave it. She’s passing now. Six bob.
Must be the cider or perhaps the burgund.
Near bronze from anear near gold from afar they chinked their clinking glasses all, brighteyed and gallant, before bronze Lydia’s tempting last rose of summer, rose of Castile. First Lid, De, Cow, Ker, Doll, a fifth: Lidwell, Si Dedalus, Bob Cowley, Kernan and big Ben Dollard.
Tap. A youth entered a lonely Ormond hall.
Bloom viewed a gallant pictured hero in Lionel Marks’s window. Robert Emmet’s last words. Seven last words. Of Meyerbeer that is.
—True men like you men.
—Ay, ay, Ben.
—Will lift your glass with us.
Tip. An unseeing stripling stood in the door. He saw not bronze. He saw not gold. Nor Ben nor Bob nor Tom nor Si nor George nor tanks nor Richie nor Pat. Hee hee hee hee. He did not see.
Seabloom, greaseabloom viewed last words. Softly. When my country takes her place among.
Must be the bur.
Fff! Oo. Rrpr.
Nations of the earth. No-one behind. She’s passed. Then and not till then. Tram kran kran kran. Good oppor. Coming. Krandlkrankran. I’m sure it’s the burgund. Yes. One, two. Let my epitaph be. Kraaaaaa. Written. I have.