If you ask a little kid the classic question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and the kid answers, “I want to be an optometrist,” you might drop dead on the spot. It just doesn’t happen. Well, hardly ever. (I can hear my optometrist friends laughing—at least three of my classmates were the children and/or grandchildren of optometrists.)
A recent statistic indicates there are about 36,000 optometrists currently employed in the United States. Considering the trend that began when I was in school, I’m not surprised to see that 74% are women. (While it’s no surprise to me, I thought you might find it interesting. My own class of 1976, although not the largest graduating class across the country, had what I believe was the largest percentage of female graduates of any optometric school at the time.)
I expect that the sentence, “He worked as an optometrist for 37 years” will probably appear as a line item in my obituary. It sounds like a long time, and it is when you’re living through it. Even more impressive is the fact that during those many years I examined more than 40,000 different patients—many of them more than once. I know the number, because when computers were first introduced into my Berkeley office all of the existing files were given patient numbers, and this continued until I retired. A simple search revealed what was even to me a large number. When you’ve seen that many patients over that many years it’s hard not to have some interesting experiences.
And aside from the interactions with patients, the world I worked in presented countless memorable moments. And I’ll be the first to admit that some of them weren’t even my moments.
When I was still in school, one of our clinic instructors was a nationally renowned expert on contact lenses (he pretty much wrote the textbook). One day he offered one of my classmates a ride to a satellite clinic. My classmate, Wally, did his best to engage this eminent author, lecturer, and practitioner in conversation, mentioning a current political election that was going on. Without taking his eyes off the road, the professor said to Wally, “There are only three things that I consider important in life: contact lenses, financial investments, and golf.” When I heard this I did my best to process it, but for some reason, I could not relate. Years later, I heard a rumor that the prof died on the golf course. And maybe he did.
(When I emailed Wally the other day to confirm the scenario, he responded that “the details were vague, but I mostly had it right.” I reminded him—and you as well—that a memoir is told from the perspective of the writer, even if it’s not necessarily how it actually happened.)
Occasionally someone existing high on the fame spectrum would somehow find their way into my exam chair. Practicing in Berkeley, California, this was not particularly unusual. One man about my age listed his occupation on the exam form as “musician.” He was, but it wasn’t a complete description. It turned out he was a Pulitzer-prize winning composer whose picture had been on the cover of Time magazine. I later bumped into him during intermission of a performance of one of his operas. He was wandering around the lobby of the San Francisco Opera dressed in jeans and a nondescript shirt. When I introduced myself to him as “your optometrist,” he seemed pleased to see me, and we had a chat about mundane things. Again I learned the lesson that people are just people.
One of my sister’s favorite bands during the sixties was The Blues Project. She loved playing the song “Flute Thing” on her portable record player, so when Danny Kalb arrived as a patient in my office I knew right away who he was—the guitarist in that band. By the time I met him, he was suffering from health and other issues. Frankly, he looked like hell and was no longer able to perform. According to one description I’ve read, “Personality clashes, drugs, and the 1960s lifestyle took their toll on the band.” They sure did. A few days after the exam I received a phone call informing me that Kalb had listed me as a personal reference on an apartment rental application. The guy on the phone asked me if I could vouch for his reliability. I could only shake my head as I said I’d only met him once, but I did know that he’d had a successful performance career. (I didn’t lie.) He passed in 2022.
In the 1980s, the Turtle Island String Quartet released their first album and I had the pleasure of meeting Darol Anger and several other members of the group as patients. To me they were celebrities, and several had a big presence in the Bay Area’s contemporary music scene, prompting my response, Hey, she used to be my patient!
The Bobs were an New Wave a cappella vocal group active in the 1980s, and through the years a fair number of them showed up at my office, including Gunnar Madsen, Richard Greene, Matthew Stull, and Janie Scott. (Richard’s online bio reminded me that he was the “famous [if un-named]” guy who sang the deep basso line, “Fall into the Gap,” in the much-played commercial of the time.) I can tell you from personal experience that whenever you go to a performance where someone recognizes you in the audience, it’s a special thing.
Vocal music could occasionally be heard in my waiting room. At one time, a member of the Grammy award-winning vocal ensemble Chanticleer was rehearsing his part while he waited his turn. I have to admit I made him wait a little longer than necessary as I enjoyed the free performance.
