Old Age is a Pyrrhic Victory

Warren Sawyer - 211 May, 2018

Warren Sawyer is sitting on his electric scooter by the elevator door. I stop to say hello. The door opens and Louise Michalowicz steps out, leaning on her cane. She has a companion by her side. Warren looks in awe as she walks past us:

“Charlie,” he says, “Louise is a hundred years old!”

“Warren, how old are you?” I know how old Warren is.

“Ninety-eight.”

Florence, his second wife, has just died after 36 years of marriage. Ruth, his first wife, died after 36 years of marriage too.

“I’d like to find one for the next two or three years, but there aren’t any around here.”

“Warren, How can you say that? This place is full of women.”

“I don’t think they’re attractive.”

 

12 April, 2014

I turn the corner too fast – I have not yet learned to slow down – and I almost bump into Julian Eysmans, who is walking with a cane. I haven’t seen Julian for thirty years; he was my neighbor in Moorestown before he and Mary retired to Tennessee. They returned to be near a daughter.

I embraced him – an Italian thing – and Julian recoiled. I felt his body stiffen. This Protestant gentleman had never before been embraced by a man. He regained his poise and we exchanged recent life histories.

Julian entered the Assisted Living wing shortly after our encounter. He graciously invited me to his new quarters where we talked about old times in Moorestown. I once helped him cut down a big walnut tree on Mrs Williams’s adjoining property. Julian burned the wood in his fireplace and in his cast iron kitchen stove.

 

27 November, 2017

I stumbled – new sneakers with sticky rubber soles – but I kept my balance.

“Watch out!”, cried out a passerby.

“I’m fine,” I said.

“I’m glad,” she said. “Had you fallen, I would have had to report you.”

 

Odds and Ends4 March, 2018

The Thrift Shop is open on Tuesdays from ten til noon. Its three rooms and the hallway loop are filled with belongings jettisoned by residents who have downsized from villas and condos and the stuff donated by the heirs of deceased residents: what’s left after they cart away what’s valuable.

I feel like an archeologist on a dig fifty years in the future whenever I visit the Thrift Shop. The artifacts suggest that Medford Leas was once inhabited by a race of giants. I discovered eighty-three pairs of trousers in the men’ shop: two size 32s and four size 34s, and seventy-seven pairs with waists up to 48 inches.

I came upon sixty-six sports jackets with padded shoulders and wide lapels, a style dating to the first Frank Sinatra dynasty. I counted one Small (size 36), seven Mediums (sizes 38 and 40), and fifty-eight Large and Extra Large.

I’ll have to buy my clothes in Guatemala.

ShoesWarren Sawyer is trying on shoes. Some shoes are mildly scuffed, some are almost new, many bear the imprint of their late owners’ feet.

Warren is sitting on the seat of his walker. Toby Riley greets him:

“Any luck, Warren?”

“Not yet.”

“What size?”

“I don’t know. It’s been so long since I bought shoes.”

M stops me. She has never before spoken to me.
“See here,” she says, “ What day is it?”
“Tuesday.”
“Good. I’ll be all right.”

The clothing in the women’s room overflows onto to racks in the hallway. I run my eye over the labels. I seldom see high end brands like Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, Anne Klein and the like. Here’s why: the resident/volunteers, those who staff the Thrift Shop, siphon off the best stuff for themselves, for their children, for their grandchildren and for their friends.

Thrift ShopThe main hallway is a long loop that circles the core of the building. A half dozen large tables near the Thrift Shop’s front door are crowded with decorative household bric-a-brac.

Then comes the big stuff: bedsteads, highboys, book shelves, fans, armoires (that once hid large TVs), overstuffed sofas, leather recliners, mirrors, tables, floor lamps, unmatched chairs, chests of drawers, a 12 inch TV.

Suitcases without wheels abound and carry-ons. Exercise machines. A humidifier. A tall Raleigh bicycle with a thumb bell rests on decrepit, flat tires. It sits next to a stiff leather golf club bag that weighs a ton.

The last room, at the far reach of the looping hallway, is filled with kitchen wares: pots and pans, electric coffeemakers, toaster ovens, assorted silverware, waffle irons, steam irons, staghorn handled carving sets and much oven stuff. You could stock a restaurant kitchen.

