There was an old lady who lived next to me when I was in my early twenties. Betty was in her mid 70’s. She was wrinkled and tiny and sat on her porch most of the time. Night and day. Spring, summer, fall, and deep into Kansas winters. Our landlord, Martin, had converted a single family home into apartments. Right down the middle of the porch Martin had built an astonishingly ugly lattice wall to create what he called, “separate and somewhat private” entrances. There was no privacy; and it didn’t matter. I sat on my side of the porch smoking Gauloise tobacco because Camus and Picasso smoked Gauloise. I was looking for connection with them, but it was a connection with Betty that made a difference. We talked through the lattice. We got to know each other, and the people we saw passing by. Betty saw all of them, she saw me and she was blind.
Betty didn’t talk much; but she’d laugh. Loved to laugh. Laugh at me-a cocky college kid who thought he knew people. I still remember the first time she laughed at me. I’m walking home from work at night. The house is still out of sight when I hear her yelling my name at the top of her lungs. I start running thinking she’s hurt or fallen or someone has robbed her. I get closer to the house, she’s still yelling my name. And then she starts laughing. Cackling. She can hardly breathe she’s laughing so hard. I can hardly breathe because I’m out of shape from making so many “connections” with Camus and Picasso-smoking all those Gauloise. Her laugh breaks off as I climb the steps to her side of the porch:
“What the hell you running for Sonny?” She calls me Sonny.
“What the hell you laughing for?” I nearly scream.
“I saw you coming,” she says.
“What?” In my mind I can’t believe a blind lady just said she saw me coming. And then the reality of it starts to settle.
“Yep. I always do. Always can.”
And that is the start of how we came to be known as the “dueling porches.”
The next day, I see landlord Martin at the grocery. I tell him all about what happened. “She knows what’s going on. Almost before it goes on,” Martin says.
“Well, she sure as hell can’t see me coming. She is blind, you know,” I reply, kind of irritated with Martin.
“You two are always out on that porch, right? I got a bet for you. For the next two weeks, you and the old lady have a competition. As you sit on your porches, first one to identify who’s coming down the street gets a point. You keep score. After two weeks, the highest score wins. I’ll bet you a month’s rent Betty wins.”
“She’s blind,” I nearly laugh. “And if I lose?” I say, knowing I wouldn’t.
“If you lose, you take me and Betty to Sal’s. For drinks and dinner.”
My mind races. Sal’s is an upscale steakhouse. You don’t get out the door for less than $30 a person, and with drinks… Then I think to myself she’s blind, take the $350 in free rent. “Hell yeah, I’ll bet you.”
We shake on it. “Explain the game to Betty, tonight. Start the game tomorrow,” he says.
“I’m all over it.”
On a Thursday night, two and a half weeks later, I’m drinking cocktails and eating buffalo steaks with Martin and Betty at Sal’s. It had pretty much been a shutout. I think she let me win a point or two, just to keep me from complete and total humiliation. Everybody passing by got in on it. They’d hear her laughing, ask us what was going on and we told them of the game. After the two weeks were up, they begged us to keep playing. I got an old chalkboard from the thrift store. Martin mounted it on my side of the porch (he thought it looked good but he also thought a lattice wall looked good). Somewhere along the line, somebody started referring to our house as the “dueling porches.” Strangers would walk down our street for no other reason but to come meet the old blind lady and the smoker. To see if we could see.
What I realized was that Betty was highly aware of not only her surroundings, but also of herself. Of her own senses. She paid careful attention to what she heard. To what she smelled. Maybe not having the use of one her senses caused her to be more attune to the others.
We are learning that for our work, for our research, and for our dive into empathic connectivity, we are required to have an acute awareness of our ‘selves.’ It is important that we are able to identify where we end and another begins. As we allow ourselves to be affected by the emotions of someone else, it is imperative that we are aware of our own emotions. That we open ourselves up to ourselves. That we see like Betty.
By: David Strasser, Program Designer