Wednesday, February 10, 1999

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Jeanette Tu, a blind vendor who runs a snack shop in the
Circuit Court building, says she uses a currency identifier to
make sure customers don't cheat her.

Vendor’s insight into
human nature helps get her
past frequent rip-offs

Thanks to Jeanette Tu's trusted regulars
at the Circuit Court building, she has made
a living off her snack shop for 23 years

By Lori Tighe


THINGS must be tough if people steal from a blind woman who runs a snack shop -- particularly if she is in a state courthouse surrounded by police, security guards, prosecutors and judges.

"It's the economy and human nature," says blind vendor Jeanette Tu, a fixture at the Circuit Court building for 23 years.

Of the 35 blind vendors who operate in Hawaii helped by a special state program, Tu works closest to the criminal element.

Tu, originally from Kauai, owns and runs the shop through the Ho'opono Center for the Blind, which trained her and set up the business. The 58-year-old said she has been blind since age 21. An incubation accident when she was a baby caused her to develop cataracts.

People 'more afraid' to help

From her corner of the world where she witnesses life through footsteps and voices, Tu has encountered more of her customers trying to "test" her in recent years.

They slip her a $1 bill and say it's $20. Or they walk in with "silent shoes" and walk out with some goods.

"I joke with Jeanette that her clientele are one step away from being convicted," said Russell Tellio, court administrator and a friend for 15 years.

What's worse, said Tu, is when people see her being ripped off and don't stop the culprit but tell her afterward, when she can do nothing.

"People are more afraid these days than they used to be," she said. "They're watching and seeing but not doing anything about it."

The lawyers in the building bought Tu her first currency identifier to test all bills about 10 years ago. She since upgraded the machine, which she keeps under the counter out of sight of customers so they aren't offended.

Generous despite ordeals

"Several times, I've caught them. It doesn't matter, the age -- kids and adults," Tu said. "I've had most of them tell me, 'I was just trying to test you to see if you knew what it was.' I tell them, 'No, you were trying to cheat me.' It's very sad. Not just because I'm blind, but because it's cheating."

Now the new $20 bills have come out, and she must upgrade her currency identifier again, said Jon Koki, business manager for the Ho'opono Center for the Blind, in the state Department of Human Services.

But thanks to Tu's trusted regulars, she makes a living.

"I ask for coffee and she knows who I am," said Laurie Tochiki, coordinator of the Kids First divorce education program at Circuit Court, for children whose parents are going through divorce.

Tu regularly donates unsold sandwiches to children in Kids First, who meet at the courthouse around dinner time.

"This is really a hectic period for parents and kids. They're hungry and grumpy," Tochiki said. "Jeanette's sandwiches ease the burden and nurture the kids."

Wouldn't change her job

One lady comes into Tu's store daily just to say "Hi," even though she doesn't buy anything. "I think that's great," Tu said, smiling.

Tu has been there so long, she knows everyone and everyone knows her, Tellio said.

"She's part of the Judiciary fabric. She's just a very nice person. Everybody likes her," he said. "She's a listener, very humorous, and has an excellent attitude."

Even though the shoplifting and chicanery get her down, Tu said she wouldn't trade jobs with anyone.

"The people have been good to me," she said. "I enjoy them, even though you get some criminals. They're always nice to me."

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