Commentary Magazine


Golden Age

Old Mrs. Alonzo, in a voice that scared the daylights out of you, called and asked me to come and see her in the Home. It was a gruff, deep, billy-goat croak (though male or female, you couldn’t tell). I pictured her dark, lifted face, tarnished like a mirror, the light tilted in her glasses, her mouth open—as if that would help her to hear any better—the wire dangling from her hearing-aid. So Professor Alonzo had finally put his old mother away. I said, “Oh, Mrs. Alonzo,” and she was flattered that I recognized her over the phone.

I have an old grandmother of my own, on the other side of the city, so I used to look in on the professor’s mother now and then. Feeling guilty—I knew it should have been the other old lady instead. The Alonzos lived one above the other, in identical flats. Grottoes. His furnished in books, top to bottom, leather library chairs—billiard table green—curdling cigar smoke, whiskey decanters: the life of the mind was masculine turf. Hers was a matter of bric-a-brac, lace doilies, shaky-legged tables, and snarled faded carpets which reminded me strongly of the worn hair on the back of her head. The TV set was always blaring full blast; it didn’t distract her in the least, she couldn’t hear it. She pressed her hand to her noisy bosom, breathing rapidly and loudly. You couldn’t help feeling a sense of alarm, as if she were breathing down your neck.

Now Mrs. Alonzo loved to brag about her son—bald, stout, sixtyish, rough and scolding in manner, red in the face. With a great air of taking me into her confidence, glasses glittering to the brim, she showed me his clippings: “He’s a famous man, you know.” Well he was, he was, much more than she thought. For what could his dry-as-dust essays have meant to her? What could she make of them? Written at white heat, in a hand that sent secretaries up the walls. Did you expect her to believe anyone actually read such stuff!

“He works so hard,” she whispered.

With Alonzo, alas, it was another story. He had to shout at his mother at the top of his voice; she couldn’t make out a word he said. I don’t know, she always seemed to understand me. Of course such commonplaces as we exchanged. Still, the professor could speak commonplaces too.

“Mother, I’m going home now,” he’d say, rising, shoving his fingers into tweedy pockets.

“What’s that? What’s that?” Opening her mouth, lifting her head, wires quivering.

He raised his voice. “I say. I’m go-ing home now. Down-stairs.” Stamping his foot and pointing at the carpets.

“What, what? Huh? What’s that?”

She lifted her face, he bent his; the two faces—so much alike, two swelling gourds—pushing closer and closer. His was getting redder and redder, froggy-eyed. I was afraid he was going to have an attack. But then, I was always afraid. Bluster was Alonzo’s trademark, he shouted down everybody. His brilliance bordered on apoplexy. In the heat of argument, he seemed to lisp, his breath hissing and whistling against his teeth. His handful of hairs bristled. You couldn’t help getting scared for him when he got started. And his old mother croaking and cocking her head, mouth dark, innocent specs flashing. She looked like Little Orphan Annie with her frizz of curls, her silver-dollar eyes. Meanwhile, the cowboys on the television were shooting off their cap-pistols. Take that—and that—and that. You saw puffs of smoke.

This was a routine, of course. They were hamming it up. Burlesquing their relation, since it had become a burlesque. Doting mother, dutiful son. But their roles had been painfully reversed. Now she was the slow, stubborn creature who needed to be reasoned with, looked after, coaxed; he was the one who had his hands full. At one end of life and the other, still the same gap. No understanding. So he hollered and lisped, she shook her deaf ear. They expressed their connection. There must be a better way of saying it, with someone you love, who won’t be around much longer. But no one seems to have hit upon it yet.

Everyone scolds my grandmother too. How come she never keeps the chain up on the door? Why won’t she use a cane? When will she let someone take her to the doctor? Etc., etc. She’s eighty-five, humped, stooped, her white head tucked between her shoulders, hands big and knotty with arthritis; a widow on a pension of something like a hundred dollars a month. So who do we think we’re kidding, with our canes and doctors and door-latches? Who’s she going to fool with that stuff? She ducks her head and lets us talk.

Mrs. Alonzo was recovering from a heart attack. Then she started falling. The professor, at his desk, heard the thumps downstairs. She was supposed to pound on the floor—his ceiling—if she wanted anything. But no, she got out of bed by herself instead, groping her way to the bathroom—pipes, painted radiators, grouty tiles, Roman faucets—all the tough old fixtures, waiting to crack her bones. He listened to every creaking overhead, and imagined her tripping on her shabby carpets. She was giving him a hard time—people give what they can.

Things were getting impossible. I saw for myself how they were going. A friend paid a visit with his son. The little boy had a look around—one room yawning into another, the light receding, the dining table with its brittle yellowed lace—and in a small voice asked Mrs. Alonzo how old she was. She lied about her age—lopped off ten years. What for? Why ten? Why not twenty? Why be stingy? (As my grandmother remarked of another octogenarian, “What difference does it make? She looks like a hundred.”) Then the old lady wanted to hold his hand. She reached for it—clawing—they were side by side on the boggy sofa—as if she meant to snatch it away. “It’s mine. It’s mine. I’m going to keep it.” Her face was the color of bullets, her fingers pinched. She wasn’t kidding. The child stiffened, but let his hand lie in hers. I watched this with very big eyes—almost as big as his.

