I stood on the industrial carpet in my shiny new working-girl shoes and wiggled my foot experimentally, trying to find and follow the electrical tape that had been laid down to trace a tactile path through the room. It was my first night as a server at a restaurant, and though I’d expected to spend the evening doing my best to stay out of everyone’s way, I was already dealing with twelve guests and some overactive adrenal glands.
As a blind person, there are several career paths I’ve always considered closed to me: gem cutter, brain surgeon, air-force pilot, and of course, restaurant server. Never in two and a half decades of job searches did I come across a position for which my visual impairment was not an inconvenience – or a deal-breaker – but a requirement. So when I saw the job listing for servers at a “dine-in-the-dark” restaurant, I ignored my misgivings and soon found myself in the interview chair for this most unlikely of occupations.
A dine in-the-dark restaurant is one in which you eat your meal in darkness so complete that you can’t see your hand in front of your face. There are many of these around North America and some even parts of Europe and Africa. A gimmick you say? That was my first reaction too. I imagined people spending a day in a wheelchair, navigating traffic with earplugs, or taping up their limbs as an entertaining way to grasp the true essence of disability. It seemed to me like a bit of a carnival sideshow. Server hadn’t even been high on the list of jobs I wanted or expected to have. It wasn’t going to pay as well as brain surgery or the diamond business, granted, the consequences of failure were a lot less alarming. So after a few encouraging conversations and a downturn in my financial position, I chose to rethink my fastidious dismissal. If someone was making money off my supposed misfortune, I reasoned pragmatically, I deserved a piece of the action.
Over the next two years, I worked a few shifts per week, each one of which left me feeling tired in every way it’s possible to be tired. The job, like all restaurant work, was demanding physically, mentally and psychologically. It also offered me some of the most fascinating experiences and anthropological dalliances I had ever seen.
The exhaustion engendered by bustling around on your feet for hours at a time is something every server knows about from the soles of our aching feet to the ends of our redolent hair. What I found harder to master was the mental map required to stay on top of what was happening at all times. I’m pretty confident that sighted servers rely on a frequent, routine visual scan to assess where guests are at in their dining and drinking process. Cleaned plates, empty glasses, twitchy guests or grumpy expressions are all indications that it’s time for you to do something. Without these tacit cues, I had to keep a running tab in my mind of which stage each of my tables was at, all the time. This skill took me the longest to hone, as it seemed to require cognitive resources bridging spatial memory, linear processes, personal preferences of the people at each table, and a constantly changing procedural diagram of who had received what, and when.
There were several aspects of the job that I failed to anticipate. One was the extent to which I was not just a server, but a kind of baby-sitter, guide, master of ceremonies, teacher, chaperone, and counselor. I know this sounds like a grandiose list, but I stand by it. Even the most adventurous urbanite thrust into total darkness becomes less effective. Pulling out their own chair often became a mind-mangling feat, and a dropped personal item was a problem of algebraic proportion. It was my job to guide them in, seat them, describe the table, serve their meal in such a way that they could keep track of things, answer their questions about everything from wine selection to how a blind person does their laundry, reassure the frightened, comfort the distraught, entertain the curious, and infuse my persona with as much charm as I had time for, always with one eye on the tip jar. Maybe one in 200 guests decided in the first 60 seconds that they were done, and needed to be guided back out. Maybe one in 20 were jittery but game. Sometimes I felt it necessary to reassure with touch as well as a soothing tone, a gentle pressure on the shoulder, an unrushed hand clasp to help ground them. My years as a massage therapist paid off here. I had lots of practice with directing people about how to move and position themselves, and with assuming the calm, confident role of one who guides a process.
Another aspect I hadn’t considered was that people come to the restaurant for a variety of reasons, not all of them frivolous. I always did my best to make a genuine connection with the guests, and so learned things. A few guests were people who were in the process of losing their sight, and the experience was a frightening experiment in anticipating the future. One couple told me that it was the anniversary of the death of their disabled child. The child was visually impaired, and they were there as a memorial, an attempt to honour what their daughter’s life might have been. Most guests were there because they wanted a novel experience, and it brought out different things from different people.
To varying degrees, most people have some unease about relinquishing the control of seeing, and becoming dependent on a more capable guide. As I’ve said, peoples’ reactions ranged through cautious, interested, curious, dazzled, and occasionally freaked out. No matter their reaction though, the experience created a particular intimacy that, for different reasons, neither I nor they had experienced before.
