On Getting Older, The Blue-Haired Ladies from Woolworth’s, And the Candles on the Birthday Cake

Another birthday has just passed me by in the rearview mirror of life. It came and went so fast I hardly had time to notice it. The candles on the cake are piling up so and are increasing in number, that I’m left to wonder, will I be able to see the cake through the forest of candles? Will the time come when just one candle will do, as the time of my first birthday when I sat in my highchair before a humungous cake, with some curls on my head and not much more teeth than that in my head? Lo and behold, the days are coming, sayeth me, when I may well revert to looking like that again! (Unfortunately, though, by that time, I won’t look as cute—or cuddly—as I did back then…) But it all makes me wonder, when will I really start to feel old?  Or, heaven forbid, am I that already, only I don’t even know it?

I’m starting to have presentiments about it all lately, especially when in conversation with others. If I just happen to come up (so I think) with some very witty repartee, replete with cultural references from the days of my life, I quickly learn how behind the times I really am, like a container of almost-spoiled milk that had seen better days, something well past the “sell-by” date. Is that life? We go from sweet milk to sour cream? Ugh. To my chagrin (not to mention my regret) I find reference points from the 1970’s through the 1990’s have become passé in the age of the Biebs, Lindsay Lo, Courtney what’s-her-name, and God knows who—and what—else. During a conversation not long ago, when I made one of these conversational slip-ups, one of the editors at America cautioned me to be careful, as I was “dating” myself. I could only reply in resignation: “You mean, carbon-dating.” That earned a hearty round of laughter, but it had a more than a kernel of truth in it.

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It hit me the other day when I was paying for my purchase in Duane Reade drugstore when the clerk cheerily (come to think of it, it was more like cheekily) gave me back my change with a happy, “Good day, sir, and be well!”  Sir?! Be well?!  Geez. Has it finally come down to that now? It’s enough to make one reach for Geritol with a chaser of apricot nectar and want to blow bubbles and make popping sounds with my mouth like Lawrence Welk and wait for Myron Floren to play another round of those innumerable polkas on the squeeze box while JoAnn Castle jazzily tinkles the ivories and Norma Zimmer sings ever so sweetly. (How I hated it when my parents switched on Lawrence Welk when he came on TV at 8PM on Sunday nights. It meant that school was tomorrow, the weekend was over and bedtime awaited.) See what I mean about being “dated”?  Wuuunerful, wuuunerful

From the time I remember being conscious, I knew I was getting old. Perhaps I was the only kid I knew who knew that he was getting old—and that was before my age entered the double digits… When the others were throwing the ball (and having one at that), I was wondering about what it was like to get old, or just be old. I thought of it when I saw a kindly old man walk past my window once, leaning on a cane, but with enough jauntiness to dispel any lingering wave of pity an onlooker was sure to have for the kindly old gent. And to show he wasn’t “giving in”—to old age or anything else—he wore his hat in a very jaunty manner, adjusted his shoulder pads and stood up a little straighter, and didn’t think twice about giving the wink to a pretty girl who crossed his path. Though, when I think about it now, he may have not been winking—he might have had something caught in his eye and was trying to relieve those rheumy irises…

I wondered again about it when my mother took me on shopping trips along Fordham Road and we ended up in Woolworth’s one time for a bite of lunch. In those days, when you went to lunch in Woolworth’s, you had to stand in a rope line and wait your turn to be seated at the counter. And in this particular instance, Mom and I had to stand behind a bunch of blue-haired dowagers waiting to get their white-gloved hands on the special of the day—the lemon-meringue pie at the bargain price of 25 cents.

One thing I learned—you never, ever stand behind one of those fearsome women with those large...black handbags reeking of mothballs in search of the ultimate coffee and pie. To cross them was to put your life in jeopardy and, well, as mine was just beginning, I didn’t want to take that chance. Seeing them, I wondered, how old do you really have to get before your hair turns blue?

Oh, I think a lot about this business of getting old. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the fact that I have that privilege. Some are denied it and others (unfortunately) deny it for themselves and for others. But more often these days, I’m starting to think of all those “getting older” jokes and maxims. For example, you know you’re getting old when you put your teeth in a nice juicy steak—and they stay there. Or that old age begins when you and your teeth sleep separately. (I hope that one never happens to me!) Age is beckoning when the “snap, crackle and pop” you hear in the morning has nothing to do with your breakfast…By the time a man is wise enough to watch his step, he’s too old to go anywhere. You know you’re approaching middle age when the only thing you care to exercise is caution.

Old age starts when you try to straighten out the wrinkles in your socks when you discover you aren’t wearing any. Or, when you finally get your head together, your body starts falling apart. (Yikes!) And, lastly, my personal favorite: You know you’re getting old when you find out that the ladder of success you’ve been trying to climb has been leaning against the wrong wall.

I remember back in parochial school when I saw an “old” man trying to read with his glasses midway down his nose, and I thought, what a snob. Now I know better—I’m doing the same thing! Yes, sir, getting old isn’t for sissies. Maybe I should start getting prepared. Subscribe to AARP, join the Hair Club for Men, get one of those “walk-in” bathtubs, start eating pureed food and order that “no-no” contraption that promises to get rid of unwanted hair that grows in unnecessary areas. And while I’m at it, subscribe to those TIME-LIFE music compilations that are presented song by song, looped over and over again on late-night TV almost every half-hour that showcase the “music of our lives.” (So, that is what happens to the “crooners” of yesteryear who once swept the girls off their feet—they eventually land on the small screen to become the “croakers” who peddle their wares to the geriatric set who spend their evenings swilling Phillips milk of magnesia to Patsy Cline numbers. Sorry, Pat Boone, sorry, Reege.)  No, that stuff can wait.

You see, I’m betting on when the geniuses of medical science come up with that magic pill that when, with one dosage, I will be transformed into the everlasting man who will be the envy of all, with no aches or pains, no creaks or crevices. Yeah, sure.  In the not too distant future, I will soon discover the joys of oatmeal, prunes and bran flakes and find that certain green vegetables will make me quite the regular guy. In the meantime, I will be mindful to be grateful to my Creator (as well as my parents) for the gift of life. And I promise not to become too jealous (or envious) of all these newcomers coming up from the rear—for one day, they, too, will come into intimate contact…with the fellow named Arthur Ritis and learn that “Lean on Me” will have entirely new connotations. 

When it comes to this aging business, one thing’s for certain: I’m not ever going to allow my hair to turn blue (that is, if I have any left)—I’ll leave that to the “young-uns” I see walking along Sixth Avenue who already have the blue hair (as well as other colors) and are devotees of body art and think the world began when they were born and think having manners are just so “yesterday” and think a “dress code” means not having to wear anything (or next-to-nothing) and believe that “social networking” doesn’t involve a face-to-face encounter between two human beings, but a transfer of bits and bytes from your iPad to my laptop.

Oh, dear, it is all so tiresome. I’d better not think about this anymore, it is beginning to age me. Right now, though, come to think of it, I’d better run over (more sensible to walk) to Duane Reade across the street and get some Tums, Alka-Seltzer and Pepto-Bismol, have a feast for the upset stomach and lay me down awhile and ponder the mysteries of aging while awaiting the next candle on the cake.    

Joseph McAuley is an assistant editor at America.

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