The volunteers have begun to pack up the stuff on the hallway tables. Somebody shuts the door. It’s closing time.

 

20 May, 2018

Yesterday as I returned to my courtyard down a covered walkway, I saw Mrs. X striding along thirty yards ahead of me. She was unaware of my presence. I heard, unmistakably, the sound of a fart. It happens, sometimes involuntarily, even to Pope Francis, to Queen Elizabeth. To Meryl Streep!

 

2 June, 2017

We checked out of our hotel in St. Louis and we were rolling our bags to the truck in the parking lot. I grew dizzy and sat on the rear bumper. I fainted and fell to the ground, bruising my forehead, the flesh around my left eye and cutting the bridge of my nose. My eyeglasses were bent. Bloody face.

Stephen found me moments later, crumpled on the tarmac. He thought I was dead. “What am I to do with him?” But it was just a passing thing and we were back on the road in an hour. We stopped at a drug store to buy Bandaids. The young woman behind the counter stared at my battered face, at the oozing cut on my nose.

“Please call the police,” I said in a quiet, urgent aside. “I’m being kidnapped.” Her eyes opened wide.

“He’s kidding,” said Stephen hurriedly, laughing. I laughed too. The young woman smiled thinly.

In the truck, Stephen was angry: “You’ll get us locked up.”
IMG_24584 June 2017

I’m sitting on a launching apron slanting down into the water. It’s used mostly to launch inflatable rafts that ride the rapids down river. The water is cold. The Colorado River is only about forty yards wide here. Stephen is skipping stones across the water. I look down at my cold, skinny legs.

“I’m a skinny old man.”

“I’ve seen worse.”

I inch back from the water’s edge, lifting my buttocks and pushing back with the heels of my hands until I reach my socks and my sneakers. I put them on slowly because my back is achy.

I rise, fighting the pull of the sloping apron. Stephen touches my elbow to steady me. We walk back to our rented truck. The truck is full of Stephen’s belongings which he is taking back to California. I’m riding shotgun. We are thrown together twenty-four hours a day. We talk and talk. Stephen is a vegetarian; so I eat vegetarian too, mostly in Mexican restaurants. Not bad.

He climbed the backyard tree
Breasting sky, treading air
Fighting the undertow

He swung the earth below
To catapult him free
To any where

“I wrote this poem about you, Stee.”

“That’s about you, not me.”

 

13 May 2018.

Yesterday was Mother’s Day. Medford Leas was crowded with adult children come to visit their parents. Some of the children are seventy years old.

Judith has invited me to join the party for her mother. Ruth is ninety-eight years old, soon to be ninety-nine. Judith and Howard are in their early seventies. Jeffrey is only sixty-five. He has brought along two daughters and a grandchild to trump his older siblings.

Ruth always eats everything on her plate, out of concern for the starving people of the world. She wastes nothing, but today she is mortified because she could not finish her dessert: two large pancakes smothered with blueberries and syrup. Judith eats what’s left of the pancakes. Ruth is pleased.

After lunch Judith drives Ruth to Walmart’s, to buy panties for Ruth. She can afford Saks Fifth Avenue but that would be wasteful.

 

3 March 2016

I’m having my hair cut in the beauty salon on campus, in a room with six chairs, two rows of three opposing each other. I sit in the lone barber’s chair facing the mirrored wall. I see, reflected in the mirror, the three patrons behind me. They are octogenarians, perhaps nonagenarians.

One woman is asleep, slumped under the domed hair drier, seemingly held half erect by the dome. The woman in the middle chair is also asleep, her chin on her breast. Her sparse hair is in curlers. Her face has been scrubbed clean in preparation of make up: rouged cheeks, penciled eyebrows, the works. She looks like a corpse. It’s a tableau out of Madame Tussaud’s.

The third woman is having a manicure. Her aide sits in the waiting room reading a magazine The woman, wild eyed and gaunt, is restless, agitated:

“Where is my mother? Take me to my mother.”

“She hasn’t come yet, but she will love your hair.”

