The oldest person I recall having known in the Canarsie of my youth was Mrs. Barnett. She was old when I was in the Grace Church Sunday School; maybe ninety when I entered high school. By the time I left for college she was positively ancient. But age is relative.
Those of us who entered college in the late sixties and early seventies knew enough not to trust anyone over thirty. We couldn’t imagine being in our forties like—ugh—our parents. Living beyond that was completely beyond our fathoming. Singer-songwriter Paul Simon may have summed it up best in his song Old Friends, “How terribly strange to be seventy.” Of course, Paul Simon turned eighty just last week. Art Garfunkel will reach the same milestone next month. I wonder if the duo saw that coming. How terribly strange.
Mrs. Barnett seemed strange to us Grace Church kids. She was most noted for her cowbell.
Grace Church observed an old American Protestant New Year's Eve tradition, the Watch Night Service. As a sober alternative to other New Year’s celebrations, Watch Night began at the church around 9:00 p.m., with food and board games and other fundamentalist frivolity. Then, at 11:00, things quieted down as we moved from the fellowship hall to the sanctuary. What happened next was a pretty much standard church service: hymns, prayers, testimonies, and a short sermon from the pastor.
I recently turned sixty-nine, not seventy but terribly strange anyway. I truly never saw this coming. Inside I still feel like a teenager. I suck up the pains in my feet, knees, shoulders, everywhere, because one as young as I should not have those pains. But who am I kidding? I’m old. Been that way a while and getting more so every day.
Recently someone asked about the signs of aging, and what your personal experience would lead you to title a book about the subject. If I were to write such a book, the title would be “I’m All Right,” based on an incident from a few days ago.
I had dropped my car off to have a leaky tire checked. I didn’t have an appointment, and the shop said it would be at least an hour and a half until they could get to it. That was no problem—I could walk to a nearby coffee shop and get some work done while I waited.
I tossed my backpack, with a load of books and a laptop, over one shoulder and headed into town. To get to the coffee shop I needed to cross a six-lane divided highway. There was a light but no crosswalk. Piece of cake, right? I was a Canarsie boy. I’d run across Linden Boulevard and Kings Highway even without the benefit of a light.
I had the light. I waited for it to turn green, made sure no one was turning into the intersection, and started walking briskly toward the median. I figured if I made it that far and the light turned yellow I’d just wait there until traffic died down or the light changed again.
As I crossed the median the light stayed green. I hesitated, giving it time to change. It didn’t. I decided to cross the remaining three lanes at a trot. High school and college athlete me would have had no problem. Heck, even the me who rode in a 56-mile bike event just two years ago could’ve taken three lanes in stride.
Newly-minted sixty-nine-year-old me began that trot and quickly noticed that my upper body was moving faster than my feet. Don’t get me wrong, my feet tried to keep up, but they kept lagging farther and farther behind. This was due to something called “neuropathy,” which I’ve had for a few years. Finally they stopped altogether and my head and chest sailed forward, then downward onto the pavement.
Somehow I managed to save my body, except my big toe, which was bruised quite badly. I saved my good black jeans without so much as a scuff mark. Even my hands, which seemed to take the brunt of the fall, came out with no more than a grease mark. My dignity, however, didn’t remain intact.
By the time I stood up to retrieve my backpack and the reading glasses that had slipped out of my shirt pocket, the light had changed. No one in the southbound lanes could move because there was an old guy tottering around in them. People started lowering their windows.
“Are you hurt?”
One fellow opened his car door. “Do you need any help?”
I glanced at my unscathed jeans, tossed the laptop bag back over my left shoulder, held up my right hand for the stopped traffic to see, and announced with a smile, “I’m all right.”
And I was. I knew it right then.
Sure, my big toenail was blue when I got home that afternoon. I might still lose it. A lot of my peers lost more than a toenail in Vietnam. I bet if I’d known anyone in the cars I’d delayed I’d have been embarrassed. But I’ve been embarrassed before. You don’t have to be old to be embarrassed. I thought I might be hurting the next morning, but I wasn’t, at least not from falling into traffic. I’m all right.
And I am. I’m just older than I’ve ever been, and I’m damn glad of it. I may or may not do a 56-mile bike ride again. Who knows? But I’m all right. My body is slowing down and getting crankier. It should. It’s been around quite a few blocks in Canarsie and Lancaster and Pittsburgh and Portland and Richmond. I’m all right.
Don’t pity me because I’m old. You should live so long. Maybe you already have, so you know.
I do hope you’re enjoying Tales of a Canarsie Boy. I’ll be adding new episodes in the months to come. By the way, if you’re from Canarsie and have a story to share, please contact me via this blog or email (email@example.com). I’d love to include you as a guest blogger.
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