I came back from Germany on Tuesday this week and took the airport link bus to the train station. Passing through once-familiar streets and catching sight of the Custom House, brought back lots of memories of the time I spent in Dublin. I had to smile when I remembered my struggle to buy contact lenses.
A long time ago, just before Noah beached the Ark, there was a slogan (of sorts) which went "guys don't make passes at girls who wear glasses". Nowadays, this would elicit little more than a snort of derision, but this was long before laser operations, nifty easy-to-wear contact lenses and female self-confidence which said "I'm wearing specs, so what?". And even longer before guys making passes would be blown out of the water by the feminists.
So now you get the picture. Girls were supposed to have good eyesight among all the other attributes. I was short-sighted and hated wearing glasses. Most of the time, I didn't wear my specs. After getting on the wrong bus several times, missing a date simply because I couldn't see him in the crowd under Clerys clock (a favourite meeting place in Dublin in those days!) I came to a decision. Although I could not afford it, I had to have contact lenses, and I had to find a way to pay for them. I worked in the civil service at the time and the pay wasn't anything to write home about even if you could afford the stamp.
I started looking for a part time job. I applied for a job serving teas at a greyhound racing stadium. The lady who interviewed me smiled politely, told me that as an office worker, I wouldn't be able for all the standing around, hauling heavy teapots and fending off unwelcome attention by some of the punters. I did get a job working in the bar area of a classy restaurant without anyone querying my ability to stay on my feet all night. It was a busy place but I might have coped except for two things: I didn't have a clue about alcoholic drinks and my mental arithmetic was abysmal. The barman poured the drinks and put them on my tray. He also rattled off the prices and took the money the customer had given me, handing me back the change. Half the time I couldn't hear what he said, so gave the customers the wrong change which they were understandably not too happy about, unless it was in their favour. As well as that, I sometimes had difficulty in deciphering what they'd ordered - I can't even recall all the strange orders I got, except that one old guy asked for "a bottle of Guinness with a collar on it" - the barman didn't know what he wanted either! I didn't last long there, as you can imagine.
I had holidays coming up so went to stay with an aunt in London and applied for a temporary job with an agency in the West End. What could I do for two short weeks, they asked? I could type I assured them and I could read bad handwriting. The reason I said that was to save myself having to take shorthand or trying to decipher an English accent on the dictaphone - yes, I know, these skills are obsolete nowadays. My luck was in, they told me. That very morning a firm of solicitors had inquired about engaging the services of a typist who could read atrocious handwriting - they'd tried a number of typists who had all given up. Of course I jumped at the chance - did I have a choice if I wanted to pay for contact lenses? I remember that the offices were in one of those venerable old buildings off Piccadilly. The job entailed typing up a thesis on newspapers which the owner's son had to submit for a PhD the following week. I was given an office of my own and reams of notepaper covered with the hieroglyphics of this young man. This was where my writer's imagination came in handy because although I couldn't read everything, I managed to make an educated guess and spun a story around the theme. Bless the young man's heart, he was impressed! We worked hard but time was speeding by at a great rate. The deadline approached and we still were not finished so he asked me if I would mind working late, I'd get paid double the hourly rate. With visions of myself in those contact lenses, looking like Mata Hari and Marilyn Monroe all in one, I didn't raise one single objection. We worked and worked. At around one a.m, he raided the bar in his father's office and we both drank a few glasses of excellent brandy. Bashing away on the typewriter, I was so tired I didn't know if I was seeing double or not, but we did finally finish at around three in the morning. I arrived home to my aunt, who had kindly waited up for me, smelling of alcohol and telling her I'd been working. I think she doubted the truth of my story and thought I'd become a fallen woman although she kept her opinion to herself.
By now I nearly had enough money. Back in Dublin I took on my last part time
work. While walking down Grafton Street to put my hard-earned money onto my
bank account, I ran into a student friend who came from India and who worked as
a waiter in an Indian restaurant. The owner was Irish and had lived in India
for long enough to learn how to make curry. They were short of a washer-upper,
he told me and promised to put in a good word for me with the boss. I felt I
couldn't really go wrong washing plates and glasses. It was hard work, let me
tell you. I ended up being potato peeler as well as dishwasher. But the money
was good and I was at last able to buy the all-important contact lenses. The
improvement in my eyesight had one big advantage for the restaurant. They
closed around one a.m. (in those far off days, diners came in around 9.30 or
10p.m. and weren't in any hurry to go home) but no one had a watch or a
timepiece of any sort so we were never sure when to shut the doors. There was a
laneway visible from the kitchen if you stood on a chair and at the end of this
laneway was a laundry with a clock over its entrance. Every night I climbed
onto the chair in order to see if we could close up for the night. I can still
see that clock with its startling white face and thick black hands although both it and the laundry are long gone.
Writing this reminds me of how much things have changed. Two years ago my
daughter lost a contact lens while we were on holiday and she simply went to a
drugstore and bought a replacement set to tide her over until she got her
prescription ones. No saving up and counting the pennies to be able to afford
it. And it was easy to get part time work, too. In London I simply had to walk
into an employment office and explain what I could do and how long I was able
to work. No work permit needed – they didn’t even ask for references. Hard to
imagine now, isn’t it?
Looking back, I have to say that in addition to buying the coveted contact lenses, I learned a lot from my sortie into part
time work and met a lot of interesting people into the bargain. That’s grist to
the mill for an author!