Friday, May 30, 2008

Fatal Vanities

number 2008/??

This is a story about ironic serendipity, or the misreading of self-selecting data, or possibly prescience. It is a confession of my baser vanities, or an accurate analysis of besotted failings, or perhaps just some run of the mill tongue-in-cheek aggrandizing cast in arch fatalism. It is also the story of one beautiful pair of sunglasses. It is not cautionary. 2,932 words.

Thursday Night at the Bar

[HCMC]—On the first Thursday in May, less than one week into a month-long international visit home to North Carolina, I found myself in my favorite bar in the world. It was the third time I’d found myself there in those first four days. We were all seated at the wooden standalone bar in the dining area. Thursdays have traditionally been my favorite night to go out drinking, a scheme I try to revive among the old crowd whenever I return. The crowd is less predictable than it used to be, however: so many of the usual suspects now have Friday morning work schedules. Because of that—and because this whole month of Thursdays have somewhat blurred together—I can’t remember precisely who was in the glasses conversation with me that night. Certainly there were several people listening when I started, for whatever reason, talking about my eyewear.

I wear glasses every day, I explained to anyone listing; but I do not, by the standard expectation, need to wear them. I have fairly sensitive eyes, that’s all. It can become very uncomfortable for me on sunny days or in brightly lit rooms. Because of my life-long tendency to compensate with sunglasses, this discomfort has never had a chance to grow less acute. Speaking of life-long tendencies, I continued, two more come into play here. The first is that I have always been the sort of person to get caught up in whatever I am doing, thus I lose things—hats, pens, telephones, keys, sunglasses—by leaving them laying around behind me. I remember them eventually, later on, but by then it’s often way too late to recover what I’ve left behind. I’ve developed a dopy lag whenever I do anything because of this; whenever I stand up to leave, I check my pockets several times. I look around. I drop my train of thought and conversation lapses. It’s a slow, nearly doddering, example of some absent-minded cliché. But it always takes a minute to surmount my constant suspicion that there’s one last thing I’m forgetting. Eventually, I can get on with my life. Mostly this process works, however awkward it feels. Mostly, I feel I’ve managed to limit the number of random things I’ve lost over my lifetime. But I have yet another loss prevention tactic related especially to sunglasses.

Why so careful with the glasses? I didn’t get into this at the bar that night. Obviously losing anything sucks. Everybody at a bar knows that already. Still, and this brings me to the second life-long mitigating factor mentioned above, for whatever reason sunglasses are special to me. I would rather lose my wallet than my glasses. Heck, the glasses are probably worth more. For whatever reason, I like pretty expensive sunglasses. It would be easy to say this is because I saw a pair I really loved in a movie one day, and I had to buy them. This is only partially true because, even by then, I’d already been indulging in costlier and costlier eyewear. But these movie glasses, the pair of Matusda model 2809s Linda Hamilton wore in Terminator 2, with detachable glass side-guards (in burnished gold instead of the antique silver color Sarah Connors’ wore—one doesn’t want to come over too terribly geeky), definitely represented a break from the midrange. When I finally located a pair of these things they turned out to be very expensive. But being young and saddled with few important bills, I bought them anyway. I lost them eventually, or course. But the damage was already done: I’d started a long-term relationship with the Matsuda label. I never bought another pair in that particular model again, out-of-print collectibles that they were. And while no other model ever aspired to the same price tag as my originals, all have ultimately fallen victim to that fatal sentence above: I lost them eventually, of course.

Instead of giving up on nice sunglasses altogether, I enacted this second loss-prevention tactic. I assumed the eventual loss of these possessions was due to fact that I needed to take the things off every time the sun sank or I walked indoors. To change this, I started purchasing regular frames instead of sunglasses, replacing their clear glass panes with non-prescription transition lenses. Presto: I had a pair of shades when I was out in the sun, and a pair of natural enough looking regular glasses indoors. I had eyewear I never had to take off until I was back home where it was perfectly safe to forget them now and again. And if I could be accused of indulging some affected silly poser vanity by wearing unnecessary glasses, well, no one would really know if I didn’t tell them, right?

