A peek into the world of the blind in an evening of dining in the dark.
IN THE CLOAK OF DARKNESS
AT THE BLIND CAFE SAN FRANCISCO
by: Karina Calayag
The Blind Cafe’ San Francisco held its second show March 21-23 this time at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House, a proud sponsor of the three-day weekend event. The great venue had fabulous views of San Francisco but we were there for views of a different kind, for peeking into the world of the blind in an evening of dining in the dark; and if that’s not enough, served by blind waiters.
It is pretty much known to most of us that we are made in such a manner that when one sense is diminished, our body through our remaining senses compensates accordingly. Hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling become stronger and more sensitive. But how exactly this is really like could not be fully comprehended until it is lived. For a few hours, I was among a hundred other guests trying to “see” a minuscule part of this world; how it is to eat, interact, and discovering what it must be like to be blind.
(Spoiler alert!) After enjoying a delicious welcome-cocktail from Spicy Vines at the foyer, the attendees were called out per their assigned table number and asked to line up into the walk-into-darkness formation. With one hand over the shoulder of the person in front, we were led by our blind servers into the dining room of darkness. One table-group at a time, through a series of blackout curtains, with each step forward darker until we had pushed the last curtain to the side, now by touch.
All outside light had been completely blocked off at this point. Unlike any darkened room we’ve seen before, there were no varying degrees of darkness. You won’t see your hand if you placed it right in front of your face. It didn’t matter if you turned your head around; whether you had your eyes closed, opened or, as I experimented, closing them tight and then reopening them; in pitch black darkness – it didn’t matter. It could very well be an alter meaning to the old familiar movie title “eyes wide shut” knowing your eyes are wide open yet seeing absolutely nothing. We were led to our tables and were safely seated one at a time.
Everything became louder. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop but I couldn’t help but hearing and tuning into conversations all around me, even from other tables. Consequently, I became quieter conscious that my own voice would be heard by others and also to not add to the “noise.” I am sure if there were a record of the decibel level in the room, of people having muted conversations, mostly whispers, that it would register a normal sound level, but with hyper-sensitized hearing it was l o u d .
My hands got busy feeling the table around in front of me so I could set my wine cup down. (I had snuck in a glass of wine from the foyer after getting a tip that there were no pouring drinks inside.) As I was searching for a spot for my plastic cup, I felt paper plates of food laid out in front of me, and a water bottle. My sensitivity to touch was heightened being jumpy to unanticipated touches. In an attempt to steal my cup of wine, my husband was feeling his way around to where it was and his unexpected touches inadvertently freaked me out. There was an element of wariness to surprises leaving you feeling vulnerable and “on alert”-edgy. Trust was all important in this environment.
A series of strange things happened. There was suddenly a flicker of light barely perceptible but obvious enough in pitch dark, and it was coming from the person sitting next to me. Wondering what it was, the gentleman beside me said he was just turning off his hearing aid as, interestingly enough, it also got too loud for him. The faint pop of light occurred when he switched off his tiny hearing device, never seen by this man himself until that time. Fascinated by his discovery, he turned his hearing aids on and off a few more times.
Then there were these scant sparks of light like fireflies randomly appearing around. It was light from the static of plastic wrap as the guests started peeling them off the plates, much to all our surprise and amazement. No one there seemed to have ever seen light from removing plastic wrap before either.
