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Urban Moment

L.A. Cool Is All in Your Frame of Mind


Late night in the catacombs of downtown L.A. A nondescript door opens into a club with no name. Art pieces hang from the brick walls, others dangle from the ceiling. A DJ spins vinyl trance music.

The crush of crowd is youngish and not so. Some bored. Others pantomiming rigorous debate over the din. Ethnically and racially, it's a smattering of this, that and census box "other," L.A. at its PR-poster optimistic.

But my friend sees something else--something unifying. "All these people," he says flashing his beam across the room, "all of these people are CalArts students."

How does he know? Might it be the themes explored in the artwork? The politics? The medium? No. "They all have on CalArts glasses."

In the dim light, I can make out frames with the color and sweeping lines of balsa wood gliders and Calder mobiles, or that trace the eyes in oversize circles of oxidized metal pipes. Suddenly we feel terribly underdressed, even disconnected.

And it isn't the first time. The writing's long been on the wall, bigger than the bold-faced capital E at the top of your ophthalmologist's eye chart. Change has slowly shimmered into focus, ever since the strip mall optometrist shops began taking on the air of haughty Robertson Boulevard couture boutiques--with potted bamboo and tabletop serenity fountains.

At some recent point, almost as if we were watching from out of the corner of our eye, boomers embraced their inner nerd (and their failing vision) and went ironic--with super-size Sgt. Bilko horn-rims, conspicuous as headlights against their foreheads. Simultaneously, Gen X and Y grrrls were raiding their grandmothers' junk drawers and grabbing their way through weekend garage sales in Montebello to unearth cat-eyes--the more rhinestones and filigree the better.

Glasses--despite TV's tearful Lasik testimonials, the latest generation of disposable contacts, and even the persistent Dorothy Parker prescription ("Boys don't make passes at girls who wear glasses")--have planted themselves squarely in L.A.'s line of vision.

Oh, it's been long in the works. Stores from high-end boutiques to JCPenney offer a selection of stylish--and not so--frames with non- magnifying glass. That doesn't even factor in the reading glasses you can pick up anywhere from Barnes & Noble to Sav-On Drugs.

But as a former 7-year-old who endured beige plastic cat-eyes that weren't ridiculous enough to be cool, even by today's retro standards, I'm still a bit suspicious.

I've stuck with some form of a thin, darkish, wire-rimmed frame--from gunmetal to tortoise shell. Simple. Utilitarian. And selected with about the same care and time as a bunch of cilantro at the market next door. I know what I like and what it should look like.

So, I've wondered at all the fuss, unlike those who persistently make it--those L.A. Eyeworks fanatics who line Melrose like ticket scalpers at dawn. Cultists who gushed over Oliver Peoples' line of neo-retro frames the way people waxed ecstatic about Starbucks before it had arrived on every street corner. Hiero loyalists who are entranced by the Egyptian, Moroccan and Spanish architecture references. And the Robi Horn enthusiasts who find that hand-crafted Buffalo horn frames better blend with one's skin tone.

It used to be that keeping up with your prescription meant you were current. Now the goal is to be au courant --telegraphing poses from "intellect" to "whimsy" to "I just don't care." Glasses aren't worn, they're brandished, and not just on the street, but everywhere. Anne Robinson, merciless host of NBC's "Weakest Link," features a wardrobe of sleek yet menacing frames that enhance her task-mistress role. William Petersen, who plays the intense investigator Gil Grissom on CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," has had, I could swear, a frame make-over--updated slightly from nerdy to earnestly bookish, a fine yet important distinction. Too, there is pop star Anastacia (an L.A. Eyeworks poster gal), who was told by just about every music biz suit that she should go either the contacts route or she should just forget it. Her frames and rainbow-hued lenses have become her trademark. "I wear glasses because I need them; I don't wear them to be the fashion victim

I know where this turn of events has left me--at a crossroads, blinking, trying to make out the signs.

Lately, my charming Silver Lake optometrist is not only administering my yearly eye exam and glaucoma test, he's designing frames. Lovely works of art. Rectangles and diamonds. Infinity symbols. He's abandoned the strip mall. And now I barely recognize his office--spare and airy, the concrete floors buffed, palms trees standing sentry, fleurs-de-lis stenciled atop everything: his new logo. The only thing that's missing is the serenity fountain. And I feel I need one: The pressure's on.

Winnie and Evelyn, who take care of the most important step--properly framing the doctor's findings--rummage nonstop through glass display cases and drawers. The rising pile on the counter looks less like part of the prescription process than post-space age Tinker Toys. Reds and blues. Rubber and clear plastic.

"This one. Now this one is popular," says Winnie, lifting out something that's all lens, nose piece and hinge, really.

"Puffy's got 'em," drawls Winnie.

"Whoopi's got 'em," pitches Evelyn.

Oh no, then, not me. "Yeah, I look like a Hollywood square all right

"No!" they shout in unison. "We're just trying to find you!"

That's when everything slides into focus.

In this up-close world of dancing, lonely crowds, glasses are just another accessory to help convey a message across a too-crowded room. Another prop, a conversation starter, a dropped handkerchief--which makes me sure if Dorothy Parker could cast a look about now, she'd take it back.

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