Only I frequently told everyone. That’s what I was doing in the bar that night, I was telling whoever was listening all about how the cute pair of Matsudas I was wearing were really only sunglasses. “Because I never have to take them off, I don’t lose them” I said, or something to that effect. But then this sentence just hung in the air, dripped with fateful jinxy foreshadowing; so I went on to say something along the lines of “watch, now that I’ve said that, I’ll have lost them the next time I see you” just to cover my karmic ass. A sop to superstition engineered to defuse whatever accidental and ironic black magic my ill-conceived words might have instigated. Maybe I said it to be funny, but maybe I needed it to unjinx me, too. It wasn’t and it didn’t.

Election Night Under a Backhoe

Tuesday was the North Carolina Primary and the eighth day of my vacation home. I spent that evening at an election party in nearby Hillsboro. The event was engineered to make sure everyone had plenty of margaritas after the polls closed. We chewed over the various returns. This is what happens when a state plans its Primary for the day after Cinco de Mayo: parties get shuffled around and later I’m happy to report I had a pretty margarita-soaked week. Since it was a weekday night, we made the hour-long drive back to Greensboro fairly early. I was still wide awake, and since only fifty-odd percent of the polls were reporting, I decided to park it in a nearby bar for another hour or two just to see how things played out. One, Senator Obama won North Carolina handily. Two, I had about three more drinks. Wary of the typically cloying margaritas found in most US bars, I ordered manhattans. I ask for these to be made with Irish whisky because it is less sweet. I have them shaken and served “up” in a martini glass. I drink these pretending they’re actually in those deep and stocky glasses I only ever see in French noir. I don’t know what that model would be called. But my drinks are only every served in regular US martini glasses. The sad result is a good drink that looks just as pink and trendy as a candy appletini.

To my credit, I left the bar before it closed; but then I spent a couple hours hanging out on a friend’s couch, drinking his beers and watching his television. Sometime around four am I decided it was time to stagger back to my home base, a forty-minute walk along the cross street up at the light. Of course, it would only be thirty-five minutes if I were to cut through the UNCG campus. Saying my slurry goodbyes, I headed off down college hill on my shortcut.

I have a shameful history of drinking and trespassing. With the notable exception of the fraternity houses that dot the neighborhoods where I used to live, this has typically meant that I break into construction sites. It is hard for me to imagine myself clambering up vertiginous scaffolding, jamming myself into plywood crawlspaces, or combing gravelly rooftops for their trapdoors when I’m totally sober. But these things frequently happen when I’m left alone after drinking. This rarely requires me to go out of my way, either, as there always seems to be some major renovating going on nearby. On Tuesday night, it was only a matter of taking a shortcut home and thereby happening past the empty two-story hulk of the Forney building, surrounded by a chain link fence interwoven with green netting and running unfortunately adjacent to a convenient dumpster. I was up over that fence before sparing much of a thought about it, dodging off around shadowy construction equipment looking for an open window into the building. This was easy because the windows didn’t have any glass in them anymore.

The Forney building was originally the Carnegie Library, a thick two-story brick edifice crafted in a staid Italianate architecture commensurate, but less flamboyant, than the stone Romanesque of the older Foust Building around the corner. Nearly four-square, the façade juts into a false portico enclosed with decorative square columns up a few marble steps from the front walk. It was built 1905, the first library to grace the State Normal and Industrial College (for girls) just fifteen years after that institution’s beginning at the end of the nineteenth century. But things progress; the girls school joined the State University system in North Carolina, the library moved into a much larger pad across the street, and the old Carnegie building was renamed after Edward J. Forney, school treasurer and head of the commercial department. In the last decade it seems to have been used primarily by UNCGs School of Education, a graceful latter-day designation for one of the oldest buildings on campus, education being the initial mission of the Normal College way back when. Sometime during the last few months, Forney building was closed, more recently it had been gutted, its roof removed, and a trench dug around its foundations. Most recently, by five o’clock that morning, it had me crawling on my hands and knees through its sub-basement, over clods of fresh dirt lit by those hanging bulbs, in their handy little yellow mesh cages, that car mechanics use.

