The Braille Monitor                                                                        November 2005


Who Committed the Outrage?

by Barbara Pierce

On Sunday, September 25, 2005, Gabrielle Hamilton, a New York restaurateur and writer for the Times' food section, set a snide and nasty cat among the pigeons of the blindness field with a story in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. She also undoubtedly did profound and subtle damage to all blind job seekers and shoved us all a long step backwards by corrupting the attitudes of sighted readers toward blind people through her invitation to share her unholy delight in making fun of a blind job applicant with apparently no blindness skills and no capacity to deal directly with his blindness.

Hamilton clearly asked for the storm of vitriol that rained down upon her and the Times for publishing her article. Every reader could tell where she was going when early in the piece she announced her surprised discovery that her job applicant was blind with the following unfortunate dip into the purple prose of freshman composition: "His eyes wandered around in their sockets like tropical fish in the aquarium of a cheap hotel lobby." She goes on to make a point of registering her astonishment at their actually having managed to find each other's hands and shake before and after the interview despite his blindness. She seems obsessed by his lack of eye contact, straggly handwriting, and need for a short focal length in order to see whatever she demands he look at.

In short, it is impossible to draw an accurate conclusion of what actually went on during her interactions with this man because of doubts about her objectivity as a reporter. She is so busy calling gleeful attention to every quirk in the applicant's behavior that one is inclined to doubt even her tale of her thoughts and actions between the interview and the apparently eight-hour "trail" when he returned to the restaurant the following day to observe and actually work in the kitchen. According to her, after the interview and before his return, she concluded that she must be selling blind people short and that this applicant must surely have some techniques or compensatory skills that made it possible for him to do this job. As she tells it, she was aggressively ready to give him an even chance at the job despite the reservations that her staff continued to articulate.

As you will read in the Times article, the trail was a disaster from beginning to end. Every blind person who cooks a lot has experienced sighted observers who gasp or grab when they fear that something the blind cook is doing might be dangerous. So it is impossible to guess how much of Hamilton's recital of near misses and barely averted catastrophes in the kitchen is accurate. Whatever did or did not happen there or took place between Hamilton and the job applicant, several things seem clear. Hamilton never asked the man about his vision. In the post-ADA world employers fear raising such matters, and rightly so. But nothing prevented the applicant from mentioning this particular elephant in the living room. One is left to conclude that his previous experience as a chef probably occurred while he had sufficient vision to use visual techniques to do the work. He had obviously not mastered nonvisual techniques for doing his job or even for dealing with employers and other sighted people in the real world. He certainly seems not to have thought through the necessity of candidly addressing the issue of his limited vision and what led him to believe that he could work competitively at such a job.

One wonders if he had ever received blindness training. What happened to him in this eight-hour-long nightmare, as recounted by an antagonistic would-be employer, provides powerful ammunition in the NFB's battle to train blind people to limit their dependence on unreliable vision to use in only those tasks and in only in those situations in which it is good enough to be efficient. For whatever reason, this poor man had never been taught to prepare food or cook safely by weaning himself away from dependence on visual cues.

I have no idea whether blind cooks are out there doing the kind of fast-paced, demanding food preparation required of a line cook in a first-rate New York restaurant. I suspect there are. Many blind people work in food service businesses and catering. A handful of young blind chefs are even winning prizes. It's clear, however, that it will be a long and bleak time before any restaurateurs who read Ms. Hamilton's article will even give another blind cook a chance to try.

On many levels publication of this article was infuriating and even tragic. That the New York Times would choose to publish an article deeply riddled with discriminatory commentary demonstrates clearly how far we have to go in being recognized as a minority group with a claim to equal treatment under the law and at the hands of members of society. That a nationally recognized food writer would stoop to poke fun at the tragedy of another human being to glean maximum entertainment value in her nationally read column in the Sunday New York Times Magazine is little short of despicable.

