In 2007, Boulder singer-songwriter Brian Rocheleau -- better known as Rosh -- was on tour when he happened upon a unique cafe in Iceland.
After ordering a coffee outside, he was handed a braille-printed card and a cane before being ushered into a pitch black room.
“It was really loud and eventually I bumped into a table and I asked the people sitting there if there was an empty chair available,” Rosh said. “They all said, ‘We don’t know!’”
It was the first time Rosh had to find his way in the dark, but it would be far from the last.
“It ended up being a really powerful experience -- being in the dark with all these people,” he said. “I had no idea if they were black or white or short or tall or older than me or younger than me. And I thought, wow, this would be an interesting way to break down social barriers.”
Ten years later, Rosh’s project, The Blind Cafe, has served more than 16,000 patrons. The pop-up cafe, which combines food, discussion and music, has expanded from Boulder to include semi-annual events in Seattle, Austin and Portland.
And it’s about more than just the novelty of navigating in the dark, Rosh said.
“We’re not just creating a party where everyone goes crazy in the dark,” he said. “We want to create something that’s intentional.”
From the start of the evening, it’s clear that they mean business -- particularly about any potential light sources. Cell phones must be turned completely off and all watches put away.
Brandon Langdon, the event’s “Master of Darkness,” designed the cafe to be pitch black. At every event, he stands guard at the entryway. Nothing that emits even the slightest hint of light gets past him.
“Is this a Fitbit?” he asked one woman, checking her wrist. “No. That’s just a piece of plastic. Cool. Let’s go.”
Using canes, waiters Jimmy Jackson and Rick Hammond lead groups through several heavy curtains into the dining room. Both of them are blind.
“When people come here, I hope that they leave with a better understanding that blind people are just people like everybody else,” said Hammond, who has been with the cafe since it began. “We may do things a little bit differently, but at the end of the day we’re pretty much just like anyone else that you’re going to meet.”
That’s why Hammond leads a Q&A session at every Blind Cafe event. In the dark, he said, people find it easier to open up and ask questions they might otherwise be afraid to ask.
The most common question Hammond gets is about how blind people dream. On this particular evening he also fielded questions about whether blind people could be racist and what his primary sense was.
Hammond took the opportunity on both to dispel some common myths:No, not being able to see does not make people colorblind to race and no, when one sense goes away, the others do not become heightened.
While The Blind Cafe offers only a small window into his experience, Hammond said the impact it has on people can be pretty strong.
“People are surprised -- some of them didn’t think that they had it in them to handle it,” he said.
Guest Mary Wolf had been to The Blind Cafe before and said she likes bringing new people to the cafe to see their reaction.
“It takes a level of comfort and trust to sit in a room with a bunch of strangers in the dark,” she said.
But her favorite part?
“I think it’s the food,” she said. “Eating and not being able to see it. [...] It’s passing the food in the dark and you have to touch the person next to you and it becomes -- in our culture that doesn’t touch a lot -- that intimacy that’s built within it.”
For people who have never eaten in a completely dark room, a warning: It’s hard. Really hard. It helps if you work as a team. The first person at the table to realize that the silverware is the left of the plate and that there is a bowl of soup to the right should let the rest of the table know.
It can be very challenging, said Rosh, who has been hired to bring The Blind Cafe to corporations -- including Google and Pepsi -- as teambuilding events.
It makes sense, because after all that went into the evening, by the time the final song is being performed, each table -- whether they are friends, coworkers or some random public radio reporter -- seems to feel a little closer than when they started.