Spectacles, Marriage & Civilization
I am getting closer to my glasses, I can feel it. Ever since I was robbed of my spectacles in South America, I’ve been dawdling in replacing them. But lately I’ve been picking up momentum. Every time I see an optician I duck in and try on all the frames. I’ll ask the salespeople to unlock all the display cases and spread out several dozen frames on the counter. The salespeople, noticing what I’m trying, will bring me still more frames that look like the ones I already have, but rounder/squarer/two-toned/brownish-green instead of greenish-brown. My original idea was to get the most flat-out iconic Woody Allen glasses I could find, but they just don’t look as good on me as the shape I’ve taken to calling the Standard Hipster, a variation on the oblong rectangles thick on the eyes of Brooklyn.
I went to the optician in my hometown in Long Island. When it came out that I lived in Williamsburg, the salesman started reminiscing. “I used to play in bars in Williamsburg like fifteen, twenty years ago,” he said. “I had another life playing the guitar. It used to be a rough neighborhood, but it was really cool. What’s it like now?”
“You don’t want to know,” I said. “It’s best I don’t even tell you what they’re doing. It’s not like you remember.”
“Yeah, I used to go to work at B & H Photo when it was downtown, then take the train to Jay Street where I went to optician school nights, and then go to Williamsburg or back downtown and play gigs all night.”
“That sounds difficult.”
“Yeah, well,” he said. “Nothing’s that hard when you’re living on Black Beauties.” He handed me some frames. “You might want to try these, if you want to make a statement.”
“I didn’t know you could live on Black Beauties,” I said. “Everything I’ve read about Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley left me under the impression that you could die on them.”
“I’m living proof,” said the optician. “Living proof.”
I went to the frame store on Bedford Avenue, probably right where the resigned Long Island optician once popped pills and played his guitar. I brought my personal physician, who has some rather strong opinions on clothing and accessories. I kept returning to the table where I’d laid out my possible frames to find them gone. “Hey, where’d those kind of squarish brownish ones go?” I’d say.
“I didn’t like those, so I put them away,” said my personal physician.
This went on for a while until between her rejects and my rejects there were no frames left so we had to immediately repair to the bar for a drink.
Today I ducked into a eyeglass store on St. Marks, next door to the excellent purveyor of fine imported coffee where I buy my fine imported coffee. “Give me the one with the most adjectives,” I always say. I drink Fair Trade Shade Grown Bird-Friendly Organic French Roast Peruvian coffee.
Within minutes, I had twenty frames spread out before me. I love to categorize things, and the minor variations in shape, size and color were providing me with boundless permutations of organization. I was happy. I tried on every pair of frames with my hair up, my hair down, my hat on, my hat off. None of them was quite right and each one cost upwards of $300, before my high-index super-thin anti-glare lenses were even ground to fit. Then I noticed a few frames on a dusty shelf near the bottom of a display case in the corner. I crouched down, picked them up, put them on. They were just like all the ones I’d tried on before, but if everything that had just been wrong was right. “Hey, I like these!” I said enthusiastically to the salesgirl. “These are them! What kind are these?”
She looked perturbed. “Those are store brand,” she mumbled. “Here, let me get you some that, uh, look like those.” She thrust some $350 frames with a fancy name on the side at me, but it was too late. I had taken my new favorite frames off and seen the price inside. They were a mere $180.
I couldn’t believe it. All my life, I’ve invariably picked out the most expensive thing in the store, before I even knew what money was. When I was a little girl, my Grandma Betty would take me shopping and marvel at my expensive taste. In the glasses store on St. Marks Place I couldn’t believe I’d picked out the cheapest frames, and that I was beginning to love them. It instantly gave me hope that one day I could pick out and maybe even begin to love a person who also did not come at great and unnecessary expense. I’d always had the sneaking suspicion that all the things that came at great expense were not really better, and that I was drawn to them because I was deluded or misguided or not seeing or thinking clearly. Maybe, I thought, my new frames would usher in an era of austerity in which I would not pay such high prices for illusory pleasures, would no longer heed the siren call of inflated prices or egos. The glass in the $180 frames was neither concave nor convex, but it imparted to me a new vision all the same.
It was time to go to work and too soon to commit to a final decision, but I bounded down the street, feeling pleased with myself. I snuck past the doorman at the building where my first session was. It’s one of my hobbies to see if I can get past the doorman with a well-timed smile, nod, wave or sprint. The skill of smooth entry to guarded places has served me well before and might again, I figure.
The first kid on Wednesdays always pokes in my stuff.
“Lemme see your wallet,” she said.