Yet, when all is said and done, the most tragic part of this fiasco is the exposure of one man's humiliation to thousands, maybe millions, of people and the fallout from that experience that affects every blind person in the country. The rehabilitation establishment in New York State (or wherever he lost his sight) failed him, and he failed himself. Perhaps even we failed him. He never learned what was possible for him to become, or he never dared to make the dream of freedom and opportunity his own. We will all pay for his lost opportunities and the bad taste and cruelty of the media. This very public display of what happens when blind people are encouraged to continue using inadequate vision must energize us all to advocate for effective rehabilitation and encourage our colleagues losing sight to demand and benefit from good rehabilitation. Here is the text of the September 25 article:

Eat, Memory: Line of Sight

by Gabrielle Hamilton

A couple of years ago I placed an ad for a line cook. And there was a guy who, according to his résumé, should have been right up my alley. He held a grill position in a busy seafood joint at the shore; he had studied philosophy and political science; and he had about four years of experience in the industry. I was looking forward to meeting this guy, with whom an after-work conversation over beers might be possible and who had just enough years in the industry to still have something to learn, but not so few that he would need to be taught everything. I called him up, and we had a pleasant phone exchange. I liked his voice, his manner; he was intelligent and articulate. I invited him in for an interview the following day.

The first thing I noticed when he arrived was that he was blind. His eyes wandered around in their sockets like tropical fish in the aquarium of a cheap hotel lobby.

We managed a handshake and sat at the bar, and I asked him about his responsibilities at the busy seafood restaurant, and he answered entirely reasonably. He understood the language I used and spoke it back to me: the sort of shorthand code that people who work in kitchens speak.

I said, "How many covers for lunch?"

And he said, "Eighty-five to a hundred ten."

I said, "What kind of mis"--prep--"is there in a fried-seafood place?"

And he laughed and said, "Yeah, it's all lemon wedges and tartar sauce."

We talked a bit about his education in philosophy: he was a Hegel fan. Finally I showed him our menu. He held it up to his face as if to breathe in its written contents, to discover by inhaling what it said in plain print. I felt more certain than ever when I observed this that he was blind but naturally doubted myself because obviously the guy had worked in restaurants, something that--though we may joke--really can't and shouldn't be done. And in spite of the proximity to his face at which he held the menu, I thought maybe I was making some despicable assumptions about the sight impaired and needed to get my politics up to date. So I booked him for a "trail," the industry equivalent of an audition.

I went right downstairs and unpinned the schedule from the cork board and penciled him into the grill station the next night. He wrote his new phone number on the top of his résumé in large unwieldy script and even managed, more or less, to locate and cross out the old number. I looked at him as directly in the eyes as I could, thinking maybe I should ask about what seemed obvious, but instead I said: "Well, you seem average in build--we have pants and jackets in the general human range, so you don't need to bring your own whites. And you'll just need a chef knife, a utility and a paring knife. No need to bring your forty-pound kit tomorrow." He nodded without returning my gaze.

"Is there anything else you can think of?" I asked hopefully. He said only that he'd like to keep the menu if I didn't mind so that he could study it a bit before his trail. Done deal. We shook hands again, miraculously.

For the rest of the day I thought that maybe he wasn't blind, and that just because his eyes rolled around didn't mean he couldn't make out shape and color. But then I thought shape shmape and color schmolor, how is this guy going to dice a white onion on a white cutting board? I thought maybe I was an ignorant jerk who didn't realize how far the blind had come. Maybe he had worked out some kind of system to compensate. I took a mental inventory of famous accomplished blind people. Could playing the piano be anything like grilling fish over open flame in the midst of hot fryer fat, sharp knives, macho line cooks, and slippery floors? What was the preferred term for "blind" these days anyway?

By the morning of his trail I had talked myself into the certainty that though blind he was obviously "sighted" in some other way. I felt sure that I was behind the times for thinking that just because someone was blind that he couldn't work a job as a line cook in a busy restaurant. Or even be the lunch chef of one, as his résumé claimed. I knew vaguely that, when a person lost one sense, the others kicked in expertly to compensate. I assured myself that he had developed a system by which he heard the food, or felt the food, or smelled which plate was used for which entree. I became convinced that he, in fact, had evolved into such a higher species of line cook that we would learn greatness from him. I got so on board with the whole blind line cook thing that I was plainly righteous when asked by my incredulous and slightly unnerved line cooks why I had booked a trail with a blind guy. I practically had indignation in my tone. "What? You think just because the guy is �visually challenged' that he can't cook in a restaurant?"

