BELIEVER, OCT 2007 • A conversation between
Ryan Knighton and Jim Knipfel
blind memoirists walk into a Brooklyn bar and happen to find one another. One
of them turned on a tape recorder for The Believer.
Ryan Knighton: I hope they’ll turn the music down. All blind
folks hope all music will be turned down.
Jim Knipfel: I think we should agree from the outset not to discuss
the special powers.
RK: Our super hearing, our...
JK: .. super smell and everything. If people knew what we’ve
really got, they’d lock us up.
RK: I know. And they wouldn’t think we were nearly
half as interesting, right? A lot of folks who read
my memoir seem to have skipped the punk rock part. They’re
like, “So, could you hear me if I was down the hall in my
padded room?” No, I spent way too many nights in clubs.
JK: Right. I blame it all on that one Black Flag show.
RK: I actually know an editor who’s deaf. She passed
out in front of a speaker at a music festival. Blew her ears.
RK: And I thought, well, at least that’s a more dignified
way to have it done in. You know, unlike our eyes and their
slow biomedical creep.
RK: I wish I had a war story.
RK: Wanted to tell you this story. I just did a reading for Cockeyed
in a small fishing town in British Columbia. We flew in on this
little turboprop, and as we came in for our landing, suddenly I
heard the pilot turn on the windshield wipers. I was terrified.
I thought this was the most lo-fi, horrible thing that could
JK: The most terrifying thing is that you found out
about this while you were still a thousand feet in the air.
RK: To me the wipers indicated that a plane really does
just need somebody looking out the window. Like, that’s as
good as they’ve got it.
JK: There was a winter once when I had to take this prop job
from Green Bay to Chicago, and catch a flight back to New York.
Twenty of us are sitting on this flight and like you I was sitting
up right next to – well, right behind – the pilot.
I still had a little vision left. The pilot turned on the ignition.
Now, first of all, the fact that he has to turn on the ignition,
that’s something. But when he did, then all these red lights
and klaxon horns went off on the dashboard. So he took the
key out and he called the --
RK: Planes have keys?
JK: I didn’t think they had keys. This plane had a key
and that should’ve been a clue. Anyways, , he called into
the tower and they sent out a guy whose job is to grab the propeller
to get the plane started.
RK: Oh no.
JK: And I thought, “Do I wanna stay on this flight?” It’s
like one of those wind up balsa wood jobs.
RK: It’s got an elastic band somewhere.
JK: Exactly. And how long is this flight? Anyways, that didn’t
work, so they made us get off until they put us on the same plane
an hour later. They’re like, “Things are better now.” But what
makes you think things are better now?
RK: Right. I didn’t feel any major activity going
on out there. I don’t’ know if I told you this story,
but I was coming back through Heathrow and --
JK: Did you mean to be in Heathrow at the time?
RK: The way I do it in the airport is that I get into the
front door and then I just stand there and look confused until
somebody comes for me.
JK: I do the same thing.
RK: And then I’ve got a backup. When they don’t
come, I stare at something, be it somebody’s knees or a sign
or anything, really. In airports you’re not allowed to look
at anything for very long, because that looks equally creepy to
RK: Eeventually they took me away to the gimp pen where people
wait for wheelchairs. Should be a safe place, right? The kid next
to me spilled what sounded like a liter of Coke. Was all over me,
only the mother screams, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry!
The baby, she drank the breast milk and then the breast milk came
back!” Was a different kid than I thought. Different liquid,
too. Then the smell hit me. She tried to hand me a Kleenex, so
I was thinking, “Where am I gonna apply this? I’ve
got a very large area to deal with. Which is the privileged spot? “That’s
when the announcement came over the P.A. system that they were
evacuating the terminal.
JK: Oh my.
RK: Yeah, I thought it was an extreme response to the
JK: Well, I don’t know. It’s sort of like a chemical
RK: Do you do the wheelchair thing at airports? You let them
take you that way?
