Oh, I sometimes wonder what it looks like inside. I can smell the perfume smells that come out the doors when they open. Lewis jokes that the girls inside sell perfumes and makeup to rich ladies are all too thin for his taste. He says, “I like a little meat on my bone, like you girls have,” and then he laughs and laughs in his deep baritone voice. He says the skinny girls help the rich women try on different faces inside and pretty them all up. He says some of the women who come inside are old and should act their age, ’stead of trying to tart up like youngsters.
One night after I had fallen into a restless sleep from thinking about whether my grandmother was still alive and if I could contact her and ask her to come get me, I heard someone coming into my room. I knew from the smell it was Mr. Desmets. He didn’t do anything as far as I could tell. I heard him leave a few minutes later and I began to get scared. The next morning I asked him direct in front of Mrs. Desmets, “Mr. Desmets,” I said louder than I usually spoke, “What was you doin’ in my room last night?
Did you want something? If so, you could of asked me, I was awake.”
He didn’t respond at first until Mrs. Desmets started to say something. Then he interrupted her and said, “I just came into see you was okay. Anything wrong in that? You’re my foster and I have responsibility to care for you as well. Just wanted to be sure you was okay.” I knew better and I expected Mrs. Desmets did too.
It took a long time before I adapted to life at the School. My roommate was a girl named Anna Durwood. She was nice and we liked each other immediately. She told me she’d come there from the almshouse where she lived with her mother who’d died of the fever. She was very shy and had long hair almost down to her waist. Us blind kids would feel each other’s faces with our fingers to see what we looked like. Not everyone’s comfortable being touched all over like that and you have to ask.
We had to share a bed as the school was overcrowded and I remember the first night snuggling in bed together and touching each other all over to see what we looked like. Anna had only recently lost her sight from a bacteria disease that was quite common in those days. She said the almshouse had lots of disease and sickness and had only one doctor who came there twice a week. I don’t know where it was, but most poor folks she said’d rather live on the street than go to the almshouse. Her mother tried to make a go of it basting shirts and ironing in their second story apartment for a local tailor, but finally had to sell her sad iron to make rent.
Anna’d only been blind for a year. Her memory of things in the world became my library and we would lie in bed at night after lights were turned out at 8:30 and she’d tell about things I’d never seen. She told me her eyes were blue and her long hair was light brown. Course brown and blue didn’t have any meaning for me. She also told me that she had a birthmark on her chin that I couldn’t see with my hands ’cause it was only a color. When she was little, she told me that she’d tried every night to wash the birthmark away with harsh lye soap, but that it was always still there when she dried her face and looked in the mirror. For a long time it made her cry ’cause the other kids made fun of it and called her fruity-face. She said it was strawberry red. I could taste the strawberries and conjure their feel and shape, but I couldn’t see the red. I had heard people tell of all these colors before, but the words she used to describe the colors to me all involved more colors or things I’d never seen.
I loved to run my fingers through her long hair. It felt so soft and beautiful. She had no curls that I could feel. My hair was always bobbed short ’cause we had had a run of lice at my Grannie’s that no amount of kerosene could rid me of. I hated it when she cut my hair short and rubbed kerosene into what little hair I had left. The boy at the corner store knew too and he’d call me boy-names and could smell the kerosene on me. I lived with that smell until I came here. It still makes me gag when I smell a kerosene lamp or stove.
Blind folks have ways of understanding things that are different from sighted folks. The big words I learned at the school for the blind were proprioception and reverberation. I could tell easily when I was in a big space or a small space by the reverberation of sounds inside the space. They explained to us that the time a sound takes to go from where it started
to a wall or ceiling, bounce off, and come back to the blind person’s ear helps ’em perceive how big the space is. I guess the biggest indoor spaces I’d been in was churches. I learned that choirs always sound better in big spaces ’cause their singin’ gets filled out by reverberation, which is just fast echoes.
Ginger and I knew right away we was in the biggest space we’d ever been in after we climbed off that bus and went through the doors into the bus station in New York City. We could hear hundreds a folks talkin’ all at once and cups clattering and luggage being dragged across the floor. I tried to imagine how big the space was. The floor was like stone so all the noise kept bouncing around forever in there.
We knew we needed a place to stay, but was afraid to ask. We’d heard of Traveler’s Aid Societies, but feared they might remand two young blind women to the authorities. We both needed a bathroom and a man aimed us in the right direction. He must a thought he was being funny ’cause he sent us into the men’s room where we was politely asked to leave by an understanding man who, I think, was a cleaner in there. He had a Negro way of speaking. He showed us the lady’s room which was next door. I never seen what was funny about people doing those jokes on blind people, but some people think things is funny that ain’t.
I then asked a stranger where the street door was and, oh, we musta looked funny. We had our first experience with rotating doors. We always walked close on one another and we both walked into one section. Sometimes Ginger would just fold up her Hoover stick and hold on the back of my dress. I pushed on the door and the door behind us broke Ginger’s stick when it closed up behind her. We’d never seen a door that closed behind you so we just stood there in that tiny space with our one valise, not knowing what to do. We was trapped. Then the door began to rotate when someone came in behind us, and that rear door just swept us out onto the big sidewalks of New York City.
What a racket! …. Cars and trucks and car horns tootin’ and people talkin’ everywhere. Cigarette smoke everywhere and we heard some people talking in a way we didn’t understand. We knew there was other languages people spoke. But we’d never heard ’em bein’ spoken. That was the first things we learned in New York. Even some people who did speak English spoke it in a way we never heard and it was hard at first to follow ’em, even though they was using the same words and all.