DSQ > Summer 2007, Volume 27, No.3

Note: all names and some identifying characteristics have been changed.

After I'd been at the Colorado Center for the Blind for about six weeks, Olivier, one of the people who taught home skills, determined that I had enough experience under my belt to accompany him on a shopping run to the local super market. Legally blind, but with a lot of useable vision, I had been learning to do everything - crossing streets, cooking pork chops in Pam, reading braille, barbecuing, surfing the web, going downhill skiing - wearing the mandatory blindfold. I wanted to learn the skills, but I also wanted to change my attitudes toward blindness, get over feeling like an exile in my own land. That's why I picked this radical residential rehab program far from home where all our instructors were blind. They worked hard to convince a group of 25 blind and low vision students of different ages, races, and social classes that blindness was no big deal. Sometimes they succeeded.

After making our way with our white canes across an enormous parking lot, Olivier and I passed through two sets of sliding doors and turned left to the customer service desk to ask for a shopper's assistant. Provided free of charge when you go to most large stores, these people escort you through the aisles to pick up the items you want.

Today we got Tito, a pleasant young guy who, we learned, had just been hired and whose English needed work. Since it was the first thing on Olivier's brailled list, we began with cream cheese. "Jar or can, please?" Tito asked, eager to fulfill his new charge.

"Box," Olivier answered.

"Box? No cheese in a box, but maybe also no cheese in a jar or can!" Tito joked with us.

"It's called cheese," Olivier explained, "but it isn't. It comes in a block like butter."

"Ah, butter, okay!" Tito said, no doubt relieved to be in search of something he recognized. He grabbed the front end of the cart with us clinging to the back and raced down the aisle to the end of the store. He hesitated, then said, "Oh, sorry!" Next he turned us 180 degrees and tore back to where we'd just been.

"We have other stuff on our list," Olivier said, trying to get his attention. "Maybe I can read it to you so if we pass some of those things we can get them on the way."

"Only one thing at a time, please," Tito said, racing back yet again, then he stopped to confer with someone else.

"Please, butter?" Tito asked.

"No, cream cheese," we both retorted in unison.

"Please, sorry," Tito said and spun us around again, heading for another part of the store. I calculated we had been in the place nearly ten minutes and still didn't have a single item in our cart.

Desperate, Olivier and I both dove into the dairy case in front of us, running our hands over the various containers hoping for ones that might be cream cheese.

I couldn't stand it anymore, so I flipped up my sleepshades and began to hunt visually for the package I knew from childhood. To the touch, the items felt cold, formal, even organized. But with my shades off, the chaotic colors, shapes, and shadows made absolutely no sense. I concentrated hard, and, after several false alarms, found a silver, blue, and white box that I felt certain was the box I knew.

"How about this one?" I asked, handing it in triumph to Tito.

As Tito examined the box, Olivier said hesitantly, "We actually need lowfat cream cheese."

My heart sank.

"Okay. Loaf-at," Tito repeated slowly. Clearly, he didn't have a clue what Olivier was talking about.

He remained silent for some time. I watched him turning it over and over in his hands. At last he asked, "How do you spell 'loaf-at'?"

"Um, look Tito," Olivier hesitated again. "We're in a bit of a hurry and since you're new to the store, this might not be the best way for you to get to know it. Could you please take us back to the service desk?"

"Please, I'm very sorry," Tito said, on the verge of tears. "Follow me please."

As we waited for another helper to show up, I remembered my fellow student Don's outrageous story from a few weeks before when he had asked a shopper's assistant to give him six Idaho potatoes. "Six like this?" she had asked, handing him a bag with maybe six or seven potatoes in it, and Don nodded. Then they continued around the store, filling up the shopping cart with various items for him and Simon the former librarian from London, who had also come along. When they reached the cash register, the clerk commented, "Well, you sure have a lot of potatoes there!" Don smiled because he knew that Simon only ate a narrow range of foods, potatoes being one of them. "Yep!" he said, and they pushed their cart outside to wait for the taxi. "Wow!" the driver exclaimed, as he loaded the bags into the trunk. At the apartment complex a neighbor offered to help Simon and Don carry their groceries upstairs, again commenting on "all them spuds." It wasn't until Don began unpacking in his kitchen that he found a bag of potatoes, and another, and another, and another: the shopper's assistant had given Don six bags - about thirty pounds - of potatoes, not six potatoes!

