Im not sure when the blind pencil vendor entered my consciousness as a stock character in the urban landscape. All I know is that he (he seems always to be a he) has been jabbing my blind sensibilities for a long time. I do, however, remember exactly when I first encountered a blind writer identifying with him. That was in the 1999 memoir, Slackjaw, by Jim Knipfelwho is the author of many books of fiction and nonfiction, and who I and other like-minded “blindos” (blind plus weirdo) consider the patron saint of blind punks.
On the eve of Knipfels blind-man training, someone at work asked him “what my trainers would do to me.”
Knipfels answer was: “First thing, I imagine… is they’re going to give me a tin cup full of pencils and station me on the corner of Forty-seventh and Fifth, just to see how much money I can make.”
Another friend pushed the idea further. “You know what you do? You take one of those pencils, see, and jab it into people’s eyes when they stop, and say, ‘Ha! Now you can go sell pencils, too!’”
This passage made me giggle when I read it years ago, and it made me giggle again when I reread it a few weeks ago. It was the first thing I thought of when I discovered a black and white photo of a blind pencil vendor in the New York Public Library.
As a blind person who wrote a book mobilized against ocularcentrism, I was as shocked as anyone to suddenly find one day that I had become obsessed with photographyor, rather, the obsession sighted photographers have with blind subjects. And so it was that I found myself researching the many anonymous blind faces in the vast photography collection of NYPLs Wallach Division. This is how I discovered Walter Silvers black and white photograph of a blind pencil vendor taken in the 1950s in New York City.
As a blind person who wrote a book mobilized against ocularcentrism, I was as shocked as anyone to suddenly find one day that I had become obsessed with photography.
Silvers blind pencil vendor features a man in a heavy coat sitting on the ledge of what appears to be a department store window. The man holds pencils in one hand and a sign written on the lid of the box that hes holding on his lap with the words: “Blind” in big letters, and in smaller print: “Please buy a pencil. Thank you.”
After having both sighted humans and AI describe this photo to me, I decided to learn what some blind writer friends thoughtIm lucky enough to have a few very good ones! Of course, I started with Knipfel. I emailed him a description of Silvers photo, and asked him a bunch of questions that basically boiled down to: why does the blind pencil vendor continue to resonate? Is it, like, related to low expectations? Both the low expectations most sighted people have for blind people and, more vexing still, the low expectations we newly blinded people have for ourselves?
Unlike Silvers BPV, Chopins does not carry a sign. He is the sign, a metaphor, a symbol less for the blind than for the presumably sighted consumer. The Blind Mans inconsequence is reinforced by the worthlessness of the thing he sells. Chopin underlines this worthlessness when she reveals that someone “who had finally grown tired of having him hanging around had equipped him with this box of pencils.” And, as far as we know, he never sells a single one: “the man or maid who answered the bell needed no pencil, nor could they be induced to disturb the mistress of the house about so small a thing.”
Whats most pitiful is how hard hes working to sell something nobody wants or needs. It seems like, across the decades, “a pencil is the most trifling of goods for sale,” as Leland put it in his email.
When I mention this to one of my sighted informants, he said, “Pencils are great! I love pencils. We should go to that pencil store I told you about, get a photo of you in there!
That particular informant is my sighted partner, Alabaster Rhumb. Pencil enthusiast. He is not alone. At Graphite Confidential, a website that chronicles “American history, one pencil at a time,” I read a brief article about how a blind organization reclaimed the BPV with images of blind children urging “mayors, socialites and everyday New Yorkers” to buy pencils stamped with “To Aid N.Y. Guild For The Jewish Blind.”
Stephen Kuusisto (author of Planet of the Blind and many other books of poetry and prose) finds the sign of the BPV to be a kind of stand-in for autobiographyor perhaps a barrier to it. “His appearance on the ordinary street is founded on the principle of auto-graphein,” writes Kuusisto in a lyric essay that accompanies his poem, ‘To the Pencil Seller.” “Surely he cannot write his life?” thinks the sighted passersby. “We shall buy his pencils.’
Theres something particularly degrading about the blind pencil vendor. He is selling cheap items, but more specifically, these are cheap inaccessible items. A sighted person fallen on hard times might take that hairs-breath step up from panhandling to selling pencils, but he couldshould he fail to sell them alluse one to make a note. A list perhaps of other, more lucrative, career paths. But the blind man can make no use of the pencilexcept as a weapon la Shakespeares archvillain in King Lear: “Out vile jelly!”
Kuusisto is provoked, ‘after long deliberation,” to write a poem in which the BPV talks back, with mystery and eloquence:
The blind man is amaranth, a man-word of sorts,
A word that will be mistaken on earth.
Saluted the closed world
Without its consent,
Cross the water of streets
And raised a sign
Unreadable as the moon.
Yes. We are human-made-word in the eyes of so many sighted. We are inscribed with meaning: blind poet/prophet, blind saint, blind beggar….And this amaranth, life-giving sacred grain, symbol of immortality. Hence death. With its red-petaled flowers that never fade. We are inscribed BPV and I, with letters we are presumably not able to read, letters that stretch from ancient times to now.
The endurance of the trope was made apparent to me one day on the New York City subway. I was sitting on the N Train with my guide dog, heading to NYU from Astoria. A man came up to me and was confused when he found that the lid of my Dunkin Donuts coffee was in place. Nowhere to shove his dollar. “Oh,” he said. “I thought….Heres a dollar.”
“Um, what?” I was baffled. Then I wasnt. All I could do to deflect the insult was laugh in his face.
The confusion many sighted people show upon learning that I use the very same iPhones and computers they do reveals, time and time again, how alien we seem to them.
In The Metanarrative of Blindness, Disability Studies professor David Bolt describes an eerily similar experience. While waiting for his friend outside of a bar, a stranger tried to hand Bolt something. Thinking it was an inaccessible flyer of some kind, he did not put his hand up to accepthis “standard little expression of protest.” The man “seemed perplexed,” and paused “before asking if I was not collecting for the blind. At that point, though not in a can or a hat, a proverbial penny dropped for us both.”
When we are mistaken for blind beggars, its hard not to feel like our presence in the sighted world is being “implicitly explained by a cultural construct,” concludes Bolt.
To be sure, things have changed rapidly since the BPV haunted our streets. The digital era has a lot to do with this. We have access to books and information and tools of communication previous blind generations could not have imagined.
Yet attitudes towards blindness have not changed much since the days of Riis and Chopin. The confusion many sighted people show upon learning that I use the very same iPhones and computers they dojust tricked out with text-to-speech and a Braille displayreveals, time and time again, how alien we seem to them. Many sighted people ‘assume that blind people were just dropped out of the sky without any prior knowledge of the environment,” as Kleege put it. Such people are startled to find us in their midst.
After a Brooklyn barbecue last summer, I heard from the host that when my blind friend, I, and our sighted partners left, someone who didnt know us said with surprise, “How do you know not just one but two blind people?”
This otherwise educated and hip human still fancies us as the other half, sitting on the margins of civilization with a tin cup, a sign, and some old-school (if sometimes fetishized) and inaccessible writing implements.
Enter the stock character riddling the blind landscape. They are the ignorant sighted person who remains blissfully, stubbornly unaware of the fact that such remarks make us want to poke them in the eye. But the accessible computer is mightier than the sharpened pencil. I content myself, with this brief sketch, in the hopes that they will recognize themselves, reach deep into their pockets, and produce change.