Thursday, March 18, 2004

Dinner in the Dark

When my friend Karen sent this invitation off to me, I couldn't resist. A mystery dinner with a bunch of strangers in pitch darkness? I'm in!

I met up with Karen outside of DV8. The place was completely taped up so you couldn't see inside. It was positively cave-like. The last time I can recall sharing an experience in darkness with strangers was "blackwater rafting" in New Zealand. It was towards the south end of the North Island, with a Maori outfit that sent you off along a small river through a cave system in an inner tube. The amazing part of it was the presence of glow worms. No, not those silly green toys from the '80s, these were the Real McCoy.

They hung from the ceiling just like this, and believe me -- there is nothing quite like the experience of floating in the darkness, looking up at points of light above your head, knowing that the light is emitted from... hanging worms. If you're squeamish or claustrophobic in any way, I don't recommend blackwater rafting. You're in a cave, after all, the walls are slimy (if you can even find them), and often you have to crawl through small areas. We were given spelunking hats with lights, but we turned them off when we were in the tubes and floating. Voices reverberated everywhere, and you never really knew how far away people were. At one point we were told to turn off our lights to go down a drop -- a height of which we had no idea. You could hear the water rushing over the edge, but you couldn't see it, and even though we knew it couldn't be very high, just not knowing was nerve-wracking for some.

Dinner in the Dark wasn't quite like that. I suppose the only thing you could be scared of was embarrassing yourself or getting groped. Thankfully, I did neither, but anticipating possible embarrassment, I wore black so if I'd spilled food on myself, it wouldn't be so noticeable, I made sure my wine glass was as far away from the others as possible, and I turned to the guy to my left to ask if he was right or left-handed. I told him I was right-handed, so we wouldn't have:

a) a glass crash
b) a hand crash
c) bits of flying food

--oh, did I mention there were no eating utensils? It was a mystery dinner: all kinds of food put on your plate, and you could only feel your way around.

The event organizers explained they were going to have assigned seating, and if we wanted to sit with the people we came with, we'd have to grab their arm. "Don't go looking around for attractive people to hook arms with," they said, "it's not going to matter."

That's part of why this dinner intrigued me -- the idea that conversational skills were more important than how you looked. You could be the most stunning-looking person ever, but if you couldn't carrying on a conversation, all you could do was play with your mystery food and imagine what the other people looked like. I was the first person to be placed in one of the four-person booths on one side of DV8. Most of the people were placed along a row of long tables, which meant you'd be flanked with people. Since I was first in the booth, I had the wall to my right and someone to my left. Then two people were seated across from us. Thankfully, everyone was chatty, although I'd saw the guy next to me, Greg, and I were probably were the more talkative out of the four of us. This is what information emerged from our table:

Jen, 22 (?), Spanish student in ColoradoBriggs, 20 (?), poli-sci student near Tacoma, WA
Greg, 26, journalist with Westenderme, old fogey at our table

Jen and Briggs are brother and sister from Roswell, New Mexico... I know what you're thinking -- we talked about UFOs, right? Well, how could we not? This was their first time in Canada, and they'd come up for a couple of days to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. Greg was at the Dinner not by design -- his boss at the Westender gave him a ticket.

Dinner in the Dark is supposed to give your non-visual senses a nudge. It certainly does -- one thing I noticed almost immediately is that there is a distinct BC accent. Greg's got it, and he says he's BC born and raised. Describing an accent is like describing a colour, but all I can say is you can definitely identify it. The easiest way to recognize it is that Greg sounds JUST LIKE other BC guys I know -- for example, Mike, my former BCIT classmate and now my 'cousin-law'. Canadian regional accents -- bar the Newfies -- are not as distinct as they are in other parts of the world, but Greg says when he's in Toronto people know he's from BC.

