The first pair of sunglasses I owned cost $1.50. I bought them at Pat’s Food Center.
Ronnie Fritz and Bob Young showed up at my door one summer day wearing wrap-around sunglasses with black frames. We were in fifth grade. At the time, on a TV show called 77 Sunset Strip a character named Kookie, played by Edd Byrnes, wore glasses like those. Sunset Strip, along with Malibu, was one of the first places I associated with California, which was becoming synonymous with cool. Ronnie and Bob were emanating cool that day. They had turned their blue jeans inside out. Their pantlegs shined. The two of them shimmered when they walked down Church Street. And they wore those cool black Kookie glasses, “hood” sunglasses, as a mutual friend somewhat derisively called them.
Probably that same day I walked across the street, went into Pat’s, and bought those exact glasses with six quarters, paper route money I had earned. Copycat, I know. I didn’t turn my pants inside out. I don’t think I owned a pair of blue jeans yet. And that bit of sartorial daring Ronnie and Bob demonstrated lasted just one day. The next time I saw them they were pants-normal. I wore those sunglasses only a few times. I felt like a phony. In a couple weeks they were lost.
In the Poetics, Aristotle tells us that man is “the most imitative of living creatures.” I first heard this in college. Heard it. That’s when Aristotle, quoted by a classmate named Don Rice, told me it was okay to look around and appropriate what you liked. So I didn’t have to feel bad then about occasionally being a copycat. If Aristotle said it was cool. . .
The further I went in college, into a couple graduate programs, the more I realized how useful it was to be an artful copycat. Success in the classroom and in your program was about performance, and at least in part it was about repeating stuff you had heard (implying you had read it first). You dropped terminology and allusions into your comments. Epistemic was a popular word. Discourse communities were the thing. The open hand and the closed fist. Thomas Kuhn’s reference to paradigm shift in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was de rigueur–everyone talked about paradigm shifts and the social construction of knowledge and referred to that author, Kuhn, and his book. One classmate exuded so much confidence when she did, she actually called him “Tom.” As in “I think Tom Kuhn was onto something…” And she sold it.
Of course you had to know what you were talking about. Otherwise it wasn’t authentic. Otherwise you were just a parrot, a monkey. You had to learn it to sell it.
For the longest time I wanted only sunglasses I could sit on. I wore them in the car. When I wasn’t wearing them I tossed them somewhere and inevitably ended up sitting on them. That meant they had to be cheap, expendable, sit-on-able. If the frames were metal and the plastic lenses weren’t busted after I sat on them, I bent the glasses back into shape. As long as I could, in the interest of thrift, I wore recently mangled sunglasses.
This was before the word “designer” came to be associated with stuff. Before “generic” and “knockoff.” Most consumer products had not yet become proper names.You wore jeans, not Calvin Kleins. You drank water, not Perrier. You wore sunglasses, not Boss, Carrera, Oakley, or Raybans.
A few months after we were married, my wife and I flew to Milan, Italy, then boarded a bus that made the three-hour trip to her hometown in San Marino. We flew charter, along with more than a hundred Detroit-area Italians, many of whom were Sammarinese citizens going home to vote, including my wife and her parents. This was 1978. We flew generic air, not one of the big-name airlines like TWA or Northwest Orient. The flight was packed and hot, with no assigned seats and no food service. If you were lucky you didn’t sit in the smoking section, which was the entire back half of the carrier. (Really, as you can imagine, the whole plane was a smoking section.)
We knew there would be one stop, presumably for fuel, before we got to Milan. We didn’t know where or for how long. And neither did Carlo, the travel agent who sold these trips. His charter flights went twice a week, all summer long. If you asked him where the stop was, he said, “Oh, maybe Shannon, maybe Gatwick, maybe Frankfurt. We’ll see.” How long was the layover? He would shrug. We stopped wherever fuel cost the least, was my thought. I wondered if out over the Atlantic Ocean, Generic Air pilots were checking ahead for prices at gas stations, looking for self-serve to save a few bucks.
This particular flight we stopped in Frankfurt. While we waited, bleary from the all night fight, at some point my father-in-law grabbed me, hooked an arm through mine, and took me shopping with him.
We walked around the terminal arm and arm like that, the way Italian men his age would walk together, until we came to a store selling sunglasses. He tried on only one pair, pointed at the lenses and brand name on the side. “Zeiss,” he said. “This is one of the finest makers of lenses in the world.” The glasses he bought had black metal frames and yellow lenses. Wait, I thought. Yellow? There was no such person in public consciousness yet, but looking back, I think he looked like Bono with those glasses on. He also had a pair of Rayban aviators, also with yellow lenses. Back in Detroit, he was Bono among crane operators.
“You should buy a pair,” he said.
I told him I didn’t think so. They were a lot of money. That was the main issue. But really, they weren’t me. I was still finding out who me was. I knew I wasn’t Zeiss.
My father-in-law died in 1994. Until the end of his life he wore those glasses made by Zeiss indoors and outdoors, whenever the moment called for styling.