But most of my most memorable patients were not known for their talent or notoriety.
One day a married couple came in, and while performing their eye exams I had a chance to hear their stories, which in this case were laced with drug use and rehab. Their tattoos and health histories reflected an image far beyond their chronological ages. Both were on the road to methadone-assisted recovery and were working at a bowling alley somewhere near Vallejo, I think. He seemed proud when he told me about the barbecue and hofbrau he managed inside the bowling alley, and I knew right away what I planned to do.
When the couple left the office I called my wife Sharon and told her we were going out to dinner. After arriving at the hofbrau, we grabbed trays and got on line, moving slowly towards where my new patient was slicing the barbequed beef to order. When he saw me, he smiled broadly and became animated. Soon he was introducing me to everyone around him (“This is my eye doctor!”) while he loaded our plates beyond expectations. He couldn’t believe we’d traveled so far just to eat at his joint. A few minutes later he came over to make sure everything was okay. We assured him it was just great. He let us know that his wife was over on the bowling alley side of the building and we promised to say hello before we left. When we found her she was smoking a cigarette, obviously waiting for our arrival. There wasn’t much to talk about, but she was sweet and we made small talk for a few minutes. I felt I’d done a mitzvah—I guess I had. I never saw them again. Thinking of them makes me sad.
Sometimes carrying around the Great American Songbook in my head pays off. A new patient came in one day—a man about my own age, and as he sat down, I looked at his name on the exam form: Robert Wrubel.
“I see you have a pretty famous last name,” I said with a smile.
“Why do you say that?” he asked, looking suspiciously puzzled.
“Allie Wrubel—he wrote some of my favorite songs. “Gone With the Wind,” I think. Right?
“That was my dad!” he declared, as he relaxed. Wrubel had also written “The Masquerade is Over,” which was recorded by Nancy Wilson, George Benson, and others.
But as his son reminded me, Allie Wrubel was most famous for writing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from the film Song of the South. It won the Oscar for best song in 1947.
“My mom lived on the royalties from that song for the rest of her life,” he said proudly.
One day a woman brought her teenage daughter in for an exam. Gwendolyn was sixteen, painfully shy, and wearing glasses too thick and heavy to be supported by her teenage nose.
The weight of the frames and lenses had caused dark rims on her bridge and below her eyes that had become almost permanent.
I did her eye examination, finished writing the prescription, and turned to her mom.
“I feel like I need to ask you why Gwendolyn is not wearing contact lenses.”
Mom was a little surprised and simultaneously apologetic. I thought I heard a mild gasp from her daughter.
“The last doctor said she was too young, and to be honest with you, when he told us how much they’d cost, we just couldn’t afford them.”
When I looked at Gwendolyn, she was almost in tears, but silent. I had fit patients much younger than she with contact lenses; that was not the issue. I knew what I could do for this girl, but I had to decide whether I was going to take that step.
“Today’s exam is thirty-five dollars. Can you afford $85?”
Mom nodded, “Yes.” (Fees were much lower in those days.)
I turned to the girl. “I can fit you with contact lenses, and give you a small supply of samples that will last you a couple of months. After that you’ll have to figure out with your mom how you’ll pay for this.”
She seemed to be smiling through her tears. I turned to Mom and got her consent.
The contact lenses were the easy part. What would happen next was something I couldn’t predict.
I barely recognized Gwendolyn when I walked into the nearby MacDonald’s, where she was working behind the counter. But she recognized me. She had obviously gotten a part-time job to help pay for her contact lenses. (Coincidentally, the owners of the MacDonald’s were both my patients, and greeted me warmly whenever I was on line waiting for my Big Mac.)
After that, I didn’t see Gwendolyn for several months. But when I did, the true price of the contact lenses became apparent. Apparent also was that she was pregnant. To this day I wonder how much of that was my fault. The girl who had never been noticed before was now beautiful, vulnerable, and naïve.
After that, she disappeared from MacDonalds, my office, and my life.
I’m often reminded of the old TV show, Naked City. At the end of each show the narrator says, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”
Long ago I learned that each patient has a story. I still carry many of them with me.