[Update, March 26: Greg's story in the Westender, March 25 -- "Dinner in the Dark Sheds Light on New Way to Socialize")

All four of us guessed at what we were eating, but some of it was still a mystery until the lights came up at the end. We listened to a play (how funny does that sound?) by a local group called Rock, Paper, Scissors -- yes, still in the dark -- but all I could think of was, I have to go to the bathroom! Do I get out my little Swiss army knife with flashlight, push Greg out of the booth, and make a ruckus? What to do! What to do! After a few minutes I was really starting to regret not making a dash for it before the play started, but we were all so busy yakking it hadn't occurred to me. I was so distracted from the play, my thoughts were so wrapped up in my bathroom strategies:

Should I just go for it now, before the play ends and other people try to run in the dark to the bathroom and we all collide in a heap?
Which door was the bathroom, anyway? What if I end up in the men's and someone's in there?
Is the video camera person filming the play in the dark standing between me and the bathroom?
(Now and then we'd see a tiny red recording light, and that was the only way we'd know someone was filming us in the dark... spooky)
Would I disturb everybody with my tiny flashlight on?

When the play was over, I made a mad dash. Luckily, we were closer than most of the people, and I'm familiar enough with the layout of DV8 to know generally where to go. The lights finally came on shortly after, and the first we did was look at each other... of course! Suddenly I recognized Jen, because earlier in the evening she almost fell down near the bottom of the stairs, and somebody caught her. I took one look at her Superman t-shirt, and very nearly made a joke, like "Hey, you're supposed to be Superman..." In retrospect, I'm glad I kept my trap shut, even though wearing a Superman t-shirt is asking for jokes. Briggs, her younger brother, didn't really look like Jen, he reminded me of Jared Leto, then later I thought he looked more like Robbie Williams. I really had no idea what either of them looked like when we were having dinner, and the same went for Greg. It's funny how you can be drawn to people by their voices, and I have to say I was a bit curious to see what Greg looked like once I listened to him for the duration of a meal. Karen came over to tell me she'd ripped her contact lens and had to go home toute suite, Greg parted ways with us, and Jen and Briggs and I went to the Nelson Cafe for more drinks. I gave them some tips on free parking and plotted some places to check out St. Patty's Day on Jen's map. We shot the breeze at the Nelson Cafe until nearly midnight before they decided to head back to their sketchy hostel on Main St.

As I walked home, I thought about how much we take our senses for granted. In Edinburgh I lived with a bunch of flatmates, and one of them was deaf. Martin was Irish, and deaf from birth. If you are familiar with the Irish, this sounds like a set up for a joke. To say that the Irish love to talk is an overwhelming understatement. I'm reading Frank McCourt's second book 'Tis, and it reminds me of every Irish person I've ever known... the gift of the gab. I lived with two Irish brothers in Sydney, Australia, and I could never tell when they were pulling my leg, they were so convincing and persuasive. I've had Irish employers, co-workers, friends, and trips to the Emerald Isle, and it seems they're all like that.

Martin was deaf, but he was mute, and we communicated with his teletype machine. I'm pretty fast on keyboard, so we would have long, drawn out conversations about anything. Nobody else in the flat talked to him as much as I did, which actually caused some tension when Martin showed me favour and disdain for the others, for ignoring him. When they asked him for anything, he'd turn them down. As Gillian succinctly put it, "Martin thinks the sun shines out of your arse." Sometimes they would try -- when Martin was around and in other times, too, we'd mute the TV and turn on the teletext just to remind ourselves that we had to adjust our ways and be more understanding. Some situations pissed people off -- for example, if someone got locked out and Martin was the only one at home, they could bang on the door until they were blue in the face and Martin would have no idea. We were all renting, so it's not as if the owner was going to change the doorbell to one that flashed the lights, or the kinds of things you might find in a deaf person's home.

Martin didn't stay at the flat for very long, and part of that was because two of the five of us pissed him off too much. I mean, Martin was a regular guy who went dancing (there's plenty of vibration to get the rhythm, he said), was bi-lingual since he had sign language as well (I wonder if they have Irish brogue in the signing, too?), and didn't deserve to be ignored. Deaf people can lip-read pretty well, and it's up to us speaking people to cut them some slack and slow down a bit. Martin was the only deaf guy I've ever lived with, but it was an ear-opener -- in the same way that Dinner in the Dark was an eye-opener. We have five senses (some might argue six), and we need to use them ALL, as much as possible. Just like the old saying goes, you don't miss something until it's gone.