JK: Well, the thing is I haven’t in the past. I’m
like, “No, no, I can navigate fine, I’m okay.” But
they insist. After a while you think, alright, I’ll
take the wheelchair, but then you get to the security check and
they make you get up and take off your shoes. That’s where
I feel worse, that’s where I feel like such a fraud. I have
to stand up, take my shoes off, and then sit back down in my wheelchair
before I get pushed away.
RK: I like the golf cart, but I refuse the wheelchair now. I actually
had a guy insist I take one or the other. Wouldn’t let me
take his elbow and be guided. A friend later pointed out that it
was probably because he would have to walk arm in arm through the
airport with another man.
JK: Without question. I have friends that I’ve known
for close to twenty years who still, when they’re leading
me to or from a table at a restaurant, well, their hands just shake.
RK: Oh, right.
JK: It’s like, calm down. People won’t think we’re that gay… You
RK: I have one blind friend in Vancouver. We were in this
bar once and I walked to the washroom, then I came back and he
went. A woman stopped him as he was caning by and said, “Excuse
me, sir. Did you know there’s two of you here?” He
said, “Yeah that’s my friend. We only have one cane.
That’s why we take turns.”
JK: That reminds me, there’s a section in Cockeyed
where you talk about public bathrooms. My problem is that every
one is different.
JK: Usually when I’m in a new bar bathroom the
first thing I do, just to get my bearings, is I start doing this
very slow sort of half-tai-chi, half-Ministry-of-Funny-Walks, just
trying to find where things are.
JK: You know, to find where the urinals are, where the sink
is, where everything else is. It’s such a nightmare. I can’t
tell you how many bar sinks I’ve pissed beneath.
RK: Yeah, I’ve pissed between so many urinals. Probably
as many as I’ve pissed in. And there’s that moment
in a washroom, especially the ones that have the trough in
the floor --
JK: Oh, my God! Oh, my God!
RK: Those ones are a real guessing game if it really
is the spot or not. Then the thrill of the moment when you decide
that you’re just gonna let it go, you’re really just
gonna commit to your interpretation of the room.
RK: Then somebody comes in and you wait to see if you’re
gonna get chastised or not. I like the thrill when I really commit
to it and say, okay, I think this is, yes, indeed, a trough, and
now I’m gonna act as such.
JK: And then there’s the moment of horror when your
hand goes down and you realize you’re standing in front of
RK: Right. I think it’s their fault for making them
RK: Somebody told me there’s a washroom here in New
York that’s just a wall.
JK: With the water running down?
RK: With the water running down. That’s the one.
JK: Yeah, it’s at some fancy ass hotel.
RK: That would drive me insane. I’d deliberately piss
on the other wall.
JK: Good point.
RK: So, what’s the new book? A true crime book, right?
JK: Yeah, “Noogie’s Time to Shine.” It was
written as a novel in 2002, based on a 250 word story I saw in
the New York Post. Nobody wanted that. People who turned it down
said this is too implausible, nobody could pull off this crime.
Then my editor said why don’t you go back and do it as true
crime. So I started doing that. I ended up interviewing FBI agents
and the cops in Florida who handled the case. The real story was
so much more bizarre than anything I could make up. But if
you do true crime you need some sort of in to get the rights to
the story, which I didn’t have, and so now it’s become
a novel again, sort of a combination of the true crime and the
novel I rote in 2002.
RK: What’s the premise?
JK: Well, there was this guy, a fat shlub from Jersey City,
a NYU film student who’d always dreamed of being a filmmaker,
but by the time he was thirty-five he found that he had a job restocking ATM
machines. Something along the way happened to him. He started siphoning
off twenty dollars here, twenty dollars there, from the machines
he was supposed to be stocking. Then one day, when it was clear
they were onto him, he grabbed three duffle bags stuffed with a
total of five million dollars. Twenty dollar bills, of course.
RK: Nicely done.
JK: He threw them into the back of his van, grabbed his two
cats, Bonnie and Clyde -- you know, like if that wasn’t a
clue -- and disappeared for ten days. He was found dead on
a couch in front of the television, having apparently drank himself
to death. The money was gone.
