Creatures of Habit

I often go to coffee shops to work. At home too often I stare out the window or doze off, but at cafés I can only gaze off into space for so long before people will think I’m crazy. And sleeping in public is just weird. If the time comes that I’m comfortable enough to go to cafés in pajamas, it’ll be both a sad and liberating day.

There’s a coffee shop in particular I visit about once or twice a week. When I go there, I expect to get good work done, and I generally do. It’s like Pavlov’s salivating dogs and the ringing bells: For me, visiting this café = work. It’s great. I’d go every day except it’s hard to avoid conversations with other café goers now that I’m a regular (and I’ve ruined other cafés for myself by giving in), and I know I can’t sustain on a daily basis the kind of productivity I experience there, and forcing it would ruin my relationship with the venue. It’s too precious to me.

I was there one day, tucked into one of my usual spots at the edge of a long bench seat with a small round table in front of me. I was deep in my own world, typing away like mad. I sat there with walls to my back and left, laptop in front of me, decaf latte next to it, book bag to my right, and iPod somewhere in the vicinity and attached to my ears: I sufficiently blocked out the venue, sounds, and people I’d just driven out to join in the first place. Yes, my life is full of ironies.

I was lost in my own world (for several hours at that point, might I add), when a hand slid a napkin into my view. I saw something was scrawled on it in pen, but first my eyes followed the hand to find its owner. (The rhetorician in me needs context first.) A girl had sat a couple tables away at the same bench where I was seated, and she’d similarly spread her belongings in a half circle around her against her corner of the space. Our workspaces were symmetrical.

My eyes went back to the napkin, and I read her note. She asked if I knew of a book on creative directors. My brain paused. I am unfortunately one of those pitiful people who when asked a random question often blanks out and has to ask the person to repeat the question even if it was fairly clear the first time. Since the question was written down, I didn’t have to ask for a repeat, but the words swam in front of me, and I had no idea what she was asking.

I turned off my iPod, removed my ear buds, and turned to ask her what field of work or study she meant. But before I could ask my question, she took the napkin and began writing again. Was I still a student at OSU? “Yes,” I said, nodding my head and wondering how she knew me without my remembering her.

She began to write on another napkin more quickly, messed up, scribbled it out, paused, and began to look flustered. In an aloof sort of way I watched, waited, and wondered why she kept trying to write even after I’d turned off my music and given her my attention. I had work I needed to return to. And then slowly my mind began to wrap itself around this puzzle. Her gestures. The lack of any sound or utterance. And then shame began to override my impatience. She was deaf, and she was communicating the best she could with me while asking for my help.

Rather than watch her struggle with writing on a napkin, I figured she could type out her question more easily on my laptop. Perhaps, like me, she was one of those people who can’t write comfortably by hand when someone’s waiting (or for that matter parallel park when someone’s watching. Sigh).

I got her attention and pointed to my laptop. She looked relieved. I went to my email account and opened a composing space so she could type out her question more clearly, and when I handed over my laptop, she opened a new window and began searching for her book. That’s fine, I thought. Finding the book would answer my question just as well and probably even faster. With my source of work gone, I watched. And then I helped her with the book search. And then I tidied up the sentences she wrote to a librarian (recalling how confused I was by her initial question). And then I went ahead and added another sentence or two to that same note. And then she hit send. And then we got sucked into conversation.

I had questions for her (naturally), and rather than be offended at my lack of knowledge of deaf culture, she brought up various sites to show me the kind of projects she was involved in. (I wish I remember them so I could add the links here.) Using the URL space of the browser, we wrote (she started it; I wouldn’t have thought of it). Aside from Firefox 3.0 trying to preempt us with various popular addresses on the Web as we typed, our conversation went smoothly.

Our interests overlapped quite a bit: She was one of the people who produce the kind of content I analyze. Her story was that she was a graphic design artist, had been offered a new position at her company, and was researching what was involved in it. She selected one of the magazines she’d spread around her, pointed out certain features, and wrote about why certain designs and layouts appealed to her. If I didn’t have piles of work waiting for me, I would’ve had a ton more questions for her.

All the while, though — and I’m embarrassed to admit this tendency — I kept trying to figure out her pattern of error. I don’t usually sit and pick apart every writing error I see, but her patterns were unlike anything I’d seen in the years I’ve worked as a language tutor and writing instructor. It was yet another puzzle for me.

It turned out that she was Ukrainian and had learned English in a very short time. The usual cues I would have expected — an accent, pauses and “uhs” in speech — were exactly those I obviously could not hear, but I was also blind to them in writing that day. It made me think that a lot people learn languages by immersion, by being enveloped in the daily sounds and conversations that surround us. I assume, then, that a person who learns language by signing and reading is probably going to pick up certain features of language more quickly and fluently than those that a hearing person would and therefore would have different types of interferences from their other languages as well. Fascinating.

Finally, I told her about Harlot, cordially asked her to consider submitting her work to us, and then we went back to work. She got my attention again a little later, and I stopped and turned off my music. But not without a moment of hesitation. I knew my music didn’t matter, but it didn’t seem right to leave it on. It was the same feeling I get when I wear sunglasses and talk to someone who isn’t wearing any. It seems rude if I can see the other person’s eyes but that person can’t see mine. (I actually buy sunglasses now that aren’t entirely dark just so I don’t have to suffer the discomfort.)

In the end, though, I wonder whether her eyes caught the strange looks we got from someone sitting nearby or whether with the aid of her half circle of magazines, placed like a barrier around her, that she’s trained herself to block out sight of the rubberneckers. The day left me both happy at what I had learned of deaf culture but also saddened that people still shamelessly gawk at individuals with disabilities.