Throughout my life, there has always been a number that sounded old. When I was 16, it was 27; at 29, it was 42; at 38, it was 52. At 65, however, it was 65.
After all, 65 is a longtime bullet-point mile marker along the Interstate of American Life, the product of uncounted hours of congressional backroom dealing and insurance-company probability charts. Sixty-five is when you’re supposed to retire, put your feet up, smell the roses, to bask in the glow of a well-spent life in the land of the fee. This lovely neo-utopian vision has largely been replaced by the ethic of work-work-work until you drop, but 65 still remains the top of the stretch, where, like a creaky claiming horse in the sixth race at Aqueduct, you’re supposed to be turning for home.
For me, 65 was an onset of pure panic, an ingress of cold claustrophobia. My father died when he was 75, but he was sick. Years of kidney dialysis and he keels over from a heart attack. My mother made it to 84, full speed ahead to the last breath. If the DNA holds up, that gives me another 19 years, but what’s 19 years? Only yesterday I was 26, a strapping Icarus, soaring on the drunken tailwind of my own infinity. Or was that last week?
Time! Marches On!
You know where it’s going. Shortly following my 65th birthday, I decided to tidy up my “home office.” A little fall cleaning, so to speak. Under a pile of carefully curated possessions (you couldn’t quite throw out a collection of vomit bags snatched from the seat pockets of such regional carriers as Cebu Pacific, Biman Bangladesh, and Air Namibia, could you?), I found a forgotten piece of correspondence from Beth David Cemetery, which is where several dozen of my relatives, the ones who managed to escape the Nazis, lie in eternal rest just over the city line in Elmont, Long Island. Dated December 27, 1999, and signed by “Warren Rosen, Vice President,” the letter advised me of the “following burial reservations: Mark Jacobson … Plot 101, Grave #8.”
It was Mom’s work, no doubt. Child of the Depression, she was always such a planner.
Old. I was having a problem accommodating myself within the format. Until quite recently, the main boon of growing old appeared to be not dying young, not perishing when I got this scar across the right side of my face, not being blown up in Vietnam, not going through the windshield after hitting that black-ice spot on Highway 117 in New Mexico. When I was growing up, it was always easy to recognize the old. They were the dry and brittle-boned, the silver-eyed and liver-spotted, sitting on woven-plastic beach chairs beneath buzzing fluorescent lights on the porches of decaying hotels before coke money, haute Deco, and LeBron James’s talents came to South Beach. If these predeceased had anything more on their minds than lining up for tomorrow’s early-bird special, who cared? Old people were all basically the same, weren’t they? Like, you know, old. On the verge of joining the shadowy ranks of these tattered sticks, I was seized by a hitherto unfelt fear. Back in the day of Youth, us hippies would sit around reading the Walter Evans-Wentz edition of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (none of that rationalist Robert Thurman stuff for us), digging on the Roger Corman spook-house descriptions of the blood-drinking “Wrathful Deities” encountered by all nobly born so-and-so’s on their trip through Bardo to the next womb door. How fun it was to learn that these beasts were nothing but “projections” of the harrowed human mind, no more genuine than the “Atomic Man” we used to mock at Hubert’s Museum and Flea Circus on 42nd Street.
Now, however, standing at the mouth not of a passage between lives but rather to the end of this one was to feel the hot, seething, very real breath of the health-care monster upon your face. If the Greeks had Charon, boatman across the River Styx, we have a recorded message saying, “Death will not end your financial obligation.” There are a lot of levels to beat in life’s endgame. Dodge cancer and here comes Alzheimer’s, nature’s payback for living too long. If Alien was once a scary movie, now it was Amour.
“Beats the alternative”; that’s what you’re supposed to say about getting old. Yet a strange thing was happening. As I trod ever deeper into the outer ring of oldness, my fears, nightmares I’ve nurtured the bulk of my life, began to lighten. I began to look upon my venerability not as a state preferable only to death but rather as an opportunity of a lifetime.
