Standing in the glary cafeteria with my shades on and my heavy bag over my left shoulder, I decide to venture independently in search of some hot food. I walk past the rows of tables and chairs and use my cane to feel for a change in the texture of the floor. The floor changes from smooth to rough and the material grows lighter; I catch sight of the rows of vending machines and the trash can. I’m on the right track.
I follow the rough walkway that leads me around the tables and into the area where food is served. I walk past the sub station and search for the line where you can order hamburgers, hot dogs, and assorted chicken meals. I find a place in line behind two female students. Now that I’m stationary, I tune in to the conversations around me. The students in line before me are speaking in a langauge I can’t quite place; it sounds kind of like Spanish, but some of the sounds are unfamiliar. The solitary cook, moving around behind the octagonal counter, is asking people for their orders. Behind me, someone inquires where the fountain drinks are. I am surprised because I can hear the low drone of the soda machine. Shouldn’t it be obvious that the sodas are diagonally behind me, to rhe right?
I stare intently at the backs of the two heads in front of me. I know it will be my turn when these two students step aside. I am paranoid about looking like I don’t know what I’m doing. So what if this is only the second time I’ve bought lunch in this cafeteria – I want to seem like I’m a pro!
Eventually, they step aside and I move forward, right up to the counter’s edge. The cook calls to me, and I ask for a grilled chicken wrap. He asks if I’d like any sauce and I tell him I’d like ranch. He says, “Okay, sure thing!” and begins to clatter around the small cooking area.
I can’t see what he’s doing. He turns his back to me and I gues that he’s standing before the grill. He is moving things around but I can’t see what they are. I have to assume that he’s preparing my food. He repeats the inquiry about sauce and I don’t answer. The girl to my right pipes up – I quickly learn that he’s finishing up her wrap before starting mine. She’s been standing there the whole time. He asks, “Do you want that wrapped?” and I think he means the chicken. She is quiet. Does she nod? I slyly eye her from behind my shades. If she did nod, I must have missed it.
I’ll go for complete disclosure, I decide. I turn to her and say, “Sorry, I can’t tell if he’s talking to you or me.”
She nods visibly. “It’s cool. I competely understand.” She chuckles. I notice her long dark ponytail bobbing.
“Yes, it’s all part of the fun of standing at a cafeteria counter when you’re visually-impaired.”
She laughs again. The cook finishes her order and hands it across. I understand that I should probably step to the right so that he can hand me my food through the opening between the glass fronts of the counter. I step to the right and take the space that she vacates.
Now I am the only one standing at the counter, so I’m sure that the cook is addressing me when he asks if I’d like cheese, what kind of sauce I wanted, and if I’d like lettuce or tomato. Again, he asks, “Do you want me to wrap it?”
“Yes, please!” I respond, feeling confident. This is getting easier by the minute. I am glad that he is so vocal since I can’t tell what he’s doing back there.
Finally, he approaches the counter and says, “Here you go!” He hands me the plate, a bright white circle against the dark surface of the counter. I reach for it…and I understand what he meant by “wrap it.” The plate is sealed in plastic wrap. I am excited about this discovery! This means that I’m less likely to lose my food to gravity if I happen to bump into someone on my way to the register.
Before I pay, I decide to see if they have any peanut butter M&Ms on the snack cart, a four-sided metal rack that holds chips, cookies, and candy. I walk the few steps to the card and position myself before the candy side. I begin to gently pat each rack, searching for the smooth packaging that indicates M&Ms. I find rows and rows of candy bars, my hand gently gliding across them. I land on something pouch-shaped that holds small, circular candies. I pick it up and read the label – “Skittles.” Damn.
I put the Skittles back on their rack and walk around the cart. The next side is all chips. On the third side, more candy bars shine their bright wrappers up at me. Again, my hand begins the gliding survey, disregarding the long, thin bars and the short, thick bars – searching for that very distinct pouch. I catch sight of the high contrast M&M logo and reach down. I pluck a package from the shelf and bring it close to my face. I discern “Milk Chocolate” on the outside. I check a few more packages, but they are all plain M&Ms. I decide to buy a pack anyway; I think all my effort deserves some kind of reward.
Rather than doing an about face, I round the cart and file into line at the cash register behind a person who is almost through with his transaction. As he lifts his items off the counter, I place my plate and package of M&Ms down. Again, they contrast effectively with the dark counter. The cashier rings me up and tells me my total. I pull out my wallet, a thin creation of burgundy fabric with several pockets that help me stay organized, and I unzip the pocket where I keep cash. I feel for the twice-folded $10 bill. I hand it to the cashier, saying, “Here’s ten.”
As she makes change, the student standing behind me mutters a quiet, “Wow!” The cashier hands me my change, and I put it away. She asks me if I’d like a bag or some assistance getting to the elevator. I tell her that I would like a bag, but I’m heading to a table, that I can make it on my own.
As the cashier is putting my plate into a bag, the student behind me asks, “Can I ask you a question?” Something in his tone tells me he’s not talking to the cashier, so I say, “Sure.”
“How did you know that was a ten?”
I explain to him that I fold each bill differently so that I can identify them by touch. Normally, when I am asked this question, I pull out a bill (if I have one) and demonstrate my system – but because we’re in a crowded cafeteria at lunchtime, I try to keep my answer simple. After I finish explaining, he exclaims, “That’s so cool! That’s so cool!”
The cashier laughs knowingly. I can tell that she’s worked with many visually impaired patrons before. She knows the drill. I make a joke about being able to identify the bills by touch because I’m psychic. The student is still amazed. I take my bag from the cashier and thank her. I walk around the checkout counter and find the rough texture of the walkway.
I follow the walkway past the trash can and rows of vending machines. I take a left once I reach the lunch tables. I pass the first table, which is full, and find a seat at the second. I sit with my back to the window and begin to peel the fortuitous plastic wrap off my plate.
It’s a small thing, getting your lunch independently. Most middle schoolers could do it with ease. Nevertheless, I feel accomplished. I feel resourceful. It is exciting and satisfying to know that, for these daily ventures, these mundane excursions, I can rely on myself.