I lost friends easily when I was in high school. I would meet somebody new and we’d start to hit if off. But then, within a few weeks, they’d stop talking to me. It took me a couple of years to figure out what was happening. I was — and still am — so near-sighted that everything further than about a foot from my face is a soupy, indecipherable blur. New friends would pass me in the hall and wave or nod, and I would ignore them and keep walking. They would mistakenly think I was a rude asshole, not realizing that I was merely so vain that I refused to wear glasses, and couldn’t see anybody. I wasn’t an asshole. I was an idiot.
When I was forced to get glasses to pass the test for my driver’s license, I found an approach to eyewear that wouldn’t impinge on my vanity but would, in fact, only enhance it. Hunting in a thrift store for vintage clothes to make me feel more bohemian and less like the generic New Jersey suburbanite I was, I found a pair of silver wire-rim “granny glasses” from the early the 20th century — the same kind my teenage idol John Lennon wore.
I discovered stylish eyewear as a way to shape the way I was seen by my peers, as well as to see them, pretty much for the first time. Over the decades since, I’ve stuck with vintage glasses and made them the heart — in fact, the near totality — of whatever claim to personal style I have. I’ve built a collection of more than 30 pairs of glasses, all picked up in flea markets and thrift shops, typically for around $20 or $30. I bring the frames to an optician in Chinatown who’s skilled and cheap.
As with children, I wouldn’t want to pick a single pair of my glasses as my favorite. If the way I use them is a measure of my favor, the top ranking goes to a pair of simple but rare glass pince-nez from the 1930s that I reserve for the specialest of occasions. I wore them the only time I attended the Academy Awards.
The pince-nez are almost impossible to notice, because they have no frames and no side pieces, but clip onto the bridge of my nose. When I wear them, people tend not to see them till they’ve been with me for at least an hour. Then, they’ll say something like, “Hey — what kind of glasses are you wearing”? Or, “Wow — that’s the most pretentious thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
When director Preston Sturges made The Palm Beach Story, in 1942, he had the Rudy Vallee character wear pince-nez exactly like mine, as visual shorthand for his hoity daffiness. The Vallee character is perpetually taking the glasses off and putting them back on, with an effete pinch of his fingers.
So, yes, I know wearing pince-nez makes me come off as pretentious. But isn’t that better than looking like an asshole?