Our group stood huddled together on the Greenwich Village sidewalk. A misty rain kissed the tops of our heads, as we inched closer to each other and squeezed en masse under the taut, red wine colored awning that hung from the faҫade and cast a shadow over three floor to ceiling French paned windows. The space’s innards were obscured by ecru drapes.
Why are we standing outside the restaurant? I wondered, as my mind drifted to the scavenger hunt we just completed.
We were divided into teams of four or five. Each team was handed a clipboard with a pen wedged under the clip at the top. Our mission was to search for clues needed to answer 65 questions, solve a crossword puzzle using letters from the answered questions, which was found on the 5th page of the bundle of papers, and return to the endpoint — Christopher Park — within two hours.
“Yay! I love puzzles!” I exclaimed to my teammates. And off we went up and down the Avenues and Streets of the Village in search of answers.
“Laura, what are you doing? Get a hold of yourself,” Stacy shouted with nervous laughter, as I bounded across the busy street without a care for traffic or pedestrian signals. I was untethered and eager to find the next clue.
The smell of concrete baked urine wafted up my nostrils, as we passed a row of men with leathery, dirty skin, bloodshot eyes, and snarled, disheveled dark brown hair. They were stooped over, sitting on pieces of worn out, grimy cardboard.
“I’m getting 25 Ambien later tonight,” said one of the guys, as he took a long, hard, drag on his cigarette while staring at the concrete. A slight nod from the intoxicated person to his right whose eyes were incapable of staying still was the only response. Another man’s face was lit up by the glow of a cell phone.
How can he afford a cell phone if he is homeless? How is that possible?
The stench of stale alcohol and dank, dirty fabric melded together in my nostrils. I could use some coffee beans right about now, like the ones they give you when you are testing cologne or perfume in a department store like Macy’s or Nordstrom.
Do any of the passersby see these beings? Do they try on homelessness, even for one second?
Every one of the guys have families. Where are they? Have they given up on their loved one who sits on the hot, hard concrete sidewalk in the city that never sleeps? Are their loved ones burned out too?
This could be me. Or my child.
I look down and discover the palm of my hand covering my heart. Hurt emanates from beneath the left side of my sternum.
The Marble House is the next clue. We dutifully continue on, darting this way and that, in hopes that we might win.
When the two hours of hunting is up, we plod west along 3rd Street past the Astor cube toward Christopher Park in search of the rest of our group. After 15 minutes or so I am jostled by throngs of people passing by like salmon swimming upstream. My nostrils careen in search of the Marijuana-infused air. New York University.
“We are only a few minutes from the park,” Stacy avows, as she disappears in the crowd.
For a moment, I am lost and alone, and the anticipation of sitting draws my attention to the ache in my right hip. Across the street we are greeted at Christopher Park by white plaster statues of gender neutral humans appearing to be engaged in conversation. But they have no faces.
We await the results of the scavenger hunt tally just as the park is closing. The prize, twenty-five dollar Target gift cards, are handed to each member of the winning group.
A little triangular park in the middle of the NYU campus closes on a Thursday night in the city that never sleeps?
We embark on the remainder of our walk to the restaurant where a middle-aged woman with blond hair and a white lab coat greeted our group on the sidewalk. She began to explain how our dining experience was going to go, and because I was on the far edge of the group, I couldn’t hear everything she said over the noisy cacophony of cars and conversations.
“Blindfolded…and someone will guide you to your table once you are inside,” is all I heard.
My throat tightened, making it hard to swallow. Small beads of sweat began to form on the palms of both hands and my forehead. Take a deep breath. And then another one.
“What are we doing? What is happening?” I asked into the group of colleagues, but no one answered.
The blond was joined by a petite, dark-haired woman who dispensed black masks with foam reinforcements around the eye sockets to ensure pitch blackness from a large Longaberger-looking basket. Dutifully, we each donned a mask, placing the elastic strap behind the base of our skulls, and almost in unison, we pushed the eye cover to our foreheads where it rested until each group’s number was called. My pulse was throbbing at my temples.
“We will be sitting with our scavenger hunt teammates,” utters an anonymous voice in the distance.
No way am I going to be blindfolded. Who are these people? How do I know they aren’t going to hurt me? Suddenly I am very small and very afraid. Stay in the moment, I counseled the little child in me. It’s ok. Breathe. No one is going to hurt you. Everything is ok. You are safe.
“Group Four, line up at the door to the restaurant. Place your hands on the shoulders of the person in front of you,” the blond commands.
Oh my god, I really don’t want to do this.
I place my hands on the co-worker in front of me, lower my mask, take in a deep breath, and plummet into blackness.
Birds chirping provide some comfort as I enter the room and am escorted to my table by someone named Matt who has me by the forearm. His hold is light and gentle, and the space is tight and small. Three short, dark steps from the sidewalk to our table, and I am seated in a round bottomed chair with slats up the back.