It is not a big building, and since all of the stuff had been scraped from its interior, including walls and windows and elevators, it was easy to get around in. Most of the incoming materials were still stacked and coiled outside waiting to be installed. There was very little left to see inside. I don’t know how I managed to play around in those remaining open spaces for so long that morning. By the time I was thinking about finding a convenient place to hop back over the green fence, the sky had already perceptibly lightened into that deeply bluish purple that passes for black in a painting. The stars were dimming. I knew dawn was not far off. I was a little spooked by a police cruiser that had just rolled slowly down the road. College Avenue is one way, and it had been going the other. I ducked quietly out of the building through one of the large window holes facing what used to be the quad opposite the one way street. I tiptoed around the corner away from the cruiser toward a cluster of construction stuff under a large tree.

I was almost there when I realized the fence was standing open where I’d come through it, beside my dumpster, and cars were beginning to park in the large grassy area adjacent to the gate. People were coming to work on Wednesday morning! They were maybe sixty feet away, between me and fence, getting out of their cars and unlocking doors and chatting. I hit the ground and rolled underneath the nearest cover I could find, a large yellow Caterpillar model 430E Backhoe Loader sunken into the wet dirt. If anything, the people seemed a lot closer and louder when I could no longer see them, so I crawled along beneath the vehicle’s axle to squat behind the large clawed bucket where I could keep watch. Headlights were swinging along the nearby wall of Forney building, casting my backhoe’s shadow behind me. It was all just amazingly adrenal. I was wearing a black leather jacket and now-muddy jeans, so I felt that I’d probably managed to fade pretty completely into the shadows. My face is still a pretty pale reflector, though, but probably unpredictable enough, stock-still near the ground beneath the large back wheels of that backhoe, to go unnoticed. I was very concerned about the reflection of those sweeping headlights glinting off my glasses though, so I took them off and shoved them in the hand-warmer pocket of my hoodie.

And that’s the last time I ever saw them.

It wasn’t too many seconds later when I made my move, though it seemed like longer. The sky was still dark. I decided to head for cover behind that tree, where a low six-foot brick wall led down a dark alley near the building. I imagine this wall originally served to obscure a service entrance into the first floor, but now that the yard had been excavated in a four-foot wide trench around the subbasement, the wall was perched on top a steep muddy slope running parallel to the wall. The remaining edge of ground along the wall was strewn with pipes and coiled cables. This seemed to be my best chance out: I knew I could climb the wall and I knew the workers wouldn’t be able to see me once I was around the corner of the building. I tried not to think about the cop I’d seen the last time I looked out at the street. Was that just a minute ago? With the noise of the morning crew close enough for me to eavesdrop on their conversations, I rose into a crouch and carefully loped off toward the slope at the corner. There was no way I could run—the ground was so dark I couldn’t see where I was putting my foot. The coils and pipes would rattle if I wasn’t pretty careful; the black eight-foot ditch at the perimeter would claim me if I slipped. I kept slowing myself down as I moved along the periphery of that little muddy ledge, just to be safer. I tried to keep the bulk of that backhoe between me and the first shift.

I practiced my excuse for whenever I finally got caught. All I’d done was trespass, right? I hadn’t broken or damaged anything. I’d seen a pair of keys had been left in that backhoe, and yet I’d just let it go. How mad could they really be at me? Eventually I was around that corner, in the pitch black space between the building and the wall, and I could pause for a minute. In that darkness, the sky had started looking really bright, but no one could see me anymore and I knew then that I’d somehow made it out.

