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Saturday, December 5, 2009

What a drag it is getting old

The old woman was stooped at the shoulder, like candy cane, watching her own feet shuffle along the carpet of Barnes and Noble, toward the checkout line. In her left hand was a walking stick--not a cane, but a gnarled heavy wooden stick about four feet high. It thudded hollowly against the carpet as she shuffled along like an ancient wizard, her weight shifting uncertainly to the right with one step, then confidently to the left with the next. Since she was wearing a long moss-green coat and had wild, thin, grey-red hair, I couldn't make up my mind if she looked more like a troll or a mystic.

When she made it to the line, where I was standing, she glanced up. The way she would look up to check her progress was she'd bend a bit backward from the hip and lift her chin just enough to take in her surroundings. Long face, sharp blue eyes mostly hidden behind the falling-curtain of her eyelids. Canyons instead of wrinkles all over her face.

Let's see. What else.

Her coat was unbuttoned, so I could see the limited length of her: a bedazzled sweatshirt full of rhinestones; spindly legs covered by sweatpants, with the pantlegs tucked into bright red socks; sandles on her feet.

In her right hand, clutched in a liverspotted talon, was a large cofeetable book about dogs. A satisfied pug was on the cover, sitting on a silk pillow amidst vases of roses and daisies. When she got up to me, she held the book out and said, in a Ruth Gordon voice surprisingly strong for such a weak-appearing old woman: "Hold this for me will you honey."

I took the book from her. She immediately started passing her right hand in and out of the pockets of her coat, removed her wallet.

"You like dogs?" she asked me, staring at the floor--only not staring really, since it was the natural direction of her gaze.

"Yes. Just got one."

"I've had one my whole life, honey, and they make it all worth it." We both shuffled forward with the line. I tried to hand her book back to her but she lifted the cane in her left hand, waggled the fingers clutching the wallet in the right, and made a shrugging motion. "Hang on to it til we get to the checkout will you honey? Thank you very much."

Here's what I learned from the old woman in the five minutes we spent in line together: Her name was Lola (and I realized she looked more like a 'Lola' than a troll or a mystic; maybe she had been a showgirl, even...or a man), during her life she'd had at least three dogs at all times, replacing each fallen dog with a new puppy like a stock boy refilling grocery shelves, and she'd recently lost a dog--Petey. Petey had made it 26 years with her. The two canine survivors missed Petey a lot, as did Lola. Lola and her two surviving dogs moped around her 88th St. apartment. "Not even my cats can cheer us up," she said wanly. "And I'm too old to get a new one, you know. I keep hoping to win the lottery so I can afford to pay someone to help me with a new pup but that's not likely is it honey."

So I got Lola to the cashier, then helped her out the door onto the sidewalk. Watched her shuffling away, slowly, stooped, banging her walking stick against the concrete, and I wondered how the hell the old and infirm of the city manage to get around in the winters. I wonder this all the time, especially when I'm climbing the mounds of plowed snow to cross a street, or falling on my ass when hitting an icy spot on the sidewalks. If I'm still in this city when I'm 80, someone please shoot me with a tranq and ship me off to Florida.

There's Josie, of course, the elderly woman who lives below us. Just today, I was coming into the building as she was going out. Or preparing to go out. Cold, rainy day. As I approached the front door, I saw Josie standing just inside the lobby, using her frail frame to prop open the heavy door. She was wearing a raincoat, with a plastic hood tied around her head, and she was fighting with an umbrella, trying to open it. A guy living on the first floor was behind her, and I could hear him saying, "Mamma, where you going?"

"Help me Irish umbrella," she told him. She held out the umbrella.

"Okay, but where you going mamma? You don't need to go out today."

I stood outside, my umbrella now closed. "You going out, Josie? It's nasty out."

"Irish."

I looked at the guy. "I guess she wants to go out," he said.

The past week hasn't been good for Josie. I don't know what's up with her, but just a few days before, I'd come home from work, made my way up the stairs, and heard a lot of loud sharp voices on the second floor landing. The Dominican women in the apartments surrounding Josie's were there, as was Josie, and as I slipped past with a small "Hello," Josie had grabbed my arm. "Can you do something about that light?" she asked me, pointing up to the light above us. I looked up. The light was on. The light was fine.

"What do you mean?"

"The light! You don't see it?" Josie peered at me with her hard black eyes, waiting.

One of the Dominican women touched my shoulder, then gently pulled Josie's hand off my arm. "Fine, light fine," she told me. "Josie, the light is fine. Okay." Then to me. "Okay. Light okay."

Now Josie was trying to go out into a chilling drizzling rain. The guy asked her as he tried to figure out her umbrella: "Where you going, Mamma?"

"The corner to look at the trees," Josie answered.

"Oh okay," the guy said.

I offered my umbrella to her. Her's was clearly broken. She took it. The guy took it back and handed it me. "Thank you," he said. "I'll watch her." And then he shook her umbrella hard and it exploded open, a metal spoke shaking free from the canvas so a bit of canvas flapped loosely in the wind. "Come on mamma, we'll go look at the trees."

He folded her arm into his, and helped her down the stairs while holding the umbrella over her head.

And oh--I guess that's the way the elderly get through the winters in the city: they become the goodwill projects of the building, in a respectful, courteous way. Not all of us end up like Brooke Astor.

2 comments:

Laura Holt said...

Well said. I'm moved in a way I can't really describe.

Mandy L. Hughes said...

very nice.

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