“A refreshing beverage will be served first and in your right hand,” says the woman’s voice, as a waft of lavender makes its way to my nose.
“Is it alcoholic?” I ask. “I don’t drink alcohol.”
“Other beverages will be served throughout the meal, and separate glasses will be placed in your left hand for those.”
My hands wander in search of lavender. A round, wooden basket sits on the table in front of me. As I caress the container, my right hand fingers land on a small knob in the center of the container. I grasp the knob and lift the lid. My left-hand fingers gently come in to rest on a warm, damp cloth folded tightly inside. Aaaah, a scented towel to wash off the grime of the city that rode piggy-back on me into the restaurant.
I rub the towel over my hands, moving up and down each finger to make sure I am thorough. When finished there, I lift the towel to my face and wash my forehead, cheeks, and neck before placing the towel back in the basket and replacing the lid. Pleasing music replaces the birdsongs.
Voices reverberate around me, as each group enters the restaurant and is led to their seats.
Is everyone as anxious as I am? Long, slow, deep breaths bring me to my spot at the table. Stacy is sitting to my left, chatting and laughing nervously, while she attempts to photograph everyone at our table.
That old, familiar, alone-in-the-crowd feeling permeates my being. I enjoy the respite that comes with not seeing everyone — or more accurately, I am relieved they can’t see me.
Without notice, the wooden bowl is gone.
Wait! I am not done with that. Where did my towel go? Who took it? Why, no, how didn’t I know someone was that close to me?
In place of the basket is a small plate. I feel the rim with the fingers of my right hand. It’s smooth, and I imagine a plain white plate like one that would hold a side of bacon at an everyday diner.
In the middle of the plate is what, at first, feels like a hard, oval-shaped rock. I envision a pumice rock at first touch. But when I pick it up, it is as light as a piece of Balsa wood. My fingers begin to explore and discover small crevices and a hole drilled completely through from one side to the other. Light could get through that hole. It is hard as a rock but weightless. It must be a piece of hard bread. Toast, perhaps. It is Zweiback-like.
The blonde’s voice interrupts the boisterous, nervous chatter, but is slow to silence the crowd. She rings some kind of bell, and slowly the uproar subsides.
“So you will notice there is a small something on the plate in front of you. Here is how we are going to begin our meal. All the girls, pick up the food in front of you with one hand, and on the count of three, we will take our first bite together,” as a loud crunch interrupts her, mid-sentence. Some of us chuckle quietly, and the rest oblige dutifully. “One, two, three…” the crunch is deafening inside my head.
“Now all the guys pick up the piece in front of you, and on the count of three, you all will take your first bite together.” More laughter. “One, two, three,” the boy-crunch reverberates at a much lower volume. Clearly, there are not as many men as women in our group.
Would the sound be as loud if I weren’t blindfolded? That was so queer.
The wait staff are sleuths. Somewhere in the midst of my judgy thoughts about the group crunch being queer, I discovered the plate in front of me was gone, and again, no sense of anyone coming near me. How annoying and disturbing.
The arrival of the next course is announced. Automatically, I raise my right hand from my lap to try to figure out what’s next. Vinegar saturates the air. My fingers touch the food, and confirm an awaiting salad. The middle finger of my right hand dips into the dressing atop a beefy slice of firm mush.
Without hesitation I lick my finger before wiping it with the cloth napkin that sits on my lap. After the first lick, I think, who cares about my etiquette indiscretion? Everyone is blindfolded.
I find the fork and knife are right where they should be on either side of the plate. I cut the first piece carefully and check my work to make sure nothing is dangling from the fork that might end up on my lap. I place the fork in my mouth, which is invigorated by the medley of tomato, olives (though not a whole olive), vinaigrette, and some light, chewy, grass-like substance, which I decide is Arugula.
Will I miss my mouth when I bring the fork to it next? Drop food on my lap and not know it? Knock something off the table?
I feel for my water glass, and as I raise it to my lips, stop to take a whiff, making sure the sleuths haven’t inadvertently poured some alcoholic liquid in the wrong glass. All is safe, and as I sip, I am catapulted back to a bar scene over 30 years ago. While sitting on a stool deep in conversation with a stranger, I reach for my beer without looking, and thinking I am picking up a long-neck glass bottle of Heineken, realize I have a glass in my hand when a river of pungent beer runs down the front of my shirt and settles in my lap.
If we need to use the bathroom, we are supposed to raise our hand, and one of the wait staff will escort us. I am grateful I don’t have to pee.
Again, my fingers explored the plate in front of me to make sure I wasn’t leaving any morsel behind.
Earsplitting voices grew louder the more quiet I became. I think about how much I hate small talk.
“My son is autistic, and he is doing really well. I am so grateful…” I hear my colleague across the table saying, as I make an effort to get to know her better.