“Oh, Oh,. Ow! Ow! Ow!”

“I’m not hurting you. I’m just removing your old nail polish.”

“ No, no, no.”

“You’ll look so pretty for your mother.”

 

Nantucket Red“Nantucket red,” says a passerby, pointing out my shorts.

“That’s right,” I reply.

“Do you know how I know?”

“The LL Bean Catalog.”

She flounces off. Did I steal her punch line?

 

Gambarella14 May 2018

The bin for recyclables is in Parking Lot B. I dump in my bagful of plastics, juice cartons and one beer bottle. The bottom of the bin is covered with empty wine bottles, the detritus of the Mother’s Day weekend:

Kendall-Jackson Merlot, Vintner’s Reserve
Pierre Sparr Alsace Riesling
Yellow Tail Merlot
Clos du Val Cabernet
Yellow Tail Riesling
Mark West Pinot Noir
Welch’s Grape Juice Cocktail
Gambarelli and Davito Sweet Sherry, 2 one-gallon jugs.

Two gallons of cheap sherry! Who is drinking that stuff?

 

15 May, 2018

I am traversing Courtyard Eleven. A woman walking a few steps ahead of me stops by an open door. She speaks through the screen door: “Hi, Sadie. Are you up for wine this evening?”

 

5 November, 2017

Bobbie Murray and I exchange stories about disposing the ashes of our departed spouses. The boxes containing the ashes lay on our kitchen shelves for months. They were a welcome presence.

Bobbie sometimes dons one of her late husband’s fedoras when she tools around on her electric scooter. I wear Margie’s wedding band on my pinkie. Fetishes that ease despair.

 

14 October, 2017

I hear angry female voices as I approach the middle apartment in Courtyard XXX; the voices grow loud and clear as I reach the door:

“I don’t need your fucking food. Get the fuck out.”

“I hope you fucking choke.”

The door opens. A forty-five year old woman in stylish black slacks rushes out, slamming the door shut. She hurries toward the parking lot.

I step back to take note of the apartment number. I know the face of the tenant. She is a small, white-haired eighty-year old who smiles sweetly whenever our paths cross. I go to the library to learn more about her. Her mini-biography, which is on file there, gives no hint of volcanic passions.

 

Avacado22 May, 2018

Today’s dinner menu is blah. Fortunately I’m not hungry:

Beef Vegetable Soup
Tossed Salad
Macaroni and Cheese
Meatloaf w/ Gravy
Ham Salad Sandwich
Mashed Potatoes
Cauliflower
Stewed Tomatoes
Rice Pudding

I’d rather eat in my apartment: Corn Flakes with almond milk. Stephen thinks I drink too much cow’s milk.

Then an avocado which I eat out of its half shell with a spoon. Then leftover scalloped apples, mushed up in the cereal bowl with sour cream.

 

7 May, 2018

We gathered on the lawn of the building that houses the office of our Republican Congressman Tom MacArthur. He loves Trump’s tax bill. He is worth thirty-one million dollars.

MacArthur is a carpetbagger from North Jersey who shopped around South Jersey for a rotten borough. He found Burlington/Ocean Counties which comprise the Third Congressional district. By spending lavishly, he had won the seat for six years. We hope to bring him down in November.

Protest Meeting

It was a 45 degree day, raw and intermittently wet. Fortunately we were dressed for the occasion. We looked like aged children in bulging snowsuits.

The first speaker was a resolute, hatless young woman whose ringing words also pleased the placid infant who gazed up from the papoose strapped to her mother’s chest.

The second speaker, also hatless, was an earnest young union leader whose three year old son wandered about in the space between the speaker and the surrounding audience. The little boy occasionally leaned against his father’s leg, or else he sought out his papoose-laden mother who was now standing among us in the audience. She patted his head while she nuzzled his sister’s cheek in the papoose.

The audience numbered about sixty, including fourteen of us from Medford Leas. Andy Kim, the Democratic challenger, was in the audience and he strode forth to say a few spirited words. We cheered and we waved banners to catch the attention of the local TV-news camera crew that was standing by. Afterwards, we waddled back to our cars, glad to have made our statement.

 

 

 

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