Wednesday, 28 November 2012
Being Old: When Strangers Notice
This is a story about how people behave differently with you when you're old. I didn't see it that way when this happened; a friend later explained.
It was Wednesday morning, the day before Thanksgiving, and it was to be a short shopping trip – well under an hour. I got lucky, snagging a convenient parking spot in about the center of my three errands.
At my first stop, an attractive but way too expensive kitchen equipment store, I was told that it would take longer than I had anticipated for the four knives I dropped off to be sharpened.
While weighing my options, I got some cash from a nearby ATM and picked up the items I needed from the grocery. That still left me more than an hour until the knives would be ready so I decided to go home.
I started the car and put it into reverse to back out of the diagonal parking place. A little pressure on the gas pedal and – nothing except the car rolling backward down the slight incline into the street.
I braked, put the car in park, then back into reverse and tried again. Nothing except more rolling into the street.
Now my car blocked the traffic lane, rain was coming down in buckets and I had no idea what was wrong although the word “transmission” along with images of dollar signs came to mind.
Nothing to do, I determined, but to push the car back into the parking spot. I barely had the door ajar when a young man appeared beside me. “Let me help,” he said.
Nice, particularly since I was wondering if I am strong enough to push a car alone. He said I should steer and he would do the work. Just then, a young woman pulled her car into a spot next to mine and jumped out to help the young man push. It took only a few seconds and she was gone before I could thank her.
Remember, it is pouring rain. We were all getting soaked.
Knowing I had left my cell phone at home, I asked the young man – as I was scribbling down the number of my roadside car service - if he had one I could borrow.
No problem, he said. He tapped the numbers onto the screen as I recited them, then handed me the telephone. We walked to the other side of the street where there is a coffee shop but it was too noisy inside so I left him there while I went back outside to talk on the quieter street, thankful that there was an awning to protect me from the rain.
I was concerned about keeping “my hero” waiting and it took an agonizingly long time to answer all the questions the car service had and then to wait 10 minutes more on hold before learning it would be 30 minutes until the tow truck could arrive.
Inside the coffee shop, I returned the phone to the young man who was standing by the counter, thanked him profusely and waited by the glass doors to watch for the tow truck.
About 20 minutes later, my good Samaritan appeared at my shoulder: the tow truck driver had called to say he would arrive in a few minutes. I hadn't realized my helper was still in the shop but could see now that he was working on a laptop at a table across the room.
Thank god. For a moment, I'd thought he had come back to the coffee shop from halfway home or somewhere else to pass along the driver's message.
When the tow truck arrived, the driver – a friendly giant of a man who reminded me of Shrek without the green tinge – got into my car, started it, moved the gear shift around, turned off the ignition, started it again and the gears worked.
I felt like an idiot and on the theory that it's best to acknowledge one's stupidity before someone else does it for you, I told him that.
“Don't worry about it,” he said. “I get calls for this all the time.” Maybe he does, maybe he doesn't. But it was kind of him to reassure me. Then, before he left, he explained what to do if it happens again.
I went back to the coffee shop to thank the young man and tell him all was fine but his table was empty.
Later in the day on the phone - my own this time - I related all this to a friend telling him that I was surprised by the two young people who had so quickly come to my aid – the one who vanished after pushing my car and the other who stuck around until the tow truck arrived and I was safely in another pair of capable hands.
It's not that I don't believe people do such things, but that "mine" were on the case instantly, so able and eager to be of assistance. And in pouring rain too. How did they know I needed them almost before I did?
“One word,” said my friend. “It begins with A and ends with E.” Three letters.
“Yes,” said he who is two or three years my senior. “It's because you're old.”
Immediately, I recognized he was right. Those same two people might have helped if I were 25 but probably not with the speed or the sense of protection I felt from them.
Except when I am standing at a mirror, I don't think much about how I look to others. If you asked me, I would tell you that its perfectly obvious with my thinning gray hair, little jowls in my slackening jawline and all the rest that I'm an old woman of 71.
Before now, however, I had not considered what kind of resonance those facts of my appearance have for others. Now I understand that it is easy these days to see me as a person who may be or is in need of help.
It was the first time (first I've been aware of, anyway) that strangers responded to me as an old person – that is, they took a certain action because I am old. It is comparable, I think, to the startling moment I discovered, at age 55, that I was no longer the youngest kid in my crowd and had not been so for a long time.
That was a transformational event, to see myself as unquestionably the grownup in the room for the first time in my life. From then on it seemed to me that younger people sometimes – only sometimes, to be sure – deferred to me in ways they had not done before, perhaps because my fresh perception of myself subtly changed my behavior - although that is conjecture.
Now, this latest incident of attracting a new-to-me kind of attention based on an appearance I had not fully taken into account is equally a milestone. It was a small event that on its face is nothing dramatic but requires a shift now in my sense of self. I'll let you know how it goes.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: My Father