When he arrived for his trail, I took him around on an introductory tour of the prep area and the walk-in and the hot line. At each station he bent over and put his forehead against everything I showed him. It was fascinating at first--and later heartbreaking--to note the angle at which he scrutinized each item in the refrigerator.

"Over here," I said, "is where all the proteins are kept. Fish here. Meat here. Cooked above raw. Always. Okay?" And instead of holding the pan of pork belly close under his nose and squinting down upon it--like a very old man might do trying to read his train ticket--he instead held each item up to his forehead, above his eyebrows, and stared up imploringly into it.

We set him up in the basement prep area with a cutting board and a menial task that wouldn't matter if he messed it up: picking parsley. This took him most of the afternoon, and it was painful to watch him bent in half, killing his back in order to have his untethered eyes close up to the cutting board.

The trail is simply the time to sniff out the guy, to see how he stands, how he holds his knives, how much he talks or doesn't, and what he says. Does he ravage everything with tongs or finesse with a fork and a spoon? Does he sit at the bar at the end of his trail and get hammered? Did he bring a pen and small pad of paper? Did he thank the people who trailed him? I wasn't worried that he was supposed to hold down the grill station. And I didn't give a damn about the parsley. But I understood twenty-five minutes into his trail that there was no system of compensation, that he had not become hypersensate, and that he had not, emphatically, evolved into a superior cooking machine. Sadly, the guy was just plain blind. And I still had on my hands another four hours thirty-five minutes of a trail to honor.

The night started slowly, with just a couple of order tickets at a time. I buckled myself into a seat at the back of the bus, so to speak, right behind the blind guy in the grill station, and let my sous chef do the driving: calling out the tickets and their timing, expediting their plating and pickups. Every time an order came into our station, I quietly narrated the procedure to the trailer and watched, slack-jawed, as he painstakingly retrieved a portion of meat from the cooler, held it to his forehead, set it on a plate, and then proceeded to carefully season the countertop with an even sprinkling of salt. When the call to "fire"--start cooking--an item came, I stood back and let him place the meat onto the grill--which he managed--but I had to pull him back a few inches from the flames so he wouldn't singe his bangs.

Eventually we fell into a kind of spontaneous, unfunny Vaudeville routine in which I shadowed him, without his knowing, and seasoned the meat he missed, turned the fish he couldn't, moved the plate under his approaching spatula to receive the pork, like an outfielder judging a fly ball in Candlestick Park. I was not worried about him slowing down the line, as we never expect a trailer to actually perform a vital function. But I really started to feel sick with worry when he pulled a full fresh piping-hot basket of shoestring fries up out of the fat with his right hand and turned them out to drain--not into the waiting stack of giant coffee filters he held in his left hand, but into the thin air directly adjacent, pouring them out onto the dirty rubber mats and his clogs.

This did not escape the notice of the other cooks. All the lightheartedness of a good night on the line went right up the exhaust hood. The banter between salad and sauté came to a screeching halt. The fun part of getting through the night--donkey noises, addressing the male line cooks as "ladies," as in, "Let's go, ladies!"--was abandoned. The stern but softhearted barking from the sous chef down the line lost all playful bite and was tamed down to the most perfunctory, gently articulated "Please fire apps on seven." With one basket of hot fries cascading to the ground, we all saw at once that this fellow was in physical danger.

In silence I raked the fries up off the floor, trashed them, and dropped another order on the double. I asked him, kindly, to step back to the wall and just watch a bit, explaining that the pace was about to pick up, and I wanted to keep the line moving. This is--even when you have all your wits--the most humiliating part of a trail: when the chef takes you off of the line in the middle of your task. You die 1,000 deaths. For a blind guy with something to prove, maybe 2,000.

