:: Blind Café ::
:: Featuring Rosh & One Eye Glass Broken ::
:: Hotel Boulderado :: February 12, 2011 ::
By Brian F. Johnson
I’ve only experienced darkness like that once before.
When I was a reporter in Alaska, I traveled to the site of a remote hydroelectric facility. We donned miners’ caps and walked one and half miles into a tunnel — inside a mountain, and under a mountain lake. When we got to the end of the tunnel we turned the lights off and I learned a new definition of darkness. (It should be noted that, at the time, I regularly worked in a dark room, so I thought I already had a pretty good grasp on what dark meant.)
But now, I know what it feels like to spend some real time in that environment — and I learned it at a concert.
Properly billed as The Blind Café, I knew next to nothing about what was awaiting us when we arrived at the Hotel Boulderado on Saturday night. After a winding maze that lead from the lobby, up and over the skywalk and down into the conference rooms, we checked-in. I’ve been through will call lines a bazillion times, but I’ve never “checked-in” to a concert before.
My wife and I were given a small card with “5C” printed on it and we were told to find our group in the lobby. As is often the case with friendly environs like that, we immediately got lost in a conversation with a man about his golden retriever, who is in training to be a service dog. The discussion flowed freely, to the point where it always does with people who train these animals — the question of how do you finally say good-bye to the pup, and let them go on to be service animals. Right then, the man, reached down and pet his golden and said “If you don’t cry when that dog gets put on the truck, then you haven’t done your job.”
With a lump still in my throat, I noticed a great number of heads bobbing around as if they were looking for someone. I heard someone say, “We’re just waiting for two.” I’m no mathematician, but I was pretty sure they were looking for my wife and I.
I’m horrible with names — terrible in fact — and we went through the gauntlet of introductions with names coming off my lips, but never truly registering. I’ve always kind of been able to pull that off, but tonight, it would haunt me.
“Place your hand on the shoulder of the person in front of you, and follow your assistant. When you get to your plate, there will be an appetizer, already on your plate. “Good, I’m hungry,” said the Homer Simpson who lives in my head.
We entered through a tent, walked forward a few feet, took a sharp turn and another sharp turn, and there it was — blackness — a darkness I hadn’t seen since I was under Lake Tyee, inside of Tyee Mountain.
Having always prided myself in navigational skills, I paid attention to our turns. “I’ll know right where we are,” I thought. I was all the way at the back of the line, and I was straining to hear our guide. We passed Irish music and I paused, only briefly, to determine if it was live or a recording. “Live, for sure,” I registered. But then it dawned on me. Was that sound a foot away from me, or 15 feet away from me? Could I reach out and touch it? And speaking of which, how big is this room anyhow? It said Conference Center outside, so it must be big, but how big? How many tables are already seated? That sounds like a lot of people.
The line came to a halt. Suddenly, our guide announced that she had taken us to 3C, not 5C. We all laughed, and the line circled back around and off to find 5C. I still think this was a brilliant attempt to get people like me, to drop their guard for a second and lose their bearings. If it was, bravo! It worked perfectly.
We finally arrived at 5C and all took turns finding our seats and place settings. Names started to fly again. Tober was to my left. Jess, my wife, was across from me. There was no one to my right, so I knew I’d remember that name. But, now I wasn’t just struggling with name recognition, I didn’t even have faces to put with these names, and on top of it, it was nearly impossible for me to hear past my immediate neighbors. This could get tough.
Alas, there was something already on my plate. I almost felt like a wet piece of raw chicken, at first. But trusting that they weren’t trying to give us all salmonella poisoning, I let my fingers wander around the plate more until I realized it might be something wrapped in lettuce. A spring roll! “Hey, I can do this, no problem,” I thought, and took a good bite.
I knew there were a water glass and a teacup in front of me, and as everyone began to dig in, polite requests were being called. “Could you pass the water?” “Is that salt?” “Wait, which one’s the salt?” I poured my water and having heard other folks laugh about what a struggle it was, I was proud that I didn’t (to my knowledge anyway) spill anything when I poured it. One neighbor (I believe his name was Chad) announced that he had spilled water all over his plate and that his food was now sitting in a puddle.