After Tito, Olivier and I got Dashay, a manager with a take-charge attitude who, once we told her about the cream cheese, decided to accompany us around the store herself. "You've got to understand that these new people don't earn very much, and anyone who is good doesn't last very long because they get promoted," she explained as we glided through the store. Soon we had nearly all of the items on Olivier's extensive list piled into our cart.

Alas, Dashay got paged to take care of more pressing business, so she left us in the hands of Amber to finish up. "My goodness," Amber said, after introducing herself. "You can't get stuff that's much less healthy than this!" True, our cart overflowed with lots of soda, chips, pretzels, jars of vegetable oil, cookies, crackers, hot dogs, processed cheese, low-fat cream cheese, buns, catsup, and - only because I insisted - a large bunch of green bananas that I hoped would ripen before the spring thaw. We still needed ice cream, ground beef, mayonnaise, and, Olivier suddenly remembered, frozen burritos.

"Why don't you get fresh carrots instead?" Amber offered. "They're on sale, plus they're good for you."

"Thanks," Olivier said, "but we're shopping for lunches for a school, so we need things you can heat up in a microwave."

"Even better!" she said with forced cheer. "Carrots work just fine. They're actually really good when you heat them up - put them in a dish with a little water," she insisted. "My kids really like them."

"Look, please take us to the frozen food case," Olivier said, clearly starting to lose his temper.

"Sorry, but I'm not sure we carry them," Amber said, getting a little testy herself. To prove her point, she led us on a long rambling trip up and down each aisle, until finally I pushed up my sleepshades again and went in search of the food myself. But of course, I couldn't read any labels. There I was, the gourmand who would never eat a frozen burrito if my life depended on it, engaged in mortal combat with an opinionated shopper's assistant to secure this very thing.

I later learned that Amber was notorious among the blind folks of Littleton. When other people from the center went there, they got the same treatment, apparently because the first students who used her had caved in and followed her orders. "What happened to the happy blind people who came a couple of weeks ago?" she kept asking. "They liked what I gave them."

Suddenly I reached my breaking point. I wanted to strangle Amber and Tito, not to mention every shopper who confidently strutted about the store oblivious to their delicious independence. Relying on others sucks! I wanted to shout over the PA system. You can't imagine what it's like to have spent the past twenty minutes running after a slab of low fat cream cheese, only to be told by some snotty bitch that what we've chosen isn't good for us! You don't know how good you have it, strolling in, walking right up to each thing you want, and putting it into your own cart the way you want it.

Not being near the PA system, I simply mumbled, "this sucks!" under my breath to Olivier.

"Yes it does," he said calmly. "Welcome to the fabulous world of shoppers assistants. It's not usually this bad, but there's always something. I'll bet you've never had to do this before, have you?"

I felt guilty about my relief at knowing that my relatively high vision spared me from this downside of blindness. "No, I haven't," I said flatly, disappointed that I couldn't find something more generous to say.

"That's okay, girl," Olivier said with a kindness that could only come from someone who truly understood. "I'm glad I can still see some stuff," he confessed in a whisper, as if he didn't want to be overheard by anyone, "because I hate relying on shoppers' assistants. I have RP, which means I know I'll lose my sight someday. More than all the crapola about not seeing sunsets and the faces of my grandkids, one of the things I dread most is not being able to pick out my own food. Blindness wouldn't be a frickin' tragedy if you didn't have to deal with such a clueless sighted public!"

Defeated and exhausted, we gave up and headed for the checkout, hoping the next pair of students would have better luck.

"Did you find everything to your satisfaction today?" the cheerful clerk asked as he started to ring up our purchases.

Having no idea how to answer such an insipid question, I turned my back to prevent the cashier from seeing me dissolve into hysterical laughter. Nothing was funny. I was just out of control. But Olivier seemed calm enough. "Everything but the frozen burritos," he said, as if finding this one thing would erase the Titos and Ambers of the world.

