n college, I had a lanky, long-haired roommate with a grin on loan from leprechauns. He’d bound through our dormitory apartment – there were five of us – and invariably appear in doorway wearing one of his many faces. He reserved a special one for me. Out of the blue, I’d find him poking into my narrow quarters to give me the latest news, which, for me, was more of a verdict, since invariable what he cried out was Existential terror! — each word inflected with due severity.
I never was quite sure what these terrors were but he made it clear they applied to me. After reading my sentence, he’d vanish down the corridor bringing other tidings to other impressionable teenagers. His appropriately gnomish name was Derf, very much in the spirit of Midsummer Night legend if only Derf wasn’t Fred spelled backwards.
In any event, he and his existential terror caught my attention, at least for a few seconds, and occasionally I’d wonder what form such a haunting would take if it ever came. I imagined myself chased down a dead-end alley by a rabid dog.
Now, many decades later, I have come to understand Derf’s warning and live it every few days. In my case it’s imagining taking the short walk to the supermarket in my Rome neighborhood.
And no, I do not fear hordes of unvaccinated mongrels or mean dogs on the loose in search of human flesh. My existential terror — and the two words describe the feeling perfectly — derive from the reality that I am semi-blind but refuse to give up my treasured human independence. This means walking into a world of semi-darkness that can be managed only through memorization.
Every piece of pavement, every sliver of walkway, every pothole, must be known and mapped out mentally in advance. Streets may be crossed only in the proximity of other crossers, who appear to me like moving hunks of darkness. Curbs must be factored in ahead of time, where they begin and end, and poles of all kinds known about. Parked cars, and they are many, are lighthouses of a sort because they assert what’s stationary, or supposed to be. The night lights of specific stores help make it clear how close or far I am from the entrance to the supermarket, which, though it is narrow, is usually flooded with other humans headed in the same direction. To avoid hitting others of my species unaware of my condition I try to remain as apart as I can be, as if a militant practitioner of social distancing. Some applaud me for the wrong reasons.
Why do I do this when I could simply ask for help? In part because to me independence, of movement and motion foremost, is essential and sacred and precious. Its denial is the reason jails were made a form of punishment and why lockdowns, however well intentioned, can be literally maddening to those attached to a life of movement, and life is in fact much about that. How for example to storm out of room in dramatic style when you cannot see the door? Limit or interfere with motion and we humans feel viscerally pent-up, unable to act on that Hollywood favorite, “We’ve got to get out of here!”
Once in the brightly lit store, my terror is only modified, since now the challenge is to recognize items that cannot bee seen but only identified by where they are situated. If I make a box tumble from a shelf I look suddenly like a vagrant as I feel the floor for the box in a clumsy attempt to replace it in a location I cannot see.
At this point, store employees usually intervene, asking me if I need help. Then and only then, as if befriended, do I explain my real and existential woe. “I’m so sorry,” I say, “I don’t see well.” Almost invariably I am then helped by those still gifted with vision (but unaware of that gift). I thank them profusely before running into a cart or the edges of an aisle. I try smiling faintly.
At checkout, I have cashiers who know me. They tote up my total, take my cash or card, open my bags because I cannot distinguish between top and bottom. They kindly say, “You’ve got everything,” as if reading into the anxiety on my face that appears as evidence of a deep sense of lost-ness. Sometimes I am even escorted to the door. Since my ruined eyes show no obvious damage, all this fuss as times confuses other customers, who assume it’s all pretense just so I can enjoy the privilege of being walked out.
As Derf apparently knew fifty years ago, I am doing no such thing. I am merely living through the actual trappings of existential terror.
The walk home is just as daunting because now I carry bags or pull a cart. On a sunny day, the bright solar rays behave as magic carpet, since my eyes still respond to very bright light. I can walk at times like a normal human. But in these dark days of winter there is no such luxury and I must essentially retrace my memorized bits of pavement, always looking down in the event a pothole has come to life overnight. I sometimes stop at my neighborhood bar and pharmacy, both of which are thankfully bright, and most of the employees recognize the neighborhood blind(ish) man. Still, they ask, “How are you!” cheerfully, and refuse to accept glum replies. I have learned that living in terror is best managed by telling people you’re actually doing just fine. This reassures them, guiding them away from their own crises and intimations of mortality, all the rage in viral times.
My final stretch home requires walking by a huge electronics store lined with giant TV and computer screens, customers fondling all this gadgetry, waiting to make some screen their own. They can then go home and see into the visual gibberish that defines most lives. From this I am spared. The lights from the screens emit no more than a nonsense of light, and I walk close to help me get to the crosswalk.
There, as always, I await others. Sometimes the light must change three times before I find a companion I can follow to the nirvana that is my side of the street and the means to the gate that takes me home. I must fumble with the keys to find the stubby one, and this often makes children pause to stare at me, as if I weren’t trying to get in but instead counting my keys like coins, again and again. These children have yet to have met their Derf.
And there he is, always in my mind’s eye, my roommate and soothsayer, the college boy who say it all coming and tried to get me to pay attention. He’s in my doorway with that wry smile, existential terror!, then gone in a flash.