That’s when I reached into my pocket for the Matsuda glasses that were no longer there. It certainly hadn’t been more than a hundred seconds since I’d taken them off, and I hadn’t covered more than sixty feet. If it had been a half hour earlier, I would have combed that dark litter-strewn alley for them and; but by then it was way too late. Popping over the brick wall was easy—the cop had disappeared—and the walk on home really did only take another thirty-five minutes. It was stark daylight when I reached the front porch of the house where I’d been staying. I was in a pretty fantastic mood: just elated that I’d had my very closest call ever, and by then more hung-over from the adrenalin than the booze. But it was too bright outside for sure, even at six fifteen in the morning.

Group Discussion and Epitaph

Did I lose my beloved sunglasses because I’d bragged about them in a bar one night? Did it happen because I tempted fate by explaining how rarely I lose things like sunglasses anymore? Did I simply lose them because I said I would? Perhaps I was paying the price for some egregious fault or moral slip-up? Maybe it is none of the above: it’s quite possible to imagine that these two events merely coincided, within five days, and are connected only by the fact that I have forced them together here. It is probably even easier to imagine that I happen to talk about my glasses all the time, incessantly, just waiting for that terrible day when their ultimate loss will constitute a punch line to the fact. This is the one final benefit they can provide me, then. One last protection against the specter of that unlucky jinx. This account is probably not very meaningful, but it does offer me something in exchange for my Matsudas.

On Monday, May twelfth, I ordered the replacements. The man at the little State Street optometrist’s remembered me from the last time I’d been there, in 2003, when I was buying the sunglasses I lost in the story above. He informed me that Matsuda, a Japanese optical design company, had abruptly gone out of business at the end of 2007. The twenty-odd models he had in his store might be my last opportunity to ever own a pair. I selected, with his help, the staid model number 10225 and the more flamboyant model number 10324, both of which were remaindered and going for deep discounts. I wonder what kind of story I will have when they are finally lost to me?

Linda Hamilton takes a hard look in Terminator 2.
What beautiful eyes you have.

Quiet Reading Room

This is a quiet reading room. Often, I find it is uncomfortable to digest long tubes of columned text directly off a computer screen. This journal is dedicated to the collection, percolation, and ultimate integration of my personal experiences. Subjects that I want to examine and then talk about--sometimes talk a lot about--€”are presented here. This central content can tend to thousands of words, maybe millions. I was afraid that readers were leaving the presentation boggled, spinning, googly-eyed. Or perhaps when confronted with twenty-four inches, or yards, of monitor sprawl they were just giving up. I am not even certain that I have necessarily solved this inevitable content problem of modern information enjoyment, but here is what I have done.

After long and highly scientific routines manipulating double-blind control- and test-subjects, peer reviewed journal publications, and hours and hours of hands-on experimentation, I have crafted this quiet reading room. There is no scientific way to control the length of the articles I write, but careful handling can somewhat soothe the contextual presentation. In other words: I have dropped the traditional speculation about lexicon, and attacked the question of the matrix itself instead. Brilliant. After years of diligence what I eventually crafted is this reading room.

The walls are contoured to relax instead of constrain; the paper is made to soften instead of reflect. The light is dimmed--just so--€”to prevent strain, angled to prevent umbra, and color-coded to soften harsh red lights and deepen wimpy light reds. There is nothing I can do to control aural environment, but my recommendation is that it should be kept quiet. About ambient sound: these entries are probably best read as far as possible from emergency vehicles, preferably from beneath the muffler of a vintage fire fighter pilot's scarf, puffy old duvet, or snow that is still falling.

My theory is that the wide web world is filled with potent and material opportunities that are just too difficult to digest for many people to take part. Enjoyment of this stuff is regulated to the routines of crawlers and robots at the peril of humankind's peaceful future survival. In an attempt to delay this likely outcome: welcome to this quiet reading room. It is for people like you to relax, kick back, and hate my content for better reasons than the dizzying vertiginous specter of its lousy dpi presentation.

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