St. Anthony and the Contact Lenses

Readers have noted, with varying amounts of good and ill-will, that some of my blog entries are afflicted with typographical errors. It’s true, and there’s a good reason for it. My contact lenses, which I cannot at the moment afford to replace, are finely coated with what a friend says is protein — not the good kind that builds muscle, but the bad kind that…well, makes a person feel like he’s peering out of a frosted-over windshield. Each lens has patches that remain perfectly clear; if I can maneuver one of those so that it lands smack on my pupil, all is well. If not, then, as we’ve seen, I might end up composing in cipher.

But even protein-rich contact lenses are better than none at all. If I hadn’t accepted this on faith, I’d have discovered it a few mornings ago, in those frantic minutes when I woke up to find them missing. When I say “missing,” I mean they were missing from my eyes, which is where they were sitting cozily when I fell asleep.

You see, nearly every night, sleep sneaks up on me while I’m reading in bed. It’s been like this since I was very young. “Have a NIGHT!” my mother would scream, meaning, prepare for the end of the day by getting undressed, removing your contact lenses and switching off the lamp. Well, that might work for most diurnal creatures, but not for me. The business of sleep has always been a catch-22. If I court it by observing the prescribed rituals, it will never come. If I play coy by lying in bed fully dressed, contact lenses in, trying to make sense o Thomas Merton, it will pounce and pin me for a healthful eight hours.

At some point that night, I must have stirred. Feeling a speck of dust between one of my lenses and my eye, I probably removed them, and, too groggy to make it all the way to the bathroom, placed them one of the books that tends to pile up at my bedside. If the book was, as I suspected, The Art of the Personal Essay, an 800-page anthology edited by Phillip Lopate, then it was a saner move than it sounds. The cover is white; my contact lenses are tinted blue — not in order to change the color of my eyes, but in order to announce their presence should they fall on bathroom tile. Whenever they visit a crowded place, a friend of mine buys his absent-minded wife a balloon to hold. Same idea.

But when I checked the cover of Lopate, they weren’t there. They weren’t on the covers of Zorba, the Greek or Granta 54: Summer, 1996, either. Brushing my fingertips against the carpet in a rough perimeter, I felt nothing. And here, finally, is where I began to panic.

Yhe contact lenses I’d been wearing were the only ones I owned. I’d had a spare pair, but a few weeks earlier, the management of my apartment complex announced that a pest-control company would be spraying down every unit, and ordered us residents to clear off all shelves and drawers. I’d put my spare contacts in a large Glad bag along with my other toiletries, my travel iron, my boxes of envelopes, some DVDs, my dustpan and other items, and set them on my bed. When it came time to unpack, the dustpan and the contact lenses were gone. I chalked it up to the price of doing business with a rental company.

I should also explain just how nearsighted I am, and why I don’t own a pair of glasses. The answer to the first is: very. I wore glasses until I was thirteen, and they were of such a thickness as to make a boy look like a genius, and a man look like a serial-murdering retardate. Thirteen years of that is enough; I no longer wish to appear so, even before God. The prescription? Exact figures escape me, but it made the Ft. Hamilton eye doctor who examined me on behalf of the Marine Corps scream at me for wasting his time and Uncle Sam’s. And this was in the last year of the Cold War, when willing bodies were in demand.

Like Oedipus hunting an errant pebble of cocaine, I crawled along the floor of my bedroom, picking up anything that looked like it might be a contact lens. At a distance of more than three inches, this included everything from a tangle of hair to a shred of paper from an old pack of cigarettes. After fifteen minutes, I was still shy contact lenses, but my floor, I had to admit, was cleaner than it had been in weeks.

Now it was time for real panic — the hyperventilating, ask-why-me-O-Lord panic I told myself that my contact lenses couldn’t have gotten up and walked away. Much as it sounded corny, like something a third-grade teacher might say (and which mine probably had), its logic was irrefutable. Just as I as stepping back from the abyss, I heard myself wondering why I hadn’t invoked the aid of St. Anthony.

