March is my birthday month so it seems appropriate to underscore that while I am getting older, I’m not “elderly,” in spite of having qualified for a COVID vaccination recently.
It’s necessary to make the point for reasons like this one. A few years ago, when I had just had surgery while in my sixties, a dude in an Orvis fishing jacket wondered into my hospital room. “Who are you?” I asked. Ignoring the question he said he was there about my heart, which had apparently registered some worrisome numbers during my operation.
“You’re 64!” he said, as if I were Methuselah. “You could have suffered a heart attack!”
“I’m fine,” I countered, “but I’m going to have a heart attack if you don’t calm down.”
He never used the word “elderly,” but it hung in the air like a pending thunderstorm, and the cloud has been hanging there ever since.
While I love being a “crone,” a “mentor” and an “elder,” all wonderful archetypes, I refuse to allow the ageist term “elderly” to enter the lexicon of anyone with whom I come in contact.
Except, that is, when it works for me, like when I get stopped for exceeding the speed limit, parking overtime, or am in need of directions. I also play the elderly card occasionally when someone really annoys me.
Not long ago I trumped a ticket with my usual script, which goes something like this: “I am not disputing that I was exceeding the speed limit, Officer, but I’m asking for a reduced fine. You see, I am elderly and living on a retirement income and I didn’t see the posted speed limit.” (Sometimes I add, “What if I were your mom?”) Bingo. Ticket purged.
A variation on that theme happened in a major U.S. city once when I parked in a zone that had a sign I couldn’t see because it was wrapped around the meter pole on the passenger side of my rental car. It said, “No parking between 12 a.m. and 6 a.m. Street cleaning,” I later learned. My note to the police department when I received a ticket in the mail pointed out that not only was I elderly, but I didn’t live in that city and who reads meter poles in the dead of night? Reduced fine.
When I found myself in a dark and dangerous barrio somewhere in Lima, Peru, two years ago at midnight because I’d fallen asleep on a bus from the airport to the Sheraton Hotel where passengers were sent because our flight was canceled, I panicked. I had woken up just in time to find myself about to be locked into a bus in a bus garage. “Sheraton Hotel!” I snapped at the driver. Dónde está hotel?“ Silence. Where is the hotel? I repeated.
“I no speak English,” he whimpered.
Escaping into the street from the garage, I wondered how I would find my way out of the enormous film noir neighborhood. Peru is notoriously dangerous for women alone and the only cars that passed me were driven by guys driving 1950s rent-a-wreck cars taken at your own risk.
By the grace of God, a woman walking a rottweiler me toward me. In my broken Spanish, I managed to explain how I came to be there. “Señora,” I pleaded, “Estoy una mujer sola y vieja,” the closest I could come to saying I was an elderly woman alone. “Por favor, Señora, help me!” She understood immediately that I was up in years and on my own. No problema, she said kindly, reining in her dog. “Mi hermano tiene un taxi.” Gracias Dios! Thank God! She had a brother with a taxi! Soon I was on my way to the Sheraton, accompanied by the woman and her guard dog.
As for being annoyed enough to play the elderly card, it doesn’t take much when you are driving in Italy, where drivers are renowned for high speed, bad driving and lack of patience. On one trip a few years ago, I lost it when one too many macho men crossed my path — or, more literally, drove perilously close to my rear bumper — as I tried to navigate to my destination. I’d been dealing with these types for days and I’d had enough so I got out of my car and approached the honking maniac behind me.
“Basta!” I said. “Sono le donne vecchia. Io no vivo in Italia. Patienza! Que dice tu mama? Piano!” Stop! I am an elderly woman! I don’t live in Italy. Patience! What would your mother say? Be gentle! I have no idea how accurate my Italian actually was, but it seemed to help when I asked what his mama would think of his behavior, for she, too, was probably elderly by Italian standards. He backed off, apologized, then showed me on his cellphone where I needed to go.
As it turned out, fortunately, there was nothing wrong with my heart years ago. And it helped that I knew some Spanish and a smattering of Italian when I got in a jam. But what really saved me was playing the elderly card, which I only use when I absolutely need to, like when a flashing red light is in my rearview mirror, or someone who should know better acts like I’m on my deathbed.
Otherwise, I just try to keep my eyes open.