We moved onto salad, with everyone sharing from a large bowl on the table. I had already successfully gotten one scoop with the tongs, and was going back for a second, when the utensils hit something hard and not very salad-like. It was another set of tongs. Brilliant, I thought, as I passed the other set off to Jess, taking the brief second of hand-holding and turning it into a little squeeze.
The main course of curry quinoa followed much the same way, and while we all laughed about who was eating with their hands, and who was not, I decided that if I didn’t use the utensils, I was shorting myself. I had actually gotten a system going of using my knife to help place the food on my fork and was doing quite well at that.
As the most diners finished their main course, the real show started.
Rosh, the even organizer, introduced his blind friends and our guides started to become more than helpful assistants. They started to have stories behind their voices.
Gerry Leary, blind since birth, told us about his three-decade career as an auto mechanic. Rick Hammond, shared his spoken word poetry, and Sabina (I didn’t get a last name) talked about her struggles as a mother, who had lost most of her sight.
Now, I hate to make bold generalizations, but it seems to me that when you lose your sight, you gain several other things. Everyone has heard of blind folks who have incredible senses of smell, or taste, but every one of these blind people seemed to have sharpened their comedic wit. Every single one of them, at one point or another said something incredibly funny. During a question and answer segment, someone in the crowd had called out to Gerry. His reply was “O.K. the person to my left who had a question — where are you? O.K. I’m facing you now.” Everyone roared, and probably kind of wondered if Gerry was facing them.
After sharing some stories and some laughs, Rosh took the program back over and began the concert. Rosh, who started the program after a 2006 trip to Iceland where he witnessed a similar event, explained that he and his band mates often practice in the dark to prepare for the shows. As the band tuned, I tried to pick out instruments. Violin, for sure. Cello, or bass? Cello, definitely cello. O.K., guitar. Got it. It’s a three piece, right? Well maybe I was for a minute, but the Blind Café is meant to keep you on your toes, and that’s exactly what they did, switching arrangements with each song. I lost track, but let’s just say it was an acoustic ensemble.
Rosh & One Eye Glass Broken, tackled singer/songwriter material that Rosh described (at least in regards to one song) about love and rainy days. It was solid musicianship, but what my ears told me, was so much more than had I been watching this. I couldn’t tell if the violin soloist was showing emotion in her movements or her face, while she played. I couldn’t see if Rosh had that look serious look that many singer/songwriters do when they’re singing of heartbreak. Heck, I couldn’t tell if they were sitting, or standing, on a stage or on the floor.
Light shows at concerts, add so much to the mood (when the lighting engineer is worth a damn), and it dawned on me that I most likely hadn’t listened to music in the dark like this since I was a young teenager. It was so liberating to allow my mind and ears to focus on instrumentation with no visual input. I couldn’t tell if Rosh was on some shockingly coveted Martin guitar, or some $200 Korean-made junker. It must have been something of decent caliber, as it sounded wonderful, but was that because I was only listening that it sounded that good?
When the players had finished their short set, Rosh and our blind hosts congregated in the center of the room, and lit two candles. It was the first light we had seen in two hours and I strained to see to its edges. Just where are we anyway?
The lights finally came on to reveal a huge banquet room, a crowd of about 150 guests and probably more than a dozen tables. That Irish music I heard when we came in, I saw where that “stage” was, and yes, I could have reached out and touched it.
As our eyes adjusted, we all took tally of our surroundings. I had felt like I was in small personal space the whole time, but found that I could have pretty much hula hooped in my spot without causing much incident. Jackets went on, and good-byes were said. As we exited the Boulderado, I realized what a brilliant job they had done. By taking away an element that is usually so crucial to the live music setting, they gave attendees an invaluable peak into the life of a blind person — its limitations, as much as its gifts. The result is a compassion and understanding of their world that I could have never perceived before. The root of so many experiences in life rests in being given something new. At the Blind Café they took something away — something that many of us take for granted — and in doing so created a sense of community and sharing that was truly unparalleled.
I can’t wait for the next one.