Written and read by Joseph Grigely
I have a story I’ve been wanting to tell for years. It’s a story about being deaf. Which is never really simple. Just when you think you have it all figured out something new happens. I want to add that it’s not easy reciting this story. I’ve been totally deaf now for 52 years. The last time I heard my own voice was in 1967. So mine is not a normal voice, but, well, it’s me.
The story takes place in the mid-1990s. In Boston. I was installing an exhibition at MIT. My hotel was across the river in Brookline–a big old Victorian mansion that had been converted into a bed & breakfast. It was funky but comfortable and suited me well.
One evening I had dinner with an old friend. Rob picked me up in Brookline and drove me out to his home in the suburbs, where we had a pleasant evening–and later Rob drove me back again, waved goodbye, and left me on the steps of the mansion. It was about 11 pm, maybe 11:30. I walked up to the front door, opened it with my key, closed it–and then, something strange happened.
I walked upstairs to my room, put the key in the lock, turned it, turned the door handle–and the door swung open a few inches before the safety chain suddenly stopped it from swinging more. In a swift moment, the door slammed shut. I do not remember my initial thoughts just then–maybe I looked at my keys, maybe I looked at the number on the door. I was certain that this was my room, as it had been for the past week. So I tried to open the door again.
This time the door slammed shut even quicker. I was pretty tired when Rob had dropped me off, but by now I was wide awake. Someone or something was in my room. A burglar? A ghost? I had no idea. It’s hard to talk with someone on the other side of a door when you’re deaf. But I tried anyway: “Hellooooo,” I said. “My name is Joe. I’m sorry, I’m deaf, I can’t hear whatever you might say, but I want to say that something’s wrong here, this is my room, or it was my room for the past week. When I left it this morning my belongings were in it. I’d really like them back, if it’s not too much trouble.” I tried to open the door again, but it wouldn’t open much–I could see through a crack that it looked like a credenza had been pushed up against it.
I tried to explain the situation again: “I really don’t know what’s going on here, maybe if you could step out for a minute we could figure it out together. Like I said, I’m deaf, and I can’t lip-read through doors, I really wish I could.”
There was no response.
I tried my key once more–but the door wouldn’t move. “I’m really sorry about this situation,” I said, “but please–I’m not a burglar I’m not a bad guy, I’m just a guy who has been sleeping in this room for the past week–I mean, how would I have this key to open the door if I didn’t?”
Again: no response.
I went downstairs to the lobby. There was no night attendant–it was a Saturday night–but there was a nightstand with a telephone and a number to call in case of emergencies. In a situation like this, when you are deaf, and a telephone sits in front of you so innocently, it’s really hard to measure your emotions–something so close that’s also so far away.
I picked up the phone anyhow and dialed the number. “Hello,” I said, “I’m Joe I’m deaf there’s a problem at the B&B please come, Hello I’m Joe I’m deaf there’s a problem at the B&B please come, Hello I’m Joe I’m deaf there’s a problem at the B&B please come.” I said it three times just to make sure one message got through.
There wasn’t too much to do at that point except wait–so I sat on the steps outside, and waited. Five minutes. Ten. Twenty. A half hour–a car swung by, two people got out, and walked up the steps.
I tried to explain my situation. “I’m Joe. I’m deaf. I’m a guest here, see, these are my keys. Except there’s a problem, there’s some people in my room and I can’t get in, and the people won’t come out so I can talk with them, and there’s no night staff, but there’s a phone, could you please call the emergency number for me so someone can come and help me?”
They looked at each other, then they looked at me, then we went inside and the man picked up the phone and dialed the number. His brows went up, folded together into an arch, and then he shook his head–no answer. No answering machine. He hung up. Could you call the police I said? Maybe they can help? But the woman tugged at the hand of the man, and before I could plead my case further, they were on their way up the stairs.
By now it was getting a little late–well after midnight. The people in my room probably had every piece of furniture at their disposal piled up against the door–so I didn’t see the point in trying them again.
I went outside, walked down the stairs to the street, turned, and started walking.
At this point I could have used a drink–and it occurred to me that going to a bar might not be a bad idea. I could ask the bartender to call the police, and the police could come, and everything would get sorted out.
Except that in the neighborhood I was in, I couldn’t find a bar. I did however find a 24 hour copy shop, so I went inside and explained to the guy working there that I was locked out of my B&B, and there were people in my room who wouldn’t let me in, would he please call the police for me? He said no. I asked him why, and he said, simply, he wasn’t allowed to call for people. I said I’d be happy to make the call myself if my ears worked, but because they didn’t, it would help a lot if he could make the call for me. He said no again. Then he said something else, I’m not sure what exactly, and turned away from me. I got a little ornery at that point–I think I said something bad, I don’t remember what, and he came back and said to me that if I didn’t get off the property he’d call the police and have me arrested for trespassing.
Please, I said.
The police took their sweet time arriving. They pulled up at the curb, rolled down their window, and I told my story yet again: “I’m deaf,” I said. “I’m staying at this B&B three blocks away. I’m working on an art exhibition at MIT. I’ve been here for a week. Tonight I came home after a dinner with a friend, and when I tried to get in my room, there were people there already, and they slammed the door on me. Even when I explained to them what I’m explaining to you now. And they wouldn’t come out. All I know is I’ve been sleeping in that room the past week, and my stuff should still be there. And I have a key to the room too–see?”
And the first thing the police guy says to me is: How much have you been drinking tonight?
I’m taken aback a little–it’s bad enough that the couple who showed up at the B&B didn’t take me seriously, or the guy at the copy shop, but the cops too? So I said I had two glasses of Château Langoa Barton with dinner, and a glass of Lagavulin whisky with two ice cubes after dinner, and that this was three hours ago, and did it matter?
The cop said no, as long as I could really remember which room was mine. I don’t think he was trying to be funny, but I had this very distinct impression they didn’t believe me. But they agreed to go with me to the B&B anyhow.
When we got to the Mansion they seemed genuinely surprised when my key opened the front door. And they seemed even more surprised when I led them upstairs to room 3, put my key in the door, and turned the deadbolt open.
They took over at that point. I’m not sure exactly what transpired, only that they said something back and forth with the people in the room, and it went on for about 10 minutes before the door finally opened a bit, and I could see the visage of a woman. She looked a little scared too, and I suppose she was. The cops asked her to look around for my stuff, but she couldn’t find anything except a couple of “Conversation” papers of mine that had slipped behind a dresser onto the floor. “See?” I said to the police: “my stuff.”
We decided to let the lady and her husband keep the room and get some sleep–and try to find if we could my clothes and other stuff, and maybe even a room with a bed where I could sleep. The first thing we did was go down to the nightstand phone and call the emergency number. Again, there was no answer. Then we did a little looking around for my stuff–they tried a bunch of doors, the kitchen, the basement– then they tried all the guest room doors, but they were all locked tight. Every door was–and my key only opened room 3.
By now it was getting really late. One cop said he’d tear the place apart if they did something like that to him. I asked him if he would tear the place apart on my behalf, but he said no, because he was in uniform. I felt a little triumphant that he finally believed my story, even if I didn’t have my stuff or my room. One of the really frustrating things about being deaf is getting people to believe you. It doesn’t matter what the issue is. The fact you’re deaf makes you suspect.
By now the cops themselves were getting a little tired. It was probably way past their 2 am coffee break, so I couldn’t blame them. In the end they called MIT security and asked around a bit- the plan was for the Brookline police to deliver me to the MIT police, and the MIT police would deliver me to the MIT housing people, and the MIT housing people would deliver me to a cot somewhere.
The handover happened on a bridge above the Charles River separating Boston from Cambridge: one police car met another, I was traded off at 3:30 in the morning. I said thank you to the Brookline police, and they seemed as pleased with my gratitude as they were to get rid of me.
I flew back to Michigan that day. I think I told the MIT people I wasn’t feeling too well or something—it seemed the easiest way out of an uneasy situation.
A few weeks later, I received at my office at the University of Michigan a letter whose return address I didn’t recognize. It was from the lady who had been in the room with her husband. She was apologetic, and explained how scared she had been–not sure what was happening, and not sure what to do. It was only later, she said, after returning to her home, that this deafness thing started to make sense to her, and how her daughter had told her she had a deaf professor who actually taught art history, and how the professor was cut off when the room was darkened when he showed slides–he’d be talking and they’d be laughing and there was this tangle p of miscommunication. She said it was like the door that separated us that night. And she said again she was sorry, because it was after she told the story to her daughter that her daughter thought about it for a while, then told her mom that the deaf guy on the other side of the door that night in Brookline was actually her professor from Michigan.
There might be a moral here. But if there is, I’m not sure what it is.
(c) 2004 – 2019 Joseph Grigely