“Actually, I don’t like old people,” he told me afterward. “They give me shivers up my spine.”

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As long as this lovely spell of autumn weather holds, I see the old people every day sitting by the park entrance. A curving sweep of grass and benches, squirrels pouncing on leaves, traffic wincing past on the Outer Drive. Beyond, the blue-blue shimmer of Lake Michigan, and tall downtown buildings docked in the distance, ready to sail on. At each bench sits a wheelchair, some “senior citizen” hunched within; and on the bench—shackled like a familiar spirit—a sturdy black woman with her knitting, or reading a movie magazine spread open on her knees.

One of these couples I like especially. The old man, in his hound’s-tooth checked cap, likes to get out of the chair and push—back bent, gripping the handles; the young nursemaid, legs gray in white stockings, dawdling at his side. Meanwhile the great yellow maple shakes its branches, the leaves simply falling off, spattering petals, raining beauty, drenched with gold.

Empty folding chairs were still standing outside, all up and down the front walk of the Woodlawn Home. A straggling lineup, as if the old themselves were sitting and staring. It had been a warm fall day; crabapple trees strewed the lawns, leaves were scratching and swirling. Coming ‘round the bend, I could already hear voices like Mrs. Alonzo’s—raucous, growling in a drainpipe.

An old woman, stooping in her walker, a sweater on her hooked back. An old gentleman, very small, very neat, with a tight white collar and a tight brown skin. His lip was stretched against his tight white teeth.

‘Well, what about these teachers of yours?” he was saying. “These Arthur Murray teachers? Were there any women at least?”

“No, no,” she said. “Only men. Two men.”

“Thanks a lot.” Leaning on his stick. “Men. Who needs that?”

The Home is built in two wings—a tall one, where the old people live, and a long, low entrance wing with waiting rooms, recreation rooms, administrative offices. The corridors were wide, smooth, shining, done in Howard Johnson colors, and a sukkah stood in the lobby. Broad red-tipped leaves, Indian corn, yellow squash, lemons, oranges, apples, melons. A woman saw me sniffing and motioned: take, take. She was very large, smiling from cheek to cheek, and her lips squeaked, soundless, as if you’d squeezed rubber. Take, take. But I didn’t take. Another woman, with a cane and dark glasses, was sitting sideways in her chair and asked for the time without glancing up.

I stopped to read the bulletin board. There seemed to be a heavy schedule. Movies, cocktail parties, religious services, bingo, Arthur Murray. A woman was pushing herself along in a wheelchair and paused to see what I was looking at.

“They keep you pretty busy here?”

“No,” she said, gazing up at the board. Then she asked me what time it was.

It was 4:30. That was why everyone wanted to know the time. It was getting close to dinner. Meals come early in institutions, remember, a matter of the kitchen shifts. All down the corridor, people were asking the time, waiting in their chairs. It was too early to go, but everyone was ready. In fact, some were already sitting in the dining room, at the small tables with their red-checkered cloths. Steely carts. Prominently displayed was a juice machine, the sort you see in movie theaters, popcorn galleries, stroking and churning a thick purple froth.

The dining room was in the other wing. As soon as you stepped over the border, the scene changed in an instant. Everything looked older, darker, dingier; the corridors long, dim, narrow, lined with chairs like the gloomy hallways of clinics. There was a familiar spilled, clinging smell. The urinals? Old people missing the pot? This was where they lived. That was the difference. I rode upstairs. Everywhere they were converging. Tapping down the halls on their canes, holding onto the handrails, propping their shiny chrome walkers. They came rolling up the elevators in their wheelchairs, elbows lifted, working, gristly wings. Down the rows of open doorways I could see them leaning over sinks, looking into mirrors, getting ready for dinner.

Mrs. Alonzo was not one of these. I knew she was bedridden, had brought her some books and a magazine which had just published a piece of mine—she liked to read. (My grandmother can read and write, but not with the greatest of ease. In fact it’s a physical effort, full of anxiety. The whole world withers on the vine.)

I found Alonzo’s mother cranked up in bed against a pile of pillows, rails raised on either side. She’d dropped off, head back, mouth slack, string hanging from her earpiece. Nappy grizzled head. I could hear her breathing from the doorway—ransacking and rummaging in her breast.

Just then the nurse came in to give her a pill. The old lady’s eyes flew open behind rimless specs with a startled expression, a sort of angry surprise. Her head struggled, lifted. She gasped down something from a little paper cup. The nurse went off, hips wagging in her girdle.

The Home is in the thick of a desolate ghetto. One of those burnt-out places at the heart of the city—bombed out, boarded up, shattered glass, charred timbers. Through the slats of Venetian blinds I spied black children playing stickball in a rubbled lot. It was planted like a minefield with bricks, stones, scrap metal, squinting glass. Well, what can you do when the city goes into competition with you, sets up its own spectacles of decline and destruction? Here was an old soul under the wrecking-ball, undergoing the same kind of senseless assault. It was plain she didn’t know who I was (who was I?). I pulled up a chair and sat down by the bed, my magazine under my arm.

