Novel Interactions

I am lucky to be surrounded by dedicated and diverse friends. Some accompany me to the symphony. Others sing near me on the risers. A few teach in the office beside mine. And most read a lot of books. Like all relationships, my friendships intensify when my friends and I share novel experiences. We discover an unknown author, an exotic restaurant, a place for nature walks and reading aloud, and we lose ourselves in conversation.

As we share interests, we experience moments when my vision changes the circumstances of a social interaction. Some friends have never been close to a disabled person before—they don’t have disabled relatives or classmates, they never volunteered with disabled kids, they’ve never even seen a blind person. New friends learn to verbalize important information, become adept sighted guides, and begin to join me in the lifelong process of laughing at those who are still baffled by my disability. To be clear, people who can’t bring themselves to utter, “See you later!” don’t make it past the acquaintance level. I make no apologies for this prerequisite to my friendship. I’m confident that I can offer a warm and accepting friendship to someone, so I expect the same in return.

Old and new friends witness the many servers who won’t hand me a menu, the symphony ushers who don’t ask if I’d like a program, and the strangers who offer – usually without tact – to pray for my healing. Sometimes, I’ll turn to a new friend and say, “Let’s see if the waitress gives me the braille menu.” My companion will hiss, “I wonder if she expects me to order for you. Joke’s on her, you’re ordering for me!”

In the unofficial tally of new and awkward situations, Crystal and I are in the lead. On any given day of errand-running, we experience a volley of unsolicited, misplaced, or inept assistance from strangers who fail to – in Crystal’s words – “treat you like a person.”

Amused by these encounters, we spend our travel time plotting ways to get revenge. One of my mentors, a good friend and devoted disability educator, often uses the mantra, “Educate, don’t retaliate.” In our fantasies, Crystal and I educate so precisely that the offending parties see the error of their ways and we all have a good story to tell. In real time, however, we can rarely enact these far-reaching civic maneuvers. It’s all we can do to hold in our laughter until we’re out of the shop and in the car.

Let’s begin at the bank.

Crystal and I have stopped at the bank so I can deposit some birthday money. We emerge from the car, and she makes one of her many “summoning noises”: bird calls, tongue clicks, and shouts of “Closer! Closer!” that tell me where she is and where to go. I take her elbow and we enter the bank, threading our way through the unsophisticated mess of ribbon that creates the lines. I mutter something about accessibility and irritation. I can’t imagine that anyone using a wheelchair or scooter digs these cramped rope lines with their abrupt corners. When we reach the counter, I present my debit card and my ID, striking up a conversation with the cheerful bank teller. She instructs me to swipe my card and enter my pin. I do so, enjoying the large, distinctive buttons on the pin pad.

“Wow, that’s impressive! You entered your pin.” There is a lot of smile in her voice as she watches my competent movements.

“You think that’s good? Wait till you see me buy something!”

As the teller turns away, Crystal hands me a lollipop from the small bucket on the counter. “For you, superstar.” She grins.

When I take Crystal’s arm to leave the bank, the teller calls a bit of encouragement: “Don’t worry, I run into walls all the time, too!”

A few hours later, we find ourselves at the nail salon, where I am having my eyebrows waxed. Real friends don’t let their blind friends pluck their own eyebrows. When the waxing is complete, I take Crystal’s arm and we stop at the counter to pay. The young Asian man prints my receipt and addresses Crystal:

“What happen?”

Crystal’s silence tells me that she is confused. “What?”

The man repeats his question, and Crystal replies, “What happened to what?”

In a hushed voice, he elaborates, “Her eye.”

“Oh um…”

Crystal’s voice fades, and I jump in. “I have low vision,” I explain. “I’ve had it since I was born.” I sign my receipt and return my card to my wallet.

“Ohhhhh.” The man takes his copy of my receipt and files it away. “My friend like that. My best friend.”

Later, when we pay for our groceries, we encounter the bank teller’s spiritual cousin, a surly cashier whose only comment comes when I successfully pay for my food and get cash back. After the brief series of beeps that signals the machine’s reception of my pin, she shouts, “GIRL THATS SO GOOD SHE CAN PUT IN HER OWN PIN!” This is her first, but not her final, comment to us. She places my receipt and the cash I’ve requested into my outstretched hand. Energized by my heroic act—the indomitable barrier I’ve overcome—she wishes us a good day.

