On Becoming Invisible

rats with hats


I received a call recently from a friend to meet after work. The timing was good and the friend legitimate, so of course, I accepted. His company was always welcome and I respected our friendship as mutual, low maintenance and sincere. He had never asked me for money, never used me in an alibi, never sent me a greeting card (of any kind) and never expected to receive a greeting card (of any kind) in return. When he called, the conversation was brief and to the point, which ended with the usual decision to meet and have a drink.

After walking into the bar almost simultaneously, we met, shook hands and sat in a booth to talk. There was never a desire to update each other with a litany of accomplishments and failures or to review our inventory of life-changing experiences. Our friendship was never based on that type of exchange. In fact, I don't think I called him by his first name more than once or twice. When one of us called, the identifying introductory sentence of "This is…" was not necessary. Neither of us had ever wasted time by identifying ourselves. That was also established long ago and we had both agreed without ever talking about it. When we sat down, the evening was already complete.

He seemed happy and in good spirits. I was excited to see him as all our conversations were historically interesting and not bound by a lot of convention. When we met, which was once or twice a year, we didn't waste time on amateur topics such as weather or sports. As an issue, the weather always seemed like a subject to address when there was nothing else to say. My friend once said, "If the weather is the most important thing in my life, it is time to move on. The weather is going to do whatever it wanted." I always remembered that smart-ass remark and made a conscious effort not to talk about the weather, ever.

The topic of sports was another discouraged subject especially when we had once analyzed to death the science of sports. The Masters or an occasional college basketball game was exciting and certainly worth watching but once the game or tournament was over, it was over. I was proud to tell him that "Conversations that rely on observing people in matching uniforms always run the risk of repeating themselves." Ever since his insights on the weather, I wanted to make sure I got credit for a comparable observation on the human condition. Nevertheless, he must have agreed because he had never discussed any game nor owned a shirt or hat advertising any type of team allegiance. In fact, when we had finally sat down and ordered drinks, he looked at me and said, "I have been seen and I have been unseen and take it from me, unseen is better."

As I listened to his opening statement, the advice stuck with me as other ill-fitting advice had often done. I wasn't sure how to use this new insight but it certainly got my attention and I placed it in an active mental area of my brain for further analysis. Some advice can be applied immediately with predictable results but this invisibility claim was all together something new. He continued and paused just long enough to regain my eye contact before beginning with a dialogue on becoming invisible. He stated, "I have discovered through many years of hard work and sincere patience, the art of invisibility. It is an ability that can be learned."

"Like the invisible man in the movies?" I asked. "You mean like the poor slob that walked around with bandages, sunglasses and a fedora?"

I knew he did not mean that type of invisibility but I am not one to let a comment like that go without challenging it to a certain extent. If anyone was going to lead off a conversation with a statement of being unseen, I figured I could at least tee up a few predicable questions to make this discussion more entertaining.

He went on with his primer on invisibility and emphasized that it was not acquired through some low-budget movie lab experiment. "True invisibility," he said, "stems from the ability to intelligently blend into the background and observe in a passively participatory manner." I laughed and encouraged him to continue. He stated many facts, just like he was explaining how to fix a faucet with a straight-faced list of dos and don'ts. He seemed happy to share his insights but he made a distinct and proud point that "anyone can drink a potion and become invisible for a fixed period of time. But what separates me from the crowd is my decision to acquire the power naturally."

"That is indeed impressive," I responded. "But how do you reconcile the fact that your natural ability has apparently avoided my moderately acute powers of observation? Besides, I still am not sure if I agree with your 'anyone can drink a potion' theory because I am not aware of any demonstrated ability to become invisible by anyone, natural or not." I inquired if that potion comment was some lame metaphor to represent excessive drinking leading to alcoholism and the eventual avoidance of responsibility. He looked at me and said, "No, what I am talking about is real invisibility. The kind of 'Poof! Where did he go?' type of invisibility."

