At 6:30 every morning a woman wearing dark glasses enters the federal courthouse in Alexandria, the first one to arrive for work.
In a corner of the ground floor lobby, she racks up the freshly delivered newspapers, opens the cabinets holding cigarettes and candy and sets out a plastic blue tray to receive change, as she has done for the past 28 years.
Eleanor P. Gibbs does this without the use of her eyes. She has been blind since she was 33.
Now 62, Gibbs has worked in the federal courthouse, which also doubles as a U.S. Post Office, longer than anyone else there.
Her tiny sundries stand -- serving lawyers, jurors, felons, marshals, clerks, judges, post office workers, messengers, shoppers and stamp-buyers -- is a touch of hominess in an otherwise drab building and she herself is a darling of the courthouse crowd.
"Everyone loves her and knows her . . . she's very close to us," said deputy clerk Doris Casey. "She's very much a part of the court family."
"I recognize their voices and who they are . . . Judge Richard L. Williams likes to tease me; he buys the paper from me," said Gibbs, who also knows courthouse regulars by the sound of their walk.
Gibbs, whose waif-like figure of 99 pounds belies her independent spirit, has short gray hair coiffed weekly at the beauty parlor, gold studs in her pierced ears and hot pink polish on her nails.
The glass cover of her wristwatch pops up so she can "read" the time by fingering its braille numerals.
At midday, Gibbs settles down in an overstuffed orange chair next to her stand to eat her brown-bag lunch. Gibbs said she gets support from "Doris and her bunch back there and the marshals."
Deputy U.S. Marshals Frank Bradley and Bob Tuthill watch over Gibbs like two big brothers. "A lot of people give her a hard time because they don't realize she's handicapped when they first come to the stand," said Tuthill. "I tell them to look at the sign."
The sign over her stand notes that Gibbs operates facility No. 14 of Virginia's Department for the Visually Handicapped, one of 82 such facilities throughout the state, according to director of Business Opportunities for the Blind, Harvey Leigh. The operators get a guaranteed weekly minimum and a portion of the profits.
"She's there rain or shine," said her supervisor, Frank McKinney, who comes by once a week to check on her supplies. "There's one thing about the blind, they'll come to work.
"I think Eleanor is a fine lady. I really care for her very deeply. The handicap she has isn't one to her, she doesn't feel down on herself at all."
Gibbs' memory is her inventory sheet. "I know when I put them up there," she said, running her hands over the cigarettes on the wall behind her, "that the Winston is next to the Winston Lights and here's the Vantage; then comes Marlboro Lights and Marlboro hardbox . . . . "
If she is handed a bill and told it's a $5, she usually flags it by the marshals to make sure; she once was asked for change for a $5 and was handed a $1 bill. "They have been known to do that," she said. "It takes a right low-down person to do it . . . but they're real few and far between. Most of my customers are honest."
Gibbs, who grew up on a Pulaski County farm in southwestern Virginia, was born with cataracts. They were removed surgicially and though her sight was not perfect, "I could see enough to go through college; I could read."
After graduating from Montreat-Anderson College in North Carolina, she had difficulty getting a job because of her poor sight. In l954 she was struck by a taxi while crossing the street and developed glaucoma because of the shock. During an operation on her eyes, they hemorrhaged, leaving her completely blind.
For a time she was depressed about it, she said. But when she enrolled in a training program for the visually handicapped in Richmond, "I saw other people who were in the same shape as I was."
After 17 months of training she came to Alexandria where "I didn't know anybody at all."
For the past 25 years she has lived with Lillian Rowzie in Alexandria. "I call her Nanny," Gibbs said of Rowzie, who picks her up every day at 2:30 p.m. Gibbs takes a taxi to work in the mornings.
On weekends Gibbs attends Wilton Woods Bible Church in Fairfax County and listens to the radio and television "to keep up with current events of the day.
"I like to know about the president going to Germany . . . .
"I think that I'm well off," said Gibbs, who is planning a trip to Roanoke by bus to visit a friend. "I don't get depressed. I realize there are a lot of people like me and I'm thankful that I'm healthy and the good Lord has been good to me. Sometimes when I want to do something and I can't see to do it I get depressed a little bit . . . . but people are wonderful to me and I have wonderful customers."
Gibbs had a heart attack last year. That kept her out of work for two months, but retirement does not seem imminent.
"I don't know when I'll retire," she said. "I really haven't thought too much about it."