This in itself was cause for alarm. Besieged by alien thoughts is considered a symptom of insanity, and imploring the aid of saints is not the sort of thought I usually have. One reader of mine remarked that Catholics of a certain generation grow ashamed of their grandparents’ style of piety. Well, for me, the resistance is even more deeply ingrained, since neither my grandparents, nor their grandparents — nor, I suspect, even their grandparents — were the types to make a big deal of anyone’s cultus.

The greater part of the Catholic side of my family came originally from Ireland, specifically, Cork and Waterford, by the Irish Sea. Their name is Foley, which derives from the Gaelic Ó Foghladha, or “the plunderers.” These details matter, because the Foleys have always seemed, like the people who plundered that region into beggary during the Dark Ages, related to the inventors of the Volvo. Solid, practical people, all of them — wrung dry of any primitive Celtic genius. In the Old Country, they did not fight Black and Tans; here, they did not fight blacks. They declined to join the Whyos, Westies, Molly Maguires, the Pogues or even the fire department. Their religion was of a similarly bland and respectable sort. Though they sent their children to parochial schools, and managed to produce a nun in every generation, they’d no sooner have begged help from a dead Portuguese friar than danced the limbo at a confirmation party.

I won’t say I traced the entire etiology of my revulsion as I sat there, imagining myself writing with my eyeballs pressed against my computer screen. However, I did feel very strongly that praying to St. Anthony would lead me down a dark and treacherous path. I remembered St. Anthony’s famous prayer:

“Dear St. Anthony,
Please come around.
Something’s been lost
That can’t be found.

I also recalled that Liberace, upon recovering unexpectedly from a serious illness, cried, “It’s a miracle! Praise St. Anthony!” That settled it: St. Anthony, namesake of the Alamo, was the saint of last resort for imbeciles.

Having a good argument with yourself tends to enliven dull, fruitless tasks, and serves as a cushion against anxiety. Snuffling across my carpet for the second time, I began remembering the advice I received from my friend, Pina, when I wanted to leave the foreclosure department for a better job. Pina’s full name is Giuseppina. She belongs to a more southerly and expansive tribe than the Foleys. A true daughter of her people, she regards squid ink on the teeth as the very height of fashion, and observes some strange superstition involving white flowers. When I decided I could take no more foreclosing, she practically ordered me to pray a certain prayer every day for a solid month, and direct it toward her patron, St. Joseph. The prayer ended with this saccharine formula:

“A blessed life, St. Joseph, may we lead,
By your kind patronage from danger freed.”

But I was desperate. After Pina assured me I’d be hitting up St. Joseph the Worker (as opposed to St. Joseph the Realtor, who must have been taking an awful beating), I started reciting the ridiculous thing. Seventeen days later, I landed a job as a mortgage fraud investigator, at a slight pay increase.

Just then my fingers grasped something. It was the skeletal remains of a pair of shades I’d bought back in the salad days. They were real Dolce & Gabbanas. I’d destroyed them by sitting on them, but could never bear to throw out the frames. Unsure how to enshrine them, I’d left them to sit in the farthest corner of my room, between my bed, the bookshelf and the wall.

Call it a Proustian moment. I remembered prosperity and nice accessories, an uncomplicated life of consumption. Then I remembered St. Joseph. Thinking again on my contacts, not wanting them to remain in situ as relics of an age, I recited:

“Dear St. Anthony,
I beg by the Rood:
Help find my contacts,
Or, baby, I’m screwed.”

It wasn’t quite so easy as that. (Is anything ever?) I did have to start from the point nearest where my head had rested, and search the carpet one quadrant by another. Still, after five minutes, there they were — no more than a foot away from the corner of Lopate, and only three inches apart. Oh, and get this – later that afternoon, I found the spares. Somehow they’d fallen into the far corner of my bathroom cabinet. I’m guessing the act of hauling out the bottle of Clorox knocked them out, too. From no contact lenses to four means improvement by a factor of infinity.

Now, what all this says about the veneration of saints or Italian folk wisdom or the spiritual crimes of the lace-curtain Irish, or even good bedtime habits, I have no idea. I have decided, though, that if I ever have a kid, I’m going to name it Tony, or Toni, depending. My cover story will be that I’m honoring Tony Blair. Since he’s practically patron saint of conflicted converts, it won’t be a total lie.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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