His confidence caused me to stop wasting time trying to parse out parts of this theory as he spoke. I knew my friend was telling me the truth and I began to believe that he indeed had the power to vanish from sight. However, since I was unsure about taking notes, I wanted to get a full and complete instruction on this lost art so I shut up and listened.

"For a very long time," he continued, "I participated in the dark and stormy middle of many issues, which left me worse off for the efforts. As I grew more cynical, tired and definitely older, I finally realized that the peaks of some euphoric victories weren't worth the fatiguing valleys of the numerous heartbreaking defeats."

I knew exactly what he was saying, as I learned that many crusades aren't worth the damage to one's already-fragile self-esteem. To continually jump from battle to battle or headfirst into affairs of the heart, the effort always fell short of whatever expectation I placed on it. I wasn't intimidated with his insights; I decided to seek additional enlightenment. I waited for a moment and asked, "So, is disappearing the same as being invisible?"

"No, cowards disappear and I choose not to be seen," he said with conviction, "I have no respect for people who avoid responsibility, I learned how to become invisible for my own self-preservation."

At that moment, a little epiphany had occurred in my head. I realized that I had connected to his last sentence and my independent confirmation of his theory was definitely a step in the right direction. I was currently enjoying an odd circumstance at work and I had not said a word about it to anyone. Through a series of non-events, I had another person's nameplate on my office door for two years and this odd circumstance had given me a taste of invisibility, which I was enjoying on a daily basis.

The nameplate was left up as an oversight when I was assigned the office and as time went on, I never had a compelling reason to ask for it to be changed. I always assumed that some day, someone would show up and remove the old nameplate and replace it. As my time in my office grew, the delay of asking for the nameplate removal also became more awkward. If I had waited two years to remove the plate, what could have motivated me to have it replaced now? Either I was really stupid for not noticing the two-year problem or I was mildly stupid for just waiting around hoping something was going to happen. Therefore, the old nameplate and I peacefully co-exist to this day.

After awhile, I grew to like the fact that I was hiding in plain site. The people who knew me didn't look at it and the people that didn't know me didn't really care. That's when I determined that nameplates, monograms and anything else that is personalized are for the express purpose of the owner. The only one who cares about seeing your name is yourself and since no one was looking for my departed predecessor, I wasn't bothered by a lot of riff-raff. I thought this anecdote could make a solid contribution to the conversation, so I held it close to use if I needed it later.

My friend was married, had no children (I think), was extremely successful in his line of work although I never have, to this day, understood what he did and he certainly had no evil motive to avoid detection. "After getting my heart shredded numerous times, I began training to become invisible," he said sincerely. "I could remain on the scene to add passive wisdom but never place myself in a position of damage or success. Both those extremes held no interest for me but I concluded that learning to becoming invisible was at least allowing me to safely experience something new."

"True," I responded, "It never hurts to learn a new craft."

"Exactly," said my friend.

Disappearing is literally that; giving no clues or sense of your presence. You want to continue to observe what is going on and influence the situation through other people. This part of the puzzle I also understood, as my goal has always been to be the invisible guy behind the guy. I could live for the moment but protected from the inevitable change in direction or strategy. When priorities changed, and they always did, my shreds of decency would be safely packed away in the car. The goal evolved into caring as little as I could while being effective but without registering much of a blip anywhere.

During our discussions, I remembered why I liked him. He taught me things for the joy of enlightening me and never asked for anything in return. Our friendship was not one based on mutual interests or a common social circle but it evolved around the exchange of ideas in a safe and enlightened environment. Ideas could be thrown out or theories proposed without the fear of challenging the purpose of the idea. We rarely talked outside a bar, we didn't have more than a single common acquaintance between us and we never felt that we needed to evolve the friendship past what is was at the time. It was perfect and he was now teaching me something fascinating: the art of invisibility.