JK: It gets very complicated after that, but his roommate
is now serving a nine year sentence. And they found $3.5 million,
still in the duffle bags, sitting in the middle of the floor of
an abandoned house in a poor neighbourhood of West Palm Beach,
Florida. Just sitting in the middle of the floor.
RK: Of course. Weird. What attracted you to the story?
JK: What attracted me was the fact that this was a pulp
novel come to life. I mean, this was a guy, a film student, who
actually turned his life into a film noir. The tag line I’ve
always suggested that they use, even though they aren’t going
to, is “The story of an N.Y.U. film student who actually
did something with his life.”
RK: I can see it.
JK: His plan was just so lowbrow and so simple. It was a brilliant
slow motion heist. Now that I’ve switched from true crime
to fiction, I can also add scenes in which some pies are stolen.
That’s always important for a novel, to have a scene in which
at least one pie is stolen.
RK: Off the windowsill, as it’s cooling.
JK: Now, we’re supposed to be interviewing each other,
RK: Doesn’t matter. We’ll just transcribe what
we’ve got and get paid.
RK: We’ll take the pie and run.
JK: That’s wonderful. Alright. I wanted to tell
you that I just finished listening to the audio book of Rosemary’s
Baby last night.
RK: Oh yeah?
JK: Read by Mia Farrow.
RK: Oh yeah?
JK: Who did not do a bad job. I must say, however, that I
had no idea what an atrocious, atrocious novel that is. It is one
of the rare examples in which the movie is so much better than
RK: How so?
JK: Ira Levin keeps ending the sentences with adverbs that
don’t exist. My favourite was...
JK: …feelingly. “She leaned towards him
RK: I gave a reading last night at the KGB Bar and I realized
that I have a tendency to end my chapters or paragraphs with any
kind of modality I can get my grubby blind man’s hands on.
Something like, “he passed her the salt. Or so it seemed.” Just
to give you that feeling that there’s hope that something
more will come. Or perhaps not.
RK: I think most Canadian novelists, the lyrical ones, they
end their chapters by repeating the last sentence twice to give
it that poetic thing, as in “When they sat down to dinner,
he passed her the salt. He passed her the salt.”
JK: Italicizing salt.
RK: Now I think the idea of ending with invented adverbs is
JK: Hey, I think the music got turned down.
RK: It did.
JK: It was our combined psychic effort. See, that’s
one of our special powers.
RK: Which we won’t talk about.
JK: You’ve been a father for, what, three months
JK: And how’s your daughter doing?
RK: She’s plump.
RK: It’s such a strange thing, to try and recognize
fatherhood, to recognize yourself as a father, when you don’t
see the face of the baby. There’s just a kind of generic
babyness for some time, and that’s all I know.
JK: Oh, they all look the same. It’s okay.
RK: She’s just now getting to the point where she’s
developing a character that I can recognize. So far Tess is really
opinionated and chatty and she likes to shout, which we think is
JK: Sounds like my cat. Not to insult your daughter. Actually
my cat just went blind.
JK: How’s that for irony? So now we spend the
day trying to avoid each other.
RK: When I teach at the college I often get the blind students.
The counseling people think it’ll be, you know, good for
RK: But of course it creates a horrible tragedy. These kids
are already awkward teenagers who can barely handle their own appearance,
their sense of self-image and all that. And now they’re in
a situation where they’ve gotta hand in a paper to a guy
who can’t see where they’re handing it. So, of course, we
have this little vaudeville act, two blind people trying to pass
something to one another in front of the other kids. I just feel
so horrible for them.
RK: This on top of the other indignities of being teenagers.
Have you ever thought about getting a seeing eye dog?
JK: Oh hell no.
RK: Me neither.
JK: You know why? Because I’m lazy.
RK: That’s my answer, too.
