In the land of the blind, I now know who is king. Sure, America's not blind, but I was temporarily one-eyed, and people treated me rather royally. A capillary burst in my left eye, resulting in the "short circuit" of a muscle that controlled eye movement. The eye turned inward, meaning not only that I was cross-eyed but that, to me, the world seemed kaleidoscopic and largely unreadable. I had double vision, big-time.
At an ophthalmologist's suggestion, I bought a black eye patch at CVS and recalled New Yorker ads from decades ago—could I pass for the Man in the Hathaway Shirt? I doubted it, but the gentleman's sartorial finesse helped me accept what would be my new fashion statement for the next 3–6 months, according to the doctor at least.
I flew to Oregon for my nephew's spring wedding, and I was stunned by the people's politeness: Was it the "Northwest Nice" I'd read about in National Geographic, or were Portlanders going out of their way to be helpful to the middle-aged, visually challenged guy walking about their city? Customers entering or exiting a store would regard my face for an extra half-second and then step aside, holding the door for me. I'd step to the curb mid-block, with no crosswalk in sight, and cars would stop, the drivers waving me through to safe passage.
The sidewalks of Portland are populated with 20-somethings who panhandle every passing pedestrian—well, that is, every pedestrian except me. When I stepped into the begging radius, they'd turn their attention to their cell phones or their coffee. They'd resume their business in my wake. The word talisman came to mind. Or was it a totem? I walked on, adding amulet to list, wondering if the three were synonymous.
Henry's, a tavern on 12th Street, claimed to have 100 beers on tap. I went to see for myself. Seated at the bar, I was handed—hesitantly—a beer list by the young woman at the taps. Again, there was that half-second delay. She considered, I suppose, if I could read, or read well enough. I could, and I did: I drank four brews from among her 100, went outside and walked them off a bit and returned for two more.
How did I look to others? How should I look? I gave the matter of my clothing more thought than usual, then walked about Portland in a shirt and tie, vest sweater and a corduroy sport jacket with suede elbow patches. I wore Levi's jeans—casual, I thought, but neat. I grew accustomed to people giving me an ever-so-brief study and then quickly looking away. So be it. I wore sportier ties and shirts in brighter springtime colors.
When I returned to Chapel Hill, my eye muscle began complying with my wishes only three weeks after it had stopped. I put the black eye patch away in my sock drawer and stepped out into a clearly 20/20 but totally indifferent world. No traffic stopped. No doors opened.
"Mm-hmm," I said. "I see."