We always made time for our meetings as we both appreciated the restorative nature of the conversations. I think he enjoyed our friendship because he could be himself, without me pestering him for a favor or making some unreasonable demand on his time. We didn't get together for special occasions, such as a birthday because we didn't think that way. Besides that, neither knew the other's birthday and when we talked to each other, we exchanged ideas and then moved on, both knowing we would meet again.

Our wives knew each other and always assumed we were old college friends, getting together to reminisce about the good old days of undergraduate binge drinking but that and other related topics never made the cut. Our friendship endured because it was efficient: no pressured spousal involvement, no less-than-sincere gift giving, no obligatory reciprocal dinner invitations and thus, eliminating the inevitable phase where your spouse ends up hating your friend, your friend's wife, or both. In fact, each year my spouse kept adding his name to our holiday card list and I kept taking it off without discussing it. My covert removal of his name always caused my wife significant anguish when she tried to reconcile her lists at the end of each year. Luckily, we never received a card from him so the issue could never be documented. I couldn't explain my friendship rationale to my wife so I enjoyed our friendship away from all the clutter and structure of traditional society. Our friendship was based on entertaining and enlightened conversation, completely free of constant translations and an obligation to include ideas from a nearby audience.

He continued to fixate on the art of his learned ability. "The skill of becoming invisible is learned through the dedicated study of the people and the world." Although seen by thousands of eyes, he prided himself in the well-timed misdirection, an effective bag of props, unadorned but pleasant apparel and an appreciation of the environment. It allowed him to stand safely within a crowd while everyone else was trying to stand out. I looked a bit overwhelmed so he boiled it down to "Compliment but don't clutter, you can still keep your identity, but do it quietly and smoothly." He let the last word "smoothly" drag out and added the universal downward-sloping palm-down hand signal for smoothly.

"I got it," I said, "Nice and smooth."

"Attention has always been considered a goal; to get attention was to get your way," he said. "However, I have learned that generated attention is not worth the effort as it is short-term and superficial. As someone who is trying to gain your attention will reluctantly admit, it is a lot more art than it is science so pace yourself and pick your spots." Artificial attention-generating activities are slippery slopes in the desire to gain more and more attention. The effort needed the first time to gain attention grows exponentially as more and more outlandish efforts occur to get the same amount of interest. "As a result of this no-win situation, I have chosen the road rarely traveled because no one knew it was there," he concluded.

I smiled and said, "I can't argue with that logic, so show me how to do this. I have some places I want to go."

He asked, "What do you want to do?"

I paused and thought about this question for several moments. The pressure to be eloquent was significant. I wasn't going to use this newfound ability to wander through ladies locker rooms or lingerie stores. I needed to show that I was going to use this power in a wise and powerful way.

I took a breath and began. "My invisibility," I said, pausing for a dramatic effect, "Must allow me to attend a grating social function or endure a claustrophobic shopping experience and come out unscathed. It also must allow me to wander through masses of humanity without disturbing traffic flows or the laws of physics."

"And when asked about my involvement or participation in these social adventures," I continued, "people confirm my presence but they can't remember what I wore, said or did but they are almost positive that a good time did occur." (I thought that was a solid goal and I didn't have to supplement it with my nameplate story.)

He approved of my goals and said, "My realization began with the discovery that it really didn't matter what people thought about you or what other passive observation people made. Because being center stage rarely got me anywhere. Either I would grow exhausted by remaining on stage too long and disappointing the audience or I would grow resentful of the crowd." He paused and concluded, "People take the spotlight because no one else steps into it."

"There aren't many tough acts to follow." I said, "although many audiences wouldn't know a great performance if it bit them in their collective ass." I reviewed my many performances in front of people and I also had grown tired. Not because of any insatiable demands of the crowd or to continually outperform myself but because I really didn't want to play any longer.

He agreed and said, "The key goal to achieve is one where you are surrounded by active participants and get credit for showing up. Now, that's a good day at work." He encouraged me to practice the skill of invisibility slowly; barely losing people in crowds by settling in their blind spot or quietly wandering away from people in a non-creepy manner but not going more than five feet away. As I become aware of other's lack of awareness, I could position these episodes as their fault.