That trip we stayed in San Marino seven days. It was late June. We had brilliant sunny days very day. I saw that everyone, everywhere we went was wearing the same sunglasses, Rayban aviators–in Tizi’s hometown, up on the mountain, down by the beach, down the coast where her mother’s family lived. And not just any aviator Rayban. These were called “shooter sunglasses.” They had the signature Rayban bullet hole centered above the lenses, along with the white cursive Rayban signature.
I wasn’t Zeiss. Was I Rayban?
A couple days after we arrived I bought a pair of Raybans up in Cittá. This monkey saw them, with the bullet hole and the signature, reached for them, paid 20,000 lire (about $15), and felt pretty good. Fashion and thrift.
For the next few days, I checked my look in mirrors, in store windows. I hated doing that. It was vain, shallow, and foolish.
“How do I look?” I asked Tizi.
“You look great,” she said.
“The sunglasses, I mean.”
“You look great,” she said. “I like them.”
They hurt the bridge of my nose. The wrap-around stems hurt my ears. They were light spring-loaded needles. These sunglasses were painful. They hurt me both inside and out.
“They shouldn’t hurt,” she said. “Maybe you could have them adjusted.”
Adjusted? You could get sunglasses adjusted? Pat’s did not provide that service.
“They hurt him,” she said to her cousin Pucci, who wore his shooters with ease.
When I told him where I got them, what I paid, he told me they were probably “finti,” knock-offs. I handed them to him. He turned the glasses over in his hands, examining them, smiled, and shook his head. The real ones, he said, cost ten times what I paid.
I took them home with me, back to the US. For a while I kept them in the car. They were a symbol of error. Do not be a slave to fashion. Eventually I sat on them, maybe on purpose. The lesson I should have learned from my father-in-law, was: buy quality.
Early on in our marriage, Tizi pointed out a difference between Italians and Americans. An Italian, she said, given the choice between buying one really nice shirt and five not-as-nice shirts for the same price, will usually do the former. I learned they didn’t mind all looking alike. They wanted to all look alike. Three consecutive summers after that, when family and friends came from Italy to visit us, they all went shoe shopping, and they all bought the exact same Timberland walking shoes. When we went back to Italy in 1981, everyone wore the exact same shoes. And the exact same Raybans. Aviators were out. Wayfarers with the simple black frames were in.
I continued to buy junk glasses. For the price of one pair of Rayban Wayfarers, I could buy ten pair of junk sunglasses. And did.
One year decades after that first trip, when I was taking people to Italy on culinary excursions, at the end of the tour I stayed on in San Marino for six weeks to oversee work being done in our apartment. It was June. It was already hot. It was a twenty-minute drive down to the beach in Rimini. Bagno 86 was where all the San Marino people went. I rented an umbrella there from Maurizio. Mornings I let workers into the apartment, grabbed my bag of accessories, and went to the beach.
To be at the beach in Rimini on weekday mornings in June is to hang out with senior citizens. Everyone else is at work. You apply sunscreen, you lounge on your lettino. All around you, the old ladies in their swimsuits talk about grandchildren and food. Mainly food: where they ate last night, how much it cost, how good it was. Gaggles of men gather at the water, wading and chatting, watching young mothers in bikinis walk by. All morning, all day, peddlers will stop at your umbrella. Do you need sunscreen? A necklace? A hat? A towel or beachbag? A toy for a grandchild? A tablecloth? Closer to the water they open cardboard suitcases they carry that fold out to become displays. What they’re doing is against the law. If they need to, they can fold up their display and disappear in a matter of seconds.
Down by the water, every 20-30 meters a peddler sold sunglasses.
My first week down there I walked the beach noticing what people were wearing, what sunglasses were in style. Wayfarers still. A classic look. Also glasses with brown frames and brown oval lenses. The peddlers sold every brand name imaginable, Dior, Dolce & Gabana, Fendi, Oakley, all knockoffs. The glasses cost 10, 15, 20 euros. By then I had pretty much stopped wearing sunglasses altogether. But facing east, looking out over the Adriatic, I needed a pair.
Second week I walked the beach picking up glasses, trying them on, setting them back down. I’d shake my head no to the peddler. Each time they said, “Vanno bene, signore. Vanno bene.” They look good. I don’t recall seeing any mirrors. You had to take them at their word.
Third week I bought a pair. Maybe they looked good, I thought. I was pretty sure they looked good. I sort of needed them. Maybe I wanted them.
They did the job. They felt good on my face. I was okay with a knockoff.
Around 11:30 that day I packed up my stuff and walked to the car. Typically I stopped at the market on the way home and bought a few things to cook for lunch. As I drove away from the beach I checked myself in the rear view mirror.
Wait a minute.
I parked and shopped, stealing glances at myself in store windows, then again in the car mirror all the way back to San Marino. It became clear to me that I had bought women’s glasses. I couldn’t wear them.
Fourth week I walked the beach looking for that peddler, thinking I would propose a swap. Money back, I knew, would be out of the question. I asked 3-4 of them, Did I buy these glasses from you? No. Weren’t you set up over there by the life raft the other day? No. Have you seen that guy that was over there a few days ago? No. They gestured: Did I see anything I liked? By now the glasses sort of all looked alike. I never found that same peddler.
I went back to my umbrella, sat in the shade, looked out on a now familiar world, feeling like an alien wearing sunglasses I didn’t want and couldn’t sell.