There were no utensils. After the general reconnaissance-groping of the table layout in front of you, the next step in this new dining experience was touching, feeling, smelling and wildly guessing what was inside each plate. All these were prerequisites to deciding which were to be brought to the mouth – or not. We’ve all picked up food before but without seeing them first it becomes a whole different proposition. The taste and the mouth-feel were yet another case of discovery, oddity. You eat slower perhaps with a bit of hesitation but with certainly more thought into each bite still determining what it is you are about to swallow as your mouth felt through the textures. As a result, you savor more too, I found. Chef Kaz Mitsune of Breakthrough Sushi prepared the menu. Imagine eating this spread with your bare hands, sight unseen:
KYOTO NASU DENGAKU
Grilled Eggplant with Sweet Miso Glaze
BANGKOK STUFFED MUSHROOM CURRY
Portobello Mushroom with Tofu, Spiced Sunflower and Pumpkin Seeds, Onion, Garlic with Coconut Curry Sauce
TOKYO MAKI SUSHI ROLLS
Dashi Marinated Spinach with Sweet Tahini Sauce
Avocado Cucumber with Cashew Wasabi Cream
BEIJING SWEET & SOUR MEATBALLS
Vegan Meatballs with Classic Chinese Sauce
HA NOI FRESH SPRING ROLLS
Stir Fried Shitake Mushroom, Red and Yellow Bell Peppers, Corn, Red Onion
MACHA TEA TRUFFLE
The boosted hearing and listening, touching and feeling, tasting, “seeing,” were not all that was elevated. A different kind of sight, in-sight, was all of a sudden activated while sitting quietly in the dark. It was a phenomenon, I later learned, that other guests apparently experienced as well. While the outer vision was completely dimmed, the inner vision came into focus and thoughts became clearer. I couldn’t help but be rushed with memories, imaginations and hopes. It was an instance of introspection, all coming in a very natural flow as if I purposefully went into meditation. And because no one can see you, you were free to shed a tear or smile or even kiss (hopefully your date) and not be embarrassed about it. In the cloak of darkness the discomfort of vulnerability and the security of privacy co-existed.
The meal was followed by a Q&A with a few blind volunteers sharing their perspective on the blind side of life. I found it remarkable how the blind community is integrated into the community and the world at large – through technology, because of course.
The event ended with a mini-concert which I think went on just a bit too long. Maybe it was because I had become overly sensitive to sound and had met my threshold for auditory stimulation. I naturally tuned out but thankfully as I was on the verge of falling asleep, a beautiful finale’ of finale’s woke me up. A tiny light emerged from the darkness, from a lighter which lit a candle that touched another candle, and another, until the room was light and we could see again.
To sum up the experience, The Blind Cafe’ is an out-of-the-box opportunity where one will learn to appreciate and be sympathetic to the plight of our blind neighbors. On a personal level, it was an out-of-comfort-zone environment that allowed for heightened awareness not only on the outside world but also within ourselves tapping our mind’s eye and into our heart. On both counts, it was a transformational experience with profound impact.
I reached out for comments from a few of The Blind Cafe’ guests on their experience.
“This night us not for the faint of heart. It enables you tap into a 6th sense, a heartstring sense, that you otherwise would not experience with your vision. It’s rare that you have the opportunity in this city to celebrate regional food and wine pairings and a concert in the dark, all to benefit the beautiful and blind community.” - Lena Koenig, San Francisco
I went into The Blind Cafe excited to try something new. I had no idea how much the total darkness, and reliance on other people and other senses, would crack me open. I left with more than just empathy for persons who are blind; I left with a profound gratitude for the beauty of human resilience, including my own.
Top reason to go: It will make you a better human.
- Josh Klipp, San Francisco
The food, music, and entire atmosphere was enhanced by the pitch blackness of the venue. The experience overall made me appreciate my eyesight, but also allowed me to become more connected and mindful of my other four senses. Very ‘eye-opening’ and highly recommended! - Johanna G, Fremont
I found the whole experience really rewarding. I have been telling all my friends to do it at least once. It’s an experience you really can’t explain until you actually do it. When you can’t see, all your other senses get more in tune and this experience gives you a whole new perspective on life. - Frank G, San Francisco
Curiouser, I continued reaching out this time to interview someone who could expound on the topic of the blind life. Collette Simko-Knauss, master organizer/event planner of The Blind Cafe SF connected me to Richie Flores via email. I assumed that because Richie and I were exchanging emails he was sighted and was an aide to the blind. But I soon realized Richie spoke in first person which led me to pause and clarify directly if he were blind. “Yes mam. Both Darian (another volunteer) and I are totally blind, and I’m using a computer with a JAWS which stands for Job Access With Speech to communicate with you over email.” My own jaw dropped.
Poor Richie now faced an onslaught of random questions from me on everyday life and his career. Here is our engaging email communique’:
KC: At The Blind Cafe’ you had mentioned in particular your use of the iPhone. I’m curious. Please tell me more about this and your use of technology.
Richie: “Both Darian and I use the iPhone. It is the only product that has Voice Over access right out of the box. It does not require any additional software. iPhones are utilized for pretty much all the same reasons others use them. We can read our emails, text, use the Siri and dictate approach. We can access aps, although aps are individually created so access is not always available. I currently have a neat ap to read books through the National Library Service called BARD. I believe that means Braile and Audio Reading Download. I also take voice memos and text notes to myself. The appointment and calendar feature on the iPhone is also very useful in my career. There are aps that access our banks, determine the color of items, and GPS information.”
