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November 2, 2002

What's Your Sign?

From: Washington Post, DC
Nov. 2, 2002

The guys huddle in close, listening to what, apparently, is one hell of a yarn. The raconteur of this bar-stool tale is keeping his audience, a couple of college friends clutching beers, rapt enough to ignore, for the moment, the girls around them and an intense game of midnight pool unfolding nearby. He tells his story with voiceless enthusiasm--brow rising and falling, knees bending, nostrils flaring and hands moving gracefully in the language of the deaf.

Zack's on Capitol Hill is packed tonight, as it has been almost every Wednesday since students from Gallaudet University, Washington's renowned deaf college, claimed it as their once-a-week hangout about a year ago. Their midweek party has all the trappings of any college happy hour, except that it's almost perfectly quiet.

The silence reveals all sorts of sounds normally relegated to the background hum of a busy bar: the creak of the front door opening, jewelry jingling as a young woman fishes for her ID, the click of a lighter, beer slipping from the tap into a pint glass.

Zack's bartender Cyndi Bradshaw has grown accustomed to the quiet and has picked up enough sign language to get by. She knows how to spell B-U-D with her hands, and she knows a pouring motion means to serve it in a pitcher. When a customer flashes four fingers and then makes what looks like the "okay" sign, she gives her four quarters for her dollar. Another sticks his thumb to his temple and waves the remaining four fingers in the air, and she pours him a shot of Jagermeister, which has a large-antlered elk on its label.

She slides the drink across the bar, past the notepad where customers write down the orders she hasn't yet learned. A young guy gulps down the drink, and resumes flirting--hands touching his chin, mouth and chest--with a young woman in bell-bottom jeans.

Next to them, the raconteur continues his story, which crescendos with a flurry of hand signs. And his audience erupts into rollicking bouts of laughter.

-- Christian Davenport

© 2002 The Washington Post Company