JK: I don’t wanna walk the damn thing twice a day. I
don’t wanna get down on my hands and knees to try and find
the crap. I’ll tell you, up on 23rd Street in Manhatten,
there’s an apartment complex for the blind called the Associated
Blind. They’ve since changed the name to Visions, which is
RK: That’s like, I used to get a newsletter from the
Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Their tag line on the
bottom was “If you have to be blue, be bright blue.” A
Walt Disney pearl.
JK: Uh huh.
RK: I thought it was such a fucked up thing to say to people
who may have never seen blue, let alone bright blue.
JK: But this apartment complex in Manhatten, from what I heard
it’s just a hotbed of blind carnality.
RK: Oh I’m sure. If sighted people only knew what we’re
JK: It’s just people crawling about and --
RK: Groping and screwing.
JK: Yeah, just moving from one apartment to another. I used
to have to pass by every morning on my way to the paper.
RK: I’ve always been afraid of blind people.
JK: So have I.
RK: Even when I became one. I don’t want to join in.
JK: No, no way in hell. You don’t wanna hang out. Buncha
creepy freaks. You could catch it.
RK: I can’t help it. The toxicity level in the room
is just too much when there’s more than two of us, Everything
is about being functional or about talking wristwatches.
JK: Exactly.. There was a guy who came to my apartment and taught
me “home survival,” which to him meant buying oven
mitts that went up to my elbows and teaching me how to make a casserole. He
taught me how to sew buttons. That was survival.
RK: I was invited to the Canadian Institute for the
Blind once to give a talk to some college kids. It was the first
time I’d done it, so I got all jazzed up. I put on my biggest,
nastiest boots and went in there to give them a sort of Marxist
pep rally about advocacy and to rant about how we’re prosthetic
citizens. The sort of stuff I’d always wanted to hear when
I was going blind.
JK: Uh huh.
RK: When I walked in there, ten kids were sitting around learning
how to cut a sandwich. What’s worse, dammit if they didn’t
have some techniques I could use.
JK: Hell, I’m still trying to learn how to cut a sandwich.
RK: We’re the best non-poster boys.
JK: And isn’t it sad that they’re trying to make
us poster boys?
RK: People kept asking me after Cockeyed came out, why would
you try to write a funny book about going blind? Like it was
some extraordinary leap. But blindness is a constant state of slapstick.
It is so unprecious.
JK: That’s the thing. Slackjaw was slapstick.
RK: And slapstick Is the highest form of comedy. The most political.
RK I can’t remember who said this, but when bad comedies
end, the characters have to spend two minutes with everybody laughing
and patting each other on the back, restoring order. But that’s
not funny, what’s funny is when the characters are at their
weakest, and you kick them one more time before the credits roll.
All the memoirs I was reading about people going blind, there was
JK: Oh Jesus.
RK: ...space for any of it.
JK: There’s no humor. Have you read this fucking jackass – oh,
there’s so many of them. First, there’s the “Planet
of the Blind” guy. I just wanna push him down in the mud.
RK: I know, I know.
JK: And then there’s that fucking Tom Sullivan. Now
there’s the one who should be pushed in front of a bus.
RK: Perhaps you could remind readers about who Tom Sullivan
JK: Tom Sullivan is the author of the atrociously, atrociously
titled “If You Could See What I Hear”, which was later
made into a film starring Tom Sullivan.
RK: And isn’t he always like...
JK: Fucking singing and dancing.
RK: He’s the Uncle Tom of blind people.
JK: You know he is.
RK: I remember him always making cameos on TV. He was on “Mork
JK: And “Carol Burnett.”
RK: Basically any Gary Marshall show. The characters
at some point would end up in a bar and he’d be behind the
piano with his dog at his feet…
JK: Fucking singing. Always a song with “eyes” or “sight” in
RK: That’s right. And at a certain point he would get
to touch the lead character’s face.
JK: In “Airport 77” he got crushed under the piano
on the airplane. I was so happy because he had sung two songs up
to that point, both about, “oh, the sight of love, blah blah
blah,” and then he was crushed with his own piano. That
made me so happy. That’s the highlight of the film.