This new paradigm took hold as a scattershot succession of time-specific mini-epiphanies. One of these realizations came while thumbing through a book titled A History of Old Age. In addition to detailing Aristotle’s distaste for the aged, whom he thought to be excessively pessimistic, malicious, and small-minded owing to their extended interface with life’s grinding “disappointments,” A History of Old Age featured a number of Enlightenment-era drawings titled “The Stages of Man’s Life From the Cradle to the Grave.”
In this scheme, life is depicted as an eternal staircase; the steps ascend, reach a topmost platform, then go down. The traveler begins on the ground floor as “a lamb-like innocent,” then climbs upward, each step signifying a ten-year interval. The “eagle-like” 20s lead to the “bull-like” 30s, nearing the apex in the 40s, when “nought his courage quails but lion-like, by force prevails.” (A companion chart notes a woman’s peak to be 30, when she is said to be a “crown to her husband.”) From this upper perch, it is all downhill, through the grasping, Scrooge-like 60s; the languorous, ineffectual 70s; and ending in the largely symbolic “one-hundredth year,” when, “tho’ sick of life, the grave we fear.” In a French version of “The Stages,” called “Le Jugement Universel,” the final downward phases are known as l’âge de décadence and l’âge décrépite.
Probably even Anna Karina in Vivre Sa Vie couldn’t make l’âge décrépite sound sexy, but it was no great task to create a personalized, modern-age version of “The Stages.” A pattern of whiplash upheaval emerged. I was born in 1948; my “lamb-like innocence” was spent learning how to be a Cold War kid, schooled in the nuances of 1950s preteen reality, Have Gun—Will Travel and Gunsmoke on the tube every Saturday night. Then, just as I mastered my kidlike state, becoming a King of Kids, the rug was pulled out. Without warning, I was thrust into a hormone-laced universe of spouting pubic hair and the Rolling Stones. It was back to square one, a whole new playing field to navigate. The ensuing “eagle-like” adolescent-cum-teen quake lasted through the lionization-canonization-commodification of youth culture during the 1960s and early ’70s, during which time I would grow to become an exemplar, warts-and-all specimen of my burgeoning bunch, who were on the cover of Time magazine every other week. This period also ended with unprecognitioned abruptness when I became a husband, a father, and a simulacrum of a grown-up. It was one more Sisyphean moment, a brand-new rock of unknown size and density to roll up the hill. This was the structure, a repeating push-pull of stasis and change requiring periodic recalibration of self.
So here I am, again, in this as-yet-uncharted territory, working through the break-in period. It isn’t that I’m any further from l’âge décrépite. With my silver hair (better than none!), I still look the part. I continue to rack up the requisite litany of pre–alter kaker woes: the lower back, the plantar fasciitis, the floaters in the right eye. An arthritic right shoulder has joined the left in the crosshairs of the surgeon’s hungry arthroscope. Plenty of my parts are out of warranty, or close. My whole corpus delicti could go at any minute. It is just that as an old man, I am new, as fresh to the scene as when I turned into a teen on the 7 train, riding into the Village to see Muddy Waters for the first time at the Café Au Go-Go on Bleecker Street.
That was the real epiphany, what I told myself when I looked into the mirror this very morning—that, ear hair and all, I remain resolutely myself. I am the same me from my baby pictures, the same me who got laid for the first time in the bushes behind the high-school field in Queens, the same me who drove a taxi through Harlem during the Frank Lucas days, the same me my children recognize as their father, the same me I was yesterday, except only more so by virtue of surviving yet another spin of the Earth upon its axis. I was at the beginning again, stepping off into one more blank space of the Whitmanesque cosmos, a Magellan of me.
I mention the above because even if there is nothing new about getting old, it is always good to beat the traffic. As we speak, more people are growing longer in the tooth than at any time in the history of the species. I’m talking about my generation, the one that claimed to want to die before it got old, one more bit of moldy bravado only Keith Moon was bonkers enough to make good on. Every day, 10,000 fellow Americans I might have shared a joint with in a freshman dorm join me here on the downside of the stairway to Heaven and/or Hell. I am in just the first wave of the so-called baby-boomers to line up at the cashier’s window. The tide will be coming in until 2029, 70 million souls all told, enough to bankrupt a hundred Obamacares. And take it from me, if other generations might have been willing to quietly fade to black, it is going to take a way bigger hook to get the Boom Krewe off the stage.