Though most cashiers are more friendly than this notable example, few actually place the receipt and cash in my hand. Some never look at me, so they don’t see the cane and dark glasses. This means that my outstretched hand will remain empty as the cashier offers my receipt to a nonspecific place in the air. Other times, the cashier will hand my receipt and cash to the person I’m with, though I completed the entire transaction. Here, Crystal and I entertain devious fantasies: “One day, Em, when they hand me your cash, I’m just going to run away and leave you. ”

“I’ll stand here and look forlorn.”

Instead of implementing this particular fantasy, we’ve devised two strategies for dealing with unpleasant cashiers. In the first, Crystal simply steps away or feigns deafness and blindness when a cashier tries to hand her my things. Eventually the cashier gets the message and places the items in my outstretched hand. In the other scenario—when the cashier wordlessly offers my receipt to the empty air—Crystal announces in a very loud, serious monotone, “SHE’S HANDING YOU YOUR CARD.” This utterance helps the cashier to realize the miraculous effects of a verbal cue. After a sheepish apology, the employee places the stuff in my hand, and we can leave the store, knowing that we’ve helped carry one more grain of sand away from Ignorance Mountain.

For me, the best part of these interactions comes during the ride home, when we’re rehashing the day’s experiences. Though I do my best to be plucky and self-reliant, the sheer frequency of these situations can leave me feeling undervalued and ignored. These strangers who believe that I can’t complete the simplest tasks, who insist that my life is some kind of modern tragedy, who refuse to speak to me directly—they don’t know about my degrees, my publications, my performances. By their calculations, I’m not much of anything.

Here, Crystal enacts a vital role of friendship: she reminds me of my own worth, and the proper way to measure it. When I remember to calculate my value from her loyalty and understanding, we can turn these unfortunate encounters into good stories.

Chatting with Charlie

My friend Charlie (whose name has been changed for the purpose of this blog) is a master of uncommon courtesies. When we spend time together, I find myself startled by his thoughtful attentions. Often he asks questions—or offers theories—that show how deeply he is considering my experience of the world, my perspective.

Today, as we walk around his car and across the parking lot of a local Jacksonville restaurant, he remarks, “I bet this surface is difficult with your cane; it’s so uneven!’

With surprise, I reply, “Yes, my cane gets caught in these little cracks and behind these bumps, especially on cold days.”

“That would make an interesting blog,” he says, opening the restaurant’s door with his left hand. I step behind him and catch the door with my left arm. “All the surfaces that cause you trouble.”

We order our food, and the cashier places our drink cups on the counter. Taking them, Charlie says, “I’ve got your cup.” Offering me his arm, he guides me to the soda fountain. “Ice?” he asks, and I nod. “How much?”

“Just a little.”

I hear him position my cup underneath the ice dispenser. After a few seconds of noise, Charlie asks, “Do you want to hold the cup and make sure it’s the right amount?”

I take the cup from him and weigh it in my hand. The amount of ice is ideal, so Charlie fills my cup with water—(Just try to get the drink you want when you can’t read the little signs above each button)—and we find a booth. As usual, I sit with my back to the window to avoid staring into the glare.

Charlie places my cup in front of me, explaining, “Your cup is in front of your seat. Your straw is on the table to the right of the cup; it still has the paper on. Your napkins are to the left of the cup.”

I thank him enthusiastically. “When someone leaves the paper over the tip of the straw without telling me, I end up with a mouthful of soggy straw wrapper.” He laughs, and I remember, but do not mention, my habit of running a finger around the rim of a cup to find the straw. When the cup has a lid, I run a finger along the straw to check whether it still has its wrapper.

Our pagers vibrate, and Charlie gets the food, placing my plate in front of me. He offers me ketchup, which I refuse. Over his hamburger and my portabello sandwich, we begin to discuss the downside of self-deprecating humor—when you laugh at yourself just to get others to laugh with you.

“I often make fun of myself,” I tell him. “To make people more comfortable. When I can sense that someone feels awkward around me, I think laughter helps.”

He agrees, sipping his drink. “But it can go too far—it can become all you’re known for.”

“Yes, when you believe that the only way others will accept you is through making fun of yourself. It feels juvenile after a while.”

“Hey,” he says decisively.  “That’s another blog topic.”