"How many you want?" the checker asked, and came back with the eight boxes we'd requested, plus a ninth. "The chili-cheese ones are new," he told us, "and they're delicious. Have this one on me!"

Back at the center as we unloaded the groceries from a taxi, I found myself in a foul mood. Throughout the ordeal with the shoppers assistants, I'd consoled myself with thoughts of eating a healthy lunch of a spicy vegetarian stew, leftovers from the previous night when I'd pulled out all the stops to fix myself something good. Grumpily, I realized that I'd forgotten to take it out of the fridge when I left for the center so many hours before. Even if it hadn't been too cold and snowy to go out, I didn't know if Littleton had anyplace that might sell something I liked. Libby, the other home skills teacher, suggested I go to "Mickey-D's," but getting to the golden arches involved crossing busy Prince Street, still too daunting a task under sleepshades. Besides, no self-respecting food snob such as me would ever risk her life for a Happy Meal.

So I paced the big meeting room, hungry and irritated. My options consisted only of frozen and packaged foods that contained too much salt, along with artificial flavors and preservatives with so many syllables that they are impossible to pronounce, let alone spell. After much contemplation, I settled on the closest thing to health food I could think of: a Snickers Bar. But alas, Errol, whose job was to stock the candy and soda machines, hadn't yet done the bulk shopping at the discount store that week.

Resigned to the inevitable, I caned over to the freezer and rooted through a number of boxes, some empty, others torn open as if they'd been raided by bears. I only found what wiz-kid Lance informed me were frozen "pigs-in-blankets." I grumbled all the way over to the microwave to cook them. "They aren't bad" several classmates tried to assure me as I joined the long line.

"Cathy!" Simon hailed me in his refined British accent as I waited. "Do you read print?"

"Sure, why?"

"Would you please come over and assist me with the crisps, I mean potato chips?"

"I'm wearing my shades," I warned him, as I absently chucked the thawing pigs-in-a-blanket into the trash. I really wasn't very hungry.

"Goodness, why?" he whispered, real surprise in his voice. "Aren't you given a reprieve from wearing them at lunch?"

"I've decided that wearing the shades is the only way I'm going to learn anything," I answered, not quite believing myself, but somehow thinking this the right thing to say.

"Don't you think you have bought into this Colorado Center mumbo jumbo a bit too much?" he asked, both conspiratorial and clearly irritated. Simon was in his late fifties and didn't have much patience for the folly of others. "Frankly, I think the whole organization is nothing but a sandwich without a picnic," he continued in a litany I'd heard many times before. "Surely you must agree that this is absurd - these people aren't right in the head. Their rules make no sense whatsoever. So please, would you mind taking just one little peek for me? These crisps are a life and death situation, and I don't trust anyone else around here."

Such requests placed me in an awkward moral dilemma. On one side, I wanted to be a good student and make the most of my training by keeping on my shades. But on the other side, I felt uncomfortable about how much I could see compared to most of my fellow students, so I willingly helped out when I could. This usually consisted of identifying paper money, showing them where to sign something, or working the ATM's in the nearby mini-marts. Since most requests didn't involve "life and death situations around crisps," I eagerly followed Simon to the appropriate cupboard.

"Now Cathy, could you please tell me which one of these are the 'Classic' variety?"

Before I could respond, Laura, the blind director of the center, intervened. "Come on Simon, you and Cathy should be using your 'alternative techniques.'" As always, she sounded perky and happy.

"That's the biggest bunch of rubbish I've ever heard," Simon announced.

Laura laughed good-naturedly. "I know you probably don't believe me, but it's true! You can actually tell what kind of chips are in a bag without seeing the label or opening it."

I'm not a big potato chip eater, so my attitude is of the "seen one, seen 'em all" variety. But imagining that a blind chip fan such as Laura must have devised something interesting, I tagged along for the lesson, exchanging my sleepshades for the bifocal glasses I kept in my locker to check.

