Digging through old photos and studying the changes my face has undergone, I tracked the appearance and often the disappearance of eyeglasses starting at age 15. It was the beginning of the school year in eighth grade, while sitting in the back of the large old classrooms that I realized perhaps it wasn’t ‘normal’ not being able to read the blackboard. A visit to the eye doctor confirmed I was myopic. To demonstrate how radically different the world was in those days, a large downtown Cleveland optician carried only two choices of frames ‘for boys’-all black or grey with clear bottoms. Both were hideous. The two-toned ones seemed more palatable to me.
Those glasses spent more time folded in my pocket than on my face and when worn, were swiftly ditched whenever a kodak came into sight. At home, or in the presence of either parent, they had better be on my face “because we paid good money for those goddamn things so you better wear ’em”. (I am still curious to know if anyone around in those days was regularly spending BAD money.) There is no picture extant of me in those specs.
After a few years my prescription changed and luckily so did the frames. This time I got the chance to buy the black version which I wore religiously through the end of high school. Not that I felt they were any more chic, I actually had grown to depend on glasses if I chose to see more than three feet ahead of me. Once we graduated and began earning weekly paychecks from our summer jobs, my best bud Billy decided we owed it to ourselves to buy contact lenses. They were the hard plastic version-the only kind available in 1968. I adapted well and they became a part of my daily routine like shaving, stick deodorant or tooth brushing.
Contacts thrust one into a league far superior to the bespectacled masses. It was an elite club which enabled you to engage in conversations about endurance. “I wore my lenses for twenty-two hours yesterday!” or “Last Saturday night we went out drinking and I fell asleep on my cousin’s couch and wore mine until noon on Sunday”. You shared tips on cleaning and storing them. I remember college kids turned me on to using baby shampoo instead of the expensive cleaner the opticians sold. There was also that nasty trick of taking out a smarting lens, popping it into your mouth to clean it with saliva while massaging it between the tip of your tongue and the inside of your lower lip.
One night Freshman year while visiting in the lounge of a girls’ dorm just before curfew (when all the men had to leave) I was practicing this rather unsanitary trick when someone cracked a ridiculously hysterical joke. As I stifled my laugh for fear I’d spit out the lens on the carpet, I inadvertently swallowed it. I flew to the Health Center in minutes, fearing the tiny, pale green plastic dot might certainly lacerate my small intestine. The nurse nonchalantly waved me off saying “Check your stool tomorrow. You’ll pass it with no problem”. I had NO intention of dung inspecting, even if it were my very own. And did she actually expect me to stick the fecal-tainted thing back into one of my eyes? There wasn’t enough baby shampoo in the world to cleanse it back to life. Anyway that was what the $15 a year replacement insurance was all about.
Who would guess that after spending $200 hard-earned dollars on contacts, John Lennon could resurrect wire rim glasses and make them fashionable? These were the very same eyeglasses we made fun of Grampa and Gramma for wearing. By Christmas break I had a pair of my very own. I found the coolest pair that were silver octagon shaped. On campus I was the big nosed guy with curly hair and silver stop sign glasses. They were so hot. They were a fun change, but I didn’t give up on the contacts which I still wore regularly all through university.
When I moved to NYC my contacts began to bother me with all the dirt and grit blowing around the streets. I had to clean my lenses at least once during the daytime and again when I got home if I was going out for the evening. I didn’t dare wear my spare glasses because they were dated and I was not about to look out-of-it. Again a recording artist appeared to save the day: Elton John Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Glasses-huge, honkin’ glasses-became the rage. The bigger, more colorful, the better. People who didn’t even need to were wearing them. They became a fashion statement, not to make one look intellectual, just outrageously cool.
There was this shop on Third Avenue, up the block from Bloomies called The Ultimate Spectacle. I walked by it almost daily on my lunch hour. There I found and fell in love with my very own Elton John’s. They were popsicle red, enormous, rounded-square frames and they cost over a hundred dollar-just the frames, mind you. I was poor, could barely exist on my salary but I had to own them. My rent was late that month, or I didn’t pay the electric, but they became mine. For thirty dollars more I had the lenses tinted rose. I was into this pair of specs for nearly two hundred bucks but I was so very hip.