KC: GPS - How do you use this? What do you do for work/career?
Richie: ”There’s this pretty neat ap on my iPhone called Blind Square. It is a blind version of Foursquare, with GPS capability. I relied on it tons in San Francisco to inform me of the nearest train station, bus stop, restaurants… I am a Vocational Enrichment Consultant the coordinates youth initiatives for blind students in Texas. You can view some of my work at www.nfbtx.org .”
KC: Do you use emoticons and can you detect it when you get it? Are you able to access .pdf files, scanned documents?
Richie: “Sometimes access technology picks up smilies, frowns, clinking beer mugs is my favorite. It varies though on the device being used. iPhone will announce this. JAWS is spotty.
There are a few software for the blind that convert PDF to text documents. I use a note-taker Braille Sense that converts pdf. Kurtzweil reading technology also converts scanned documents analyzing print materials for access.”
KC: Were you born blind?
Richie: “I went blind due to cancer in the retinas at the age of 2. I’m 32 now.”
KC: There are many challenges in the blind community but among all of that, what is the number one most important to you that should and could be better. In other words, what bugs you the most being blind. Do you have any ideas what the solution might be and how this can be achieved?
Richie: “The real problem with blindness is not the loss of eyesight, rather the misconceptions and misunderstandings that exist. The blind must learn the value of sharing this with our society to develop a better tomorrow for the blind community. The youth programs that I teach always include curriculum revolved around the concept that it is okay to be blind; the practice of blindness skills; the art of coping with public attitudes; the value of blending in, and the importance of giving back. These are the Five Essential Elements that create success in our community. Engaging in empowering events that spark these concepts such as The Blind Cafe’ help us in building toward a brighter future for the blind. Literacy, employment, and socialization are all areas that can be improved upon, and are the 3 societal barriers I emphasize while educating my sighted peers.”
The Blind Cafe’ is a pop-up event founded by Brian “Rosh” Rocheleau (sighted) with co-founder, Gerry Leary (blind) in Feb 2010 with their first series of dine-in-the dark events in Boulder, CO. The March 21-23 series was The Blind Cafe’s 2nd show in San Francisco (the first was last October.) They have shown in many cities across the US; Portland OR, Austin TX, Boulder CO, Aspen CO, Cincinnati OH, Burlington VT and Seattle WA.
The Blind Cafe’ does NOT try to perfectly recreate blindness. Instead, it allows people to interact, trust each other, and experience community in an entirely new way.
A portion of the proceeds is donated to select nonprofit groups that support and advocate for the blind community and the partnering blindness organizations for their consult, hospitality, and keynote speaking services.
Richie Flores is originally from Austin and has partnered with Rosh since The Blind Cafe’ at Austin in 2011. He is the Keynote speaker at The Blind Cafe’ SF.
“I do my best to connect The Blind Cafe’ with the local blind community. Darian Smith-President of the local chapter of the NFB - National Federation of the Blind - in San Francisco, has been our most active contributor thus far. I am the Executive Director of the company known as the VEX Project. This company has a mission to redefine blindness to a mere inconvenience. The Blind Cafe’ and other public relations opportunities allow us to convey this message. It is with great enthusiasm to provide The Blind Cafe’ with an educational perspective to blindness. In addition to the Blind Cafe’, I’ve coordinated youth programs in Texas for the National Federation of the Blind. We currently have a mentor program for blind teens and young Adolfs, and a summer camp for blind elementary students focused on literacy. I also write and perform folk rock music with my band The Constellation Prize. I’ve written a song called The Darkness that was inspired by my connection and experience with the Blind Cafe. I believe our mutual appreciation for music and community development initiates a great partnership between Rosh and I. Rosh allows me to share my music as well, and I very much appreciate him for this.” – Richie Flores
Special thanks to: the organizer of the event, Collette Simko-Knauss, President, EventsbyCollette and Marketing Chair Potrero Dogpatch Merchants Association, for the eye-opening experience and putting me in touch with Rosh and The Blind Cafe, and for making post-event interviews possible; to Richie Flores (blind) Keynote speaker who discussed on being blind; to the guests who took the time and shared their perspective from the blind community; and last but not least, to Rosh Rocheleau, for bringing The Blind Cafe’, and everything it stands for, to San Francisco.