Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pocket Review of the Hearing Impaired

From the age of five until the age of 12, I lived in a part of Birmingham called East Lake. Now, it is a drug-infested ghetto - I drove through with my half brother a few years ago, and it was all listing, fatigued houses with peeling turquoise trim; sofas sagging under the weight of stray dogs, and porches sagging under the weight of stray sofas - but then, it was a fun place to play; what with the actual lake (man-made) and a separate creek (naturally occurring) nearby.

Every Saturday during these years, my mother would wake me by blasting The Fifth Dimension.  "Up, Up and Away" still sends chills down my spine from our 8 track player. Not content to merely wake me, she would insist on serenading me (read: torturing me) by intermittently popping into my room on the choruses. From my larvae sac of bed linens, I would hear a click followed by a whoosh of air as my door was flung open, and the previously dulled voice of Marilyn McCoo sharpened and filled my chamber, my mother, mostly tunelessly, joining in: "...less egg to FRYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY..." This cycle was repeated until a loud "KaTHUNK" signaled the end of the track, or I agreed to help her clean the townhouse we shared with my stepmonster. The reward for this enforced labor was a shopping trip to one of the many local malls (one of which is unfortunately called "Brookwood Village." I was mocked unmercifully all through school), which usually resulted in me receiving an ice cream cone from Baskin and Robbins, if nothing else.

When I was about six years old, mother and I made one of these Saturday excursions to a store called World Bazaar. A forerunner to Michael's or World Market, World Bazaar sold things like silk flowers, baskets of every description, and giant feathers on sticks. It was the type of place with papason chairs scattered throughout, and the scent of sandalwood leaking from every macrame'd plant holder. My craft-oriented mother, who was going through an "ethnic" phase at the time, and whose palette of choice was salmon, navy and chocolate, felt right at home there. It was the mid-seventies, after all, and nearly all of our home furnishings involved wicker.

On this particular trip, I was hanging out on the dried flower aisle, amusing myself by shaking a variety of pods to see which made the most satisfying rattle. Mother was elsewhere in the store, purchasing supplies for her ceramics class.  She was notorious for leaving me on my own while shopping. More times than I can count, I turned to find I was asking a complete stranger if I should get Fruity Pebbles or Honeycomb, or worse, found myself totally alone on the aisle. While conducting my own symphony in pod minor, I failed to hear an older gentleman with straggly white hair and graying Neil Young sideburns approach me. He had on a chambray work shirt and jeans, and was extending a small, yellow business card to me. I took it, and he smiled. I smiled back. Then suddenly, all of the warnings my young brain had been filled with kicked in, and I ran like hell until I found my mother, leaving the rustling "flowers" spinning on the sales floor in my wake.

When I caught up with mom, I looked at the card in my hand, and noticed that it featured a series of tiny drawings of hands in different positions. This was the American Sign Language alphabet, and there was a type-written message on the back that said, "Hello! I am deaf! Have a nice day!" with a little smiley face. My mom saw what I was looking at, and said, "Where'd you get that?" When I explained, she said, "He just wanted money."

In retrospect, I doubt that's true. I mean, nowadays, a six year old is likely to have at least a sawbuck on them, as well as a cell phone and ipad, but not so back in the day. The chances of me having had shoes on my person are slim; being as it was hotter than the hinges of hell in Alabama in the summertime, let alone discretionary income. Also, he seemed very benevolent, this deaf man. 

Sidebar: This is not true of the "deaf" that I encountered on the New York subway, however. Instead of cards, they have mimeographed (wait, does that still exist? Or is it just photo-copied? Is my brain just damaged from all the purple ink I inhaled in elementary school?) pieces of paper that they have copied until the ink is faded in every word. There is no alphabet, but merely a blatant request for money. If you fail to meet this request, the "card" is jerked away. 

A few hours later, when I realized I had had an encounter with an actual deaf person, my first grade self felt thrilled, and just a teensy bit repulsed. Against my mother's wishes, I kept the card and learned the alphabet, practicing by signing the names of the actors in the credits of M*A*S*H and Barney Miller, which I watched every night after the evening news.

Several years later, as part of my seventh grade gifted program, we did a section on sign language, and my interest was renewed. I had kept up with the alphabet, and picked up a few other signs along the way, "turtle" and "shoes" being my favorites. In Mrs. Burch's class, we were introduced to the SEE method - "Signing Exact English." The signs I learned in this course have stayed with me, predominately the entire Pledge of Allegiance. In fact, while tipsy in a Los Angeles karaoke bar, I accidentally discovered that if I sign the pledge while someone else is singing, it looks as if I am signing the actual words to the song. (This and coaster flipping are my only real pub tricks.)