She looked over and stared at me, eyes wide open, as if something had her by the throat. She tried to lift her head. Her mouth munched. She wanted something; she thought I was the nurse.

“What is it? Water?” I held the glass tube to her lips. She didn’t drink. “You want your pillows straightened? You want to be turned?” She kept trying to speak, straining her head. Then she gave a loud burp. Her throat rasped. I thought she was going to spit up the pill she’d just taken, and fetched the kidney-shaped pan from the bed-stand. But that wasn’t it either. I was getting panicked, ready to yank for the nurse.

The fact is, I was frightened at being left alone with her, as I’d been frightened my first time alone with a newborn infant. Not knowing what it wanted, what it needed—its tottering feeble head, strange noises, grasping fingers. I was frightened and ashamed of myself for not knowing what she wanted. Or, rather, for continuing to ask, to seek—as if. As if there actually were something, some simple measure, word, gesture, that would answer for the moment. And that would be “what she wanted.” There was no such answer.

She reached over the rail, feeling for my hand. Her grip was strong. I remembered the way she had held onto the little boy’s hand—same thing. Her eyes were faded at the rims, irises surrounded by dim thick rings. This truly reminded me of the newborn infant: two staring eyes, cloudy, unseeing. A tenuous connection with the other world. I looked back, wondering and wondering. Is it a puzzle—or a mystery?

“Ma,” she said. Then she sighed. “Gee whiz. Oh, gee whiz.”

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My mother has just started working for the Golden Diners Club, a program for “senior citizens” from the mayor’s office. There are more than fifty such places throughout the city, where the elderly can get “hot, nourishing, low-cost lunches.” They pay what they like, they don’t need to pay anything. It isn’t charity or welfare, it isn’t just for the poor. But it is hard to convince them that it isn’t—that this is their right, they’ve earned it; that they don’t owe anybody anything and have already paid their dues.

There is also Meals-on-Wheels, for those, like my grandmother, who can’t get out. But for the time being this program operates only in the extreme northern section of the city—where there are plenty of old people, God knows, but not nearly so many, nor in such a plight—to judge from their surroundings—as in some other areas. Uptown, for instance, where my grandmother lives.

The one where my mother works is in a synagogue on the north side, where they serve kosher food, so the customers are all Orthodox Jews from the old country. We were going to a funeral in the family and were meeting there at lunchtime. My mother sent me in the car to fetch her lazy old aunt, Yetta, who sometimes comes there to eat.

Auntie Yetta lives only a few blocks away, in a terrace of brick flats right next to the concrete bunker of the El tracks. The trains go past like a rock slide. It looks like a munitions factory. Crab grass shoots from cracks in the concrete, the bricks, the cement sidewalks. The smell of the warm, bright autumn day rose heavy-hearted from all this mortar. It took her a long time to come to the door. I could hear her unfastening the many locks and chains.

All my grandmother’s sisters look alike—exactly like their mother, my great-grandmother, The Bobbeh. When I think of her I see the scanty rusted grass on the slight mound of her grave, the tipping headstone. Then there rises before me the great leaning form of The Bobbeh herself, pitching her weight heavily from side to side.

The Bobbeh had trouble with her legs; thick, swollen, bowed—from ankle to knee it was a 45° angle. She walked without a cane, but broken and listing. All her daughters have the same difficulty; it’s an ethnic disease, like sickle-cell anemia or Tay-Sachs, and afflicts women of the East European Diaspora. The thigh bone softens and bends and drags you down like a fruit tree. Of course I didn’t know this as a child; their distorted legs were just them, the way they looked, how I thought they should look. Or, as I would say now, characteristic. Even more characteristic were their Slavic cheeks—wide, flat, heavy with bone, and so high their eyes seemed to be peering over a ledge. Above, you saw the glitter.

They all looked like squatting idols—gazing at you from a distance. So maybe I am imagining The Bobbeh, wide in her chair, filling it from side to side; huge, silent, her hands heavy on the armrests, and her terrible legs in front of her, in the foreground, wrapped in thick sleeves of flesh. Maybe. She wore Gypsy scarves, earrings, beads, aprons; she was, virtually, a Gypsy. The house was always full of her cronies, with their cards and tea leaves, rolling their little brown cigarettes with a flick of the tongue, cracking dirty jokes (according to my mother) in the Romany dialect. I remember the heads slyly together, the snickers of laughter, all those gold teeth twinkling like loot.

I can’t recall that The Bobbeh ever said a word to me. I didn’t speak any of her languages. Besides, it must have gotten boring after a while, all those descendants. Thirty grandchildren; she must have stopped counting the great-. She slipped and fell in the bathtub, cracked her hip, couldn’t get out of the water, and died of pneumonia a week later. A series of events I regret to this day.

The door opened and there stood white-haired Auntie Yetta, more conservative than her mother—as who wouldn’t be?—but with the same prominent cheeks, flat barriers, the same legs sinking under the weight of her body. She gazed at me over her cheeks. She was still in her slip.

“Oh, I’m sick today, honey,” she said, whining a little.

