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.”