Musician and activist Brian Rocheleau started his Boulder Blind Cafe series last February; since then, he's put on four dinners (three in Boulder, one in Portland, Oregon), with a fourth scheduled for Austin, Texas.
Last night was the start of the third round of the Boulder Blind Cafe (it repeats tonight, but both meals are sold out), and the show was definitely an experience -- both in dining and in the challenges visually impaired people deal with every day.
At 7:30 p.m., diners began filing in the doors of the First Congregational Church, where they were given a number ranging from one to the mid-twenties, then asked to find the corresponding number in the church basement lobby/hallway, where we were to stand with the group of people we would be dining (blindly) with. But before we did, we got a short spiel: We would be in the dark for about two hours, so we should use the bathroom before going inside. It would be very dark in the dining room, and cell phones and any other object that could create the slightest amount of light were to be turned off or left behind. If we needed help or had to leave for any reason, we were not to get up and try to find the exits on our own -- instead, we were to ask one of the visually impaired servers to escort us to the exit.
Diners were also given a sheet of paper with another synopsis of instructions. "Please do NOT bring any light into the darkness! TURN YOUR CELL PHONE OFF!" read Golden Rule #1. And "When you hear the Tibetan Singing Bowl ring three times ... it's time to be absolutely SILENT!" read Golden Rule #2.
There were six of us at our table, and we were one of the last groups to enter the dining room -- or at least it seemed that way. Because first, we were given yet another spiel: The meal was vegan and gluten-free. There were three dishes on the table; we were to figure out how to serve ourselves and would need to communicate with our table-mates in order to do so. Our guide to our table was a visually impaired gentleman who instructed us to line up, place our hands on the shoulder of the person in front of us, and not let go until we reached the table.
We wound through a double-hallway that got increasingly dark as we walked through it, and by the time we lifted the piece of fabric covering the doorway to the dining room, you could not see your hand in front of your face.
We made our way to the table -- an act that required quite a bit of communication. Not only was it pitch black in the room, but it was loud; diners were talking about the food and where it was on the tables, and the darkness seemed to amplify the sound. After many stops and starts, we finally made it to Table 14, completely disoriented and ready to sit down.
Once we were seated, we discovered a bit of polenta with a tomato already on the plates in front of us. The other dishes included a tomato-and-cucumber salad with balsamic dressing, potato wedges with truffle oil, and a casserole dish with butternut squash, turnips and some other seasonal offerings in it. (Obviously, we couldn't take notes or photos.) Our table managed by passing the containers of food to the left. There were all kinds of challenges awaiting us: scooping the food from the container onto the plate; finding your fork and managing to spear the food with it; and locating and unsealing the water jug on the table to refill the water glasses -- sensibly, plastic cups with lids and straws.
Finally, everyone at the table agreed to just eat with our fingers ... after all, who was going to see us? We were all relieved to do away with niceties like silverware -- but, as one of the group reminded everyone, if we were really blind, then everyone would still be able to see us, even if we couldn't ourselves see what we were doing. It's safe to say we came away with a whole new appreciation of the challenges of visual impairment.
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At the same time, the smells and sounds and tastes in the room were perceptibly heightened. As we ate, we shared ideas on what we were tasting in order try to figure out what the hell all the dishes were. We figured out the potatoes and cucumber-tomato salad quickly; the casserole took some more guessing. Finally, Brian Rocheleau took the mic and introduced the chef, Marcus MacCauley, who gave us a rundown of the menu -- and revealed that vegan muffins and chocolate were waiting for us in paper bags underneath the tables.
Gerry Leary, master roaster at the Unseen Bean -- and blind since birth -- then took the mic to answer questions. "What are your dreams like?" someone asked, to which Leary replied, "Like my daily experiences, but odder." Another person asked him how he experienced beauty. Yet another asked how old he was when he realized that his life was different from that of people with sight. Leary answered all questions knowledgeably and humorously, and he also talked about his guide dog, London (the evening was a fundraiser for Boulder Guide Dog Puppy Raisers).
There was poetry by Rick Hammond, some bagpipe music, and then Rocheleau took center stage again to perform with his band, One Eye Glass Broken. They played several original songs and closed off the set with three excellent covers: a Beatles song, a Radiohead song and Trent Reznor's "Hurt." As it ended, one candle was lit in the center of the room, finally illuminating everything, and slowly more candles were lit while our eyes adjusted to the light. As we walked outside into the night sky, it seemed impossibly bright.
Although tonight's dinner is sold out, you can visit http://boulderblindcafe.com to sign up for a mailing list and be the first to know about Rocheleau-and-company's next Boulder Blind Cafe.