Back Off — I’m Old!
By Richard Goldstein
Even after the corona crisis is over, I will never stop feeling old. That’s what I’ve learned from this virus. Old is not wise. Not just archaic. It is susceptible, assailable, penetrable — vulnerable.
Once I would have seen my vulnerability as referring to romantic disappointment or professional attack. But I have been through both, and they felt nothing like this. Once I would have thought of death as a product of AIDS, and my fears would have been amplified by the guilt that underlay my most primal feelings about gay sex. Now it is about loss of my partner’s life, my brother’s life, my friends’ lives, and mine. I’m less panicky in the face of coronavirus than I was with HIV, but also less likely to recover my old sense of self or to overcome my fears by reason and denial. Reason is a weak response to age, denial doesn’t hold in the dead of night, and this sort of vulnerability will always remind me that I am what my parents called an alter cocker — old.
I’m sick of scolding young masters of the universe who insist on jogging past me without backing away, or who stroll perilously close, oblivious on their phones, unaware of my presence or even annoyed by it. “Back up,” I snap. “I’m old.” And they do. I’ve shocked them into connecting with their surroundings, at least for as long as it takes to observe the rules. Sometimes they glare at me and go right on their way. “I’m here, fuck you!” is the real motto of New York. But since this illness puts the elderly in special danger, the Manhattan striver’s attitude — you’re either hot or useful or you don’t exist — takes on a special meaning. I think these risers have always regarded me as sopping up their wealth with my social security and Medicare, and they think of me as more powerful then I deserve to be, since they think of themselves as having less power than they deserve. And, you know what? They’re right. Still, I have my family to look after, my medically compromised friends to check on, my own existence to defend. So I growl, “Back off,” and they do, if only because I could capture them on my phone and meme them to death online. I’ll never again think of social media as a curse when it can be such a handy instrument of revenge.
Did I mention that grocery stores and pharmacies are a nightmare out of Kubrick for me? The aisles are narrow — six feet of distance is impossible. So I dart in, grab stuff, toss my credit card at the cashier, and flee. I hate being such a spectacle. I hate the loss of pleasure in perusing shelves, rejecting cheeses for smelling not quite right or being too expensive. I hate the grim look of other old people, their frightened eyes peering from above masks scotch-taped into place. I hate the sight of the skyline, fully lit, while the streets around me are all but empty. The quiet in my neighborhood, usually enraging with noise, is terrible to behold.
And the tech. Ah, the tech. I am teaching remotely, which has been like learning to walk on Mars. One button wrongly pushed and the whole class vanishes. One sequence I cannot perform and I’m helpless before everyone. I’ve had many tutorials, watched countless videos, and fallen on the mercy of adept students to guide me, so I’m usually able to carry this off, more or less. But every time I deal with Zoom, I become the hapless lover I was at 14, trying to unhook a bra. It’s really just the future I have strenuously tried to manage and shape to my personal needs. Now I have to face the fact that, for all its limits, all the sacrifice of depth and intimacy, tele-whatever is a set of necessary skills that I must master. I can do it if I really apply myself, but as I surrender to the tyranny of algorithms I think of the seven ages according to Shakespeare, which end with “no eyes, no teeth, no…everything.” I prefer to think of the “knavish lad” that he says Cupid is, but the truth is that everything about me is vulnerable. Everything solid will melt, or rise, into air.
I want to end on a high note, so I’ll mention that getting stoned, listening to music and watching movies at night or gorging on “pandy news,” as we call it in my household: that routine is getting me by. I go for long walks with my guy. I talk to friends and correspond with students. I look after people. After all, I’m still alive and well. As for the young, I accept the indifference that comes with the passage of time. I just don’t like to be reminded of it in such an implacable way. So I’ll keep on bitching about the inevitabilities while functioning within the limits they impose. I’ll do so with occasional gusts of gratitude and amazement that some people — even young people — care about me enough to say: ‘Stay well.” I’ll smile through my mask and pass it along as my parents would. Zei gezunt. Be well.
This piece originally appeared in “First of the Month: A Website of the Radical Imagination”