I could see this was a lot of hooey. She just didn’t feel like getting dressed. Not in the cards. In that family they never cared to get dressed. As a child I used to love to stay for a visit, so I wouldn’t have to get dressed either. Behind her, the room was in a familiar mess: clothes, papers strewn everywhere, dirty dishes, bread crusts, apple cores. It’s always like that; Yetta also doesn’t like to clean. If you were a fish, you could swim through it. She wades, sideways, slow crustacean.

She said another sister, Lena, might be going to the Golden Diners today. Lena had taken her husband to the clinic in the morning and would be coming from the El. “If you keep your eye open, you might spot them.”

It was actually hot, lawnmowers buzzing, spraying fine green dust, though the air smelled of leaf-smoke. I didn’t see them. I was in the bathroom at the shul, washing my hands at the sink before lunch, when a white-haired woman came hauling herself in on stunted, curved legs, lurching violently from side to side. She wore a house-dress zipped up the front, and her cheeks were like stone slabs.

“Auntie Lena!”

She put her fingers to her forehead. “Oh, I know who you are,” she said. “I know who you are.”

She was tired; she had taken her husband to the clinic at 7:30 A.M. and had just got back. “You know how they keep you waiting.” He has dizzy spells, falls all the time, for some reason can walk only backward. So it would have been easy enough to “spot them,” coming down the street; him toppling backward and her from side to side. In this manner, the two sick old people get themselves where they have to go. They climb the stairs of the elevated tracks, board madly rushing trains. How does she shove him on, I wonder? This has been going on for years.

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One hundred and sixty-seven had signed up for lunch, a small turnout. Fridays are better: wine, challah, roast chicken. Today no one knew what was on the menu, and everyone was asking, clattering out the metal chairs. A typical church-function room, a platform at one end, windows narrow and high up, the dull gleam of linoleum and long, tin-topped tables. At each place was laid a slice of bread under a paper napkin, plastic knife, fork, spoon, and a slice of pineapple in a plasticized cup. The faces of the old people at these tables seemed remarkably standardized. It was the false teeth and the glasses, the artificial light of their faces. Above all, the glasses. Their eyes were huge, seemed to explode behind the thick lenses. They sat like a new race of children, lifting up their big, blurred eyes. They were waiting for the blessing.

An arm shot up in the back of the room—my father, waving to show me where we were sitting. A great mauled-looking man in a dark blue suit. It was the latest style, single-breasted, narrow in the shoulders, belted in back, and every time he made one of his large gestures, I was sure he’d rip a seam. This Lord Fauntleroy stuff is not for him. I’d say Dying Gladiator or Laocoön. His skullcap sat on the back of his thick dusty hair like a lid; his shirt collar and tie looked to be choking him, and his eyes were a startling, smarting, blinking blue—like the eyes of a coal miner coming up from the pits. He looked startled and stricken; the death was in his family—a beautiful child.

Everyone gets frightened, hearing of the death of a child. Everyone knows what it means, a punctured pain, a hook in the heart. We say “heartache,” “heartbreak,” the heart this, the heart that. But that’s really where you feel it. Isn’t that strange? If I was feeling bad, think of my poor parents. This was the second death in as many weeks which had been peculiarly painful. One of their oldest and dearest friends, a constant companion, had been shot dead in his store. The period of mourning was just over—the widow, wearing sunglasses to hide swollen eyes, talking slowly and tonelessly in a voice hollow with sedation, a chain of thick gold rings, bracelets, hanging heavy round her neck (the jewelry on her husband’s wrists and fingers when he died). You could say my father’s “heart” was heavy.

We were all the way at the end, with Auntie Lena and my mother’s sister Sylvia, who had come down to help out with the Golden Diners. It was her day off and she was going with us. My mother was still dashing about, energetic in her light blue pants suit—though her hair is pure white, whiter than anybody’s here—so her place was empty. Next to it, a large, loose-jointed, acromegalic type leaned on his elbows, smoking. He had long jaws, hairy ears, and the smoke spurted from his nostrils. He reached over and nipped her slice of bread.

The microphone gave a piercing bleat and whistled. A young woman was up on the platform, trying to get everyone’s attention. But they hadn’t come to give their attention. In fact, their manner, heads craning, fists on the table, said very plainly they had come to get. Where were the eats? They were getting impatient. She was announcing the day’s planned activities and the circulation of a petition. A matter of vital interest, abolition of the state sales tax on food for senior citizens. But no one was listening. The microphone popped with exasperation. “If you don’t care about yourselves, no one will care about you,” she said at last. Only too true; though I didn’t like to hear the rows of gray heads addressed as kindergartners—maybe because the comparison suggested itself so forcefully. At any rate, it rolled off, water off a duck’s back, and they went on quacking.

I didn’t hear the blessing, but it must have been said, because they were chewing their bread; and the man with the fur in his ears ripped off my mother’s pineapple.

“Look out,” says my father, “here comes the soup.”

Two women, evidently Golden Diners themselves, were pushing their way through the long rows of chairs. One fearfully lifting a tray of trembling little soup bowls, mandeln bobbing. The other following close behind, scolding shrilly at the top of her voice.

They slapped the soup on the table; it spilled all over my mother’s chair.

“Look what you did! you did!” the loud one squawked and flapped.

