I hurry across the street with hands stuffed into my pockets and head inclined against the cold wind. I reflect at how implausible it is that I have gone close to five years wearing the same pair of glasses. Even though my eyesight is terrible, I only wear my glasses about 50% of the time, so I suppose that is what enabled me to dramatically extend their shelf life. Sometimes I wonder if that old saying, “Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses” is embedded in my subconscious somewhere, repudiating my desire to know things like who that colored blob is waving at me from across the street. Once I get within about eight feet, the blob resolves into barely discernible facial features and nope, I don’t know that person. Good thing I didn’t wave back.
I walk up to the LensCrafters store, thoughtfully considering whether I should continue with the “sexy librarian” look I went with last time, or if maybe I should consider embracing my upcoming move to Logan Square and go for the big, dark-framed hipster glasses. I greet the girl at the front desk and am given a clipboard with forms to complete. As I consider whether I could pull off the Zooey Deschanel look, I glance around the waiting room and am surprised to see every seat occupied. There is a group of about 10 black children of varying ages sprawled out in different manifestations of boredom, along with a couple of older black women who appear to be their chaperones.
I manage to find a seat in the corner, next to one of the older boys. I diligently fill out the forms, but find myself wondering why it’s so busy right now. It’s the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, and I am in the part of town punctuated by corporate skyscrapers and lots of people wearing business suits, briefcases and Starbucks in hand. I expected that the store would be minimally busy, and that the other patrons would be more or less like me – leaving their white collar jobs for the day to get some new glasses or contacts. The kids are mostly quiet and well-behaved, but I find myself mildly uncomfortable, and then conscious of not wanting to appear uncomfortable, which of course only makes me feel (and probably look) MORE uncomfortable. I am in fact awkward around kids of any race, so I can’t really tell how much of that uneasiness is due to the presence of so many kids in the waiting room and how much is due to the fact I am the only white person waiting here.
I return my completed forms to the desk and am told the doctor will be right out to see me. My former chair is now occupied by a cute little boy who just finished up with the optometrist’s assistant, so instead I wander along the racks of frames, starting the painstaking process of selecting the perfect ones (after all, I may end up wearing them for the next five years). But if I am really honest with myself, wandering around looking at frames gives me something to do other than be in that waiting room, where I would have to sit with my discomfort and wonder if the awkwardness I am feeling is as palpable to the other people in the room as it is to me.
After making a mental note about a couple of frames that made it to my “Maybe” list, the optometrist, a twenty-something Indian woman with a friendly demeanor, calls my name and then shakes my hand while introducing herself. As she leads me back to the exam room, she gives me an apologetic smile and says, “I’m sorry about the craziness today, we usually aren’t this busy. All of those kids out there, they aren’t real patients.”
As soon as that statement leaves her mouth, she immediately seems to regret that she said it. Flustered and a bit embarrassed, she tries to explain herself, “Oh, I didn’t mean it like that. I meant that they are part of a program that provides children from low income families with free eyeglasses.”
I smile at her and nod in understanding, which belies the mix of thoughts and feelings that I’m having. Her statement echoes in my head several times over. “They aren’t REAL patients.” Why? Is it because they aren’t paying customers? Is it because they’re poor? Is it because they’re black? Was it simply an unfortunate way of stating that the kids are part of a program and not the usual clientele? I wonder whether she would have felt the need to apologize to me if the waiting room had been full of white kids instead.
As she leads me through that infuriating line of optometrist questioning (“Better 1 or better 2?”), I find myself less concerned with my vision and more preoccupied with my perspective. We finish up, she hands me my new prescription, and I find myself back among the preponderance of frames – somehow, they all seem to be judging me.
I return to my “maybe’s,” which look almost identical to each other, and after trying each of them on exactly eighteen more times, I pick a pair – sexy librarian I will remain. One of the LensCrafters employees, a middle-aged black woman, walks me over to one of the desks where they fit you for the frames. As I take a seat, I see a cluster of the kids sitting on the floor in the corner, sipping hot chocolate and chattering quietly. At the desk next to me, one of the boys from the waiting room, who I would guess to be around 8, sits wearing that crazy contraption that allows them to measure your face, like some kind of steam-punk masquerade mask.
“Okay, now look right here at the camera, and don’t blink this time!” the exasperated male associate exclaims. Apparently, the kid blinks again because the man looks at me knowingly in a way that says, “Aren’t kids annoying?” I’m not sure whether to feel bad for him, feel bad for the kid, or to worry that I seem to be giving off the “I don’t like kids” vibe in a store overrun with them. Eventually, they are successful and the boy shuffles back over to the corner. As he passes me, I hesitantly say to him, “I think you look really good in those glasses.” He offers me the smallest of smiles, but doesn’t say a word. He seems eager to get back to his group. I know the feeling.
One night several weeks after my LensCrafters visit, I travel down to the south side of Chicago to participate in a prayer vigil held outside of Chicago Police Headquarters shortly after the video of the Laquan McDonald shooting was made public. Tensions are high, and I am full of apprehension. I asked one of my best friends if she wanted to come with me, but she said she didn’t feel safe being there. I tried to hide my disappointment when she declined. I mean, we are meeting at the police station – shouldn’t that be one of the safest places there is?
I see a large crowd, maybe a couple hundred people, gathered on the front steps as I cross the street. I can hear shouting, but can’t make out the words. It sounds a little hostile to be honest, and I steel myself not to chicken out. I hope it’s either very passionate preaching or very powerful prayer and not the precursor to a riot. As I join the outer circle, I see a man with a megaphone preaching his heart out. The megaphone is not very loud, so it’s difficult to make out exactly what he is saying, but everyone in the crowd is gazing intently at the man speaking, some occasionally shouting encouragement to him or letting loose a spirited “Amen!”
After a few minutes, we pause to pray. We slip our gloved and mittened hands out of our pockets and into each other’s hands. There is a middle-aged black gentleman to my left and a white twenty-something girl to my right. We bow our heads and close our eyes, beseeching God for His intervention, His reconciliation, His peace, and unity. As the praying continues, the man to my left lightly squeezes my hand periodically. I’m not even sure he’s aware that he’s doing it, but there is something comforting about it. The prayer comes to a close; our hands drop back to our sides, the moment of physical connection and spiritual intimacy gone like a kite let loose in the wind.
A light rain begins to fall. Throughout the crowd, people open their umbrellas like morning glories bursting into bloom, holding them high to ensure every person gathered has cover from the downpour. As I shift a little closer to the elderly woman next to me and take shelter under her umbrella, I look around and see people of all ages and ethnicities represented. If looking solely at our outward appearances, it would be easy to conclude that we have nothing in common. And yet, here we are, united at least for a moment, by what is unseen.