I would be a senior in high school before I had another encounter with a deaf person. At the beginning of that year, I dated someone who was two years younger than me. His sister, who was my age, was working in a factory on the weekends, but making good money which she was saving for a car. The factory was part of a company called Snow's, which was a local version of the Hallmark Store. In addition to the greeting cards and stuffed animals that they sold year-round from their storefront in Century Plaza mall, Snow's sold shoe bows (hideous plaid accessories that looked like they belonged on a gift, not a sneaker) and jingle bell pendants (giant brass bells hung on red or green satin cords) at Christmas time. These were handmade in a warehouse space in downtown Birmingham.

I was also in the market for a car, and applied at Snow's when I heard that they paid "incentive income" in addition to the hourly wage for every bow/bell that one made over the expected daily quota. I was hired, and after the initial Laverne and Shirleyness wore off, I hated nearly every second of it.  We were actually called to and from breaks with a clanging bell. We were allowed to talk only on our half hour lunch breaks, or one of our two daily 15 minute breaks. All of our actions were rigorously monitored by a rigid, heavyset forewoman named Debbie.

However, one day early on, I met an older, timid, African American woman in the ladies' room of the factory. It was immediately clear that she was hearing impaired, so I timidly signed her a few questions. I learned that her name was Flora, the same as my maternal grandmother, and a friendship was born. On subsequent breaks, I sought Flora out in the restroom, and learned that she had attended a well-known school for the deaf and blind in the nearby town of Talladega, where she had met her husband, who was also deaf. She was kind and interesting, telling me all about her children; five - all hearing, and patiently correcting my clumsy signing. She was forever reminding me to speak as I signed, because she was also very proficient at reading lips. Typically, I was so intensely focused on my hands that I failed to do this, and this prompted a young, redneck, co-worker to take time out from applying lipstick in the mirror to loudly comment, "Who does she think she is, talkin' with her hands like that? Is she talkin' about us behind our backs in front of our faces with that colored woman?" I quit Snow's soon after, and lost touch with Flora.

About a year later, I was in the East Lake Krispy Kreme, purchasing doughnuts for my then boyfriend, who wasn't feeling well. This was our spot, and we spent many an hour there, sitting at the counter eating "hot now" original glazed globs of heaven, and speculating on why it is necessary for the employees to wear hard hats while working in the kitchen area. (I mean, what's in those doughnuts?) Still, though, I would totally have sex with a Krispy Kreme fresh off the conveyor belt, so take THAT, "America runs on Dunkin'." In any case, on this occasion, the woman ahead of me in line was deaf, and was having difficulty communicating her order to Eunice, who worked behind the counter. I intervened, forgetting as always to speak while I signed. In the middle of this exchange, the bell on the door tinkled, and a woman joined the queue behind me. Just as I was turning to Eunice to give her Deaf Woman's order, I felt a hand on my arm, and the new arrival leaned into my face and bellowed, "YOU ARE SO PURTY! IT'S A SHAME THAT YOU'RE DEAF!!!!" I wanted to explain to her that she was mistaken, but I was struck speechless. I mean, really, what do you say to that?

My final brush with deaf occurred in 1997, when I was hired along with several college friends to assist with an event at the new Mercedes plant in Tuscaloosa County. This two million dollar party was orchestrated in conjunction with the release of the film, The Lost World, and was intended to promote the new M Class vehicle. Originally, Whitney Houston was slated to be the entertainment, but at the last minute she was replaced with a local employee singing, "Mercedes Benz," and Heather Whitestone, the deaf Alabamian who had been awarded the title of Miss America a few years previously. This news surprised those of us on the crew, who had seen several rehearsals, and were expecting a broadway-esque live music show. When he heard the new roster, my friend, Jim, (whom, it must be said, REALLY wanted to see Whitney) said, "What is she gonna do? Say, 'This is the quietest car I have ever ridden in?' " It's beyond wrong, I know, but seeing Jim say this complete with with his own version of sign language was one of the funniest things I have ever seen, especially after an exhausting week of ten hour shifts in the September sun. In the end, Miss Whitestone's talent was a dream ballet, which was nice, but bland, and provoked at least one co-worker to ask, "How does she hear the music?"

I have forgotten many of the signs I learned over the years, though there were moments in the past when I considered becoming a certified interpreter. However, I occasionally still wonder what it is like to be deaf, like when I am on an exceedingly loud train platform, or when I am trying to sleep through the fifth car alarm of the night. Most often though, I ponder this when I find myself on crowded planes with screaming youngsters. Something about that particular situation turns me into Samuel L. Jackson, and my internal monologue becomes: "GET THESE MUTHAFUCKIN' KIDS OFF THIS MUTHAFUCKIN' PLANE!" Ultimately, I just plug in my ipod, which amounts to the same thing, and feel grateful that I have a choice about when to employ the insulation.

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