That’s because we’re special. We always have been, in our endlessly self-reverential way. There was no such thing as youth until we came with the invincible troika of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Likewise, when we got around to the procreating, there had never been such babies as the ones we whelped. These were the most loved, most written about, best-equipped babies in history. So it makes sense that even if Adam, the first man, was supposed to have lived to 900, no one has ever really been old, not the way we will be old.
Expect a whole industry of sunset-themed books, blogs, and consoling lectures, even if a certain proportion of this Last Days rhetoric will be couched in terms of the so-called Apocalypse and other cable-TV favorites. Some riffs on the topic are bound to be more annoying than others. Not so long ago, I saw a video of former New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen on Huff/Post50 (the flagship outlet for the net’s elder-chic sector) explaining the instant she knew it was better to be old than young. “When I finally nailed a headstand,” she said. She probably had the “physical acumen” to do it when she was younger, but it was “the confidence” of old age that made this late-inning feat possible, said Quindlen.
It is a given: If my big-ass generation is doing anything, it must be the thing to do. Like Diana Nyad swimming 103 miles from Cuba, hardly a day goes by without a story detailing the spectacular exploits of the advanced in age. After all, anyone can be cool and powerful in their 20s. To be cool and powerful in your 60s and beyond—that’s the real rabbit in the hat. The way things are going, it won’t be long before boomer bloggers proclaim death to be hipper than life.
Sixty-five might be the new 45, but what I want to ask the boys at Herbalife is how much omega-3 you have to guzzle before 200 becomes the new 100. One oft-cited study in the chronicle of boomer aging is the so-called U-shaped happiness curve, the theory that human contentment peaks primarily in the early, preadolescent years and again in old age. The stuff in the middle, the muck of everyday life—that’s flyover country, easily edited from the highlight reel. For a society with a dense streak of Spielbergian desperation to link the mystical innocence of childhood and the wonderment of the wrinkled and wise, this proprietary attitude toward the possession of happiness fits like a Frye boot.
The vicissitudes of getting old often dominate the conversation among my co-ageist buddies around the virtual communal kitchen table, which is pretty ridiculous, since the majority of us are still wearing (far more expensive) facsimiles of the sneakers and jeans we did when we were 17. My father was no fashion plate, but when he went to work, he put on a coat and tie. He looked his age. Then again, he was raised before the invention of television and never made more than $25,000 in any calendar year. Nowadays, you can direct a dozen blockbusters and sell a million computers and never once take off that boyish puce-colored baseball cap. Such are the perks when you’re brought up in the time that affords the greatest economic and social latitude in American history, are possessed of society’s sanctioned skin color, and went to the best schools, even if you only used to get juiced in them.
Here are some of the things nice modern people talk about when they talk about getting old: (a) the nature of regret and whether it is too late or worth it to set things right; (b) fears of irrelevance; (c) what’s worse, dying too soon or living too long— and, of course, the money and the pain. Pain more than money. These bummers fight it out with any number of more copacetic, if possibly rationalized, koans (dialogue quoted verbatim) like (a) “to be older frees you from the suffocating anxieties and conventions of youth,” (b) “to be older is to be better at integrating the interior and exterior worlds,” and (c) “to be older is to be empowered to simply not give a fuck at any given moment.” Bo Diddley’s classic exhortation about having “a tombstone hand and a graveyard mind / I’m just 22 and I don’t mind dying” still sounded good. But no one I talk to, whatever their personal history or current circumstances, says they would have signed up for Achilles’ choice of living fast, dying young, and leaving a beautiful corpse.
A recurring trope in these discussions is the eternal love-hate relationship every modern generation maintains with its successor, i.e., “da youth.” The prevailing view was that if once upon a time old people seemed the same, now it was the young who presented themselves as an indistinct mass. Who were these invaders, this interchangeable gaggle of screen-addicted, brand-worshipping solipsists who filled every bar and hoarded all the good body parts? Sure, they got laid a lot, but how was it possible for a seemingly intelligent 24-year-old to rack up hundreds of thousands in college debt yet know nearly nothing of the world prior to the year 2000?