For some guests, the juxtaposition of total darkness and being in a public place seemed to call on some atavistic memory of early childhood: that brief time when, if you can’t see something, it doesn’t exist. There was a sense that visual anonymity conferred other kinds, an impulse which would lead to, say, burping loudly. And of course this freedom extended to me too. All of a sudden, that disconnect I live with every day, wherein I can’t see anyone, but they can all see me, was gone. The difference is I was used to it, and may actually have enjoyed it more than they did. The context of darkness changed them, not me, and the leveling of that particular aspect of social relating was startlingly relaxing.
When you’re dealing with large numbers of people in a fast-paced environment, it’s impossible not to start making quick categorizations, and one that I learned how to make pretty quickly is the young, confident, risk-taking guy who’s going to master this whole darkness thing in no time flat. These were invariably friendly, personable fellows who I liked, but who were manifestly dangerous. These men, and they were always men, often did have a facility for keeping their sense of direction and competence in the dark, but they had an unquenchable desire to show off, usually to their female companions. The dining room was a very choreographed space with respect to who’s where, and so when a daring young gentleman takes it into his head to show us all how fearlessly he can get up and, say, make his way to the door, he puts a lot of people at risk. Say I’m passing right then with a plate of hot food; both of us are going to be splattered, and possibly injured, and bottom line, I’m responsible. I’m generally a very friendly person, but These young adventurers always got my most intense school teacher lecture in which I pulled no punches, and I must say they always took it pretty well.
At the same time, the job gave me the opportunity to be complicit in several romantic escapades. One man asked for my help to facilitate proposing to his girlfriend in the dark. I may have had a bit of trouble understanding the romantic connection between a disorienting, gimmicky restaurant and the split-second decision to commit the rest of your life to someone, but it was impossible to be indifferent to the excitement and significance of the moment; At least he wasn’t proposing on the Jumbotron at a football game.
On another night, I chaperoned a blind date between a middle-aged couple. They’d been talking over phone and email for months. She’d been single for ten years and was very nervous. They’d chosen to meet in person for the first time in the dark. I got to guide him in, introduce them, and chart the progress of the evening. I wondered whether he knew she ate almost nothing and drank a lot of wine, and if she knew that he cleaned his plate, but barely touched his beer. At one point I retreated, appetizers undelivered, because I found them holding hands across the table. Afterward they both thanked me profusely for having facilitated their night so deftly. Who else gets to do that?
I consider myself fairly sophisticated in the ways of the world, but the graphically romantic aspects of a meal in darkness didn’t cross my mind till I started finding both parties of a couple on the same side of the table. For some, I suppose, it’s just an irresistible dynamic to be in a public place, and to have the visual privacy of being alone.
Of all the unexpected aspects however, perhaps the thing that affected me most was the power. Never in my life had I felt myself to be the most capable and effective person in the room. The world I live in is arranged for people who experience it differently from the way I do. Regardless of how many skills I cultivate, a sighted person is pretty much always going to be able to make a quicker and more thorough assessment of a visual situation, and act accordingly, and often ahead of me. Here this was not the case. To a large extent, the types of help I found myself giving were the kinds of help I was used to either accepting or gratefully declining. In the darkened dining room, most people were helpless. When they needed assistance to, say, go to the bathroom in the lighted area, they had to call for me, and wait till I was free to help them. If they dropped something, I was way more likely to be able to find it than they were. They rarely knew where the door was, and sometimes lost track of their wine glass or cutlery. I never abused my power, but I’ll tell you frankly, I enjoyed it.
One night, in a crisis situation that developed in the dining room, I was literally the only person in the crowd who was situated to act. There’s no way to know ahead of time how we’ll respond in a moment like that, and for a blind person, such a moment is vanishingly unlikely. Among many other insights, my job as a server taught me that I’m able to take control, act decisively, direct others, and get the job done.
In the end, the intense stimulation of the job became too much for me. I like a quiet, predictable and tranquil workplace, basically the opposite of a restaurant. I don’t miss the chaos, but I fervently miss the never-ending fascination of the dynamic. *It’s difficult to imagine another context within which a blind person could have this kind of experience. Things happened there that just couldn’t happen anywhere else, good and bad. Virtually every shift left me with at least one amusing or provocative anecdote, and showed me I had skills, some of which I knew about, and some of which I didn’t.
Christine Malec is a writer and massage therapist living in Toronto, Canada. Her passions include music, language, history, and the exploration of what makes us human. You can contact her here.