“Don’t yell at her so much,” I said. “You make her spill the soup.”

The first one rolled her eyes at me over her shoulder. “Don’t pay no attention,” she whispered. “She’s not all there.”

The little bowls slopped and splashed on the table. Don’t spill the soup, the soup! The microphone shrieked and hooted. My father shook his head: “Those two dizzy dames are always fighting.” He bent over, his big shoulders sad, weighted, mopping up my mother’s chair with paper napkins, and the old guy neatly snatched away her soup plate.

Sitting next to Auntie Lena was a fellow with a round beaming face, owlish and unblinking in his big glasses, a satisfied, boastful, peaceful expression, his paper napkin tucked ‘round his neck. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw her twist to him now and then—give him a sharp poke, a tap on the wrist, swiping his chin. It dawned on me that she was “minding” him, that this must be her husband, my Uncle Whatsisname. Now we were even.

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We were attracting a lot of attention. We were being served first; my mother had told them in the kitchen that we had to go to a funeral. By now everyone was looking down at our end with steady resentment. The faces turned from the other tables. Privileged characters! They didn’t like to see outsiders here in the first place. Young people (even my Aunt Sylvia fell into that category, striking, silver-haired, her face cheerfully lifted). Vigorous people. And now we were getting served first on top of it, while they were still waiting.

I was wondering about something. My mother and Sylvia are quite a pair. Not smart, expensive; they’re working-class women who get their hair done every other week and go in for bright colors—pink, yellow, purple—like their Rumanian grandmother. Summer beauties. The two sparkling pretty sisters get dressed up, go to weddings, put the brides to shame. (It’s true my mother has her grim, dark, liverish days, but I’m not talking about that now.) My mother is older by ten years and leads an even livelier social life, always stepping out. “Where’s your mother tonight?” my grandmother wants to know when I call her. She thinks I keep tabs. “Is that a Jessie! Always running.”

Okay. My point is this. My white-haired mother could be one of those sitting and waiting at the Golden Diners herself—not working here. Lena is only six or seven years older—and look at the life she leads. And how resignedly; a waddling old woman with a sick husband in tow. Then what is the difference? What constitutes entry into the ranks of the elderly? What is the dividing line, if it’s not just years? Money? There must be more to it. Sickness? Senility? Being alone? But Lena has children, grandchildren. I bet they all do. The people at the Woodlawn Home have families too. It’s their families who put them there.

In my neighborhood I pass a certain basement window: Council for the Jewish Elderly. There are always signs: Do you need a lawyer? A doctor? A visiting nurse? Information about Medicare? Medicaid? Hours are posted for the shuttle bus to Michael Reese Hospital. It looks like they’ve got troubles. The elderly are a subculture in our society of subcultures. They have not so much a life in common, as a condition. Who understands this condition? What can be made of it? Cut off, under attack, no retreat?

These people here were all old Jews. Judging from the accents I heard around me, they had come over on the boat. They were not, as the jargon goes, assimilated. But there are places like this all over the city. Golden Diners—Golden Agers—are not just immigrants. Still, that status is symbolic. All of them must be in the same situation: they are not entirely of America either.

The two women were coming with the main course—the trays held high, as if to keep them out of reach. The one ducked her head, the other stretched her throat, straining her voice. For once the buzz died down. “Who’s going to the funeral?” she demanded. “Who’s going to the funeral?”

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My grandmother lives in Uptown, in a large old elevator building. In Chicago, a city of the plains, built outward, low-lying, such vintage structures are not so common. This neighborhood, now so squalid, was once quite fancy, with its stone urns on the lintels, filled with red geraniums, its canopies and doormen. A mayor of Chicago used to live there. At least, every time we enter and traverse the vast lobby—a trackless waste, I feel like a camel plodding across the Gobi desert—my father remarks: “Mayor So-and-So of Chicago used to live here.” (I met this Mayor So-and-So once, was taken up to the dark wood-paneled offices with their swinging gates and swivel chairs. I had won a grade-school spelling bee. The mayor pushed out his hand—past his big buttoned paunch—and, as we shook, asked me to spell “eleemosynary.” I corrected his pronunciation. My God.) I’m not exactly sure what my father means by this, but have an idea. He means to say that all this is not so shabby after all, it’s only a matter of appearances. Every dog has had its day.

And in fact this neighborhood will rise again—it is in the path of progress, so to speak. Heading north along the lakefront, the trail of the young, the fashionable, the singles’ bars, wine and cheese shops, liberal politicians, psychiatrists’ townhouses. The culture mishmash, propagandists for the good life in the city. This is their territory. (“Interesting people with complex demands,” as one of the rental ads puts it. God forbid anyone should admit to simple needs.) First there was Old Town, then New Town; next will be Uptown. That’s the direction. And this drive must be very great, all powerful: it would have to be, to overcome even this. These decrepit old buildings, leaking sewer gas, grimy glitter, tattered newspapers whirling up, possessed—all this will come down, disappear; glass high-rises go up in its place; and the misery will move elsewhere. After all, that’s easy; it’s footloose and fancy-free.

