One of his lesser gags was borrowing a pair of eyeglasses from an audience member and pretending to clean them with a cloth, only to drop a small piece of clear plastic, “shocking” the crowd into thinking he had accidentally popped the lens out of the frame. I don’t remember why this was considered magical in any way, but I remember wondering if the gambit caused tiny heart attacks in the owners of the glasses. I can only hope that their vision was as bad as mine, in which case the whole mise-en-scène would have been a blur.
One day, Mr. Magic picked me and my glasses out of the crowd. Though I was delighted at being included in the performance, I was discomfited by a fact unbeknownst to him – my glasses were of a particularly shabby quality, having come from a discount optical outfit that was briefly popular back then, and consequently, one of the lenses was finicky and would come loose from the frame with the gentlest jostle. Sure enough, I watched the poor man apply his cleaning cloth to my spectacles only to find that the spectacle, indeed, was himself. My actual lens came tumbling down like the severed head of St. Paul, bouncing three times on the pavement. I imagine the first thought that ran through his mind was “Busted!” or “¡Ay, caramba!” or the like. I knew it was coming, and watched with a mixture of helpless inevitability and anxious bemusement. I could have told him not to use my glasses, but I didn’t think that it would seem convincing coming from a little kid. He may have thought I was afraid to share the spotlight, which was certainly not the case. No, he’d have to see for himself. After that, my name was mud in the busking community.
* * *
I was recently asked when my vision started to deteriorate, and consequently, when I started wearing glasses. It was sometime in second grade. I sat in roughly the middle row of my classroom, and, though I can’t remember whether it was a gradual or a sudden realization, at some point I ceased to be able to read what the teacher wrote on the chalkboard. (No, sissy children of the 90s, there were no whiteboards back then.)
I was further asked whether I told anyone about the problem, and I could only answer that, at the age of 7, I didn’t have the cognitive ability to discern the problem. I may have been dimly aware that the chalkboard was blurry, but as long as no one else said anything about it, how was I to know that something was awry? It didn’t occur to me to raise my hand and say, “Miss Silva, why do you look like a Monet?” And anyway, she may have taken this as a compliment.
Now that I reflect on this, I think the powers that be may have discovered my vision deficiency when I was asked to read something aloud off the board from where I sat, whereupon I had to say that I couldn’t make it out. I probably still didn’t understand it as a problem. Perhaps I took it for granted that any person in my seat wouldn’t have been able to make out the words either.
Shortly thereafter, I joined the league of bespectacled gentlepersons.
The lasting legacy of l’affaire des lunettes was how it made an awkward child feel even more awkward, especially on class picture day. As the only eyeglassed student in my class, I was the only one asked to turn my head at an angle for my photo. Apparently, either film technology or these snapshot-for-hire type school photographers were too primitive to take a flash photograph of a kid in glasses without catching glare off the eyeglass lenses.
Each year, my parents ordered a one-sheet with thumbnail-sized photos of the whole class (I think it was popular at the time, and probably even more so when my parents were of school age, to keep pictures of one’s classmates), and there I was, the only small fry among these 30-odd portraits who was gazing somewhere off to the side, into the unseen mystery. What was the alternative? I suppose I could have taken my glasses off for the photo, but no one ever asked me to, and there’s the rub.
For my begoggled brethren (and here I mean my fellow full-timers, not reading-glass dabblers or other “casual” eyeglass wearers), glasses become embedded in the way we look. They become a part of our identity in a way that people without glasses (or, “two-eyes,” as we call them) simply can’t understand. Had I doffed my glasses, I would have been able to stare straight into the camera, but I wouldn’t have been myself.
To make a comparison (and a digression): a person known for a fussy, preppy style of attire can suddenly adopt a Goth wardrobe, and people will say, my, how different he looks. Similarly, the glasses you choose represent your style and attitude, and if you have long been swaddled in the severest “German architect” frames, you can scarcely don a pair of Lennons, let alone go full Geordi, without drawing attention from acquaintances. But the analogy can go no further without strain, because there is no reasonable sartorial analogue for the glasses-wearer who switches to contact lenses or undergoes Lasik. Once glasses are a part of who you are, you look naked without them, maybe even a little alien. Sound like an exaggeration? See for yourself:
The photos above suggest to me that perhaps facial hair is a reasonable analogue to eyewear. I mean, now that we’ve had this:
. . . can we really believe that this is the same person?
Of course, facial hair is an easier fix than myopia, and it doesn’t apply to the distaff population (circus folk notwithstanding). More to the point, though, neither clothing nor facial hair creates a literal and metaphorical barrier of perception between the person and the world. Though clothing is a barrier, it doesn’t compare because we all wear clothes in public. As for a beard, it hides at most your mouth, which is merely the window to your stomach, not the window to your soul. (Unless you’re Homer Simpson, in which case your stomach is your soul.)
Perhaps I overestimate this barrier of perception as a thing that distorts the way people see me. In reality, the person most affected by the barrier is not the one looking at the lenses, but the one looking out through them. It’s not only that people see the glasses before they can get to you; you, too, only see the world through a filter. It may be the clearest, most polished and happily anti-reflective filter in the world, but it’s still a kind of wall that reminds you of some defect in yourself that necessitated corrective measures.
People can see me with or without the glasses, and it probably doesn’t make a critical difference to them. But I never see myself as the person without glasses, for the very simple reason that I can’t. My eyes aren’t good enough. There is no point in looking at the mirror without my glasses on because I’d have to put my face three inches from it just to see my reflection clearly, and this rather defeats the purpose of trying to see myself in a normal way and as a normal person without glasses. As far as I can tell, without glasses, I am an alien, if only from myself.
So shall I say, once a glassman, always a glassman? I could wax poetic about the charm of seeing the world out of focus when I wake up in the morning, but that would be like extolling the virtues of the music of the deaf. And I wonder what it feels like to be Geordi after, seeing the world the normal way, without a machine in between. I can’t remember what that was like.
Whether the vision is perfect or flawed, it does seem like there is something authentic about taking the glasses off. Maybe this is because, as a child, I learned everything I needed to know from Star Wars, and one of the lessons is that the mask has to come off for Darth Vader to become Anakin again:
Just for once, let me look on you with my own eyes. – Darth Vader