“You’re a goldmine!”

I finish the last bite of my portabello and drink some water.

“You have something in your teeth,” Charlie announces calmly. “Swish around.”

I obey, sipping more water. “Is it gone?”

“Yes.” He hesitates, then continues, “Sorry if that’s weird…but I’d like to know if I had something in my teeth.”

“Unfortunately I can’t return the courtesy.”

On the topic of unsolicited advice, I tell Charlie about all the unwelcome “assistance” I receive, especially from random strangers. “Sometimes it’s difficult to be a blind woman, because women are taught to market their physical, visual appeal. I get a lot of ‘help’ from people who think that I have no understanding of color or style because I’m visually-impaired.”

He asks for examples.

Well there’s the time I asked a sales assistant to tell me the color of some earrings, and she said they were “grapefruit.” (They later turned out to be a dark purple.) Then, without any prompting from me, she declared reprovingly, “I wouldn’t wear them with that top you’ve got on.” Oddly enough, the earrings weren’t for me; they were a gift.

Or the time I asked a cashier for a reusable fabric shopping bag and she started to ask which color I preferred. At the word “color,” she cut herself off, presumably realizing that blind people don’t have color preferences. Holding up a bag without describing it, she changed “color,” mid-word, to, “Is this one OK?” Irked by her awkwardness, I wanted to shrug off my eggplant-colored wool swing coat—slowly, button by button; to show her my caramel-colored turtleneck and dark jeans; to hoist a leg up on the counter and display my shoe, a latte-colored closed-toe wedge with a delicate silver buckle; to reach up and tweak one of my earrings, a creation of brown and amber beads that Katie made. I did none of this. Mindful of the long line behind me, I said, “Yes that’s fine.”

Charlie laughs at these vignettes. “Do you understand color?”

“Not in a practical sense,” I confess. “I understand colors in theory. I can’t identify them visually. But I’m drawn to the same colors over and over—reds, dark purple, forest green. Anything but pastels.”

I tell Charlie about the various times people have asked me how I do my hair, because I often wear it in a low bun. Sometimes I say that my lady’s maid does it. Other times, I innocently ask, “Can you see the back of your own head?”

“But you gotta understand,” Charlie intones reverently. “They do that stuff with mirrors. No, they can’t see the back of their own heads; they use mirrors to see that stuff.”

“Why go to all that trouble? Just do it by feel! It’s so much easier.”

“For you.” He piles used napkins on our dirty plates.

I pull on my black cardigan and slide out of the booth. “Want to get coffee?”

“Sure.” He offers me his arm, and we walk to the car.

“I hope my cheerleader isn’t working today.”

“The one who thinks you’re Superwoman? If she is, I’ll just be really horrible to you,” he promises. “I’ll call you incompetent and shout, ‘Can’t you do ANYTHING?’ Then she’ll come running around the counter—”

“—On fire with righteous anger. She’ll chase you out of the store.”

“I’ll never be allowed back again.”

“And I’ll have to find a new coffee companion.”

Too Wonderful for Words

On a crisp weekday morning, I wander happily into the warmth of the campus Starbucks, craving a cappuccino. As I near the counter, I notice that only one customer waits at the register—a tall, middle-aged or elderly man. Unsure whether he has already ordered and paid for his drink, I hang back, waiting for a familiar cashier to call me forward.

“Hi, Emily, what can I get for you?” one of the regulars calls to me. I step forward, drawing my burgundy wallet out of my purse.

To my left, the customer waits on his cup of black coffee. Making me aware of his position, he says, “You get along pretty well.”

Unsure whether he is addressing me, I ignore his comment. I order my cappuccino and fish for my debit card. When I have accepted the card and receipt from the cashier, I replace the card in my wallet and fold the receipt. As I zip my wallet closed, the man repeats, “You get along pretty well.”

“Me?”

“Yes,” he insists. “If I hadn’t seen the cane, I wouldn’t know you were visually-impaired.”

I smile, thinking quickly. I want to seem gracious but disinterested. “Thank you.”

He continues, “I had two visually-impaired students last year, and they weren’t nearly as skilled as you.”

“Oh,” I continue to stare ahead, at a loss for words. What can I say to this man? I don’t know his two blind students. How can I accept his compliment and agree that his students are inferior to me?

Three days later, Crystal, Derek, and I enter another Starbucks.

