by Charles W. Dowdy
Right after dropping out of law school, I went to London and got a job selling contact lenses on commission near the city center. The guy who ran the place dressed like Gerald Ford. Not that anyone saw him. He sat upstairs and watched the store on closed circuit TV. I talked to him twice: the day he hired me, then two weeks later, on the day he fired me.
Like lots of jobs in the medical field, this one was a volume business. We were the used car lot of improved vision. The Wal-Mart of contact lenses.
Since I needed money quick and this job offered a signing bonus, I lied to get it. I knew nothing about contact lenses. The other salespeople, during a slow time, were always messing with their contact lenses. Looking in a mirror while they picked at their eyes, or taking the lenses out and sticking them in that solution stuff. I did not wear them. So I would sit near one of the little mirrors and mess with my eyes.
The girl who trained me was Asian and did not laugh at one joke I told her. In fact, everyone else who worked there was Asian, and they were very serious about the cut rate eye business. My training for the job was less than extensive. The girl quickly explained how it was done in broken English.
She watched the front door while I tried to ask a few questions. She cut me off.
"You wear da contact lenses?"
"Of course," I said.
"You can put da contact lenses in da eyes?" She was pointing at my eyes.
"Yes," I said.
"Then what is da change? You show customer how it is done with you contacts in you eyes one time. One time only. Then you make dem put contacts in they eyes. One time only. You slow at the training station, we must wait while you be slow. With contacts, it is in and out, in and out, next customer, you see?"
She had already moved on. We took turns when customers came in the store. She was not going to miss her "up" because of me.
As I watched the Asian staff interact with the customers I was impressed with the authority with which they moved them through the store. After all, these people were coming in there because they had less than perfect vision. Add to it the obvious language barrier between proper customers using His Majesty's English, and a group of people who talked like they learned how to converse in a McDonald's drive through, and you had to wonder if either side really understood the other.
I took a box off the wall, nodded at her confidently, then led her to the training station. There was no way in hell I could get a contact in my own eye, so the in and out was going to have to be in the woman's eyes. I perched that little contact on my finger, moved it toward her eye, and dropped it.
I never stopped moving. Instead of admitting my mistake, I went through the motions of putting something in her eye. She blinked a few times.
"That feels spot on," she said. "Dandy, young chap. I'd have thought there would be a spot more discomfort."
I smiled, the professional at work.
I was more careful with that second little bastard. I dug it out of the container, held it upright, pried her eye open, then jammed the contact in there before it could slide off my finger. There was a quick struggle, a brief cry of pain, then lots and lots of blinking.
With my first customer, I had her do the second in and out with that one eye only, since the other contact was on the floor. She did a much better job than I did, and before I knew it, she was out the door. My first contact lens sale. With commission, I made about two quid.
I was still adjusting to the pound versus dollar math. Two quid wouldn't even buy me a pint. I was beginning to understand the importance of the in and out.
"Yes, da big man, with da baby blues you look like da John Wayne. You buy them, yes?"
I only made the mistake of pitching the colored contacts once. The problem with the colored contacts was that you could actually see them in the customer's eye. So if I dropped it on the floor, or stuck it in wrong, then the customer could tell.
"I have one brown eye and one blue eye," that customer told me.
I looked closer, displaying surprise, but I could already see the other one. It was folded up in one corner of his eye. I stuck my finger in there to get it, and the thing disappeared, like I'd pushed it on the far side of his eyeball. Was that possible? Until that moment I had thought not. Was there another side of the eyeball, and was my customer now looking with 20/20 vision backwards?
I had no clue what to do next. Get another box off the wall? Admit to the guy that he had a color contact floating around somewhere in the back of his brain? A cough interrupted my panic. I turned. The Asians and their blind customers were crowding me. They wanted the training station, and I was holding things up.
I told the guy his eyes were too brown for the blue contacts and he bought that for some stupid reason. So I took out the one we could see. Then I looked at the other eye and kind of poked around in there, before leading the guy back to the wall for some regular contacts.
Somehow, I managed to keep my counterfeit contact expertise under wraps. But while the pay was good, I felt guilty about what I was doing to our customers. I was terrible at putting the contacts in. My big thumb probably looked like something out of a horror movie as it came at them. They would squirm and thrash about while I wedged the contacts into their eyes, in and out, in and out. Then I'd stand them up, and lead them to the check out. They would try to count money, but most times I had to help them since their eyes were watering and their lenses were inside out or something. Then I'd march them out the door and hope they didn't get hit by a bus.
The Asians treated me with scorn, and I silently took it. Until one day I saw the girl who trained me do something that looked familiar.
"I saw that," I said once she was back in line behind me.
"You see nothing."
"No, you dropped one of the contacts from your last customer and left it on the floor. You didn't put anything in his left eye."
"Where you think I learn that?"
"Duh. We see you. You faster in and out. All we do it now."
"All we? We're only putting one contact in all these people? That's wrong."
"Not right, not wrong." She looked both ways, then held up her finger. "Da in and out. That's all."
He was sitting at a desk, a wall of tiny black and white screens behind him.
"You insist on putting your hands on the customers," he said as soon as I entered the room.
"You touch them. We are not as gregarious as you Americans. We are more reserved."
He was wearing clothes that looked like vomit. Instead of saying that, I said, "Of course I touch them. I have to lead the blind people through your little maze of a store."
"There have been other complaints. From your co-workers."
The Asians. They had turned on me. I could have fought it. Workers have more rights in the UK. I could have kept that job. But the guilt was wearing me out. I walked back to the elevator, then picked my way through the customers and emerged on the busy street.
Just before I descended into the tube stop, I looked over my shoulder. The customers were coming and going out of that store like little ants. Could they see? Were they in pain? Did they wink all the time like my uncle Ed? Did it matter? They kept coming and going. The in, and the out. In and out.
Charles Dowdy is the father of four and the husband of one. Editors may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more stories by Charles Dowdy, visit these USADS pages:
Hair plucking and Gandhi
Goodby, Debt; Hello, Ricecakes
The Waiting Room War Zone
Small Towns and The 3 Second Intersection Rule
President Bush, Sponge Bob, and a Banana
The Twins Journal
Angel of Death
Amending the Neighborhood Constitution
Double Trouble: Cross-eyed Twins
An open letter to my wolf
The Chattanooga North Pole
This column really stinks
Cub Scouts and a bad Tenderfoot
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