The lobby is stripped; just a few cracked mirrors, the prongs of the chandeliers. At one end a black and yellow sign is posted: FALL-OUT SHELTER. But it only leads upstairs. I always wonder about that. Down at the other end, at the glassed-in reception desk, a shirt cardboard leans against the counter: OUT TO LUNCH. Through the window you can still see the old-fashioned switchboard, plugs torn from the sockets; the empty pigeon-holes which used to hold mail, telegrams, a flurry of important messages. The present tenants get mail once a month: pension, relief checks. The desk clerk has been OUT TO LUNCH for fifteen years.

The pièce de résistance is the elevator. There are two—one reserved for the janitor’s use. As you can see, someone has a sense of humor. Janitor? What janitor? And if none exists, do we need to invent one? The tenants are not here to complain about leaky faucets. They’re on their last legs themselves—a condition they are used to. My uncle was trapped in this elevator once—it fell to the basement. The alarm button didn’t work, he banged and yelled until the Fire Department came to the rescue. A cop, six-four, padded with police fat; he didn’t think it was so funny. And what if it had happened to one of them?

The upper part of the door is a dirty gray slush color; through the dim glass you can see it coming—the light rising like an acetylene torch in a coal shaft. It clanks, creaks, rattles its chains; there’s a scraping and lashing overhead, like storm-tossed branches. This elevator is it in a nutshell, a capsulized version of the paranoia of our city life, our guilt and dread. An ancient, corrupt piece of machinery, plainly a fire hazard, no sticker of inspection. Is it going to fall? Is it going to fail? Will the door open? And who will get in? Some drunk breathing fumes you could light with a match? Quarrelsome, derelict? Or just someone so old, so broken-down, so weary of the march, you hate to look. You drop your eyes. I’d take the stairs, but it’s ten flights up and they’re not always lighted. Groping my way down once, striking matches, I came upon a pair of broken glasses in a pool of flaked blood. As for the freight elevator, never send to know.

This building is ten times better than the one my grandmother moved out of a few years ago.

At your knock, you hear slippers shuffling to the door. The chain scrapes in the latch; she opens and peeks out. Head thrust forward, peering from the hump between her shoulders.

“How many times do I have to tell you? First you look—then you take the chain off. What good does it do if you take the chain off first?”

“I know, I know.” Her feet scrape the floor, dragging along her big loose slippers. Big arthritic hands dangling from her wrists. “Leave the door open for some air. It’s all right now you’re here.”

The bed is made, the table cleared, dishes stacked in the drain rack. She’s not like Yetta. Still, it’s not very clean either. The dishes are greasy, the floor needs sweeping, there is a smell from the bathroom like the smell in the corridors of the Woodlawn Home. Speckles of sooty dust from the open window. The curtains are struggling and fluttering. The room has a western exposure, overlooks the vast industrial plain of Chicago. A lot of bricks, flat roofs, tar, gravel, smokestacks, water tanks. The rising particles glitter; the mighty haze hurts your eyes.

Once or twice a year a man comes around with a pail of water and washes the windows for a couple of bucks. He climbs out and hooks himself in; sits on the ledge, rolling his big cigar in his mouth, his great buckled galoshes thrust into the room. My grandmother pulls in her head and hides her eyes with her hand, afraid for him. “I dasn’t look.”

“Well? How are you feeling?”

“I?” Stiff-necked, turning herself sideways. Surprised you ask. “I’m all right.”

“What took you so long to make up your mind?”

She chuckles at my scolding. It’s our form of communication, like Alonzo and his Ma with their vaudeville routine. Her eyes squeezed in a smile, flashing her pearly bridge. I don’t know when we got into this habit, but after all she knows what I mean. She looks a little timid, shrinking, in fact—hunched in her corner—as if she’s afraid I might start talking in another vein. Her heavy hands hang in her lap.

My grandmother’s fingers are bent—fused—in the shape of a priest’s making the sign of the cross. Pretty strange for an old Jewish lady with all her Jewish infirmities! With these hands she pries open tins, digging at the jagged lids with her old-fashioned puncture-type opener—the kind I can’t use. The only kind she can; she has no grip. She carries food to the table, the hot heavy pots practically dangling from her fingertips. What would she say if she knew I was thinking all the while that she looked like the Pope?

_____________

 

No sooner have we sat down, the door open, than in slinks a black cat, rubbing its arched back against the wall. Presently two women appear in the doorway, holding onto one another, hand in hand.

“Did anyone see a cat?”

Their voices quaver. They seem to be identical twins. Two withered old crones, hooked backs, hooked noses. Even their chins are hooked—tipping upward. White hairs quiver on their chinnychin-chins. But the crazy part is, they’re dressed like twins—dolled up by some doting mother—knitted caps, crocheted shawls, long thick woolen stockings, Mary Janes with straps. An overpowering impression of second childhood.

“A black cat?”

“Look under the bed,” says my grandmother.

That’s what she used to say when I asked for a penny. She wasn’t being facetious, not her style. My big handsome grandfather, a storekeeper, was careless with small change. It fell out of his pockets, his apron and trousers, and rolled around on the floor. In those days my grandmother was big and handsome herself—a tall woman with broad wide cheeks, like an Indian, and a powerful repose.