“They don’t know anything” pretty much summed up the position. The internet, the supposed information superhighway, was actually a giant forgetting machine. If you were of a certain age, you had to watch what you said around the young. Bringing up bulwarks of the personal universe, names like Lenny Bruce or even Miles Davis, was to risk a soul-deadening reply of “Who?” It was the same for every other person, place, or thing, from Michelangelo Antonioni to Pol Pot. Huge swaths of 20th-century cultural literacy—my century!—were being removed from public consciousness. The shock lay in the speed and the casual know-nothingness of the deletion. It felt deliberate, one more Illuminati plot.
It was out of this well-chewed bleat that I came upon one more useful insight into the post-65 life. This arrived via email from Carl Gettleman, once of Fresh Meadows, Queens, now of Santa Monica, California. One of the worst things about getting older is that people you know and love begin to die at a more rapid rate. A few years ago, Budd Schulberg, then in his early 90s, offered to give me his address book. “It is of no use to me,” said the author of On the Waterfront and What Makes Sammy Run? “Everyone in it is dead.” But it also works the other way, since the longer you live, the longer you get to keep treasured friends, and I’ve known Carl Gettleman for more than 50 years now.
We went to Francis Lewis High School together; Carl was one of those happy little junior beatniks who accompanied the 15-year-old me to drink our first cups of coffee at Café Figaro on Macdougal Street. Then we lost touch for decades, only to find each other through the hitherto unimagined magick of Facebook, a generational irony we received in pothead stride. Gettleman figured to be a whiz on this geezer topic not only because he was the only member of our 1966 graduating class to major in philosophy at Columbia, reading Kierkegaard as the NYPD stormed Hamilton Hall, but also because he is the son of the late Estelle Getty, a onetime Fresh Meadows Community Theatre performer who from 1985 to 1992 played Bea Arthur’s mother on Golden Girls, therefore defining a certain kind of oldness for untold millions of TV viewers.
“Memory is editing and reediting the narrative of our lives, both consciously and unconsciously,” Gettleman wrote of the vast capacity of human beings to lie to themselves. This was the “liberating urgency of old age and knowing we’re on the way out.” Truth, such as it was, was now available because “we finally realize that the world no longer belongs to us.”
It seemed a very small and self-evident thing, the notion that “the world no longer belongs to us,” that it was only by being on the outside looking in that a clearer picture could be seen. I mean, is it really any business of mine what a 25-year-old knows and doesn’t know? Probably this cache-emptying is an evolutionary imperative, because with all the supposedly hallowed crap floating around in my brain, it is like an episode of Hoarders. Besides, where I’m going, it is better to travel light. Triage is the order of the day, with excess baggage thrown overboard. This is the chore: what to keep and what to leave. Like everything, it is a negotiation.
It is a matter of family evolution, the tangle of helices that link me to both forebears and offspring. In the house where I grew up in the 1950s and early ’60s, boundaries were well defined. My sister and I were the kids, the parents were the parents. They provided, we didn’t screw up, and occasionally there would be a car trip to some place historical like Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—four days in the Plymouth sitting on your hands and looking for cheap gas. As far as the famous Generation Gap went, it wasn’t so much a divide as two gravitationally aligned alternative universes. They were from the Depression, the War, and old Williamsburg. I was from Elvis, the Beatles, and the Bomb. The night they bought their first portable record player, they sat in the living room relaxing to Maurice Chevalier. I was in my room, head pressed to the transistor radio, listening to Murray the K’s reportage on how Jackie Wilson got shot by his girlfriend in the hallway of his building on 57th Street. It was true we didn’t talk much, but there wasn’t all that much to talk about.
This didn’t mean there weren’t valuable lessons to be learned from my father. Battle of the Bulge veteran, lifelong New Yorker, homeowner, he worked hard and deployed a mordant sense of humor. He was resolutely a man of his times, a quality I have come to treasure as what might be called Wisdom, the supposed cardinal virtue of the old.