“Hey, it’s Miss Independent!” exclaims the cheerful cashier as I step up to the counter. I chuckle awkwardly, trying to sound disinterested. I hope to order my drink without incurring more praise.

“Hi, can I have a tall hot chocolate?”

“Sure thing,” she replies, punching buttons on the cash register. I slide my burgundy wallet out of my bag, unzip it, and feel for my debit card. It’s easy to find; it’s the only card in the first pocket with upraised numbers. When I hand it to her, she rewards me by saying, “Wow, that is just so impressive…always self-sufficient. I’m going to start calling you Miss Self-Sufficient!”

This is a familiar exchange: I have bought coffee from her four times, and, each time, she praises my ability to conduct my transaction independently.

Again, I deliver a half-hearted half-laugh. I don’t really know what to say.

“Yeah I am really Superwoman, able to pay for multiple coffees in a single swipe!”

“Well, you know, it takes a lot of work—I have to put money in the account and then find the right card…I guess I have to earn the money first…”

“Thank you, ma’am—it’s so reassuring to know that your poor opinion of blind people leads you to doubt my ability to manage this simple transaction with ease.”

I write all of these things because I can’t say them. As irritating as I find her comments (and the low standards they indicate), I don’t want to make her feel stupid. I don’t want to shame her for her ignorance.

Keeping all this in mind, I don’t know what to say. What can you say?

I follow Derek to the small round table, and he adds an extra chair for Crystal. She stands at the counter and pays for her drink. Either my ears are deceiving me, or I imagine that I hear the phrase “self sufficient” in Crystal’s conversation with the cashier. When she joins us at the table, Crystal confirms this.

“She told me it it just warmed her heart to see you being so independent,” she says, grinning. “She said you came in looking so nice and doing everything for yourself. She was really impressed.”

Impressed? Really? I am wearing a light brown sweater with short sleeves and a square neckline with a pair of dark jeans. My hair is twisted back in a big clip, because that style takes 2 minutes to achieve. I am wearing no makeup, no stylish accessories, and no designer products. Yes, I dress myself and I match.

So, watch out, coffee drinkers! You never know when this whirling dervish of a blind girl will appear at a Starbucks near you! You’ll be sitting there, sipping your iced, half-caff caramel macchiato, and, suddenly—totally out of the blue—a blind woman will appear, cane flying, cape swirling, and…order a coffee. She’ll order a coffee. And maybe a croissant. Her clothes will be without stains, her dark hair will be pulled into a bun or a clip (as if some sighted person did it), and her back will be straight. She’ll speak in a clear, articulate voice (she knows English?!) and she’ll handle her debit card or folded paper money with relative ease.

You’ll be so impressed with her. You’ll want to check your calendar—is it Leap Day already? You’ll wonder if she’s part of that 2012 Mayan apocalypse thing; surely competent blind women don’t come around that often! Eventually, after watching her collect her drink and settle into a comfortable chair, you’ll settle back into your own seat and sigh. You’ll stop trying to do the math. Miracles like this don’t come around every day, so you want to enjoy this. You can’t figure her out, and you don’t need to. She’s just too wonderful for words!

The rain, a cane, and a hint of Spain

Tonight, around 6:00pm, Ozzie begins to bark, sounding the signal of an approaching car. I sling my large pink floral purse over my left shoulder, check for my cane, sunglasses, wallet, keys, and cell phone, and head toward the front of the house. I open the door and try to keep Ozzie, the curious cairn terrier, from running out onto the landing to greet Javier, who has arrived to pick me up. My efforts fail as Ozzie slips past my legs and through the narrow opening – he is relentless when there are new people to greet!

After he has paid his respects to our pup, Javier offers me his arm and we descend the front steps. It’s sprinkling and we tromp through the wet grass to get to Javier’s car. Javi opens the door for me and I slide in. We begin our trek in search of Thai food, driving through an intensifying downpour. Luckily, Javi has a snazzy umbrella that will accommodate both of us.

We arrive at the Thai restaurant and hurry inside. Our waitress greets us and says, “Nice to see you again!” I do not recognize her voice, and I wonder how she recognizes me. Though I enjoy their food, I haven’t been to this particular Thai restaurant in a while.