You could see the curve of strong, silken tail sticking out from under the bedcovers. “Sit down. He’ll come out when he’s ready.”

The aged twins, plucking at each other, steadying, holding hands—at the same time helping and hindering—tiptoe in and pull out chairs at the dining table.

I suppose I should say something about the furniture. But what’s there to say? It’s in keeping. Junk. An enamel-topped kitchen table, scratched like a bathtub, a couple of “upholstered” chairs—sprung, soggy stuff you wouldn’t be surprised to find in an alley. And by the way, where do all those busted, water-logged sofas come from, that I keep seeing on the curbs? Is there an epidemic? This is not, as with Mrs. Alonzo, the accumulation of a lifetime. There is nothing here from the past. There is also a television set, with rabbit ears, and a telephone at last—a Christmas gift from Sylvia. Now we can worry when we ring and ring and get no answer.

The twins have a story. It seems they had found a pension check in the street, under the viaduct. (I know that desolate spot, full of feathers and pigeon splash.) At first, they had passed it up.

“I sez right away, I sez—‘Say, that looked like a pension check.’ Didn’t I say that?”

“I could of told you. Anyone could tell a pension check. It’s the government onvelope.”

“So we went back and picked it up.”

Went back. That would be worth a discussion. It’s not so easy to “go back”—to retrace such doubtful, tottering steps. What if it wasn’t a check? What if the onvelope was empty? But there it was, the address nearby. Trembling, all excitement, they looked up the rightful owner; a colored man named Jackson, who came downstairs in his overalls—for he’d been working on the roof.

“Are you Jackson?”

“What you want to know for?”

And so on. My grandmother smiling, turning sideways, ears between her shoulders. The way she listens to everybody; keeping her thoughts to herself.

Jackson gave them five bucks apiece, and you should see what they bought at the A&P. More than they could carry, I’ll bet. The elderly, who can afford it the least, always buy the most expensive way—the smallest quantities. Because they’re alone, they have no money, no place to put the stuff—and they have to get what they can carry. No use picking out a five-pound bag of sugar if you can’t lift five pounds. They have to think of that; a prominent fact of life in these parts. Once I arrived just as my grandmother was coming along, head poked forward in her babushka, legs crooked, akimbo, seemingly dragged clown by the heavy package in either hand. She was carrying a bundle for her neighbor. It occurred to me that anyone noticing her—if anyone notices anyone here, where they all have such grim preoccupations—a stranger, passing by, would think: Here comes a funny little old lady! An elf, a gnome. And not know. Know what? What am I trying to say? And what was she doing, carrying someone else’s groceries?

Well, I could believe these twins had struggled with their miserable shopping bags, ten bucks worth of groceries, putting them down and lifting them and tugging at each other’s sleeves all the way home. They went on talking; two faces like wrinkled pouches, pelican throats.

I used to resent these gate crashers.

Every time I visit my grandmother, someone always shows up. It’s inevitable. The next door neighbor, for instance, picks just this moment to return the TV guide from the newspaper. “Oh, I didn’t know you had visitors,” she’ll say, clutching and closing her wrapper. “I’ll come back later on.” Half-stooping, apologetic—ready to sit down, waiting to be asked.

“Stay, stay—” from my grandmother. “Anything good on tonight?”

“Phooey. Same old junk.”

TV is another prominent fact of life. They all watch television—what else is there? Their heroes are the teen-age idols of yesteryear; my grandmother loves, loves, loves James Dean, Elvis Presley. They observe the pop culture daily, with its soap operas, game shows, reruns, old movies—its commercials and more commercials. So they know all about us. And it’s all right with them. You can’t take them by surprise; they’re ready for anything. This is the modern world; it’s all in the script.

My grandmother told me about a girl she had seen shopping at the A&P. The store was full of old-age pensioners of the neighborhood, plucking their little tins of evaporated milk off the shelves—when in stomps this girl, briskly wheeling a cart. She was wearing (so far as I can make out from the description) a cape, a nude body-stocking, and hip boots. That’s it. If she had a mask, she’d be Batwoman.

“Everybody looked,” my grandmother said. “But we didn’t say nothing. We know it’s the style.”

_____________

 

One of the things my grandmother likes about this place is that it is not “just for old people”—like public housing for the elderly, which would be cheaper and cleaner. She resents the category. I don’t blame her. And she’s right, this building is not just for old people—that’s not the common denominator. The poverty of this neighborhood is almost more rural than urban; rock bottom, deep-rooted; that’s because there is a heavy Appalachian and Indian population—a special, stubborn despair. And then there are the Halfway Houses, which turn up here by the same natural process, the order of things, the life cycle. So it’s nothing to see people haggling with themselves in the streets, talking out loud, looking over their shoulders. And old women with empty baby buggies pawing in trash cans. These people are more than old—they are outcast. They have escaped the net, they are outside every sort of social institution. In other words, they give me the shivers.

But why can’t they come some other time, I would think—come when she’s alone? She’s alone so much. Why now? When I’m here? And—since it’s no use if you don’t tell the truth—who needs such visitors? Who wants them? My grandmother is my grandmother, but who are they?

Which just goes to show you: I didn’t understand anything. Not the first thing.