“Wow,” she said when she saw my driver’s license. “You’re gonna be thirty.”
“Not just yet,” I said. “I just turned twenty-eight. But it’s true. If I don’t die in the next two years, or learn to freeze time, I will in fact be thirty.”
“Wow,” she said. “That’s, like, not young.”
Well, I thought, miffed, at least I’m not fifteen. But because I am almost thirty and therefore very mature, I did not say this.
The next kid had a very strange assignment. “I’m supposed to write a topic sentence about the beginning of civilization.”
“What about it?”
“That’s it. Just the beginning of civilization. I tried it in class but the teacher said it was wrong.”
“The beginning of civilization,” she had written, “led to many changes in America.”
A long discussion ensued between us about when exactly the beginning of civilization occurred, and what a topic sentence might be. I looked inside my bag for some reading material to use to demonstrate a topic sentence and pulled out the novel Rebecca loaned me today, which I hadn’t started reading yet.
“This is a book–let’s see–the back of this book says it’s about ‘the lives of a young couple whose struggle to survive in Manhattan in the early 1960s involves them in sexual fantasies, paranoia, drugs, and the extreme intimacy of self-destructive violence.’ Okay, well, I’m sure it has a topic sentence but I think maybe better than reading it right now would be to think of one ourselves.”
Luckily the kid had been fascinated by the idea that at the beginning of civilization she would be a mother and I would be a grandmother and all of our parents would be long dead because the life span was so much shorter, as were people, we think.
“In the beginning of civilization,” she wrote, “the lifestyle of a fourteen-year-old was much different than it is now.”
I decided to ask the rest of the kids this evening to complete the same assignment.
“The beginning of civilization,” said the boy uptown, “…wasn’t pretty?”
The girl uptown said, “The beginning of civilization was long and stressful.”
Then she asked me, apropos of nothing, “Are you married?”
“Nope,” I said, and wiggled my bare ring finger. “Single.”
“My mom was twenty-eight when she got married.”
“It’s a popular age for that kind of caper,” I said.
I did not say, “I am not married and I may never be. I think marriage is the endpoint of civilization, and may be an attempt to civilize people in a way I don’t ever want to be civilized. However, I believe fervently, sometimes almost stupidly, in love, and if marriage has anything to do with love then I might be into it under the right circumstances. However, too often I think marriage has too little to do with love, and so I am wary of it. People who are not in love get married hoping it will fix it, and people who are in love get married and then miss out on being in love because they are planning their weddings and it makes them insane. Also, marriage is an institution, and I am wary of those, and it is an institution that consists specifically of registering your relationship with the state, and I am wary of that.”
I did not say, “Marriage sometimes looks to me like a hoop you jump through to get the approval of society, and I have already jumped through all the hoops and gotten all the approval I am ever going to get from something as nebulous and brutish as society, and my interests in society are now geared more towards shocking it, bucking it and ultimately rearranging it. But other times marriage looks like a fantastic excuse to throw a great party and wear a great dress, two things that will still exist in the society I will build after I destroy this one. Still other times marriage looks like a trap, a thing made of metal and money designed to keep people in line, at work, down on the farm, sowing the seeds of their retirement funds and hacking away at their days like they reapers they’ve become. And still other times it looks like some kind of beautiful warm safe place I’ve only peered at through the trees from far away.”
I did not say, “Marriage sometimes appears to me to be long and stressful.” Instead, I said, “You can usually tell if someone is married by looking at their left ring finger, because they wear rings.”
All evening, as I asked the teenagers about the beginning of civilization, I kept thinking of Thomas Hobbes, who said so famously that in life outside society there is“continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” How strange that we have now created a civilization where within society there is continual fear, and danger of violent death. Though the lives of Americans are generally rich, boring, numbing and long enough to end in some permutation of cancer, obesity-related illness or vascular disaster, the lives of many other people continue to be poor, nasty, brutish and short. For these reasons and some others I am getting the feeling that contrary to what Hobbes said, life outside society would be safer and less frightening, but I am not really sure. That’s the thing about marriages and civilizations–some lead to paranoia and self-destructive violence, continual fear or the danger of violent death. Others are a beautiful warm safe place outsiders peer at wistfully through the trees from far away. How are we to know which is which?
On the way home, I started the novel about the young couple whose struggle to survive in Manhattan in the early 1960s involved them in sexual fantasies, paranoia, drugs, and the extreme intimacy of self-destructive violence. It was really good. It was about the time in the writer’s life when he was exactly the age that I am now. The beginning of many things, it seems, is not pretty, is long and stressful, and the lifestyle is much different.