“Um…uh…er…” The clerk at Target stuttered and stammered, looking at me with a mix of fear and confusion.
“Yes?” I smiled.
Suddenly, as if struck by a cattle prod, she yelped as she skittered down the aisle: “LET ME GET MY MANAGER!”
Minutes later, the clerk returned with a woman in an official-looking headset and sweater vest arrived in the aisle. With exaggerated gestures and pronounced enunciation, she offered her assistance.
“I UNDERSTAND [points to self, then forehead] YOU ARE DEAF! [points to ears] HOW [shrugs shoulders] CAN I [points to self] HELP YOU?”
To say I’ve had a rough start in Salt Lake City would be an understatement. This interaction in Target was the third of its kind that morning, each one stranger than the last. A few hours earlier, I was interrupted mid-order at Starbucks by the young cashier who, upon noticing my hearing aid, pointed and barked, “Hey! You got one of those things in your ear!” While signing up for a library card, I was asked repeatedly if I needed a sign language interpreter, and I repeatedly declined.
“Are you sure?” The librarian offered for the fifth time in as many minutes, “We can get one here in 15 minutes!” She was so excited about being able to offer the service, I almost felt guilty telling her I lipread and don’t actually know sign language.
From the parking lot in Target, I wiped away frustrated tears and sent a text message to my husband, Neil:
I’m pretty sure I’m the first deaf person in Utah.
Normally, I don’t get so discouraged by such interactions. For the most part, I’ve embraced being deaf and the unique opportunity I have to dispel stereotypes about the deaf and hard-of-hearing.
RELATED: Out There: Don’t Make Assumptions
But that day, I didn’t want to dispel stereotypes. I didn’t want to be unique. I didn’t want to embrace a damn thing. I just wanted to have one human interaction that left me feeling…well, human.
Though I love my beautiful new surroundings, my first weeks in Utah have been lonely. While I’ve been setting up our new house in Salt Lake City, my husband has been on a three-week work assignment some 700 miles away. I’ve tried to befriend my new neighbors the only way I know how: asking someone on the train about the race shirt she’s wearing, or going out of my way at the grocery store to ask the guy in split shorts for local trail recommendations. So far, I’ve gotten confused looks, nervous laughter, and the slow, fearful “don’t-make-eye-contact” backwards walk usually reserved for mountain lions. I’m not sure if people are repelled by my guerrilla friendship tactics or if my Deaf-Texan accent throws them off, but either way, I remain very much an outsider.
These things take time, I know. There’s a learning curve for every new environment, whether it’s a new city, a new job, or even a new friendship. Still, as I drove home from Target that morning, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had made a huge mistake in moving to Salt Lake. I longed for my running community in Phoenix, where “You’re a runner? Me, too! Let’s be best friends!” is a fine opening line, and my disability goes largely unnoticed, because, as my friend Dan once put it, “we’re all a little bit off here, yo.”
RELATED: Out There: Moving Forward
I continued moping that afternoon as I laced up for a run. While warming up, I wondered how long it’d take to make friends. As I hit the start button on my watch, I thought about my buddies back home. Whenever I passed a cool landmark or a neat-looking restaurant, I wished Neil was with me to explore the city. As I weaved through unfamiliar streets and sidewalks, I questioned whether Salt Lake would ever feel like home.
About 15 minutes into my run, I noticed a shadow that wasn’t mine. The shadow persisted for a full block, until a stoplight required us both to pause.
“Hey!” My fellow runner, a woman about my age, took out one earbud and flashed a warm smile.
“Hey.” I returned the smile.
“You heading to Liberty Park?”
“Cool. Me, too.”
The crosswalk signal changed, and off we went.
I don’t know who the woman was. I don’t know her name, what race she was training for, or where she lives in my neighborhood. I don’t know if she noticed that I was deaf, or that she even cared. All I know is that after weeks of feeling like a mutant, that 3-second connection – a variation of “You’re a runner? Me, too!” – was exactly what I needed.
If you’re that person from my neighborhood, thank you. If you’re not that person, you still can be. Every path you cross is an opportunity to choose kindness. You may not know if the other person needs it at the moment, but then again, do you really have to know? Choose kindness anyway.
You have the power to change the course of another person’s day. A smile, a wave, even a nod of the head in passing – a minimal effort on your part can have maximum impact.
Really, it’s that simple.
About The Author:
Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons, and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). Susan lives and trains in Salt Lake City, Utah with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete husband. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke