The first time I laid eyes on braille was in the early 1980s, before the passage of the ADA, before there was braille on signage and on elevators and on ATMs, and before there were ATMs. Back then, you didn’t see braille in public places. You didn’t see braille anywhere. I had heard of braille, of course. I vaguely knew it was what blind people used for reading. I think I even maybe knew that it was named after some blind guy from France who had invented it or perfected it, but I’d never actually seen braille. In that sense, it was like many things in the world that I had heard of but never laid eyes on: the Sistine Chapel, enriched uranium, caviar, baobabs, braille, etc.
The first braille I ever laid eyes on was a braille Playboy belonging to my blind friend Edgardo, who lived on the third floor of my apartment building. It had the word Playboy emblazoned in black ink across the front cover with the iconic rabbit-in-a-bowtie logo and National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped printed in the bottom left-hand corner. But when I opened the magazine up, it was completely blank–a vast expanse of white goose bumps, a blizzard of snowy dots. I remember asking Edgardo, half jokingly, “Where are all the pictures?” and turning the magazine over and over in my hands, wondering if it was upside down or right side up. So many dots, each one casting a tiny shadow, like the view from an airplane flying over a country of igloos on a sunny day. As I turned the pages, I could also see the underside of the dots embossed on the reverse side of each page–a process called “interpoint”, as I would later find out, whereby the braille is embossed on both sides of the page, the dots spaced in such a way that prevents them from counteracting each other. Double-sided braille pages means double the space-saving. And Braille, as it turns out, is all about saving space.
“It doesn’t have any pictures,” said Edgardo, taking the magazine from my hands, and closing it, then slipping his hand inside and reading it silently to himself. “But it has descriptions. And it has captions. And I have my imagination.” Then he began to read aloud: “Becky Dupree, Miss March, leans seductively against a door jamb of the barn, wearing a cowboy hat and a button-down cerulean shirt open to her navel…”
“Get out of here! It doesn’t say that,” I said as he rolled his eyes and stuck out his tongue salaciously, his fingers rubbing the dots in an exaggerated, pornographic way.
“Ooh, she IS hot! Take a look at this,” he said, handing me back the magazine, his index finger pointing to a row of dots halfway down the page, as indecipherable to me as a “You Are Here” sign in Mandarin. I was intrigued. So this was braille. But how on earth did it work, how were the letters represented, the punctuation, the paragraphs? Where was the alphabet in all this whiteout of dots?
It was right then and there that I resolved to learn it; to teach myself braille; to see for myself if Becky Dupree was indeed wearing a cerulean shirt unbuttoned to her navel; to demystify this inscrutable code that most people, myself included, assumed was something that only the blind could apprehend. What did I have to lose? Braille was the most interesting, the most provocative thing to cross my path since I’d broken up with my college girlfriend and run away
to Boston where I was working a dead-end job in a Cleveland Circle delicatessen. With nothing to claim my interest or attentions, why not give myself over to braille?
“May I keep this?” I asked Edgardo, holding the braille Playboy to my chest in a protective, possessive attitude, as though it were Becky Dupree herself. Luckily, Edgardo was willing to part with the magazine, seeing as it was the March issue and we were now in the middle of July. He was months behind in his reading, the braille Playboys and Reader’s Digests and National Geographics and Washington Post Book Worlds and Syndicated Columnists Weeklys in piles all around his apartment, leaning towers of braille growing precariously toward the ceiling like stalagmites in a dark cave.
Braille is dots in a cell. Lots and lots of cells. Each cell has six dots, like a prison cell with six beds in it, and the entire alphabet squeezed in, jockeying for position. Plus some 200 contractions, punctuation marks, and formatting signs. It can get very crowded in the braille cell, and many contractions take up two cells, and most configurations have their opposite, their mirror image, which represents a different character with a different, unrelated meaning. Take, for example, the word “unbuttoned”. It has only one contraction, “ed”, which is the mirror image of the letter “n”, of which there are two in “unbuttoned”. There are also two “u”s and two “t”s. Some contiguous double letters can be contracted in braille, but not, alas, the two “t”s in “unbuttoned”. Nor the two “e”s in “Dupree”. Some contractions can stand alone and also within words, the way “butt” can stand alone and also within the word “unbuttoned,” though “butt” per se isn’t a contraction in braille. Though maybe it should be. Especially in the context of Becky Dupree. You could write to the Braille Authority of North America, I suppose, and propose that “butt” be added to the official list of braille contractions. But chances are, if they replied at all, they would reply that “butt” does not merit its own contraction in the braille code, and that there is already a contraction for the word “but”–which is the letter “b” standing all alone–and that simply adding a “t” to the “b” for “but” to achieve “butt” would not be advisable or permissible, because “b” and “t” together could conceivably be mistaken for “between”, which is a lower-cell “b” beside a “t” and we need to avoid confusion at all costs… Confusing, isn’t it? Believe it or not, avoiding confusion at all costs is one of the cardinal rules of braille.
The other cardinal rule of braille is saving space at all costs. And that’s because of the high cost of producing braille and because braille does in fact take up so much space. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, for example, is 8 volumes in braille. The King James version of the Bible, in braille, is 18 volumes. The American Heritage Dictionary is 72 braille volumes. And in the case of the dictionary, we’re talking huge, cumbersome tomes, some 250 braille pages per volume.
There is a 72-volume braille dictionary stacked like a cord of wood from floor to ceiling against the east wall of the proofreading department at the National Braille Press in Boston, where I got a job as a braille transcriber almost exactly one year after first laying eyes on Edgardo’s braille Playboy. The day after commandeering that Playboy, I signed up for a correspondence course in braille transcription with the Hadley School for the Blind in Winnetka, Illinois, and I spent the next twelve months learning the braille code. They sent me a box that contained a braille slate and stylus, a ream of braille paper, a wooden braille eraser
(for flattening out erroneous dots), a braille textbook published by the Library of Congress, and a pile of Free Matter for the Blind labels, because the blind ride free with the USPS. The first five lessons required me to punch dots into the thick braille paper with the pointy end of the stylus, going from right to left, or backwards, making the mirror image of each character so that when I turned the paper over the dots would then appear in their proper configurations and order, going from left to right. It was kind of dizzying at first, all those backwards, mirrored braille dots in their different combinations. The Hadley School made you learn braille inside out and backwards and forwards before they finally let you graduate to a Perkins Brailler, a kind of typewriter with six keys–one for each dot–and a space bar. The Perkins is heavy, clunky, and very durable, and after my fifth lesson they sent me one in a big box–they sent it Free Matter–and I didn’t have to do it backwards anymore after that. In fact, after that, all went swimmingly forward in the braille department and I continued sending my lessons off to Winnetka, Illinois, where my braille instructor–an ardent woman named Ingrid whom I never met in person because it was all done through the mail–corrected my braille sentences and sent them back to me with her pithy transcriber’s notes, my mistakes circled in red.
I kept Edgardo’s Playboy under my bed for that whole year, taking it out and dusting it off now and then to hunt for Becky Dupree, who, when I was finally fluent enough to find her, wasn’t even in there in the end. Once I’d read the whole issue, front to back, I finally realized, a little too late, that Edgardo had invented her–he’d made her up just to get my goad. Or is it goat? I suppose it could be either: he got my goat–my randy, inner goat–interested, and that’s what goaded me on to learn braille.
All of the proofreaders at the National Braille Press are blind. They sit at their desks, reading all day in the shadow of the hulking 72-volume braille dictionary, looking for mistakes. Occasionally one of them will stop reading, her fingers hovering over a hyphenated word at the end of a line. Then she’ll rise slowly and walk gingerly with arms outstretched, like a somnambulist, over toward the enormous dictionary. She’ll run her fingers along the spines of the volumes until she comes to the one that contains the word she’s looking for, to double-check its syllabification, to verify the correct placement of the hyphen. A hyphen in braille is two dots–dots 3 and 6–and you would think that finding a single hyphen in a 72-volume braille dictionary would be like finding a needle in a haystack, or a nipple in a snowstorm, but it’s not. In fact, a skilled blind proofreader can find it there in less than a minute. And that, in a nutshell, is what braille literacy is all about.
Paul Hostovsky’s newest book is The Bad Guys (FutureCycle 2015). He has won a Pushcart Prize and two Best of the Net awards. He works in Boston as an ASL interpreter and Braille instructor. Visit him at www.paulhostovsky.com