Mack Williams: Looking through a different lens

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 8, 2015

Recently, two things occurred which allowed memories from the past to seep from a place where they are dammed (not the curse), my mind.

The first, a PBS program, titled “Trail of History,” dealt with Salisbury. Included in the scenes of downtown restoration and use were The Literary Book Post, and Rick McCombs’ Sidewalk Deli.

There was a wonderful view of the Wallace Building, decorated again with roof garden slats, as in old photographs. Interviewed Salisburians (“Berryians”) spoke with pride about something called the Plaza.

Desiring to see this new, wonderful thing, I googled: “Plaza-Salisbury, N.C.” and there saw an old and friendly sight: the Wallace Building.

Having been somewhat out of touch with Salisbury’s downtown scene, I didn’t know the Wallace Building had been “reinvented” into an active place of apartments and shops. There’s no shame in reinvention; it’s the inspiration for every diet.

For consistency’s sake, I wonder if that great house on South Fulton is now called the “Hambley-Plaza Mansion.” (Forgive me, I’m just being “cute,” perhaps to excess).
Later that day, I had my “poached-egg update” with the optometrist. That’s what those photographs of the eye’s inner surface look like to me.

I am reminded of Kirk Douglas’ comment to the late Peter Lorre in the 1954 film, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” in which he compares Lorre’s eyes to “soft-boiled eggs.”

Those “egg-esque” pictures, with spidery veins (eye, not leg) also remind me of the few times I have cracked open an egg for scrambling only to see lines of blood inside. I always discard them, as per the advice of a past television show, or that of my mother (more likely, my mother).

Seeing the Wallace Building again, and the back of my eyeballs brought back memory of a high school eye exam with Dr. McCutcheon (although there were no eye “photo ops” then). His office was located in the “Grubb-Wallace-Plaza Building” (wishing to neither leave anyone, nor “anything” out), Salisbury’s “skyscraper,” which, when compared to those of New York, gives the sky a gentle brush rather than a scraping.

That appointment was around the mid-1960s, having gotten my first pair of glasses in grade school from another optometrist.

I remember a uniformed elevator attendant in the Wallace Building for “guidance” (the more physical meaning of the word). This noble occupation has been given over completely to millions of “rank amateurs,” whose accustomedness to instant gratification leads them to rudely punch the buttons and curse when the “cube” (adaptation of London’s “Tube”) doesn’t move quickly enough.

The lady elevator attendant gave the appropriate button her most “professional” push, raising my feet to the proper level upon which they should walk down the hall to Dr. McCutcheon’s office.

On my way, I enjoyed the view from an upper window, even though that view was a little blurred from need for a new prescription. I looked out onto Main and Innes streets, their associated rooftops, then upwards toward a sky seemingly just a little closer than before. This was my first encounter with height above two stories.

There was a little film of outside dust on the great window. This, combined with myopia and an old pair of glasses, made those individual dust particles somewhat clearer than my “aerial” view of the more distant, city sights.

This Wallace Building “lens” (one of many) was flat, not curved, offering not the slightest bit of visual correction. The view, judged solely on its own objective merit, was first rate.

Dr. McCutcheon was a very mild-mannered man. His appearance and temperament reminded me somewhat of the late actor Cecil Kellaway, who played the kindly old paleontologist in the movie “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” (1953).

The switchable lenses of his mask-like, vision-testing instrument reminded me of my telescope’s eyepieces. If it’s possible that inanimate things have yearnings, the lens must be what all glass aspires to be, far above the utilitarian use of keeping out drafts and holding a drink.

When I asked Dr. McCutcheon if he was interested in astronomy, he said, “Yes.” Due to their love of the lens’s perfection, I wonder how many optometrists could be, or have been, lured away from their life’s work into the fields of microbiology or astronomy.

The next time I’m in Salisbury, I’ll have to pay the Plaza a memorial visit (in memoriam to Dr. McCutcheon and my youth).

I will once again take in the view from one of those upper-floor “lenses,” a special view of the place, always special to me.

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