Laura picked up a bag and proceeded to poke at it gently from a number of different angles, occasionally holding it up to her face somewhere between her nose and her ear. Sure enough, she identified Ruffles, Fritos, and Classic chips with perfect accuracy.

Simon remained unimpressed and unconvinced. "I'm sorry Laura, but this is complete nonsense. I need print verification. Cathy? What does this one here say?"

"Simon! You haven't even tried!" Laura said, sounding like I imagined she did with her young son at home. "Here, give me your hand and I'll show you. It's easy."

"Laura, I suffer from many food allergies, you see, and so for my own safety I need solid, verifiable information."

Now it was Laura's turn to be unimpressed and unconvinced. She ripped open a bag and said, "Well, in those cases you need to turn to other senses." She thrust the bag under her own nose before handing it to Simon. "These are 'Classic.' Want one?"

"No thank you!" he muttered, and stormed off toward the door with his creaky folding cane.

I understood both sides: Laura wanted Simon to learn ways that he wouldn't have to rely on others all the time, while the ex-librarian, still steeped in print culture, wanted to make sure that he didn't die from another person's fanaticism.

Pushing my shades back down, I took a chip from the bag Laura extended to me. As I bit into it, a cascade of crumbs scattered onto my clothes. They tasted stale, but I greedily devoured my own bag.

"Hey, everybody, come and get it!" a voice I didn't recognize called from the kitchen. "Fresh out of the oven, chocolate cake we made in home skills class!"

"And milk too!" Libby the queen of the kitchen added.

I brightened - at last something I could eat, and even enjoy!

Emerging from the kitchen with the edge of a full paper cup clutched between my teeth, cake in one hand and my white cane in the other, I heard a blood-curdling scream. I froze, pushing against a table to brace myself for danger. My hands were occupied and I wasn't sure of my bearings, so I couldn't push up my sleepshades. I probed with my left elbow to find a place to set down my things, but I was rattled and lost.

"It's gone! Where is it?" a woman in extreme distress a ways off to the right whined. Normally, I could recognize most of my twenty-five fellow students by now. But this voice was strange, eerily not human.

"Calm down, Vanessa, it's okay, dear." Libby, who clearly had more experience than I, said, trying to soothe her. "What's the matter?"

I gradually exhaled, surmising that perhaps there was no real danger after all. Barely twenty and living with mental disabilities, Vanessa was someone we all tolerated but who we didn't always take seriously.

Still, something was definitely "off." The large room, usually full of dozens of chattering people, was completely silent.

"My egg salad sandwich!" Vanessa burst out into the void, breathless, forlorn, frightened. "I put it in the fridge when I got to school this morning, and it's gone! Gone! Somebody must have taken it!" By this point, she was howling, inconsolable.

Good grief, I thought to myself, desperate to short-circuit my own uncertain emotions around the outburst by fixating on its absurdity.

"Oh Lord," Althea sighed at the table behind me, no doubt sharing my thoughts. "That girl's burning the short fuse today!"

"You're telling me!" Esteban agreed. "Hey Vanessa honey, don't worry! It's just a sandwich. Come over here and I'll share my lunch with you. I've got plenty."

Oblivious to offers of help, Vanessa continued wailing from such a deep place that it made me want to flee. I couldn't bear being a witness to this most private of all griefs. Her humanity embarrassed and frightened me.

Yet, the longer I waited, the more I felt an awkward sense of envy. After a twenty-year lifetime of misunderstandings, slights, reprimands, thwarted dreams, and false promises from a world that mostly wished she'd go away, here was Vanessa, impossible to ignore.

Part of me identified with her; my encounter with the shoppers assistants had been the tip of an emotional iceberg that suggested I would soon have to confront my own issues of not being listened to and feeling out of control. At the same time, I wanted to flee from Vanessa in horror lest I be forced to join her in her torment.

It wasn't about egg salad or pigs-in-blankets or even blindness - it was about an untapped rage in the face of not being able to control one's destiny in so many things both large and small. It was the primal cry at the heart of every human being, the cry civilization warns us never to acknowledge, the cry that must come before the awakening.

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Copyright (c) 2007 Catherine Kudlick

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