"Don't add insult to injury by acknowledging their surprise," he warned. "Just near enough to cause them to blame themselves and just far enough away to enjoy the show."

I actually wrote that quote down on a napkin, next to my note to only purchase wordless and muted-color clothing. The combination of a gentle demeanor wrapped in logo-free apparel would allow me to disappear from view. Becoming invisible was a fine balance of positioning and observation and since you have the time, you might as well entertain yourself.

Entertaining myself would be the foundation of learning the craft, I concluded. Luckily, I find all things interesting, from the fascinating to the mundane, so I was ready to begin as soon as we left. There are numerous tools to assist in neither standing out nor blending too far in. After the non-intrusive clothing strategy, the next key would be my behavior. I would practice learning how to subtlety avoid eye contact without arousing any attention and continue to blend in without becoming a wallflower.

"I am an expert of walking with the flows of the crowd," said my friend. "Not too fast to be noticed and assessed and not too slow where I am being passed by pedestrians. The pace has to be just right to not catch people but not caught from behind."

He then paused and drew on my napkin a series of little arrows going a variety of directions. As he pointed at one of the arrows, he continued, "Send out just enough non-verbals to allow people to cross your path and eliminate the awkward double-step hesitation. As you and another person make the same move at the same time and then reverse your move and simultaneously land back to square one."

"I hate that," I added.

"This memorable but annoying instance can be eliminated by smoothly signaling all the surrounding people around you know where you are going. They pleasantly react to my direction by either crossing in front or pausing for a moment to allow you to go by in an entirely forgettable manner," he concluded. "It was learning to do that or investing in a pair of ass blinkers. But that purchase would have seriously impaired any attempt at invisibility."

I looked down at my napkin and counted five separate arrows and the phrases "ass blinkers" and "wordless clothing" and "entertain" in quotes. I began to wonder what would happen if I left this note in my pocket and then died suddenly. "They would have a fun time deciphering this note," I thought. I decided I could remember these jewels of wisdom and crumpled up the note and let in fall on the floor. No sense in keeping those ideas available for review by some curious coroner or hospital orderly.

It was getting late and I was energized with my new wisdom and was looking forward to some free time by myself to see if I had the ability within me. My friend was tired as well but ordered a cup of coffee to buy a few more minutes. He knew that my brain was full but he told me he had one more thing to say.

"Quiet but pleasant looking shoes," he said while taking a final sip of coffee. "Squeaking shoes and the unfortunately memorable footwear available today will not help you at all. So purchase your footwear at the same place assassins purchase theirs."

I had this image in my mind of being safely behind an assassin when they place their order, "Give me a size eleven, something quiet and classy that I can do my work and still go to dinner. Do you have something in a lace-up?" After waiting patiently, I would wait for the professional to leave and tell the clerk, "I'll take the same, maybe in a dark brown." Buying shoes would make me proficient at hiding in plain sight but there is no reason I couldn't look good while doing it. I looked up at him and nodded knowingly. There would be no stupid shoes in my life again.

We paid the bill with simultaneous tosses of paper money. The amount was the same and the tip was impressive. Neither of us wanted the change and we were both petrified with the potential discussion of tips and who drank what. We paid what we wished and rose to leave. We both had the money but neither of us had any more time.

We shook hands and Daniel said, "Your desire shouldn't be to go places where you have been denied but to protect yourself from others." I smiled and especially thanked him for the advice about the shoes and the insights of my new power. I wanted to respect his choice of desires but I had loftier goals; and the most honorable ones are to survive and entertain myself.

He then said, "Being invisible can be a state of mind but it is a moderately lame one if you still can be seen. Find the right level of invisibility and stick to it. The spectrum goes from slightly fuzzy all the way to nowhere to be found." I said I was shooting for "the lower one-third of the scale with some moments of recognition but always on my terms." He smiled as we walked out of the bar and onto the sidewalk.

And we were gone.

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