My grandmother is one of the few in this building. in this whole neighborhood for that matter—which is, after all, a kind of reservation for the elderly—one of the very few who “has anybody.” Family, that is; people who love and care, whose visits are more than duty. These others come to be close to that forgotten feeling. To steal up next to it, warm themselves at the fire. My grandmother knows this, and that’s why she always tells me to “leave the door open for some air.”

All, here’s the rub. If that’s true, if that’s true—then what is she doing in a place like this? A place for those who have nobody, who are alone in their extremity, forgotten, spewed up, swept out with the sawdust and ashes, with their perishable belongings, refugees of old age.

_____________

 

Last winter the old lady tripped and tell in the house. (Didn’t we tell her not to keep that crummy throw rug by her bed?) She didn’t break anything, but she was on the floor for seven hours, passing out, trying repeatedly to pick herself up. Thinking of The Bobbeh in the bathtub, I wonder? At her age, that didn’t do her much good. In the hospital, they doped her up; her mind wandered. I was afraid she’d lose hold, seeing her lip curled back from the bright line of teeth—a death snarl, like a mummy. “Don’t take any pills,” I shrieked at her. “You know what pain is, you’re used to it. Don’t swallow anything. Leave it under your tongue.” Advice after her own heart: she’s scared stiff of doctors with their black bags, merchants of death. And hospitals, and the smells. and the night vigils. (“You know how these old people are,” the nurse said, winking with complicity, tapping her forehead.) So she stretched herself out stiffly and all she could think of was getting out, going back home. She was still insisting with a stubborn will—lifting her head from the pillows—that she didn’t want to live with anyone.

But we all knew the time had come.

Everyone offered. Even I offered. She put up a fight. I live too far from the rest; she’d be stranded out there, no one else would come to see her. Besides, she knows I work at home and don’t want someone looking over my shoulder. Her sons’ wives aren’t Jewish, though that’s not the real complication. The daughters-in-law never show up for a visit. “How come, if you want me so much?” And Aunt Irene has an old mother of her own, paralyzed in a nursing home in Quaker, Pennsylvania. This other old woman was also looking forward to “going home”—which they had auctioned off with all her belongings meantime.

As for her two gay pretty daughters with their busy social lives—my grandmother defended herself. “You’re never home. What would I do alone all day?”

“But you’re alone all day now. Why do you want to give us an argument? You know you’re no trouble!”

What’s the use of talking. You see what a stubborn old woman she is.

No one heard what she was saying: that she wants to be taken care of, she needs to be; she’s too old, too weak, she’s ready to lay her burden down. But what good is it, moving in with someone, if she’s to be “no trouble”?

My mother would have taken her as a matter of course. She quit her job to take care of their father, when he was dying. She’s the one who does that sort of thing in our family. But my mother was about to go on a cruise. She had put down her deposit, she was looking forward. Ten days in the Caribbean, a call in Venezuela. All her friends go on cruises! (My father is a retired factory worker; their friends are in much higher income brackets.) The poor woman wanted to go on her cruise; she had her heart set on it. And she didn’t see why one of the others, the rest of us, couldn’t take care of my grandmother for such a short time, until she got back.

This was cruel. My mother didn’t deserve to be put in this position, not after all her faithful service. But her father died fifteen years ago. She has since joined the Great American Public. And she’s fifteen years closer to the grave herself, that’s really what it’s all about. She has discovered that life is for having a good time—a recent discovery with her, as it is historically. Since when do the lumpenproletariat take cruises to Venezuela? And the death of a child used to be an ordinary event. Now it seems terrible, the worst that can happen. Was it less terrible, when it was common? I might ask my grandmother, who lost two of her own, but she’s not talking.

After two days, Sylvia’s husband said, loud enough for the old lady to overhear: “Why don’t you put your mother in the Home, where she belongs?” Well everyone knows how he is. He was raised in the Home himself—an orphan.

My grandmother couldn’t rest until she crept back here, to her hole in the wall. She heard the sigh of relief. Because she’s so stubborn, independent, won’t take anything, be a burden to anyone. She’s not senile (“thank God”). She never complains. Those seem to be the alternatives, that’s the way it is these days. It’s nobody’s fault; she knows it’s the style.

_____________

 

She will live out her life here, stick it out to the end. It’s too late to leave now. She has become attached to her belongings, her surroundings, no matter how wretched. That’s not for us to say. To her neighbors, tapping on the door with their rubber-tipped canes. Roots? No time to talk of that. Barnacles, better. To cling or not to cling. She has found her last spar.

It’s fiercer than ever. If you go to the store for her, right away out comes the pocketbook, her stiff fingers prizing the clasp, digging and scraping as she glances up sharply: “How much? Huh? How much?” Her voice is getting rough. I find myself raising my voice more and more. She peers round at the sound—turning her whole self stiffly sideways, her whole head between her shoulders, trying to make out a strange noise in the dark. She looks very inquisitive. But of whom, of what, is she inquiring? I think she could be getting a little deaf, in her old age.

_____________

About the Author

Bette Howland is the author of W-3, Blue in Chicago, and Things to Come and Go. She is currently working on a novel, City of Refuge.




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