This evening, Javi and I are of one culinary mind; we agree on vegetable spring rolls as an appetizer and end up ordering the same entree – Phad Se-yew with chicken,  mushrooms, and carrots. The spring rolls arrive already cut into 2-bite pieces. They are arranged in an asymmetrical design on a square plate. A round cup of dipping sauce with peanuts sits in one corner of the plate, while a colorful garnish occupies another. After we have each eaten one piece of spring roll, I stare hard at the plate and reach for what I hope is another piece. I am relieved as my fingers brush the crispy surface of the roll. As I dip it into the peanut sauce, I remark, “Oh I’m glad those are more spring rolls on that edge. I thought that was another pile of garnish.”

“Oh yes,” Javier replies devilishly. “It’s all garnish. Don’t eat it!”

When the entrees arrive, I take a few bites before remembering to search for the garnish, a bunch of shredded raw carrots twisted into a decorative design, that lingers somewhere on my plate. I know this from past experiences. I cannot count the number of times I’ve lifted a forkful of phad thai to my mouth and gotten a messy clump of raw carrot caught up with the rice noodles and scallions! We finish our meal, and Javier helps me spoon my leftovers into a small white takeout box. We pay at the register, where the cashier puts my debit card onto the counter in front of me (instead of placing it into my outstretched hand).

Full of excellent food, we decide to run some errands at the Town Center. While we search for a parking spot, Javier reads the names of passing stores – Apple, Pottery Barn, Artsy Abode…Switching from his pleasing Madrid accent to a low, exaggerated French impression, he intones, “L’Occitane en Provence.”

“What! They have a store here?” (I am excited. Because I cannot read store signs and don’t regularly check maps of the Town Center, I lose track of the stores on offer.)

“Yes, it’s right there.”

“Can we go in?”

“Sure…”

We enter the shop, and the first thing I notice is the size. The store is not very deep and the ceilings are not very high. I am not sure how I know this – it must have something to do with how the air feels and how the sound of the radio, playing “La Vie en Rose,” behaves in the space. As I step through the door, the sales assistant calls from behind the counter, “Bonjour!” I barely notice her greeting. I am overpowered by the heavenly smell of warm, soothing Provence lavender.

For lavender enthusiasts like me, Provence lavender has a very distinct scent – entirely different from the pointy, medicinal smell of the typical jar of lavender bath salts. Lavender grown in Provence has a relaxing, full, floral aroma that calms my mind and makes me think of sun-drenched meadows of lush green grass and soft, inviting blossoms.

This whole shop smells like lavender, probably because, as Javier informs me later, there are bunches of lavender for sale by the entrance. As we wander around, the woman comes from behind the counter to offer her assistance. I ask her how long the store has been here and she says, “Just over a year.” We chat a little about the products I’ve tried – the shea butter lip balm and the lavender hand cream. I tell her I am there to explore the whole store.

Suddenly, she comes closer and says, “Oh! All our products have – I don’t know what they’re called – those dots that spell things!”

“Braille?” I ask in a small, hopeful voice. There’s no way it’s braille, I think to myself. Nobody has braille on all their products.

“Yes, braille!” She sounds excited. She snatches a box off a shelf and offers it to me, placing it in my outstretched hand. “Here you go!”

My fingers travel over the smooth surface of the box. I feel an upraised print logo, and, as I turn the box over in my hand, my fingers come across the beloved, familiar dots! It is braille! Worn down and not terribly easy to read, the braille quietly proclaims, “peony eau de toilette” (No caps).

“That is too cool! Well now I have to buy something from your store,” I tell her.

After a bit more exploring, I leave L’Occitane with a new perfume – the peony one. Blame it on the braille. How could I refuse something so temptingly embossed?

The peony perfume is a warm, fresh floral scent that smells incredible! It carries hints of damp earth; it smells like the depths of a garden.

The braille and the perfume are not the only catalysts of my future shopping experiences at this store. As the saleswoman rings up my purchase, she wraps each item in tissue paper that she has misted with perfume. When I hand her my card, she swipes it and places it in my hand. She slides the receipt across the counter to me, verbalizing each move she makes.

Maybe the presence of the lavender makes her more empathic and open-minded. Maybe she is a kind and considerate person by nature. Or maybe it’s the braille, the small rows and columns of unobtrusive, resilient dots marking each sweet-smelling box that calls her attention to the needs of her customers.