I’m not saying that all older people are clueless about modern social behavior. But you might think so if you were to judge by my friend Bill.
One morning recently, he was ordering the Senior Early-Bird Special as usual when his 23-year-old waitress called him “Honey” for the third time. Based on what he viewed as this clear indication of her intimate interest in him, he took a knee (in spite of his surgically-repaired hip) and proposed to her on the spot.
It could have gone worse. By the time the police arrived the young lady had unlocked herself from the bathroom long enough to agree not to press charges so long as Bill never came near the restaurant again or drove his car through the parking lot for any reason or ordered food online (which I know for a fact he doesn’t know how to do anyway).
All’s well that ends well, I guess. But some of us do a better job of adjusting to modern life. We know enough not to create problems. In fact we look for opportunities to help. We know it’s not easy being a young person in today’s complex world. We try to use our broader perspective on life to ease their path. Call it Senior Social Services.
For example, we visit a lot of doctors. We see close-up the effects of the industrialization of medicine. Receptionists who once might have known all the doctor’s patients by name now feel like disposable parts in a huge system. Being treated with corporate indifference can lead them to pass this attitude along.
A young person finishes his conversation with a coworker, takes a sip of his beverage, and reluctantly glances at the person waiting behind the sliding glass partition above his desk.
(Long pause.) “I mean your name.”
“My name is Steve. My doctor’s name is Murch. M-u-r-c-h. I think his first name is Myron. Don’t you have one of his cards here somewhere? That would tell you for sure.”
“Yes, there was one. My Mom always said I was born at nine o’clock at night. But how could she be sure? She was pretty busy. What about you? Do you have a birthday coming up? It’s always risky to plan an outdoor party at this time of year. It was raining when I came in.”
People wonder why there is such a high staff turnover at their doctor’s office. It must be because it’s a dull job. We seniors do our best to make it more interesting.
The light turns red and I roll up next to a car almost as old as mine. Inside are four young people, singing and swaying to the music I can hear so very clearly because it’s hot and our windows are open. I listen for a minute. The lyrics are a little hard to follow, something about money. I reach into the back seat for my hat. It’s just like the one Bing Crosby wore in The Road to Morocco. I take the pipe that I inherited from my dad out of the glove box and set it between my teeth. I take out my hearing aids. I turn up the volume on my radio. Then higher, and higher yet.
“THIS IS NPR. IN AGRICULTURAL NEWS, THE POORER-THAN-EXPECTED SOYBEAN HARVEST IS CAUSING TREMORS IN THE ASIAN COMMODITIES MARKETS. IN EARLY TRADING IN HONG KONG…”
I glance over at my neighbors. They look straight ahead, carefully avoiding eye contact. They are baffled and maybe a little frightened by this contact with an alternative subculture. I see it as a public service. We all need help to diversify, to get out of our cultural silos. I’m glad to do my part.
We seniors sometimes struggle with the casual social styles that young people like. At one time ordering a meal in a restaurant was a businesslike transaction. The waiter took your order, and after a while, food appeared. Now the whole tone is different. To enter a restaurant is to be expected to forge a bright new relationship. We don’t always care to get involved.
“Hi, I’m Jason. How is your evening going? Have you been here before? I’ll be taking care of you this evening.”
“That’s great, Jason, because I have this itch on my left shoulder blade that I can’t quite scratch. Would you take care of it for me, please? And a glass of water would be nice.”
Social styles have moved on. Some of us appreciate the changes. Some of us don’t. You can’t generalize about older people any more than you can about young people.
Though in general it’s safest not to call us “Honey.”
Steve Van Auken has now lived in Akron long enough to give directions according to where things used to be.