A recent Wednesday, 10:11 a.m.: Noeleke Klavert moved a year ago to a studio apartment in Laurel Heights near shops, a social scene and restaurants. It was a far cry from the secluded home in San Rafael where he and his wife, Barbara, spent most of their 40-year marriage.
Barbara inherited the apartment from her parents, and figured it would be an easier place for her visually impaired husband to navigate than their 3 1/2-acre estate in Marin. It was one of her last gifts to Noeleke before she died in 2012.
“She was always thinking ahead and knew it would be good for him to live in the city and be around friends,” said Dana Polk, Barbara’s daughter and Noeleke’s stepdaughter.
While driving down the road eight years ago, with his wife by his side, Klavert suddenly lost all vision in his left eye. Two years later, he lost vision in his right eye. Doctors eventually concluded that a severe blow to the head from a baseball when he was 17 had cost him his sight more than four decades later.
Now he sees nothing, neither light nor dark, but uses heightened hearing and smell and an uncanny sense of direction to get around.
“I’m not even thinking about it anymore,” said Klavert, 67. “I’m just living within this world, and it’s OK.”
The truth is, Klavert didn’t have much time to grieve the loss of his sight. He became the primary caretaker for his wife when she was diagnosed with a cancer that caused complete kidney failure in 2008. He learned how to administer dialysis at home and stayed by her side 24/7 for the next four years, making things as comfortable for her as he could.
“Yes, I was visually impaired, but I put that on the back burner because I wanted to be there for her,” Klavert said. “The biggest challenge is losing her. Being visually impaired is something that you can get used to. Losing Barbara, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.”
Now, despite some “really bad” days, he says he’s learning to become himself again. Shortly after the move, he rediscovered the breakfast spot he and Barbara frequented before she got sick.
The place is called Eats, and when he set foot inside again, he could tell by its smell and energy that he was in the right place. The waitstaff sat him at the same table where he and Barbara always sat.
Soon he began making the short bus ride to the cafe on Clement Street twice a week – three times if he needed an extra mood lift.
What he found there was a group of people he could relate to. They hug him when he walks in. They go out for drinks and dancing in the evenings. They share details of their lives and their children’s lives. Klavert’s dark sunglasses rise and lower as he laughs in their presence.
“We’ve just become fast friends,” Joyce Lee, the owner of Eats, said as Klavert made funny faces for her 1 1/2-year-old daughter, Maya. “Sometimes when you meet somebody, you connect instantaneously. We’re like a little family.”
As employees come in for their shifts, they offer Klavert high fives and share stories from the night before.
“He’s like my dad. He’s a grandpa. He’s a best friend,” said Ixchel Acosta, the restaurant’s manager. “He’s amazing. … He’s someone I can rely on and get advice from. He’ll always be there for me.”
Klavert keeps photos of the Eats crowd on his mantel at home, though he’s never seen them. The people there have helped him get through his down days. He knows now that Barbara was right about making plans for him to move to the city.
“They’ve helped me pick up and say, ‘We’ll be there for you,’ and in turn I’m there for them as well,” Klavert said. “I think I’ve found my tribe.”