The Blind Cafe experience

Wednesday night I attended The Blind Cafe, which I posted about earlier. (This is its third year in Austin.) Arrived a few minutes before 7 pm. Entered Vuka Coop near Monroe and South First  from the back, as instructed. Checked in and was told I’d sit at Table 1. Right away saw my friends Jacqueline, Carol, and Linda — also seated at Table 1! We talked as more people arrived, filling the space. There was a feeling of anticipation and excitement about doing something new and unknown.

A cash bar served merlot. Someone brought out a cheese plate.

After about an hour, we were told to get in groups by table number. (There were 13 tables/groups; Table 1 had 9 people, and some seemed to have more.) We lined up with our right hand on the right shoulder of the person in front of us, so we could be led by a blind waitperson to our dining table. We went through a canvas maze into complete darkness. I mean…complete darkness.

Somehow I could tell it was a large room with a high ceiling, probably from hearing all the people who’d already been seated engaged in conversation.

The group came to a stop, and we were each positioned in front of a chair. I sat in what felt like a cast-iron cushioned lawn chair with arms.

The noise of over 100 people chattering was incredible, much more pronounced because of the darkness. I could hear a couple of conversations in detail, depending on where I focused my attention. To listen to it all at once was almost overwhelming. I thought that Jacqueline, sitting next to me, was probably listening too. (She does that well.) We sat quietly for most of the experience.

By feeling, I discovered that on the table in front of me were two Chinet plates — a large one and a small one. I felt crackers with toppings on the small plate. Since I eat a gluten-free diet, I managed to just lick the toppings off the crackers! A variety of toppings made it an interesting tasting experience, savory and sweet and with various textures.

Then I discovered a third small plate. It contained fruit and some candied pecans or walnuts. I couldn’t see any of the food I ate to verify exactly what it was. My identification was by taste and mouth-feel and hand-feel. I sniffed my food, but did not encounter anything particularly pungent.

The main plate had something large on it, the promised vegetarian entree. It turned out to also be something I could eat with my hands. I took it apart and ate it with my fingers. It seemed like there was parsley with stems, baby spinach, tomato chunks, avocado, and more. It was salad-like.

There was something I couldn’t identify. It was a long slice of something cool and crunchy, very mild in taste, but not hard like carrot. I wondered if it was jicama. I’ve been on a jicama kick lately. Later I decided it was probably cucumber.

Someone at my table was allergic to avocado, and a waiter brought her a substitute.

Someone said there was bread and dipping oil in the center of the table, which I didn’t try.

I found myself being worried about making a mess from eating with my hands in the dark. I was afraid of dropping food on my clothes, of having food on my face, of being shamed as a messy eater when the lights turned on. I am a messy eater sometimes, and I try to limit that to when I’m eating at home by myself! I was grateful that two paper napkins had been provided.

I realized these are concerns of the sighted. Who could tell, in the darkness? It made me think about how many rules and customs there are about eating that have to do with appearances — how we look to [judgmental] others. Wipe your mouth often. Eat soup like this. Eat green beans like this. Cut your meat one bite at a time. Make sure there’s no food in your teeth.Don’t eat with your mouth open. Don’t talk with food in your mouth. Don’t drink while you’re chewing. (Okay, I had a Southern belle grandmother who was very strict about table manners. A meal with her was a string of “dont’s”.)

All the wait staff were blind. There were four of them, and they were cool. If your world is always dark, you learn to navigate in darkness and in light really well. They talked and answered questions. One was a stay-at-home-father of four who enjoyed playing a lot of sports. Another was a technical writer, my old profession. They answered our questions about dating and education and getting around.

Austin, it turns out, is a good place for blind people to live because the public transportation system is good and the School for the Blind and Visually Impaired offers education and employment and other resources.

Also, blind people (or at least some blind people) have fun with it. If your sighted friend tells you some guy is looking at you in a bar, you go up to him and say, “I know you’ve been looking at me,” just to start a conversation and freak him out a little! Several of the wait staff said they had dated both blind and sighted people.

Then there was live music, first by Richie, the leader of the waitstaff and president of the National Federation of the Blind of Austin, and then by Rosh Rocheleau, the creator of The Blind Cafe, who played guitar and sang some songs he’d written (and also a beautiful cover of Hurt, by Trent Reznor). Rosh was accompanied by someone who played what I first thought was a cello, but Jacqueline (a cellist) said it was a bass.

By the end, we were all singing along, and it felt magical to be sitting in the dark with a lot of people, singing together. I think that’s the memory I most cherish, but it was also memorable was sitting in the dark with over 100 people in complete silence, and even more memorable was sharing this experience with Carol, Linda, and Jacqueline.

After the music ended, Rosh lit a tea light, and it created one small point of light in the center of the large room, banishing the darkness. Lights were then lit at each table, and we exited. People seemed different afterwards, with hearts more open.

It turned out that Table 1, which I had believed was a large round table, was actually square, with three seats on each side. I also found a bottle of water intended for me to my left. I guess it had been in a “blind spot” in feeling my dinner accoutrements.

Minor complaint: I wore my coat during the meal because cool air was blowing directly on me from an overhead vent. Advice: Bring a jacket or shawl.

My only major complaint was that there were a few people who were unable to be in darkness or silence, who turned their cellphones on briefly or who kept whispering as if no one could hear them. We were all given a handout when we checked in stating the rules: no lights (no lit watches, turn your cellphones off) and when the bell rings, be absolutely silent.

Every sighted person can see the light and everyone can hear the whispering, and it’s distracting. The offenders were quickly called out most of the time.

Fortunately, they seemed to get it. A couple of people near me had to get through the giggles to get it. I felt both compassion and annoyance at having my attention dragged away from the music. They finally became silent.

Advice if you’re thinking of attending The Blind Cafe: If you have no experience sitting in darkness with others and being silent, please take the rules seriously. You might want to practice at home beforehand. You may feel uncomfortable at first. Stick with it for a few minutes. It becomes powerful, and it will prepare you for the shock of being in a dark world that is The Blind Cafe.

Some people live their whole lives like this, and live well, and have things to teach the rest of us.

Thanks, Rosh and everyone who made this happen.

The Blind Cafe is a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Donations are tax deductible. They need donors, sponsors, and volunteers to make this happen. They also do small private intimate dinners for VIP sponsors.

Also, the National Federation of the Blind is participating in Read Across America Day on Dr. Seuss’ birthday, March 1. They would like to increase Braille literacy. Go to http://www.nfbaustin.org to donate.

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