RK: In his own film, in “If You Could See What I Hear,” isn’t
there a balloon chase or something?
JK: There’s so much. I mean, he’s good at skiing,
he saves a drowning boy.
RK: I can’t even fucking shave.
JK: Yeah, I always have half a moustache.
RK: I’m out there wearing my lunch and he’s out
there curing cancer while he’s saving a drowning boy and
piloting a balloon to do it.
JK: He rides a bike, you know.
JK: It was funny because he rides a bike but he doesn’t
RK: Right, right.
JK: Oh I hate that man so much.
RK: Is he still.. is he still...?
RK: You probably had this with Slackjaw too, that when you
write a book about this stuff you’re immediately having to
forefend everybody’s assumption that it’s a recovery
narrative. The self-help mavens have gotten a hold of the entire
public imagination about disability and you can’t throttle
anything else out of it.
JK: As far as the blind are portrayed in popular culture,
they can step in buckets, they can step in coils of hose and drag
them along, they can walk into walls, they can fall into rivers,
and I’m cool with that, that’s funny.
RK: That’s right, because it’s funny.
JK: Because that’s what we do.
RK: it would be dishonest if we didn’t.
JK: But then there’s Daredevil. The minute they start
with the jiujitsu, that’s when I am profoundly offended.
RK: The main thing that blindness has taught me, at least as a
writer, is that I don’t need to work on a very large scale.
For example, we took a first trip with the baby a few weeks ago.
My wife Tracy was in the hotel room with the baby, and it was kind
of chaos, the baby really fussy, meanwhile we need to unpack the
car. Normally that’s something Tracy would have to do because
I don’t know where the car is, let alone the parking lot.
But I wanted to do the classic dad thing. , You know, I’ll
go unpack the car, hon. So I did. I went down to the parking lot
and I got out of the elevator, and got lost in a series of three
rooms for about twenty minutes. I kept running back and forth between
them. I couldn’t find one that would go out. I knew
there was a parking lot somewhere outside, but not how to get in.
RK: Finally this guy opens the door. It turns out there’s
a door that’s so flush with the wall, it’s such a well
made door that I couldn’t tell it was there.
JK: Oh my God, I know that feeling.
RK: Then I’m unloading the car and trying to carry this stuff
and cane at the same time. I got back into the three rooms, and
got lost looking for the elevator. But when I finally found it,
and press the button for the sixth floor, it only would go up one
floor. When I pressed the button again, it went down. I spent ten
minutes doing that. I could write six thousand words about the
JK: You have a novel there. A very German novel.
RK: My elevator story, that’s what your column is right?
The Slackjaw column.
JK: Yeah. I was visiting my first editor, Derek. We
went to this art opening that he was supposed to write about. As
we were driving away, he was disappointed. He had to come up with
a thousand words about it. I said, “What are you talking
about? There’s five thousand words there because nothing
RK: I’m always astonished how many words I can get
out of something like getting lost in a small space.
JK: One night I got lost in someone’s attic for three
RK: Oh yeah. You and I have both done that. You go up one
floor too many and you end up in the wrong room.
JK: I was drunk and I went up one floor too many and suddenly
all the walls were pink fiberglass fuzz. I couldn’t
tell for sure it was pink because it was completely dark and I
was blind, but I was also drunk and I couldn’t find the stairs
that I had just come up.
RK: And then you believe there are no stairs now. Truly.
JK: Exactly, They vanished.
RK: The stairs are gone.
JK: Exactly. I went all around that room for three fucking
RK: And then you get methodical.
JK: You become convinced that whatever you came through has
vanished and you’re just in another world.
RK: Why is that? It happens to me all the time. Why is that?
JK: Why do we become convinced that the world has vanished
behind us? Well, in my case it was because I was drunk.
JK: But I also think it was the only logical thing to believe.
Rather than believe that I was merely stupid and blind, it was
easier to believe that this other world had vanished.
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