And in that moment, I think yes! This experience must be what it is like for someone with autism. Maybe I am autistic, I think, as I drift into my dark, silent world and long for the sounds of chirping birds. There is a sweetness in their sound, a safe harbor in the shrill chaos created by the rise of human chatter. I cover my ears with my hands for a moment of relief.
Too much noise, I think, as the smell of seafood envelopes the room. My hands find their way back to the place in front of me, where I discover the empty salad plate has been replaced by one of the sleuths. It happened, again, without me noticing their presence.
I think I can relax a little now, but not too much because someone may do something to hurt me at any moment, and I need to maintain my guard at all times.
I touch the hard surface and imagine a plain white bowl about 2 inches tall in front of me. For a split second the creepiness of dinner in the dark is replaced with the comfort and warmth of warm fish steam emanating from the bowl.
Fingers from both hands follow the rim of the bowl to its full circumference, and then without hesitation, I plunge two fingers from each hand into the liquid.
A moment of relief and a chuckle come, as I dry my fingers with my napkin and search for the spoon. I like the darkness, and am keenly attuned to my hand-eye coordination being compromised. I scoop a spoonful of soup to my mouth, leaning forward over the bowl just in case. The bouquet of fish, and corn, and bacon saturate my tongue.
Music plays louder, and the group starts to sing along to the words. Voices come together in unison and though still piercingly loud, the sing-a-long reduces the crescendo of swirling Dolby Surround Sound-like noise permeating this tiny space. I knew the words to the songs then, but cannot tell you now what they were.
Just breathe. Everything is going to be ok. No one is going to hurt you.
Dinner continues and plates come and go as each course is consumed.
“You will now be given something very cold. Once it is in your hand, raise it to your mouth,” the blond said.
A frozen teaspoon lands in my palm. My tongue and cheeks envelope the spoon, and the sweet taste of chocolate melts in my mouth.
I could really use — and would welcome — a cup of coffee. The blond announces, “We will now have a few minutes of silence.”
Three deep breaths in and out through my nose raise and lower my belly, and my shoulders drop an inch more from my ears.
I pay good money for silence on meditation retreats, which I frequent as often as I can. There I don’t have to remind myself I am safe or that no one is going to hurt me. Breathing comes naturally, and my throat doesn’t tighten, my pulse stays where it’s supposed to rest, and I never need to cover my ears with my palms.
Something brushes my hair. What was that? Did something just graze my hair, or am I imagining it? Did someone drop a flower petal on my head? The touch was wisp-like. A scarf? A feather? Please god, don’t let anyone hurt me.
I imagine the tabletop is made of a blond, butcher-block piece of wood like they have at Le Pain Quotidien, but not quite as thick, when I see myself standing in the nearby Reggae club on Jane Street I once spent the night at many moons ago.
“Hey, you aren’t even worth five dollars” Patty yelled out the passenger side window of the van, and then promptly rolled it up tight.
“Who are you talking to?” boomed a deep manly voice, as the hooker approached the window. Tap, tap tap called for our attention as the open switch-blade met the glass.
“We don’t want any trouble,” John declared, as he fervently tried to free the van by rocking it back and forth between the two cars that wedged us in.
Patty and I laughed out loud, realizing the hooker was a man dressed in women’s clothes.
In the next instant two pimps approached the passenger side of the van. “What did you say?” one of them barked.
“Oh my god,” Patty and I said at the same time and then bolted to the way back. I crouched in the corner with my forearms criss-crossed atop my head, and convinced myself we were going to be murdered and my body would be found under the Westside Highway.
I am snapped back to the present moment of darkness, when the person sitting behind me bumped their chair into mine. I imagine I am in a basement like room, and facing me are moveable wall partitions covered with light gray wall-to-wall carpeting. The floor beneath my feet is concrete. Have I just eaten dinner in one of the dungeons of my past?
The last bite of the cobbler-like dessert is complete. The familiar voice announces, “I will now tell you the ingredients of every course of the meal you just ate.” This is the last step of captivity, and in anticipation of the cue I know is coming to unmask ourselves, I catch only some of her words…
“Garlic Aioli toast…beefsteak tomatoes…corn…fish…wax beans…pork loin…squash…Belgian chocolate…homemade ice cream…all purchased from our local farmer’s market.”
“Now, it is time to reveal the space. You can take off your blindfolds.”
The low-lit dining room is no more than 30 feet long and 20 feet wide. The tables are dark brown Formica atop a black pedestal base with two pushed together to make a 4-top. My table mates across from me are sitting on a continuous, cushioned booth that stretches the length of the room. We are packed in tight, but not as tight as I had imagined. A modern, Rothko-like painting hangs on the wall in front of me. There is no carpet anywhere, and no moveable partitions. It’s just a regular Bistro.
The noise isn’t as loud now that I can see. I exhale a large, audible sigh. In the darkness of the past two hours I was reminded how my life as a recovering alcoholic and trauma survivor sometimes requires an amazing amount of strength, and skill, and resilience, just to get through dinner.