Once I derided Wisdom as nothing but the gummy verbiage Polonius tried to lay on the head of Laertes. Now I despair over what thoughts of value I might be able to impart to my own children. After all, our house is very different from the one in which I grew up. We never shut up, and the separation between us has never been especially well delineated. Even though each of the kids would eventually get his or her own room, we could often be found piled on top of each other like a litter of cats. We continue to listen to a lot of the same music, even the new stuff, and talk more with each other in a single night than I did with my parents in a month. Once we took a trip around the world, staying in crappy hippie hotels all the way; I wrote a book about it, alternating chapters with my eldest daughter, who described the entire country of India as a living hell. Most people thought her sections, written at age 17, were better than mine. There was a kind of haphazard democracy to us, a vague division of labor and authority that we generally took for granted.
I never thought much about this structure, loose as it was, until quite recently, around the time my then-26-year-old youngest daughter, after four years of college in Indiana, a job in Philly, and a stint in Bed-Stuy, moved back into our house. For me, such a move would have been akin to placing a gun to my head, but that was then and now is now. When I was 26, living on St. Marks Place, the rent was $168 a month. The same apartment now probably goes for $168 a square foot. With the job market slow for experts in the hermeneutics of Michel Foucault, slack must be cut. It seemed a boon, getting extra time with die Kinder. Still, with my 23-year-old son already in residence, that made the better part of a hat trick.
The arrangement was less than smooth. Things like waking up in the morning to find those familiar dirty dishes in the sink were particularly vexing. It was no problem for me to slip into the dismaying role of the ticked-off, hectoring dad. According to any system of “stages,” wasn’t all that supposed to be over long ago?
Eventually, we worked much of it out because we realized that we were both in motion, me to oldness, she to wherever she was going. We engaged in several encounters concerning our transitioning Weltanschauungs. Instead of grumping about how everything is derivative, my daughter said, I should examine modernity as a series of Venn diagrams, ever-shifting spheres, floating balloons of self-defining identities, separate yet fungible. What was necessary was to look for those areas of coincidence, where the circles overlap. It was in those zones that we could make common cause. It was probably a rap she learned sitting around in some crusty punk squat, but in a world where those ubiquitous screens are actually NSA panopticons, it sounded good. So we sat down and watched six straight episodes of The X-Files.
One conversation during this period stands out. It was a few months after she’d moved back, right before I turned 65. I’d just pitched a TV show, receiving the inevitable pass. The 30-year-old executive, who looked at my partner and myself as a pair of Willy Loman–ish narrative peddlers who had washed up like graying hairballs on his sleek desktop, listened to our spiel and pronounced it “too optimistic.” This was a new one. Hollywood is like Eskimos and snow—they’ve got a million ways to say no. For a century, they peddle fake uplift, the bogus happy ending, and now everything is supposed to be so bleak.
My daughter, who knows far more about current television than I ever will, explained it all to me.
“Things are shitty,” she said. “The politics are shitty. The economy is shitty. You can’t even lie about it anymore.”
Did she really believe this?
Yeah, she did.
“Shitty,” I wrote on my pad, a useful note for further TV pitches.
Later, I felt like weeping. It was no fun to hear my own daughter characterize her world in such a dystopic fashion. What do you do to help someone you love in such a situation? It was time for the voice of experience to step forward. It was time for Wisdom, the font of accumulated knowledge, the voice of experience. In this I cannot say I stepped to the plate. The future was the best I had to offer. That was the extent of my wisdom: Wait. It will seem better in the morning.
A few months later, she informed us she would be moving out. It wouldn’t be easy because she is easily made homesick, but for the present time she regarded Chicago as a better place to be than Brooklyn. Sure, it won’t be New York, city of the collective soul, but you could get a share for $350. Life is full of passages, and it was time to move on.
