As an introvert still getting used to life in a new city and a new corner of the world, it’s easy for me to retreat into my lair and not come out for days at a time. I have books to read, writing to do, video games to play, and Netflix to watch, so . . . really, with so much to do from the safety of my own home, why should I venture out into the wider, scarier world? Well, obviously, that’s not a great way to live one’s life, so even though it involves a mental kick in the ass to get in gear, I try to live by the adage (it’s not really an adage) of “do cool stuff whenever possible.”
Last week, one of the area mailing lists I got sucked into (from Yelp, I think) told me about an event happening called The Blind Cafe. Here’s the basic elevator pitch: you’re served a meal in absolute darkness. No lights, no emergency exit signs, nothing. You’re led into a room, seated at a table, and from there, you get to experience life the way . . . well, the way a blind person does. After dinner, there’s a keynote speaker and a Q&A and the night caps off with some live music. With the exception of the host and a few volunteers, all of the staff for the event were blind; servers, kitchen staff, speaker, etc.
So, what’s it like?
Your mileage may vary, but for this author, it was nothing short of terrifying. In a good way. In the way that a great roller coaster is terrifying. The way paragliding is terrifying. But it’s still really scary.
Our tickets were for the 8:30 event, but since we’re still learning our way around the city, we left early to give ourselves plenty of time. We arrived outside at about 8:00pm and waited outside as the previous group finished up. As people staggered out, most were wide-eyed and blinking. It seemed both promising . . . and foreboding.
We went into a little lobby and checked in. It was a pretty tiny room for about 60ish people, but we were each given a glass of wine, so I was content. Once we were checked in, the host gave a brief introduction and told us what to expect (they asked several times to have phones and watches turned off, so as to not spoil the effect). We lined up in groups of eight to go into the dining area. Each person put his or her hand on the shoulder of the person in front to avoid getting separated. We were advised to go to the bathroom before the event, for obvious reasons.
The door from the lobby to the dining hall was turned into a sort of “light-airlock,” with multiple heavy blackout curtains that we walked through. They were thick enough and heavy enough that it was a little disorienting, which led to the effect. I was plunged into complete darkness with nothing but my hand on Jenn’s shoulder to guide me. We were led to the table and seated. From there, it would be up to us until the keynote.
Dinner was all vegetarian, which was helpful for me (being a both a vegetarian and someone with a pretty serious food allergy). There was some bread that we figured out how to pass around in the dark, although I never did find the butter. After that, it was up to each of us to eat and talk. In complete darkness.
Here are the things that wigged me out: because the room was pitch black, it wasn’t like wearing a blindfold, where there’s always a liiiittle bit of light peaking around through your nose or at the corners. There also was nothing I could do to be able to see; no blindfold to take off, no watch to light up, nothing. You can’t really recreate this experience at home, because even if you turned off all the lights in your house and managed to make it completely dark, you’d still know roughly where you are. You know your house. You might stumble and shuffle, but you know what the area looks like.
It’s profoundly different going into a place you’ve never been before in the dark. I couldn’t tell how big the room was (I tried to estimate based on the sound, but turned out to have wildly overestimated the size of it).
That was the part that really got my anxiety churning: I’m intensely claustrophobic. Claustrophobia takes many forms and for most people, it’s regarded as a fear of small spaces. The tight spaces are part of it, but they’re usually actually a trigger for a larger fear: the fear of being trapped.
In my daily life, I have this little ritual that I go through whenever I start to feel anxious: I visualize where my exits are. I look around for the ubiquitous red or green glowing EXIT signs. I imagine the process if there was, I don’t know, a fire or an earthquake, and what I’d do to get out. I don’t spend very long on it, maybe a few seconds at the most. It works.
The first time I felt that anxiety in the dark, I realized that I didn’t know where those little EXIT signs were. I had no idea of the layout of the room, having gotten disoriented from the thick curtains we walked through. I didn’t know how to get out of the room and that tripped my phobia into overtime.
I will be honest: there were a few moments when I nearly lost it. I thought about saying “fuck it, grabbing my cell phone out of my pocket, and using it as a flashlight, and to hell with the other sixty people who paid to have this experience.” But through some very calm and steady reassurance from Jenn, I was able to keep a lid on my anxiety and got through the first part of the event. I can’t really say whether the food was good or not as I mostly picked at things on my plate due to my churning nerves.
It’s intense. You have absolutely no real idea how hard it is until sight is taken away from you. I’d thought I’d be fine with it, since I wear glasses and I’m about as nearsighted as a baby mole without them. But there’s really no comparison at all. If a person tells you “I’m legally blind without my glasses,” cuff them upside the head. Being nearsighted is a wonderful world of visual cues and data compared to having your sight taken away. My 20/200 vision can tell me where I am, where the exits are, and where people are. I’ll never take it for granted again.
The keynote speaker was excellent. His name was Rick and he’s been blind for (if I remember correctly, again, I was fighting off a panic attack for the first hour) most of his life. Having his voice in the dark to focus on helped steady my anxiety and his talk was a great one. He invited people to ask questions, anything at all, about blindness, about his life, whatever they wanted. He told us that the anonymity of the dark often encouraged people to ask things they normally wouldn’t in the light, which turned out to be true. Not that anyone asked anything inappropriate, but folks were able and willing to talk about blindness in a real, concrete way. My favorite questions were “what’s the rudest thing a sighted person does, either intentionally or unintentionally” and “do you think a ‘cure’ for blindness would damage or harm blind culture?”
I won’t spoil the answers here, both because I couldn’t do them justice and because I think you really had to be there, in the moment, to experience the profundity of it.
The night closed out with a few live songs. Music really does sound better in the dark. I was able to listen to it in a way I don’t normally listen; normally, music is a background thing, something I listen to while I’m driving or writing or cooking. I never devote my entire attention to it, but when you’re there in the dark, you feel the music in a wholly different way. It’s pretty incredible.
The night ended with the host lighting a candle in a the middle of the room. Just like that: sight restored. We were able to explore the room, which is when I learned that what I thought was an entire ballroom was really a fairly small meeting room with eight tables and a little stage. After that, people started to depart. We stayed around for a bit to recover and to talk with the host and with Rick, to thank them for the experience.
I’ve spent most of this post talking about my fear; how scared I was to be in the dark, how much it triggered my own anxiety. But that’s not really what the event was about and it’s not what I took away from it. It was an amazing experience getting to talk about blindness in a way that was real and deep and honest. It didn’t make me feel pity but it did make me aware of my tremendous privilege. It made me realize how much I take the smallest things for granted.
If you have a chance to take this experience, I recommend it. It’s not something you really do for fun. It wasn’t that way for me. But it was powerful and it felt meaningful. I learned some pretty deep things about myself. You may not be able to learn “what it means” or “what it feels like” to be blind in a few hours, because we’re talking about a topic much deeper and broader than can be encapsulated in such a small amount of time. But you’ll have the beginnings of understanding; you’ll have taken a few steps in someone else’s shoes.