That year I was going back to Cleveland for Christmas. I’d had the glasses for months, so they had now become just my glasses. Their impact had been somewhat mollified. My Dad always had this quirk about spending money when we were kids. If we told him what we’d paid for something, he railed and claimed “they saw you comin’!”. Mom began the practice of chopping the price in half. If it was ten dollars, she’d admit to spending five. He would still bitch and moan, just not as loudly. When we asked for money to buy anything, he’d give us what he thought it should cost. If we complained that we could never find anything with so little money his stock answer was always “When yer payin’ yer own way, you kin buy whatever the hell you want”.
My folks picked me up at the airport and it was a short ride home. Lunch was ready for us when we got there. In minutes we were around the kitchen table with plates of food before us. My father speaks: “You been home ten minutes. Aren’t ya gonna’ take off yer sun glasses?”. When I informed him that these were, indeed, my eyeglasses, he called out “Jesus Christ” then just stared at them in silent disbelief. I speak: “Remember when you said when I start paying the bills I can buy anything I want? Well I bought these and they cost close to $200”. He was mute. I’d finally won. And I was so chic I couldn’t stand it.
Trends come and go and much sooner and quicker in big cities. The Eltons were old and I still wore them because I couldn’t afford not to. In less than three years they were declasse in Manhattan and my mother had just purchased nearly the identical pair in blue in a mall in Cleveland. My friend Janet gave up a similar pair of big bug frames for the new soft contacts. They were bigger than my original contacts but much cheaper. The creepy part of them was taking them out. Hard lenses popped-out by blinking. These gooey suckers required kind of peeling off your eyeball, as though you were performing corneal surgery every night before bedtime with only your thumb and forefinger.
Fresh from Janet’s inspiration I rushed out and bought into the latest vision craze myself. They had to be ‘boiled’ each time before wearing. Included in the $75 price tag was a plastic case the size of a large shot glass where the lenses soaked in saline solution. I remember the case was just big enough to not fit into my hip-hugger jeans’ front pockets. You bought salt tablets that dissolved in distilled water. Also included was an electric cooker. The case sat in a cradle and this little steamer boiled water which caused them to clean in their salty case each night. The whole process involved with these new lenses was like an experiment from Watch Mr. Wizard. I took to my softies quickly, wearing them all day from the get-go. The only problem was they didn’t correct my particular vision problem as well as glasses could.
Over the years I bought into anything that came along: photo gray glasses, gas permeable contacts, reading glasses that I wore over contacts, reading glasses that I wore on a cord around my neck and switched back and forth all day long with my regular glasses. One thing I’ve never done was wear bifocals, sorry Ben Franklin. I started wearing progressives in my mid-forties and pray I will always be able to afford new ones. Just last summer I invested in my first pair of prescription sunglasses because cataracts have begun growing in both eyes and bright sun can be difficult to deal with.
I’ve had several variations of what I affectionately term Trotsky glasses through the last three decades. The lenses are perfectly round, either metal or plastic or a hybrid of the two. They seem to suit my face well. I even had a pair that were periwinkle blue. When my hair and beard were still salt and pepper, people often commented I looked like Steven Spielberg in them. One could do worse, I suppose. I have saved a London Underground pass from the 80s because the ID photo is such a gas. With my Trotsky’s, full black beard and thick curly hair, today I would be on the Terrorist Watch list of every western country for sure.
Just like so many things in life, my newest glasses are remarkably the same as those simple black ones that took me through high school. These adult-sized frames are a slightly more attenuated version ‘handmade in Germany’. An update which makes them more today is that the outside is black and the inside a faux ivory. Regardless of style, they help these weak, sick, old eyes see better. Between the cost of the frames, the progressive lenses and the special non-glare coating, they cost almost as much as my first car-a then six-year- old Chevy Corvair Monza (red convertible/white vinyl interior) $375. Oh the times! Oh the customs!