As a very young man, fancying myself a budding filmmaker of rare potential, I thought I had all the time in the world. Orson Welles didn’t make Citizen Kane until he was 25. I hadn’t even turned 20. Today, I note that Robert Bresson directed L’Argent when he was 82, which gives me a whole decade and a half to work up to it, provided I learn French in the meantime. This is one more game I play on the approach to 66 (the number of a once-endless highway, you may recall, that used to wind from Oklahoma City, oh so pretty, on through Flagstaff, Arizona, and don’t forget Winona, except it doesn’t anymore).
This isn’t to say I am not serious about the future. In fact, I’ve never been so excited about my prospects. Unshackled from infinity, with a mind thankfully still fueled by a not-inconsiderable trove of accessible empiricism, I feel as creative as ever, brimming with new ideas. Whether this newfound clarity is a result of something growing together at long last or a chunk of gray matter falling off like a rusted lug nut, it’s different up there. I can feel it. Time may be short, but in this job, you learn to produce on a deadline.
Years ago, in a last gasp of heroic ethnobotanical exploration, I ingested a fair amount of ayahuasca, the so-called Vine of the Soul, which transported me from a small apartment on East 7th Street to the Amazon jungle, where all time dissolved and I was faced with the ineffable assumption that the world had gone on for billions of years before my birth and would continue for billions more after my death. The concept left me clutching my frayed ego like an airplane-seat cushion in a stormy sea. But not anymore. Rather, it seems an ultimate freedom, to glimpse a vision of the vaunted self in the rearview mirror, my atoms redispersed to the ceaseless continuum that is the true beauty of things.
Longevity has its place, but those 19 years referenced at the top of this tome now sound like a reasonable deal. If a bus with my name comes around the corner tomorrow, so be it. For a schmo born into a lower-middle-class, second-generation-immigrant family, eater of pastrami, fan of the Ramones, I preemptively declare my life a success.
The other day, after the requisite period of denial, I got my half-price MetroCard. It goes with my senior-citizen movie tickets, although I’ve been getting into multiplexes cheap for some time (20-year-old cashiers rarely think someone would claim to be older than he is). After years of lying to get the “child price” during my early teens, I delight in the symmetry of the subterfuge. Indeed, I’ve gone underground, invisible to most people I pass on the street or stand next to on the subway. It is good for picking up dialogue. Get caught eavesdropping and no one cares. You’re just old, and all old people are the same, aren’t they?
So it goes. Last week, on the theory that everyone should at least try to die laughing, I drove by Emmons Avenue in Sheepshead Bay, where my late friend George Schultz ran his comedy club, Pip’s. The place was replaced by an all-you-can-eat sushi joint, but the vibe remained. Once a roommate of Lenny Bruce and Jacob Cohen (a.k.a. Rodney Dangerfield), George was called the Ear because he could always tell what was funny and what was not. Comics like Richard Lewis and the recently deceased David Brenner would journey out to the Bay on the old D train, which Lewis called a “bad neighborhood on wheels,” and go through their routines for George, joke by joke.
“Funny … not funny,” the Ear would croak, the late-afternoon light playing across his rubbery face as he sat slouched in the empty club in his green terry-cloth robe.
George lived in the apartment above Pip’s with his two sons, then in their early 20s. “Look at these young Warren Beattys … steaming hot Warren Beattys,” he’d say, in a rare moment of kvell. “I let them stay here, but I don’t let them see me naked. It is the old ass. Way of all flesh. They don’t need to see the old ass. Let them live a little.”
That was George’s Wisdom: the old ass.
I try to follow his dictum, hiding the wrinkly bottom from da youth whenever they’re around. Today’s modern world is full of technological flimflammery, subject to every manner of visual and structural manipulation, capable of convincing anyone of anything. But the old ass is analog, it cannot be Photoshopped; its impression is indelible. It is truth. And recently I’ve noticed that the children have turned a tad more solicitous. When I come in the room, they actually look up, ask me how I’m doing, offer to bring me a glass of water. They even look worried sometimes. I like this and am milking it for all it’s worth. Just when they think I’m laid low, I pop out again, like the guy in the hockey mask. Good to keep them, and everyone else, on their toes. Still, there’s no doubt about it. Things have changed.