To this point I had somehow been willing to participate in whatever strange exercise this guy was putting himself through. I was suspending disbelief, as we are all asked to do every time we go to a play or a movie. I know that this isn't real, but I agree to believe that it is for these two hours without intermission. But something about the realization of the danger he was flirting with in service of his project, whatever his project was, suddenly made me furious. I took over the station and started slamming food onto the plates, narrating my actions to him in barely suppressed snide tones. "This," I practically hissed, "is the pickup on the prawns. Three in a stack, napped with anchovy butter. Wanna write that down?"

I exhausted myself with passive-aggressive vitriol. "On the rack of lamb, you want an internal temp of 125. Just read the thermometer, okay?"

This got the attention of my sous chef, who quietly came over and asked the guy if he'd like to step into garde-manger (the cold station) for a while to see how things there ran. I was relieved to have the guy away from the fire and the fat and in the relatively harmless oasis of cold leafy salads and cool creamy dressings. And I was grateful to be rescued from my worst self. The guy spent the rest of his trail with his back up against the wall in all the stations, eyes rolling around in his head, pretending to apprehend how each station worked. I spent the remainder of his trail wrestling meat and unattractive feelings triggered by this insane predicament in which we had found ourselves.

I never did find out what he was doing. I allowed him to finish out the whole trail, and when he had changed his clothes, I encouraged him to sit at the bar and have something to eat, which he did. And as he was leaving, I said I would call him the next day, which I did. I told him that I was looking for someone with a little more power, a bit more of a heavy hitter, but that I would keep him in mind if a position more aligned with his skills became available.

This, remarkably, he seemed to see coming.

That was the article, and it was outrageous on every level. Not surprisingly, many readers were outraged and took the time to write letters to the Times. Here are the full text of one letter and a snippet from another that reflect the reactions of some:

To the Editor:

I am writing regarding the essay "Line of Sight" by Gabrielle Hamilton, which appeared in the Magazine section of the New York Times of Sunday, September 25th.

Shame, shame, shame!

If Ms. Hamilton's cooking is as tasteless as her prose, she'll soon be looking for a new daytime job. Her puerile attempt at humor in describing the job applicant's eyes as wandering "around in their sockets like tropical fish in the aquarium of a cheap hotel lobby" reads like something written for Creative Writing 101, and for which she would have received a D for Disgusting. This was not Harpo Marx ogling for the cameras--it was a human being who clearly was not as perfect as Ms. Hamilton pictures herself. Did she really think that this sentence enhanced the quality of the essay?

If she enjoys amusing herself by ridiculing others who have disabilities, she might want to look up some people with Parkinson's disease--it would be a real hoot for her to see all those folks standing around twitching. Better yet, she could visit Walter Reed Hospital and check out all those guys and gals who lost eyes and arms and legs defending Ms. Hamilton's right to write tripe like this essay--what a gas that would be! She could regale her friends for hours with her rapier-like wit as she recounted those experiences. Think of the sympathy she could evoke as she bleated, as she did in her essay, of her nobility in suffering through "another 4 hours 35 honor."

The proofreaders, editors, and management personnel who approved this article for publication in the Times share equal blame. Together with Ms. Hamilton they have collectively set back employment opportunities for blind people, and physically challenged people as well, for years by writing and publishing an article that clearly warns prospective employers away from hiring less-than-perfect people. Even worse, they have demeaned and degraded another human being who has not done anything to harm them. Didn't any of them think about the fact that the job applicant has friends who will read this essay to him? Did any of them think about his feelings? What were they thinking? Were they thinking? Do they have the capacity for thinking?

These people have the sensitivity of tree stumps, and like Ms. Hamilton they should also get a D--this time for Disgraceful.

It is my hope that Ms. Hamilton and all those involved in the publishing of this essay will dine at her restaurant and spend the next week with stomach cramps.

Marvin Sandler

Finally, here are the closing sentences of one other letter:

Could you please let me know about this hate policy toward the blind? Is it standard? A change of direction? To be applied to other disabled groups across the board?

I'll appreciate any clarification.

Clarification is the last thing we are likely to get. We will just have to settle for outrage.